WWE feeling aftershocks of Royal Rumble

Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar will battle for the WWE heavyweight title at Wrestlemania 31.

The Road to Wrestlemania officially began last week. And if the opening week was any indication, wrestling fans best fasten their seat belts, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The rabid following that WWE affectionately refers to as the WWE Universe was in an uproar following last weekend’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view in Philadelphia.

The show — one of WWE’s big three of the year — featured a three-way WWE title bout that will undoubtedly rank as a match of the year candidate. But the Rumble’s battle royal finale generated a social media outcry that rocked the wrestling world.

Like last year when the returning Batista emerged victorious in the Rumble, seemingly nudging out the more popular Daniel Bryan for the top Wrestlemania spot while incurring the wrath of the WWE faithful, lightning did indeed strike twice when Roman Reigns prevailed in Sunday night’s Rumble. The resulting fan rebellion was deafening. In a carefully orchestrated move that backfired, not even an in-ring endorsement from mainstream superstar The Rock could stop the jeering chorus from the wrestling-savvy Philly crowd.

Top media sites hammered WWE for ignoring its fans and deridingly dubbed the event the “Royal Fumble.” Vince McMahon, Triple H (Paul Levesque) and Stephanie McMahon-Levesque were all castigated for pushing forward a purported agenda.

Many fans fired back at the company by taking to Twitter. The #CancelWWENetwork hashtag became a top trender on the social media site.

Fans wondered how Bryan could have been so easily eliminated in the battle royal and thereby removed from main-event contention at Wrestlemania 31. While their anger was more directed at the Rumble’s booking than Reigns himself, fans felt cheated. To many, the Rumble was lost the moment Bryan was unceremoniously thrown over the top rope midway through the match. The ensuing silence turned to revolt when it became clear that Reigns had earned the title shot this March at Wrestlemania.

The company recognized its mistake last year when Bryan ended up victorious in the biggest match of his career, winning the WWE heavyweight title at Wrestlemania 30 in front of 75,000 fans in New Orleans, a storybook scenario that could have only been scripted in the pro wrestling arena.

But with Reigns — dubbed “The Chosen One” — now in the top spot and getting the title shot at WWE champion Brock Lenar, fans are now wondering where that might leave the leader of the Yes Movement in the Wrestlemania pecking order.

Bryan was the bearded, undersized guy who didn’t look like a world champion and didn’t talk like a world champion, but whose amazing ability in the ring and underdog status captured the hearts of the WWE Universe. And he never actually lost the title he won last year, but had to relinquish the crown after suffering a neck injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year.

The 6-3, 265-pound Reigns, on the other hand, is the kind of imposing physical figure that Vince McMahon likes in his world champions. With the size and look of a champion, the 29-year-old former Shield leader has the confidence of the promotion. He is the handpicked heir to the throne and has been penciled in to win the title at Wrestlemania since last year.

But when Bryan recently made his surprising return to the ring, proving earlier medical reports that his career might be over to be premature, WWE was faced with a major dilemma.

Bryan’s interrupted title run deserved to be continued, and the best way for that to happen was to get him over at the Rumble.

Making the decision to pass on the natural “David vs. Goliath” storyline that Bryan vs. Lesnar would have presented, WWE creative went into overdrive following the Rumble.

They heard the boos loud and clear Sunday night ... so loud that WWE edited the boos out of re-broadcasts of the event.

Things appeared worse the following day when WWE was forced to cancel its live Raw show in Hartford, Conn., because of the snowstorm that hit the Northeast last week.

But it may have been an act of God, and not WWE directly, that potentially salvaged the main event at Wrestlemania. At least for now.

Just when things appeared bleakest, WWE’s luck changed for the better.

WWE was forced to move its three-hour Monday night show down the road to its state-of-the-art studio in Stamford, Conn., which would prove to be a blessing in disguise for the company.

With interviews conducted in a closed setting, without interruption from thousands of jeering fans, WWE was able to present an up-close and personal side of Roman Reigns, which heretofore had been missing. His lineage and relationship to the large Samoan wrestling contingent (son of WWE Hall of Famer Sika The Wild Samoan and cousin of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) was profiled, and Reigns was able to successfully articulate his drive for the title. Conspicuously absent were the scripted cringe-worthy one-liners that had plagued him in the past.

Long touted as the heir to Lesnar’s WWE supremacy, Reigns gave fans reason to invest emotion in the storyline, although he obviously was slightly shell-shocked from the previous night.

