“[X wrestler] wins; WE RIOT.”
This sentiment is now the go-to for WWE fans who don’t want a certain situation to occur. It became popular in Chicago during July of 2011 when CM Punk (a Chi-town native) squared off against John Cena for the WWE Title at Money in the Bank. At that time, it had some meaning because the match was to be Punk’s last for the company (it wasn’t) and his hometown fans didn’t want to see him lose to a guy they despise.
Fast-forward to last Sunday, as I drive into the parking lot of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for the WWE’s signature January pay-per-view, The Royal Rumble, and I see no less than half a dozen signs that say, “Reigns wins; WE RIOT.” Unfortunately, these people were camera-shy and/or I didn’t want to cause an accident in the parking lot, so there no visual evidence of this, but it’s Philadelphia, you don’t need to see it to believe it. While it may not have been as likely of as scenario that night in Chicago three and half years ago, it did set the tone for the rest of the night.
Philadelphia is one of the three most knowledgeable and passionate wrestling communities in America, along with New York City and the aforementioned Chicago. There is something special when you watch professional wrestling live in these three cities; there is an energy that is hard to describe. Philly is best known for being the home of the controversial Extreme Championship Wrestling, and it is a huge supporter of independent wrestling promotions. And just like other sports, the crowds voice their opinions loudly and very often.
Knowing this going in, I was excited and my city didn’t disappoint.
I walked into our suite at the top of the arena at about 7 p.m. and the stands were already half full and chanting at the Royal Rumble pre-show set. My seats were probably the best you could ask for as a fan who likes to see the whole event unfold rather than just the matches themselves.
We had a perfect view of the “Titantron”, which is essential for an event like the Rumble because half the excitement is about who the next person to enter the ring during the marquee event will be, and our view also allowed us to see the entire production (cameramen, pyro guys, ring attendants, etc.) as it was happening. It is fascinating to see how well-coordinated it all is and there was nary a misstep.
One of the great things about the Rumble itself, and most sporting events to be honest, is that it has a built-in gambling aspect that anyone can participate in. The actual event consists of 30 wrestlers battling it out to see who will fight for the title at the company’s signature event, Wrestlemania, and therefore, allows for a great game of chance and something for the non-fan in attendance to root for.
The basic rules are that you pay money and randomly draw a number out of a hat, or if you want to get fancy, a bingo tumbler. That number corresponds to whatever wrestler comes out at that position during the event, and since there’s only a certain number guys that could possible win it, the anticipation of who will represent your number is the most fun part of watching it with friends. For the record, I got No. 6; more on that later.
After picking our numbers, we took the time to grab a few Steveweisers (Budweisers) and partake in the free food provided to us in the suite. Since we weren’t in the top of the line suites, we had only two choices: chicken fingers and mini-cheesesteaks. They were both fantastic and I attempted to eat as many chicken fingers as possible. Sadly, I stopped at 10 or 12. Honestly, I think a suite is the only way (short of a ringside seat) to see an event like this because you’re isolated with your friends, yet still able to be a part of the atmosphere.
Once the event started, I knew it was going to be a good night. The opening match, which aired on the pre-show, featured a “heel” (villain) tag team against a “face” (heroes) team, and as per their reputation, the crowd supported the team with the better wrestlers, which in the case were the “bad guys” led by Cesaro. The crowd’s reaction set the precedent for the rest of the evening, one of we will cheer for who we like, not who we’re told to like.
This attitude probably confused most of the casual fans as the crowd cheered for just about every heel, including both of the participants in the main event triple threat match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. But the cheers for those two were for more personal reasons than to just be contrarian.
You see, the heel champion, Brock Lesnar, is managed by Paul Heyman, who is most famous for running ECW. Heyman is a demigod among the Philadelphia wrestling community and it’s always a homecoming when an event is held in the city. As long as you’re a good wrestler and associated with Heyman, the crowd reaction will be similar to Hulk Hogan in the 80s, even if you are the most evil guy on the roster. There is a special connection between that man and this city, and it is hard to explain unless you attempted to sneak into the ECW Arena (or bought a ticket) as a kid growing up in the 90s.
Seth Rollins, the second part of that main event, was formerly known as Tyler Black when he wrestled in Ring of Honor, which was a promotion that started in Philadelphia after ECW. The independent outfit boasts alumni such as Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, and Cesaro. Rollins was, and still is, very poplar in Philly because of his athletic ability and work ethic. So he is the guy that the fans in the crowd respect because they saw him put in the work before making it big. This will become an important thing to remember later on.
With the passion the crowd had for this match — both on the positive and negative side — it was one of the best events that I have seen live. Since the outcome is predetermined, it was akin to watching a great action or comedy movie in a 20,000 seat theater. The match itself was pretty incredible and gave me flashback of being in that old bingo hall when I was a teen. Exciting, high impact offense and a pace that never relented were all reminiscent of the great ECW matches that didn’t involve weapons or other extracurricular things.
The match did have a scary moment when Lesnar possibly injured his ribs after taking an elbow drop through an announce table. We know that it’s possible because Heyman did the universal signal (hands crossed in a X) to signify that he was really hurt and then the ref said something to both Rollins and John Cena. Now, he did get back into the match, but it ended a little over a minute later so I doubt it was fake, or a work as it’s called. But who knows. Either way, it was just interesting to see it unfold live because if it was fake, it looked extremely real live. And that none of the theatrics of Heyman were broadcast to the audience at home adds credence to the real injury theory.
