It's a good time to be gunning for a championship in Philadelphia.
Just as the city is catching its breath from all that defiant greased-pole climbing, 30 behemoths will descend on the city in hopes of moving onto pro wrestling's version of the Super Bowl. That's right, the WWE Royal Rumble, one of the league's four major events, will take place in Philly this year, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the official kickoff to the annual Road to WrestleMania. This Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center, 30 superstars will compete in the WWE's unique twist on the battle royal, attempting to hurl their opponents out of the ring and win themselves a shot at the company's top title (or one of them, anyway). Here's all you need to get up to speed for the show and the rest of the weekend's activities.
The battle royal has a history as long as pro wrestling itself, and the rules are simple: a whole bunch of really big dudes (20 or 30, typically) climb into the ring together and compete to toss each other over the top rope to the floor – last man standing wins. In 1988, the then-WWF came up with a novel concept: the competitors wouldn't enter all at once but at two-minute intervals, allowing for storyline twists and surprises along the way. The appearance of a 10-second countdown clock every two minutes is almost Pavlovian in its ability to keep the crowd juiced for the entire length of the match. The winner earns a shot at one of the WWE's two titles (one for each "brand," Raw and SmackDown) at April's WrestleMania, which this year takes place in New Orleans. If you can't go down to the Wells Fargo Center, there's always the Pay Per View option. It's free to watch for WWE Network subscribers, $44.99 for Comcast subscribers and $54.95 for those with Verizon Fios.
Beyond marking the event's 30th anniversary, this year's show is historic for another reason: the first-ever Women's Royal Rumble. Fueled by the so-called "Divas Revolution," a newfound focus on women's wrestling for the company, 30 female competitors will do battle in their own variation on the namesake match. Even more than the men's equivalent, the WWE will have to rely on a number of surprise entrants from the past to bolster the roster, but the fact that a second Rumble will be fought on the same terms as the original is testament to the talents and fan support of women like Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch. (Not to mention a none-too-secret desire to lure MMA star Ronda Rousey into the fold.)
The Royal Rumble itself is the main draw of the show, but it's not the only match taking place. Both titles will also be on the line. AJ Styles will defend his SmackDown title in a handicap match against longtime frenemies Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. But WWE has always been about the big guys, and three of them will go at it for the Raw title, with current champ Brock Lesnar challenged by veteran demon Kane and rising-star monster Braun Strowman. Expect lots of stuff to be broken.
Wrestling fans may as well just set up a tent in the Wells Fargo parking lot this week. An unprecedented four shows will take place in the arena, including not just the Rumble but Monday night's Raw — airing on USA at 8 p.m. — and SmackDown Live on Tuesday as well — also at 8 p.m. on USA. The night before Sunday's big show (not to be confused with the wrestler the Big Show, the remaining giant likely to be involved in the Rumble match), NXT TakeOver — live on the WWE Network — will kick off the festivities. The WWE's developmental show has garnered a rabid fan base by enlisting talent from the indie wrestling scene, promising a more fast-paced show — more flipping and flying, less grunting and slamming. Though, still grunting and slamming.
If four three-hour-plus shows in as many days isn't enough to sate your appetite for musclebound men in tights, there's more to be had outside the WWE Universe. At the storied 2300 Arena (forever known as the ECW Arena in wrasslin' circles), Tommy Dreamer's House of Hardcore will host its own competing show on Saturday night. ECW mainstays Dreamer and Shane Douglas will compete; calling them "past their prime" would be a hardcore understatement (see what I did there), but ECW was always more about bloody spectacle than athletic finesse anyway. During the days, the Arena will host the Icons of Wrestling Convention with appearances by dozens of names, headlined by the classic line-up of the Four Horseman. Whoo, as they say.
If the sight of 30 cartoon-character brutes attempting to chuck each other to the ground doesn't quite tickle your funny bone, Philly Improv Theater is offering its own alternatives. Tonight and tomorrow, the Sansom Street theater will play host to PCW (Philly Comedy Wrestling), an hourlong sketch-comedy show created by Joe Tuzzi and Drew Klemens that will feature live wrestling and commentary, only played for laughs! Much like everything else in our current reality, it may be a challenge to tell the difference between the real and the parody.