If there is one takeaway from the 2021 Royal Rumble, it’s that it was the year WWE decided to take a chance on making new superstars for the women’s division.
Bianca Belair, entering at #3 in the Rumble, and making it to the very end, underscores not only a strong and historic performance, but it also establishes her as a credible and serious contender in the women’s division.
Rhea Ripley, coming in at #14, had a dominant Rumble outing, topping the field at seven eliminations (the most out of anyone else), and did it with the engaging, snarling panache of her larger-than-life persona.
Both these women are incredible talents and have attracted strong support from the WWE faithful and wrestling critics for their “total package” combination of athleticism and appeal. There could not have been a stronger indication of that, following the mismanagement of Ripley’s post-WrestleMania 36 plans. Almost universally panned, fans and writers were left scratching their heads as to how WWE could let such a sure thing slip by. Belair’s questionable use since being called up to RAW in 2020 was also puzzling.
As deep as the WWE women’s division talent pool goes, it is often marred with objections from WWE fans that either the wrong women are pushed, or that it’s always the same who end up with opportunities. These, of course, are objections that are echoed throughout both gender divisions in the company, but it can be especially flagrant for the women, whose undercard is weak to non-existent.
To this point, do not let the symbolism of Belair and Ripley eliminating Charlotte Flair be lost on you: Flair, the oft-times reviled women’s Superstar, perceived as the company’s “golden girl” being tossed out by two women who are perceived as the future is significant and should not be downplayed. In fact, about one year ago, Charlotte Flair showed up on NXT television to be confronted by Ripley and Belair, and was not-so-cordially advised that she doesn’t “even go here.” Clearly, she didn’t at the Rumble this year.
Meanwhile, the men’s Royal Rumble turned out to be the opposite. A business-as-usual match, which ended with a final four (outside the Randy Orton shenanigans) half-composed of (semi?) retired wrestlers. It’s not as if the men’s side is devoid of credible workhorses who could be elevated into the same convincing fashion. But instead, WWE decided to bank on the old guard instead of planning for the future, as it continues in its Moebius strip: it has no big stars, so it needs Hall of Famers in big matches, because they don’t have big stars, because they use Hall of Famers for big matches.
I’m not blind to the fact that WWE has the capacity to screw up whatever they set up. It’s one of its most notorious talents and their 2020 handling of Rhea Ripley has us naturally on our guard. But if anything, elevating Belair has shown that WWE has the capacity and the will to do it. And it has the special talent on its roster to make it convincing and real.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the women’s division is likely the best reason to watch WWE, right now, and the 2021 women’s Royal Rumble match added more credence to that statement.