Credit goes to the WWE production team for tackling the gorilla in the room with its pro-active counter-attack, readily acknowledging the backlash from Reigns’ Rumble win 24 hours earlier, along with Bryan’s mainstream popularity.

But the man who just might have saved the day was Paul Heyman who, as Lesnar’s storyline “advocate,” conducted a one-on-one sitdown interview with his client’s upcoming opponent that was a true work of art.

Not only did the “evil genius” hype Reigns’ Samoan family tree and his own personal connection to various family members, he described Lesnar’s path of destruction, including 2002 SummerSlam victim The Rock.

How successful the buildup is from here largely depends on the continued work of Heyman to sell the match and cover up any deficiencies in both Reigns and Lesnar on the mic. And, of course, how the company positions Bryan from here on out, including his spot on the Wrestlemania bill. An online buzz has created interest for a Bryan-Dolph Ziggler match, which could steal the show, if given proper time.

Some insiders have even hinted that Vince McMahon, opting to fuel the fire and create even more controversy, might actually drive the wedge even further by having Bryan put over Reigns at the upcoming Fast Lane PPV.

Triple H also claimed on Thursday night’s live edition of Smackdown that he would make an announcement on this week’s Raw that would rock the WWE Universe to its core.

But will anything less than a world title spot be enough to appease the legion of diehard Bryan supporters? And does WWE risk another hero’s moment going up in flames and doom Reigns to the misfortune of Batista?

Many fans, while agreeing that Reigns has a strong upside, caution that his still-developing skills are not at the level of a Wrestlemania main-eventer. Some believe that he has yet to show he deserves to be on the grandest stage of them all.

Sources, however, say that McMahon remains adamant concerning his stance on Bryan, and refuses to cave in to the pro-Bryan crowd. The plan to elevate Reigns has long been in motion.

WWE powers-that-be reportedly don’t believe it’s as much Bryan as it is the “Yes” chant that’s over with WWE fans. They’re also proceeding with caution in regards to Bryan’s injury status.

But Bryan has become a bigger threat to the WWE hierarchy in Stamford. He has become a martyr and a symbol of the disconnect critics claim the 69-year-old McMahon has with the WWE Universe.

In this rapidly changing landscape, it’s now the fans — many of whom feel ostracized from the product — who can demand how pro wrestling stories are told. And McMahon and his staff should take close heed because, ultimately, that’s what’s “good for business.”

No less than “Stone Cold” Steve Austin dropped his own bombshell last week on his podcast when he said that Reigns wasn’t ready for his mega-push.

“If you’re trying to earn the fans’ respect, you’re really starting in the hole because people feel like he’s being forced down their throats. He’s not ready. They’re looking at the body of work. With the two other guys — three total in the Shield — he’s doing one-third of the work, come in and shine and get out. Now all the sudden you’ve got all these gaps to fill in the blanks, and he hasn’t been able to fill in those blanks.”

The WWE Hall of Famer went even further when he said Reigns “took a nap” during the Royal Rumble match by spending too much time in the corner.

“I hate to keep going down that road, but that’s what happened. He goes into a corner and takes a nap,” said Austin, who added that no performer on the roster should feel entitled.

“As soon as you think you’re entitled, you’re thinking it’s a given — no, bad things are gonna happen because it’s conveyed in your presentation ... You can’t ever assume that everything’s just gonna happen because then you get a hell of a wakeup call.”

Reigns addressed the growing criticism in an interview with Sirius/XM satellite radio host Sam Roberts.

“My goal is to hopefully make everyone happy and be satisfied with the product that I’ve created. (What) people don’t realize is I created a product — a Superman punch — and taken a spear and made it my own. There’s a lot of things that I’ve done that I’ve created, so there’s a lot of opinions that I have that I’m not going to budge on,” said Reigns.

“I have to live with my career. And when I’m done, the WWE Universe and the company is going to move on and there’s going to be another guy and they’re going to keep going, so I’m trying to get everything I can out of this experience possible.”

By coincidence or not, some more than welcome news buoyed spirits at WWE headquarters following the Rumble revolt.

The sports entertainment company announced Tuesday that the WWE Network had reached the 1 million subscriber milestone 11 months after its launch, making the network the “fastest-growing digital subscription service,” according to WWE.

WWE attributed the recent increase of subscribers to its successful free November promotion, the launch of the service in the U.K., and “significant additions” for its Royal Rumble pay-per-view event.

WWE stock also immediately jumped 20 percent following the subscription numbers announcement.

WWE has offered a free February promotion for the network due to a positive response to its November promotion.

