The Royal Rumble kicks off a season of endless potential in the WWE, and 2020 has been a particularly exciting edition of the yearly tradition. Drew McIntyre has completed a tremendous ascendance into one of the WrestleMania 36 main events, opposite Brock Lesnar and the WWE championship, thanks to his victory in the men's Royal Rumble match.
From the opening bell, the entire match was built to make McIntyre look like a star. The first half of the match made Lesnar look unstoppable, as he trounced 13 consecutive unfortunate victims, and McIntyre was elevated in the definitive moment of his career thus far, becoming Lesnar's equal by eliminating the WWE champion. McIntyre's Royal Rumble victory was the cherry on top.
The match also accomplished more than just providing a McIntyre showcase. Edge's return was a powerfully emotional moment that fed directly into a conflict with Randy Orton that will almost certainly culminate in a WrestleMania match of its own. Keith Lee went toe-to-toe with Lesnar and Braun Strowman in a moment that continued to pile onto his growing wave of momentum, which put a lot of shine onto NXT.
Speaking of NXT, the women's Royal Rumble match simultaneously shone a bright spotlight onto the growing depth of the NXT women's division and the potential it carries for the future of all women's wrestling in WWE, and the lack of momentum for a lot of storylines for the women of both Raw and SmackDown. On the surface, Charlotte Flair's victory seems likely to bring up renewed hostilities with Raw women's champion Becky Lynch, although a delay in Flair declaring who she'd like to face at WrestleMania has opened up a few different possibilities.
Lynch had a strong night of her own at the Royal Rumble, proving that the chemistry she and Asuka shared in 2019 hasn't gone anywhere. Daniel Bryan similarly reminded the world of his unmatched acumen by having an 18-minute match with Bray Wyatt that didn't suffer from any of the previous pitfalls that hampered previous efforts against "The Fiend."
The coming weeks of Raw and SmackDown will prove whether or not the optimism surrounding the Royal Rumble's results is warranted or misplaced, but they have already managed to prompt one big change: the return of the ESPN WWE Power Rankings. Our panel, which features Tim Fiorvanti, Marc Raimondi, Matt Wilansky, Sean Coyle, Michael Wonsover, Matt Willis and Andrew Feldman, is here to break down the fallout and where we believe the pecking order stands heading into WrestleMania season.
Numbers in parenthesis ( ) indicate the number of first-place votes a wrestler received.
1. Bray Wyatt (3)
Willis: WWE has managed to take a style out of their mid-90s cartoonish style and modernize him into a grittier, realistic version fit for this era. A lot of that comes straight from Wyatt, who never disappoints with his ability to play a compelling character. He's being rewarded for it with a lengthy title reign and another high-profile WrestleMania spot. His match with Daniel Bryan at the Royal Rumble was his best to date since donning the mask of "The Fiend."
2. Brock Lesnar (3)
Raimondi: We all know the knocks on Lesnar at this point. He's never around. He has the WWE title and doesn't defend it on TV. At this point it all just sounds like "Blah, blah, blah." Fact of the matter is, Lesnar is one of the best of all time, and his performance at the Royal Rumble was a great example of how great he can be. He set the tone for the entire match, which told a terrific story and did tremendous work in elevating Drew McIntyre. It was the best Rumble match in a long time, and the way Lesnar dominated for such a long stretch and then sold a moment so perfectly was just textbook. "The Beast" is at the top of his game right now, and this program to come with Drew McIntyre feels incredibly fresh.
3. Drew McIntyre (1)
Wonsover: McIntyre finally earned his WWE title shot and a top slot at WrestleMania by winning the Royal Rumble. It will be McIntyre's first televised one-on-one world title match and only his second shot at a world title since first appearing on WWE TV in 2007 (the first coming inside the Elimination Chamber in 2011). For anyone who has kept up with him on Raw in recent weeks, his ascension to the top shouldn't come as a surprise, as it has been a long time in the making. Since returning to the main roster over a year ago, McIntyre long struggled to replicate the success he found on the independent scene or during his NXT run, which included a stretch as NXT champion. In recent weeks leading into the Royal Rumble, McIntyre finally got a chance to show his personality both on the mic and in the ring, boasting intensity and confidence that few others can match, along with a dynamic in-ring style for a man his size. The Claymore might be the most over finisher in WWE right now, especially with the new "3-2-1" countdown wrinkle he's added for crowd participation. That Claymore dispatched Lesnar from the Rumble after he had eliminated 13 straight men, and that moment and its aftermath have put McIntyre in prime position to emerge as the star many always thought he would be.
