The other day, while conducting some very important online research for this article, I stumbled across the betting odds for this Sunday's Royal Rumble. The site 5Dimes was among the first place laying odds, and it should come as little surprise that they didn't see a lot of room for excitement built into the show. Sports fans always faint at the notion of betting on pro wrestling, and it's a reasonable concern, but, as others have pointed out, most sites put a $50 cap on bets, so it's all basically in good fun and Vince McMahon can't wager $10 million on the longest odds and have Hornswoggle win the Rumble. As of Thursday afternoon, in the WWE championship match between CM Punk and The Rock, 5Dimes has Mr. Johnson as the favorite to win at -600. Punk to win is +400. The Rumble match itself is even more one-sided, considering the odds — there are 30 possible winners, including every WWE star not named CM Punk or The Rock. They have John Cena at -175 and the field at +135 — not exactly compelling stuff.
Now, there are a couple ways to interpret this. One is that the oddsmakers really think Cena and Rock are shoo-ins — that the endings are so obvious that only a fool would bet on anybody else. The other is that in the world of wrestling betting, Rock and Cena are your "public" wrestlers. They're the Yankees and Cowboys and Lakers of pro wrestling. They've won frequently in the past, they're huge stars, and they're fan favorites. If you had Cena -2,000 against a pack of ravenous wolves inside a racquetball court, there'd be plenty of 6-year-old boys whose belief in Cena would never waver. And if this match were promoted by WWE, those tykes would probably be right. If 5Dimes put The Rock at -500 to kill Vin Diesel and Paul Walker and be the last man standing in Fast & Furious 6, there'd be a bunch of wrestling fans eager to take that bet. Hell, I might take that bet. That's how popular Cena and Rock are. Exploiting your fandom to take your money is a favorite page in the casino playbook.
The real question in pro wrestling, though, is whether there's any real distinction between these two ways of looking at the odds. The WWE mythology is largely built around establishing a hero, putting said hero through trials, and having said hero overcome said trials. Sometimes that means Hulk Hogan beating up Killer Khan, sometimes that means Mick Foley overcoming a decade of polite guffaws to escape the mid-card quicksand and become champion. In both cases, it gives the fans what they want, and that, of course, is wrestling's golden rule: Always send the fans home happy.
But here's where the strategy of always betting on the hero falls apart. While it's almost a certainty that Cena and The Rock will win in the end, they might not win on Sunday. Even if you know the planned outcome of a story line, there are a million different ways to get there. If you believe we're headed toward a Rock-Punk-Cena three-way title match at WrestleMania, the most obvious way to arrive at that outcome is to have Rock beat Punk on Sunday, Cena win the Rumble, and have Punk demand his contractual rematch at Mania, the same night Cena gets his Rumble-stipulated title shot. Or, WWE could have Punk win Sunday and Rock win the title at next month's Elimination Chamber pay-per-view, followed by the same Mania match. But it would be totally possible to go another direction, to have Rock and Cena win on Sunday and then feature them in a straight rematch of last year's WrestleMania main event. Or WWE could have Punk and Rock trade wins on Sunday and then at Mania, while Cena becomes embroiled in a feud with The Undertaker or Brock Lesnar or somebody. WWE could even have Punk and Cena fight at Mania while The Rock does an hour-long medley of fat-chick songs inside a steel cage. The point is we don't know what's going to happen in the near term, but in the long run — unless one of them turns heel (cough, Cena, cough) — Cena and The Rock will win eventually. That's the very nature of the WWE. The public wrestlers win, because the public wrestlers are who the fans want to win.
But just because the eventual outcomes are plain to see, there's still plenty of fun to be had in guessing — or betting on — how WWE will arrive at those end points. And it could be even more fun to make up our own lines about what could happen. So here are my unofficial betting lines for the 2013 Royal Rumble.
