Tomorrow night the WWE presents us with the first event on the road to Wrestlemania in the form of a six hour spectacle called the Royal Rumble. There’s a ton of buzz this year as this particular rumble is becoming one of the most hyped in recent memory. For those of your that aren’t familiar with all of the ins and outs of professional wrestling (at least not yet anyways, we’ll get there), we’ll give you a quick breakdown.

The word Royal isn’t really all that important here, considering it has nothing to do with kings or knights or anything of the sort; no, it’s the rumble part that really matters. A giant match containing 30 participants whose only job is to NOT be thrown over the top rope, the Rumble determines the main event of the biggest show of the year (Wrestlemania) by giving the winner of the match a title shot against the champion in the main event of the show.

But, given the fact that there’s no way that could get dragged out to last six hours, there’s several other matches on the card as well. It includes a handful matches from both the Raw and Smackdown brands with several titles being vied for by superstars like John Cena, Roman Reigns, and Charlotte Flair to name a few.

If it sounds like this is a big deal, that’s because it is. In the hierarchy of WWE’s shows throughout the year, the Rumble is a firm number three behind the aforementioned Wrestlemania and the mid-year extravaganza known as Summerslam.

It’s important to point out just how massive Wrestlemania is to the world of professional wrestling. It’s basically the Super Bowl except tickets aren’t several thousand dollars and everyone has one of their favorites participating. It has universal appeal to all fans and nearly all of the story lines for the year culminate at this one show.

Plus the Rock usually shows up, so it’s basically a clean sweep for the WWE here. Suck it Goodell.

Anyways, as I mentioned before, the first step to getting to that huge show starts with the Royal Rumble, so we’re about to see some of the important stories that will be told in a few months begin to develop now. The matches tomorrow have serious and sometimes career changing implications for some of the performers. Many a career has been shoved into overdrive with a strong showing in this event, and for many performers it may be their way to break out as a true A-List top end company tent-pole type Superstar.

So what are the matches? I’m glad you asked. You’re so kind. I’ll be covering each one of the matches below with my thoughts about it and a prediction for the winner. We’ll start with the two matches on the pre-show:

Sasha Banks vs. Nia Jax

Banks, the three time RAW Women’s champion, squares off against the 6 foot 240 pound cousin to the Rock Nia Jax in a grudge match. For what it’s worth, Banks is billed at 114. Sometimes, it’s easy to tell a story. The big person picks on the little person. Eventually, as in most good stories, the underdog finds a way to win. For Banks, I think that’s down the road. Nia Jax enters the main event scene by pinning the former champ in short order.

Cesaro and Sheamus (C) vs. The Club (Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows) for the WWE Raw Tag Team Championships

Cesaro and Sheamus have taken the boring wrestling trope of two enemies who become friends and turned it into something special during their tag team title run. Their run together over the last few months has really breathed some fresh air into both of their careers. The same can’t be said for the Club, who had a so-so 2016 after being signed as big time free agents from Japan. 2017 looks to be a big year for Anderson and Gallows, who pick up the titles here and eventually defend them at Wrestlemania.

Becky Lynch/Nikki Bella/Naomi vs. Alexa Bliss/Mickie James/Natalya

This is a pretty paint by numbers tag match featuring nearly all the competitors from the Smackdown women’s division (poor Carmella). Though they’re all very talented, I’m locked in on Mickie James. In the last two years or so the WWE has spent a lot of time, money, and effort into developing the women’s division as something to be proud of. The “women’s revolution” has legitimized the competitors and changed the way the company views their female superstars (formerly called Divas).

An unfortunate side effect of this is that it basically makes everything related to women’s wrestling from more than two years ago seem… unnecessary, at best. Mickie James, who basically carried the women’s division for a few years before leaving the company after a messy affair with John Cena, has returned and is taking exception to the way the company views its former divas. She’s here to show everyone that the work she did for years hasn’t been invalidated and that a woman like her can succeed in any era. Though it makes her a jealous bad guy, it adds a lot of depth to her character, which is a true indicator that the “revolution” is working. Instead of having women in the ring to purely act as eye candy, you instead have well defined characters who happen to be women. It’s a nice step forward. Six man tag matches are a little wacky, so picking a winner is tough, but I’ll back James and company since I’m really behind her right now. What’s more important is that the six women in this match may compete in an elimination chamber next month, which would be a first in company history.

If it seems like the bad guys are winning a lot, you’re right. You sure are a smart cookie. Expect that continue onto the main card, which opens with:

Neville vs. Rich Swann for the Cruiserweight Championship

I love what the WWE is doing with Neville. By making him the behemoth of the cruiserweight division they add a much needed nemesis to a group of wrestlers who haven’t had a lot of TV time to develop their characters. It gives everyone in the division a story by introducing a common enemy. In a group where the weight limit is explicitly stated at 205, you’re not going to get much bigger than Neville. I think he bullies the outrageous Swann to capture his first title in the new division. By doing so, he’ll introduce a level of stakes we haven’t seen in the infancy of the division.

