We are less than a week out from the 2017 Royal Rumble, and for the first time since at least 2012, we don't really have a prohibitive favorite heading into the match. Sure, a few superstars have made recent surges and look poised for a potential victory, but with the potential of a number of surprise returns or debuts, the possibility of a shocking winner and a big disruption to the current WWE ecosystem is higher than ever.
With that in mind, the WWE on ESPN staff racked our brains trying to figure out the likeliest contenders -- only none of us could seemingly agree on who that was. With such a deadlock in the debate, we instead decided to present all of our arguments and let you, the fans, decide. There are favorites and dark horses alike, and all we know for sure is that the kickoff to WrestleMania season is going to be a tremendously entertaining match.
The formula for building a monster heel has been the same since time immemorial. An oversized ogre enters the arena and destroys opponent after opponent. After a while, this devastation convinces the audience that the monster heel is invincible, at which point a believable babyface comes along and finds a way to overcome the odds and defeat the brute.
The WWE has been pitching Braun Strowman along these lines for a while and yet, unsurprisingly, squashing a bunch of jobbers and then racking up win after win over Sami Zayn hasn't put Strowman to the point where he is considered a true monster heel. Having Strowman close out the Royal Rumble by obliterating a slew of main-eventers would be a perfect way to vault his character to most-feared status and could set up a powerhouse showdown against any number of opponents -- though I'd favor finding a way to put him up against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 33. -- KC Joyner
Nine days into 2017, Chris Jericho did something that he had never done in his famed nearly 18-year WWE career -- he won the United States Championship. That trend of firsts could continue on Jan. 29 in the Royal Rumble match. Jericho has done a lot in his brilliant career, but he has never won a Royal Rumble match to earn an automatic championship opportunity on the grandest stage of them all, WrestleMania.
Despite spending close to four total hours in Royal Rumble matches combined throughout his career (second-most in WWE history) and taking part in nine different Rumble matches (finishing as the runner-up in 2012), Jericho has never found himself standing alone in the middle of the ring as the winner when the match ended.
A win this year would create the perfect starting point for an impending Jericho vs. Kevin Owens clash at WrestleMania. Sporadic hints at the best friend breakup have to lead somewhere, right? Owens currently holds the Universal Championship and a Jericho Rumble win could set the stage for the epic conclusion to the blow-up. -- Sean Coyle
There's an invaluable push that comes with winning the Royal Rumble that goes beyond being given a title shot and the possibility of a main-event billing at WrestleMania. It's a validation that WWE has put an incredible amount of stock into your future. While some years have seen previously established superstars or returning legends win the Rumble in order to fit them perfectly within a storyline, the honor is most valuable when given to someone on the cusp of reaching the elite level.
Baron Corbin perfectly fits that description.
The former NFL lineman has received a considerable push since being drafted in the fourth round by SmackDown in last July's brand extension. While it's fair to question whether or not he's ready for this level, to feud against WWE world champion AJ Styles and compete in a marquee match on the biggest stage, there's no better way to find out than to put the rocket pack on his back. John Cena doesn't need a title to make a feud with The Undertaker valuable, should WWE go in that direction. So in this scenario, Styles would retain his title at the Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber, while also allowing him room for something of a face turn against a strong heel Corbin. -- Brian Campbell
When you try to build new stars in the world of professional wrestling, you need to take big chances. There is no bigger chance to take in the WWE than having someone make their main roster debut in the Royal Rumble and then win the whole damn match -- and I think it's the perfect opportunity for Samoa Joe in 2017.
He's done everything there is to do in NXT, and he's made a name for himself throughout his career for being an unrepentant ass-kicker. What better way to establish Samoa Joe immediately as an upper-echelon WWE star than to have him come out on top in one of the most visible moments of the year for rabid fans and casual fans alike? The best part is, you have four very logical potential opponents for him at WrestleMania. The No. 1 pick would obviously be AJ Styles, with whom Joe has spent most of his career battling in various different companies, but John Cena would be a clear No. 2; Cena and Joe both started their careers in the same local independent organization, and they've been friends ever since.
There's less history with the Raw candidates, but still interesting possibilities to explore with a Samoan vs. Samoan battle (Roman Reigns) or two big guys from the independent wrestling world who could really go mixing it up in a major title match at WrestleMania (Kevin Owens). The rest of the card can shake out organically, and you immediately see what you have for the future in Samoa Joe -- and I think that's the biggest positive you can get coming out of this particular Royal Rumble. -- Tim Fiorvanti
Do I really need to actually offer a reason for why The Undertaker should win the 2017 Royal Rumble?
Ok, if you insist ...
The Undertaker IS the main event of WrestleMania.
Throughout his career, everything he's done has made him a must-see attraction. His feuds have been memorable, his entrance is legendary and his ring work speaks for itself. The unfortunate reality is that after this amazing career, The Undertaker likely doesn't have a ton of matches left in him. He does, however, have one more WrestleMania moment -- and a victory at the Royal Rumble is the way to get him into the brightest spotlight (and potentially signal his exit from the WWE as the credits roll in April).
