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NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 23: John Cena enters the ring at the WWE SummerSlam 2015 at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on August 23, 2015 in New York City. (JP Yim/Getty Images)

By James Stewart, Wrestling Inside The Ropes

The road to WrestleMania truly begins with the Royal Rumble.

And this year, with the Rumble held at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, is no different. This year is certainly full of questions, too, with WWE champion Brock Lesnar entering the men’s rumble at No. 1 and with numerous friendships (and old rivalries) at play in the the 30-woman Rumble.

Here’s my five superstars to watch closely in this year’s 30-man (and 30-woman) Rumble in Houston…

Samoa Joe was recently on The Corey Graves Podcast and said how glowing Vince McMahon was to him about his recent stint as a color commenter on Monday Night Raw. If that’s true and McMahon now gets Samoa Joe, look out WWE roster. In my opinion, Samoa Joe, for years, has had all of the tool to be a great, long-term WWE Champion. In every territory Joe has worked he’s emerged as a top star for that promotion. Joe is a great in ring talent and can talk fans into the building with the microphone. I could see Joe getting a feature moment in the Rumble match, be it eliminating Brock Lesnar, eliminating the most participants in the match, having the longest told time in the match or even winning the Royal Rumble match earning him a championship match at WrestleMania.

Shifting gears towards the the 30-woman Royal Rumble, Boston’s own Sasha Banks has been a big money, big match competitor since she made her debut on the WWE’s main roster. Sasha is a proven draw in her career in WWE, she’s battled injuries but has always been someone that fans have invested in.

Banks’ real life wrestling best friend, Bayley, is the current Smackdown Women’s champion with Banks, in the background by her side, a distinct difference from most of their on camera time. Many fans, myself included, have watched the Banks vs Bayley program in NXT and have waited for both to collide in a main roster, WrestleMania-headlining program. A Sasha Banks Royal Rumble win would be a nice route for us to get to a Bayley against Banks storyline during WrestleMania season. Banks could tease that she’s going to go after Becky Lynch on Raw so that both Banks and Bayley could be champions on Raw and Smackdown, respectively. And Banks and Lynch do have history and had a fabulous match back at WWE’s Hell in a Cell event in October. The Banks turn on Bayley could come as Banks has been quietly jealous of the attention that Bayley has received as Smackdown top woman. Again, a very simple story.

Banks would then go on to beat Bayley at WrestleMania in Tampa and finally having her WrestleMania moment that her fans have been waiting for since Snoop Dogg sang her to the ring at WrestleMania 32 in Dallas.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – OCTOBER 11: WWE champion Brock Lesnar (L) speaks during a WWE news conference as his advocate Paul Heyman looks on at T-Mobile Arena on October 11, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Brock Lesnar, meanwhile, enters the Royal Rumble match as not only the WWE Champion but also as the No. 1 entrant in the match.

Can Lesnar go over an hour and win the Royal Rumble match? Of course he can and it wouldn’t shock me if he did. Brock being in the Rumble match shows that the WWE really wasn’t sure what to do for a one-on-one match with The Beast Incarnate so they gave him one hell of a story. If Brock wins the Rumble, a scenario could play out that Brock challenges the WWE Universal Champion from Smackdown at WrestleMania in Tampa and in doing so creates a champion vs. champion, winner-take-all match, with (at the moment) “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt.

Lesnar vs The Fiend was a match I expected to see at Survivor Series, but the WWE didn’t showcase those two, and having them battle at WrestleMania might be the reason why. It’s a match that no one would be able to call.

If Brock Lesnar doesn’t win the Rumble match, who eliminated Brock? That answer would lead to who’s Brock’s next challenger for the WWE Championship either at WrestleMania or the WWE’s next trip to Saudi Arabia in February. The reigning and defending WWE Champion could become the fifth man to enter the Rumble match at the No. 1 or 2 spot and win it all.

Anyway you look at it, love Brock or hate Brock — and I love Brock — Brock Lesnar is a must-watch in the Rumble.

And it wouldn’t be WrestleMania without Charlotte Flair being the in Women’s Championship title picture, either on the RAW or Smackdown side. Charlotte is my pick to win the Royal Rumble match on Sunday night and go on to challenge whoever the Smackdown’s champion will be at the time. Of course, there’s a story to be told with Becky and Charlotte, and I’ve loved that story since both made their main roster debuts a few months before WrestleMania 32.

I suggest the Smackdown side of the WWE roster because she lost the championship to Bayley and in the bigger picture of things, Charlotte was going to be a main focus of the Fox show until the cluster of the WWE Draft a few months ago. Charlotte winning the Royal Rumble match is the easiest way to get her back on to her main event path and put her in a featured championship match at this year’s WrestleMania in Tampa.

(If you want a totally off the grid idea, Sasha Banks can win the Women’s Royal Rumble match and later in the night, Charlotte Flair becomes the fifth female to enter the male’s match and have her win it.)

But the number one superstar to watch for in the Royal Rumble match is always the mystery entrant. And full disclosure, I’d like to see John Cena be a surprise entrant and win the Royal Rumble match this year in Houston.

John Cena and James Stewart. (Photo courtesy of James Stewart.)

The John Cena Story and his chase for his record-breaking 17th reign as the WWE World Champion is the easiest story that the WWE can tell right now to get the most eyes on their product on the road to WrestleMania. If Cena were a surprise entrant in the Rumble and won, it would be the second time in his career he would check off both boxes, as Cena entered the Rumble match at No. 30 as a mystery entrant and won the match by eliminating Triple H in 2008.

The fun thing about the Rumble are the empty spots, as WWE will usually announce less than 30 participants for its annual 30-man competition. And part of the fun is guessing who is going to show up that no one saw coming; Cena, as mentioned, Cain Velasquez, Edge, Sting, Goldberg and The Undertaker are among those who could make a surprise appearance.

At the end of the day, WWE is likely going to go with something easy as the winner of the Rumble matches, be it Roman Reigns, Drew McIntyre, or Shayna Baszler. Those aren’t the wrong winners for the more global WWE audience, but I’d like to see WWE put a little bit more deeper thought into their WrestleMania storytelling season.

Listen to Wrestling Inside The Ropes for the latest coverage of the 2020 Royal Rumble in Houston.