Not everyone, though, was happy with how WWE handled the makeshift post-Rumble Raw.

“Heyman stole the show, but it was petty theft,” opined longtime wrestling personality Jim Cornette.

“The damage that they did by having Tyler Black (Seth Rollins), Brock Lesnar and that whiny voice of his, and Roman Reigns, like deer caught in headlights, just sitting there and being as boring and phony as possible ... it just killed me. There’s no way anybody’s going to get over talking like that. You could tell they were literally told to ‘say these words.’ Why else would you speak like that?”

Cornette’s main gripe with the Rumble was having fan favorite Bryan in the Rumble in the first place.

“Don’t have Daniel Bryan in the Rumble if he’s not going to win it because you know what’s going to happen, but apparently you didn’t. Everybody else did, and they told you,” said Cornette.

“It’s said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In that case, the WWE ‘creative’ team must be as crazy as a rainbow trout in a car wash,” the outspoken Cornette writes in an upcoming edition of the British-based Fighting Spirit Magazine.

“Even though I know WWE employs the absolute best and brightest and pays them a fortune to create this Shakespeare they call sports entertainment, let a humble old-time pro wrestling booker offer you a little free advice on what you shoulda done, if you knew anything about wrestling, to get to the same place Vince wanted you to get to, without burying your most popular wrestler, getting immense heat on your company and getting the most popular guy to walk the Earth since Jesus booed out of the arena.”

Cornette said last week that it wasn’t hard to predict after what happened last year at the Rumble, only 350 miles from this year’s location, what was going to take place at last week’s event.

“I know Vince made the call for Roman Reigns to win the Royal Rumble and be the guy. We know that much. I don’t know what knucklehead didn’t say to Vince that maybe we shouldn’t put Daniel Bryan in the Royal Rumble. There’s going to be (a price) to pay. It’s all their fault. And would they expect to get anything in Philadelphia?

“The biggest mistake was putting Daniel Bryan in the Rumble and dumping him like a middle-card guy halfway through and not expecting the air to come out of the room. And secondly, you know you’re going to have this problem because they want Daniel Bryan to be the champion that never lost the title. He comes back, and they liked him and they made him the first time and he’s their guy and they’re proud of him. But Vince has decided that some other guy is going to be the guy. Then you have to do something to make it not offensive that your guy doesn’t get over and Vince’s guy does.”

Cornette says a smarter plan would have been for WWE to have kept an “injured” Bryan out of the Rumble with questions surrounding his return. Reigns could have then overcome several top heels at the end of the Rumble and most likely would have gotten a positive reaction, and fans wouldn’t have perceived his triumph to be “Daniel Bryan’s win.”

Cornette lays out an intriguing scenario that unfolds with 15-year veteran Bryan — still unsure if he can ever return to the ring — training the younger, more inexperienced Reigns for the world title match at Mania. Bryan, who has studied MMA extensively and is well versed in practically every style, makes a game-changing deal with Reigns that could create a paradigm shift in the WWE Universe.

Cornette goes into meticulous detail of how his plan could create main-event interest for the next year of WWE pay-per-views. His complete column will be released in the next issue of Fighting Spirit Magazine at www.fightingspiritmagazine.co.uk/

Cornette will be honored March 7 in Wilmington, N.C., at an event titled “Lasting Legacy: A Tribute To Jim Cornette.”

Wrestlemania 31 main-event participants Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns both have ties to the state of Minnesota.

Lesnar is a former Minnesota Golden Gopher and Minnesota Viking. A two-time NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion at the University of Minnesota, Lesnar spent training camp with the Vikings in 2004 after leaving WWE. Lesnar, who never played college football, made the practice squad before being cut by the Vikings.

Reigns, whose real name is Joe Anoa’i, was an all-ACC defensive tackle at Georgia Tech who was signed by the Vikings as an undrafted free agent. He failed to make the roster, but later spent time on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad before playing part of the 2008 season with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.

WWE rolls into town Friday night with a “Road to Wrestlemania” show at the North Charleston Coliseum.

Roman Reigns, who punched his main-event ticket to Wrestlemania last weekend at the Rumble, will meet Big Show (Aiken native Paul Wight) in a North Charleston Street Fight in the featured bout.

Other top matches include Dean Ambrose vs. Bray Wyatt; Erick Rowan vs. Rusev (with Lana) in a U.S. title match; and The Usos vs. The Miz and Damien Mizdow in a WWE tag-team title match.

Action gets under way at 7:30 p.m.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.