The Miz will execute the least painful-looking Figure Four Leg Lock of all time: 6-to-1
In a valiant attempt to establish The Miz as a good guy — because to date, fans haven't warmed to his smarmy, three-piece-suit-wearing, sarcastic act — WWE paired him up with the legendary Ric Flair, who helped him beat up Cesaro and who bequeathed to Miz his signature move. So far so good, right? The problem is that when Miz does the Figure Four it looks about as painful as a Tadpole Splash. Even in fake violence, believability matters. The odds on this are so low because The Miz will have a hard time doing a worse Figure Four than we've seen in his last few outings. Also, this match will air on the pre-show, which nobody watches, so my imaginary sportsbook probably shouldn't even be taking this action.
Dr. Shelby will cost Team Hell No (Kane and Daniel Bryan) the tag titles: 12-to-1
The Kane–Daniel Bryan vs. Cody Rhodes–Damien Sandow feud has been a treat to watch on so many levels, but I don't get why (the admittedly hilarious) Dr. Shelby has been taken out of mothballs unless the plan is for him to get involved. Why not let him go insane, manage Team Rhodes Scholars, and use all the evil manager tricks of yesteryear to help them? Tell me you wouldn't love to see him come out one week in a turban and sunglasses, the next week with a megaphone and a musical note–covered blazer, and the next in a bowler hat with a bag of salt. Come on, WWE, I don't ask much of you, but make this happen.
Something enormous will fall on Big Show, causing him to lose his "Last Man Standing" match against world heavyweight champion Alberto Del Rio: 3-to-1
This is a rematch of their SmackDown meeting a few weeks back. In that bout, Del Rio — recently converted to the side of the angels, and doing an incredible job at it — beat Show by overturning the announcers' table on him while the ref counted to 10. How can they possibly outdo that at the Rumble? Go bigger: Show trapped under a pile of crates, Show trapped under a giant hoagie in craft services, Show trapped under an overturned semi.
The Shield will interfere in the CM Punk–Rock match even though they're not allowed to: 2-to-1
On Monday, Vince McMahon threatened Punk that if The Shield — the freshman trio who seem to be working on behalf of Punk, even though Punk denies it — get involved, Vince will strip Punk of the title. Which is either a way to write them out of the story for the night, or a surefire guarantee that they'll be involved. Sportsbook fine print: Prematch beatdowns count as interference.
CM Punk will get bigger cheers than the Rock: 2-to-1
Pay-per-view crowds — especially in the big four events — come out in full snark mode, with a huge swath of the audience cheering for the heels and booing the heroes. If this were Punk-Cena, I'd put the odds at even, but even though The Rock has spent most of the time since his return making jokes about Popeye and Vickie Guerrero's ugliness and Paul Heyman's penis, he's a legend and just about as irresistible a star as WWE has to offer. And over the past few weeks, Punk has been cutting some of the best heel promos this side of Jake Roberts, so it wouldn't totally surprise me if the crowd treats him like the villain he's trying so hard to be. (The cheers he got at this week's SmackDown tapings don't really help my argument, but we'll see.)
Related: There will be at least one "Cookie Puss" chant: 4-to-1
During his run last year, The Rock mocked John Cena's ever-changing primary-color T-shirts by saying he looked like a big, fat bowl of Fruity Pebbles, and fans have hounded Cena with the "Fruity Pebbles" chant ever since. This time around, Rock tried a couple of different catchphrases on Punk, but the crowd response was less enthusiastic. The best he had to offer was comparing Punk (and his way-back request for his own old-school WWF ice cream bar) to Cookie Puss, which is incredibly dated, and it doesn't really have much to do with Punk as he exists now. But hey, it's fun to chant.