Right now The Undertaker needs a significant storyline. Writers aren't going to waste one of the biggest talents in the industry on a minor final battle. Make his next few months mean everything, and let him be the last man standing. -- Andrew Feldman
No superstar, male or female, has benefited more from the brand split last fall than The Miz. Last year around this time, The Miz was a stagnant act on the lower rungs of the card, still spouting on about achievements he had accomplished that were far past their expiration date, in terms of value. His time on SmackDown has given The Miz's career a second life -- one in which he's put his microphone skills on display and raised his in-ring style to create one of the hottest acts in the company.
What better way to end the best feud of the last year, between Miz and former protege/rival/now Smackdown GM Daniel Bryan, than in the main event of WrestleMania? The Miz wins the Royal Rumble, forcing Bryan's hand to pick a champion to face off against the man he hates most at the biggest event of the year. Would he side with "Big Match" John? Side with the devil in AJ Styles? Or, in dreamland-never-going-to-happen booking, does Bryan, finally approved by the WWE doctor, put on the trunks once more to win the championship and fend off The Miz at WrestleMania in a feud that started all the way back in 2010 when Miz forced Daniel Bryan to chug soda on NXT? A man can dream ... -- Tyler Erzberger
Sure, he's at the advanced age of 50 and a decade removed from The Streak that made him one of the most iconic wrestlers in history, but Bill Goldberg is in demand. And he's ready to win his first Royal Rumble. Of course, there is a scenario, and a plausible one, in which Brock Lesnar and Goldberg will isolate themselves from the rest of the Rumble chaos and pulverize each other to the extent it ends up in a double-elimination, thus setting the tables for a WrestleMania rematch.
Look, there's no denying we need a final act between the two at some point, especially after the stunning 1-minute, 24-second squash match at Survivor Series. But do we really want to belabor this storyline right now, when there is so much potential for a fresh angle? The line between an epic rematch and tiresome nostalgia is pretty clear in this case. With Goldberg only signed (at least to date) for a limited time in WWE, can't we get him in the ring with someone else?
Maybe it's Roman Reigns? How geeked up would we be to see this battle of the spears? It would certainly be a creative challenge. Maybe it's Kevin Owens. Or, maybe at some point between the Rumble and WrestleMania, the very large and intimating Braun Strowman wrests the Universal title only to lose the gold against Goldberg in Orlando. In my mind, it doesn't really matter, so long as Goldberg isn't staring down Lesnar on the grandest stage of them all. -- Matt Wilansky
Wrestling fans love underdog stories (see Daniel Bryan as example 1A). While the WWE may cram the idea of Roman Reigns as an underdog down everyone's throat, he is simply not believable as one, no matter how long the odds are. If they are in search of a true underdog story, Sami Zayn should win the Royal Rumble match and go on to face the WWE Universal champion at WrestleMania 33.
For this scenario to play out to maximum effect, Zayn's bitter enemy and former best friend Kevin Owens should retain his championship at the Royal Rumble. The lead-up to WrestleMania should drum up support for the "Underdog of the Underground" with multiple Owens beat downs on Zayn and video packages highlighting their long journey together as friends and rivals. As many times as Owens vs Zayn has been done in the past, they have always delivered in the ring -- and it would be a strong candidate to steal the show. Zayn is one of the few babyfaces cheered by young and old alike, so a Zayn victory would likely be met with nearly universal applause. -- Nick Irving
The biggest case against Finn Balor returning and winning the Royal Rumble is that his shoulder won't be 100 percent by Sunday. However, he does not need to be 100 percent to win. Seven superstars have won the Royal Rumble after competing for less than 10 minutes (Triple H won last year while spending less than eight minutes in the ring). Even if Balor's shoulder isn't back to full strength, is it not possible that he could be a surprise late entrant and win the match while protecting that shoulder? The potential storylines leading to his championship match at WrestleMania write themselves, and might be worth it.
Option 1: Kevin Owens retains his Universal championship Sunday and defends against Balor at WrestleMania. Balor gets the opportunity to get back the title he never lost, against an opponent who has thrown subtle digs at Balor by referring to himself as the "longest-reigning Universal champion in WWE history."
Option 2: AJ Styles retains his WWE championship Sunday, and defends against Balor at WrestleMania. In 2014, Styles replaced Balor as the leader of New Japan Pro Wrestling's "Bullet Club" after Balor left for WWE. During a backstage segment at SummerSlam, they teased this history when The Club threw up the "too sweet" gesture for their former leader, but Balor walked away with a smile. Putting two of the best performers WWE has to offer in the ring with each other at WrestleMania is a no-brainer. -- Joey Koontz
It's amazing to think that for all AJ Styles has already done in the WWE, he hasn't even been in the company a full calendar year yet. Debuting as a surprise entrant in the 2016 Royal Rumble match, Styles has taken the company by storm by going on to beat up John Cena (clean!) at SummerSlam and winning the WWE world championship one month later at Backlash. How fitting would it be, then, for Styles to cap off one of the best years in WWE history by winning the 2017 Royal Rumble?
Now, for this to happen, the Royal Rumble match would need to go on after Styles defends his title against Cena, and Styles would need to lose that match. Infuriated over losing his title, Styles then demands that he enters into the Rumble, perhaps even taking out a Superstar in the locker room or on their way to the ring and taking their place. Despite his current heel status, the crowd would go wild for a Styles victory. He would go on to get another shot at Cena at WrestleMania (with Elimination Chamber as a speed bump along the way), and they could write a fitting final chapter to their rivalry. -- Nick Irving