Not only did that match bring the energy to a fever pitch, but it was the perfect lead-in to the Rumble. Unfortunately, the crowd displayed its opinion in a much different way during the second-half of the PPV’s signature event.
Ever since 1993, the winner of the Royal Rumble has been guaranteed a title shot at Wrestlemania, so the event has been used — for the most part — in two ways over the years: a way to push new talent into the main event, or as a redemption storyline for an established main eventer. The former is usually met with happiness and excitement because most superstars that fall into that category have been fan favorites or guys that the fans respected for their work effort. Unfortunately, the WWE’s anointed next “franchise” wrestler didn’t receive a warm welcome.
The 30-man battle royal is the most anticipated part of the evening. The excitement of counting down to see who’s next to enter has become my favorite part of watching wrestling. The WWE has even found a way to up that excitement with surprise entrants, including hall of famers and well-know gimmicks. This year’s included Bubba Ray Dudley, one half of the famous Dudley Boys tag team, who began their wrestling careers in Philadelphia as part of ECW, and one of my favorites in-ring performers. Bubba Ray had not been in a WWE ring in ten years, so needless to say, it was the one moment that made me get out of my seat and cheer.
The most heartwarming return of the night was Diamond Dallas Page. He has become relevant again, not because of anything he’s done in the ring, but because his healthy lifestyle and his yoga program, DDP Yoga, has saved the lives of Hall of Famers, Jake the Snake Roberts and Scott Hall (Razor Ramon). Page electrified the crowd by executing three of his signature “Diamond Cutters” before being tossed out. He did an admirable job despite have a bad back.
The opening third of the Rumble was the fun section, which included singing “He’s got the whole world in his hands” with the company’s resident cult leader, Bray Wyatt. But the energy reached a fever pitch when the most popular wrestler, Daniel Bryan entered the fray at No. 10. Bryan and his “Yes Movement” have dominated the WWE, even when he missed most of the year with an injury. He also is another famous independent wrestler who spent time wrestling in the gymnasiums of Philadelphia. Better known as the American Dragon then, Bryan is probably second only to Heyman among the local fanbase, and it showed.
The next chunk of the event went by in a blur as each wrestler that entered had no chance of winning, but allowed a lot of fake anger among the people in my suite who saw their chance bets fizzle. All they had to cheer for was that their guy was quickly eliminated so they could win the side bet which refunded their money. My wrestler was Curtis Axel, who never entered the ring because he was attacked from behind. Not that he was going to win, but I had no chance.
Every thing was going so well in the match before and after Axel’s “elimination” that I really didn’t care, but that all changed when Wyatt tossed the fan folk hero, Bryan, out of the event. It was like the air was let of the building and all the crowd’s positive energy evaporated. From that point forward — with the exception of a few fan favorites that entered — the crowd literally hated everything and let it be known to anyone in management that may have been in the building.
Enter Roman Reigns.
The hand-picked next big thing in the WWE was booed all night whenever his image was shown on the screen, so when he remained in the ring after Bryan was eliminated, the crowd wasn’t happy. Those that have followed the sport over the last few months could sense that he was going to win the Rumble, and they weren’t too happy about it. As silly as wrestling can be, the fans still expect a guy to “pay his dues” and have a slow but steady accent to the top. Reigns is literally the opposite of that, as he’s barely had much ring time in his career. Despite the winner being preordained, the fans — like in most sports — do not enjoy being force-fed who to cheer for and would rather root for the wrestler who has put in the work.
While Reigns will no doubt be a big time star within the next two to three years, his time is not now and fans know it. Too bad for the wrestler, his bosses don’t see it. Over the next half hour or so, he did nothing of consequence in the match and the crowd showered him with negativity when he did anything positive. So when he was one of the last five left, the writing was on the wall. To put it in slightly simpler terms, the crowd started chanting for a wrestler whose gimmick is an anti-America Russian who loves Vladimir Putin to win the Rumble. Even the Rock couldn’t save the night for his real life cousin as the “People’s Champion” raised his arm in victory, the boos only got louder. I was so proud of my city at that moment.
The only non-WWE employee in the building that celebrated Reigns’ win was my friend, who had drawn Reigns’ No. 19 and won the chance bet. This negativity was not something the WWE didn’t know about ahead of time, not only because of the city it was in, but because they were in the same situation with Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista last year. How they misread the crowd two-years-in-a-row is a mystery, and one that should worry die-hard fans of the sport.
After gathering our things and taking one last free chicken finger, we departed our suite and began the trek to — apparently —the only set of elevators. We discussed the event and our failures in the chance pool in years past, and everything was normal and boring until we ran into a group drunk fans who were dressed as their favorite wrestlers, with the most inebriated — no surprise — dressed as Stone Cold Steve Austin. If he would have been coherent enough to stand still, I would have snapped a photo of him, but each time I attempted to he would move and cause the picture to be blurry.
We left the building, and the intoxicated Stone Cold impersonator behind, and wandered into the cold January night. Despite the ending not being the best — except for the glorious booing — the Royal Rumble was an amazing night, and one that I’m glad I attended. In any sport, the live crowd beats watching the event at home, but there’s something different about a wrestling crowd, and it made the Rumble more exciting than I had anticipated. Plus, free food and beer is always a positive.
Whether or not you like wrestling, I would highly recommend attending this PPV if it comes to your town. Heck, I’d suggest you find a way to watch with you friends and take part in the chance pool because who doesn’t like a 30-1 shot. The Royal Rumble is the WWE’s second most important event, and when they get it right, it can be a magical evening, but when the get it wrong… well, it could still be a magical evening as long as you are watching it with the right people.