T-4. Seth Rollins
Raimondi: One year ago, Rollins was a red-hot babyface being pushed to the top of the company. For a few different reasons, he cooled off a lot after beating Lesnar to win the Universal title at WrestleMania 35. A lot of that had to do with his post-Mania programs being pretty lackluster -- the over-abused "Wild Card" rule and convoluted conflict involving Becky Lynch, King Corbin and Lacey Evans certainly didn't help. And then there was the disastrous "Fiend" program, which placed Rollins opposite the most popular character in WWE today. But as Rollins stagnated toward the latter portion of 2019, an opportunity presented itself. This new direction -- the heel "Monday Night Messiah" -- has been perfect for him. Rollins leading a stable with Authors of Pain and Buddy Murphy is working. And if we're being honest, Rollins was always better as a heel anyway.
T-4. Becky Lynch
Raimondi: Things were flat for Lynch not too long ago. While she never stopped being a draw or featured attraction on TV, her headlining moment at WrestleMania 35 feels like a long time ago. Remember that Lacey Evans program? Me neither. And no one can really justify why she was teaming with Charlotte Flair for the final months of 2019 rather than defending her Raw women's title. Lynch rebuilt herself with her mic work opposite Shayna Baszler in the leadup to Survivor Series and her promos prior to facing Asuka at Royal Rumble. "The Man" is in the limelight again, but could a heel turn be in the offing? Stay tuned.
Wonsover: The Royal Rumble is a holiday for wrestling fans. For most, the excitement stems from the anticipation of the Royal Rumble match itself, and more specifically, imagining who is going to be the biggest surprise entrant every year. We've had plenty of memorable returns and debuts in the past, including AJ Styles in 2016 and Rey Mysterio in 2018, but Edge's shocking return after a nine-year absence from WWE might be the most important and emotional Rumble return of all time. "You think you know me?" is all it took for Minute Maid Park and millions of fans at home to lose their minds. Edge looked shredded at 46-years-old and didn't appear to have lost a step. In fact, he might've gained a step or two. Orton's attack will surely keep Edge off TV for the foreseeable future, but there's no denying he's right back where he left off in 2011 as one of the top draws in WWE. And as far as WrestleMania goes, it doesn't get much better than Edge vs. Orton.
Coyle: Flair is arguably the best in-ring performer in the division, and she now has a guaranteed ticket to a championship match at WrestleMania after her women's Royal Rumble match victory. At some points in her career it's felt like certain moments have been more about accumulation than making a particular moment feel like it has maximum effect, but discounting any part of Flair's 10 women's title reigns, Rumble win or groundbreaking pay-per-view moments would be a mistake. With another accolade added to her list, Flair continues to add to her already Hall of Fame-worthy career -- and she'll be doing big things again this April in Tampa.
8. Daniel Bryan
Fiorvanti: Bryan is one of the best wrestlers in the world, and he has been for the better part of the last few decades. Anyone who might discount his impact or ability need only look at his Royal Rumble match against Bray Wyatt to see what he's capable of. He stepped into the ring for a potentially gimmicky strap match against a character who has been written and performed as though he cannot feel pain and most damage and got the crowd invested in a "Fiend" match in a way that they had only ever embraced the character during promos.
Bryan has always had strong wrestling acumen, and his connection to the WWE audience in the lead-up to WrestleMania 30 is still unmatched by anything that followed. But his ability to adapt and flourish since his return at WrestleMania 34 has been stunning; Bryan came back as a feel-good version of his "Yes!"-centric character, contorted into an angry environmentalist and turned the corner back to a point where he's even folded in some of his no-nonsense, pre-WWE Bryan Danielson persona into his fight against Wyatt. Wherever he's headed this WrestleMania season, here's hoping he doesn't get lost in the shuffle.
9. Randy Orton
Willis: Orton's at his absolute peak when he's involved in a feud that's personal and carries a lot of history. After teasing a reunion of Rated RKO during Edge's return in the men's Royal Rumble match, Orton got his revenge for Edge eliminating him from the match the next night on Raw. He welcomed his former tag team partner back to WWE with a con-chair-to and likely set up a match at WrestleMania 36. Orton is back to being his brooding, evil best, and that's when he's at his best.
T-10. Roman Reigns
Feldman: There's a weird dynamic that surrounds Roman Reigns. It's clear he's still the top dog (pun intended) in the WWE. While being involved in a seemingly never-ending feud with
Baron King Corbin, he's owned the main event slot on SmackDown, appeared on external Fox programming, including a New Year's Eve celebration and a Super Bowl commercial, and he's been pivotal to the company's transition to a new network. That said, the second the music hits, the fans seem to be getting restless and lukewarm once again -- signaling similar feelings to when Reigns previously stood as champion or a clear top contender. Like it or not, Reigns is on his way to WrestleMania, and if WWE wants to continue to reach a new audience, they need Reigns to be the guy that takes them there. Let's see if the fans will get on board.
T-10. Braun Strowman
Wilansky: It's about time Strowman had some gold of his own. For as imposing as he's been, and as big as certain moments have felt in recent years, few other performers have had less direction than Strowman since his rise to the top rung of the WWE ladder. For Strowman, the gold is important at this stage, but it also means that he will finally be the hunted rather than the hunter, which will create some storylines that may feel fresh and fitting for someone with Strowman's potential.