Dolph Ziggler will be in the Rumble longer than anyone else: 3-to-1
For months, Ziggler has been the WWE's semiofficial workhorse, pulling double duty some nights, acting as a punching bag for the company's biggest heroes. He won a mini-tournament on Monday to pick his entry number in the Rumble, only to have his vindictive ex-manager/ladyfriend Vickie Guerrero inform him that he could choose only between being the first person in or the second person in. The Rumble starts with two people, so there's no difference. Dolph sits in an awkward spot in the WWE hierarchy right now — he's been on the precipice of a championship for some time, but I get the feeling WWE just isn't ready to let him run with the ball. Regardless, they'd prefer to let him be the Rumble iron man, so long as it doesn't interfere with anything else.
John Cena will win the Rumble: 5-to-2
Last year, Chris Jericho seemed like the favorite to win the Rumble, and WWE pulled Sheamus out of nowhere to get the win. It didn't affect the Mania card — Jericho still ended up wrestling the WWE champ, Punk — but that just goes to show that WWE can get the ending they want any number of ways. Just because Cena will insist that he needs this win to be in the WrestleMania main event, that doesn't make it so. But Cena's probably going to win, because, well, he's John Cena.
Over/Under — Number of times the announcers mention that Kane/Daniel Bryan/Cody Rhodes/Damien Sandow/Antonio Cesaro/The Miz are wrestling in their second match of the night: 18.5
The guys pulling double duty have almost no chance of winning the Rumble (I might get my smark card revoked for counting out Bryan, but come on), yet that won't stop announcer Michael Cole from reminding us that they're marathon men. Wild hyperbole — it's a Royal Rumble tradition!
Over/Under — Number of surprise entrants in the Rumble: 3.5
It's an annual tradition: How many washed-up stars of yesteryear or not-quite-washed-up stars that WWE has fired in recent years can be brought back to add drama to the proceedings? Already a couple of former WWEers have issued public denials about their involvement, leading most people to believe, naturally, that they're lying.
Over/Under — Number of other wrestlers' finishing moves John Cena will shrug off during the course of the Rumble: 5.5
In his (largely entertaining) cage match against Ziggler a couple weeks ago, Cena kicked out of five moves that would have felled the average wrestler, only to end up dispatching Dolph with one move. This is how Cena operates.
- 90-second intervals between Rumble entrants (-550) vs. random lengths of time between entrants that will be called 90 seconds (-20,000)
- Over/Under — Number of people it will take to eliminate Brodus Clay from the Rumble: 6.5
- A Brock Lesnar appearance (-350) vs. an Undertaker appearance (-400) vs. a Triple H appearance (-800)
- Everyone will be talking about Michael McGillicutty on Monday: not taking bets
- The Rock's arms are just too short to box with god (+150) vs. The Rock's arms are just too big to pass the WWE Wellness Policy (-500)
- This will be a good show (-500) vs. everyone will go home happy (+2,000)
I usually don't make predictions because WWE loves to give us swerves just to keep us guessing. But on some level, I'm with the casino: I fully expect The Rock and Cena to win on Sunday, but maybe I've just steeled myself for that likelihood so I won't be disappointed when it happens. But if I were a betting man, I'd bet on Punk, and I'd bet on the field.
Predestination takes some fun out of watching the product, even if we know the good guy's going to win in the end. Rock or Cena winning might be a fait accompli, but in pro wrestling we usually know where we're going, and the fun is in the journey. Which is why the longtime fans, the plugged-in fans — the meta fans — root for the villains. Sure, the bad guys are fun to root for, and being a great heel requires a lot more skill than being a hero. But rooting for the heel goes deeper than that. We root for the heel because we know the hero is going to win. If the villain wins, the inevitable is postponed, and the story becomes longer and — hopefully — better. We root for the villain in the name of complexity. Because it's more interesting that way.
In 1959, a reporter for the Washington Post and Times Herald went to one of Vincent J. McMahon's Capitol Wrestling shows to survey the crowd. "How do you get your kicks?" he asked one fan.
"Betting," he answered.
"On wrestling bouts?"
"Sure, maybe a dollar, maybe a fin among ourselves. I pick the villains, they give you more action."