Though the write up doesn’t necessarily capture this notion, I think there’s a good chance that these two guys will end up stealing the show. They’re both very, very talented.

Charlotte Flair (C) vs. Bayley for the RAW Women’s Championship

Charlotte might be the WWE’s most compelling character right now on either brand. Daughter of legendary sixteen time champion Ric Flair, Charlotte entered the WWE and instantly became championship material. Flair, who played collegiate volleyball and was being eyed for the US olympic team, quickly and easily became the new benchmark for women in the WWE. She was crushing her foes with her, proclaimed, genetic superiority. I realize that kinda sounds nazi-ish, but after seeing her beat every competitor she ran into I don’t think anyone really felt like calling her on it.

When her dad legendary father entered the scene to help manage her, that all changed. She eschewed all of her hard work and god given talent for the cheap tricks her father was known for. Rather than winning cleanly, she met her new challengers of the women’s revolution with pokes to the eye and distractions outside interference, even though she’d beaten the same competitors months earlier in NXT with no such help.

Despite everything she has, despite everything she can do, she’s still Ric Flair’s daughter and she can’t get out of her own way to stop acting like it. Being stuck in your fathers shadow is something we’ve seen time and time again in the WWE, but no one has ever done it with the… flair… of Charlotte. Ugh.

I’m keeping that, but I don’t like it.

Meanwhile, Bayley is on the fast track to being a mega-star. She does the most important thing you can do in the WWE, connect with children under ten. She doubles that down by being especially alluring to small girls, which is a typically under developed market. If you’re wondering why appealing to kids is important, understand that they’re the only demographic of fans that are constantly changing shape and therefore need to buy new t-shirts and merchandise more frequently. It’s why John Cena (more on him soon) has held onto the limelight for so long: his colorful clothes are like crack to the pre-tweens. That said, Bayley’s ascent to John Cena status is better served by letting this feud build. Nobody likes an underdog that doesn’t take a few losses on the chin first. Charlotte wins this one.

Kevin Owens (C) vs. Roman Reigns for the WWE Universal Championship

Just when the WWE universe thought it was safe from a reality where superstars they cant stand aren’t being shoved down their throats, the guys in charge of setting the matches thought it better to remind them that life is a cold, uncaring void and that control is an illusion clung to by desperate fools.

Enter Roman Reigns, persona non-grata in the sports entertainment world. As I discussed in my last piece, the WWE pushed Roman to the top of the card too quickly before the fans had grown to like him on their own. Rather than accepting him, as management hoped, the crowd saw through the forced push and began to revolt at all major events where he wrestled at the top of the card. Expect a raucous chorus of boos tomorrow night when he enters the ring to face the current champion, Kevin Owens, while Owens’ friend Chris Jericho hangs in a shark cage above the ring like a sexy pinata.

Yes, a man is being suspended above the ring in an actual shark cage. This is your reminder that pro wrestling isn’t real.

Though the consensus seems to be that Reigns will win this match (and the title in the process) and go on to main event his third consecutive Wrestlemania, I see a different outcome. First, it would put Reigns in very rare air to be in that position three years in a row. Second, he’s already a major star and I don’t think that a story involving him needs the title (which is essentially a prop, albeit an important one) to make it compelling. And third, letting Owens defend the title at Wrestlemania creates another major, legitimate star for both him and whoever he faces. It seems like a smart decision to me to see Kevin Owens win, which is likely why it won’t happen. Either way, he’s my pick.

AJ Styles vs. John Cena for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship

In the previous title match, the championship was the main attraction. Both men want to hold the belt and presumably go on to main event the biggest show of the year. This story, on the other hand, takes an approach where the belt is of secondary importance to the true prize: being the face that runs the place on the Smackdown brand.

If you’re a human being, you know that John Cena has been the backbone of the WWE for the better part of this millennium. If you’re not a human being and you’ve been able to read this far into the article, please email me as I think I know of a way to exploit your talent help you capitalize on your unique skill. Cena’s been the top draw, the main event, and the guy everyone else wanted to be.

That all changed late last year after he got hurt, lost three matches to AJ Styles, and left the company to go film whatever TV shows or commercials he could get his hands on. Suddenly, John Cena was just like the men he’d admonished earlier in his career: he was out shooting movies instead of being in the ring. When he left, the WWE braced themselves for a big hit to Smackdown ratings and an inevitable decline in the popularity of the company.

Except, as you might have guessed, that didn’t happen. In fact, the exact opposite happened. Smackdown became the top brand in short order by, for the first time in forever, started to regularly beat RAW in a ratings battle. AJ Styles had parlayed his wins over Cena into a title opportunity, which he took advantage of to become champion and the de-facto face of the company’s most popular brand.

Now that Cena is back, he’s faced with a chilling reality. He has to embrace the fact that maybe he isn’t as important as he was made out to be. Maybe, the future of the company without Cena that looked so bleak is going to be alright. It becomes twice as interesting if he loses the match. Because  if he does he’ll be, for the first time ever, starting a program with the one guy that has never jobbed out to anyone. And we’re not talking about Styles, we’re talking about time. The 39 year old Cena will be entering the final act of his in ring career, and, like all wrestlers before him, his skills will start slipping away. Losing this match would really give him some stakes for his upcoming Wrestlemania appearance. If you have him vs. say, the Undertaker, in a match to prove he still has it, you have a match featuring Cena the crowd will love rather than hate. Also, the WWE has not done a good enough job of promoting the fact that this win would tie Ric Flair’s legendary title record. That’s why Styles is the pick here.

The Royal Rumble match for a championship opportunity at Wrestlemania

In a match featuring 30 contestants, it should be virtually impossible to predict who’s going to win. In recent years though, that has not been the case with this event. You’d have to look all the way back to 2010 when Edge won by shockingly returning from injury as the unannounced 29th entrant to find a rumble where the crowd wasn’t in the know months ahead of time. And, as I’m sure you expected since you’re a smart person/animal that can read, the events weren’t necessarily well received.

Sports entertainment or professional wrestling or whatever you want to call it is just like any other television program. People want to be entertianed. People want to be surprised. People want the unexpected. We don’t tune into Westworld to see a bunch of hosts get fucked and murdered, we tune in to see how Robert Ford is going to deal with another seemingly unexpected problem. We watch to get our minds melted by a character saying something as simple as “it doesn’t look like anything to me”. It’s the same thing in the ring, fans want to be compelled by what’s happening, not see a stale wrestler they don’t like slowly eliminate his competitors en route to a boring finish no one wants to see. We want to be fucking sports entertained.

That’s what makes this year different. As of the writing of this article, there are seven wrestlers with better than 10/1 odds on the top WWE sports betting website (yes, it exists). The favorite, Randy Orton, has the best odds, but these have changed every day for the better part of the last week. He’s the fourth different superstar I’ve seen in that “most likely” spot.

What does that tell us? Nobody is sure what’s going to happen here. And for good reason. This year’s field of 30 men contains three huge mega-stars in Brock Lesnar, Goldberg, and the Undertaker. Any three of them would fit in nicely to a Wrestlemania main event. It also has a group of former champions in Randy Orton, Chris Jericho, Dean Ambrose, and the Miz. And mixed in with them is another batch of superstars who are hungry for the big push into the limelight of being one of those tent-pole type stars.

So who wins?

My money is, literally and figuratively (call it my SCLPLotCotW), on the underdog from the underground: Sami Zayn. You’ll notice he hasn’t really been mentioned yet, that’s because he isn’t in a group of megastars or former champions. Rather, Zayn is looking to get an opportunity to show everyone in the world that he’s as good as there is. In every company he’s worked for, whether it be PWG or Ring of Honor or NXT, he’s consistently been the best there is. The fans there have raved about how good Zayn is for th ebetter part of a decade. He’s the type of character people love to love: a scrappy, funny looking guy who puts on good matches because he genuinely seems to love what he’s doing. He’s the “wrestling fans” wrestler, the guy who fills the same appeal as your Daniel Bryan or your CM Punk.

This year, I think the story of the Rumble is building and solidifying new stars. By having Owens and Styles win, you firmly plant them as top tier wrestlers who deserve to fight for the title at Wrestlemania. By allowing Zayn to go against his former best friend and recently turned enemy Kevin Owens, you give him a chance to become a bigger star. And that’s what the company wants. If one John Cena or one Daniel Bryan can make you a ton of money, well, why wouldn’t you want five of each if you can get them? In an era where we have so many different shows, it’s definitely possible.

And the minute that he’s pointing up at the Wrestlemania sign after miraculously dumping his recent adversary, the 300 pound Braun Stroman, over the top rope to face Owens at mania, you make Zayn a star. After a night where every match was won by the heel, you let a new top babyface stand in the limelight. The fans would flip their shit if this happens and I think the company is smart enough to see that.

Of course, I’m usually wrong about this sort of thing and we’ll probably end up with Orton vs. Bray Wyatt somehow. One things for sure, my buddy Dan, who is a master at predicting these things is going to end up winning our betting pool after he picks Cena, Reigns, and Orton and hits all of them. This would be in line with what’s happened the last five years.

Hey, I didn’t say the product is always good.