Heading into the 2023 WWE Royal Rumble, there were two performers that fans wanted to see win the show’s namesake match: Cody Rhodes and Sami Zayn.

On paper, the duo couldn’t be any more different, as Rhodes is a second-generation star who built up enough goodwill to help launch WWE’s first true competitor in 20 years and then returned to The Fed as a main event-caliber star, whereas Zayn is the son of Syrian refugees who worked a decade on the indies before slowly working his way up the WWE ladder to become arguably the most over star in the company. Post-WrestleMania 38, Rhodes was the dude; he had the look – the exact same one he used in AEW – he was booked like a star in a feud with one of RAW‘s top guys, and the crowd loved seeing a WWE OG who left the company return at the main event level, especially since it meant sticking it to Tony Khan in the process.

Surely Rhodes had everything going for him, but in a cruel twist of fate, he was hit with the one-two punch of tearing his pec in the lead-up to a match with Seth Rollins and then working a certified five-star classic against “The Visionary” that left fans wanting more only to be unable to get it due to a surgery with six months of recovery time.

In Rhodes’ absence, WWE fans turned their attention and affection to Zayn, who seemingly couldn’t walk to the ring without it getting him even more over. They loved his enthusiasm, his genuine reactions, and every impromptu line he said off the cuff turned into a signature catchphrase, with Ucey, a word he presumably made up on the spot, now all but certainly set to be etched on his grave some 50 years down the line. Fans loved it when Zayn was named “The Honorary Uce,” loved his tag team act with Solo Sikoa, and jumped for joy when Jey finally accepted him after helping to win WarGames for The Bloodline at Survivor Series.

So naturally, with The Rock unwilling/able to return at the Royal Rumble and/or WrestleMania 39, fans started to wonder which route WWE would head down for the main event. Would they go traditional and give the belt to “The American Nightmare” and hope that his hype stuck around after a six-month siesta? Or would they turn to Zayn, who admitted before the show that he would love to wrestle Roman at WrestleMania 39 and that he felt he could be the face of the company if afforded an opportunity?

Well, considering Zayn wasn’t even entered into the Rumble, that answer became clear rather quickly, as Rhodes entered at 30, bested the field, and is now headed for a main event spot at WrestleMania 39. Zayn, by contrast, saw his night end laid out on the mat next to Owens, as his attempt to save KO from a chair shot resulted in his spot in The Bloodline being revoked. Was this how WWE planned it, with a payoff to Zayn’s story coming at Survivor Series and the start of Rhodes’ coming shortly thereafter at WrestleMania, or did Triple H just accidentally walk into another Daniel Bryan-Batista situation where the fans want one champion and the company wants to push another?

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Did WWE book deja vu for Sami Zayn and Cody Rhodes?

In 2014, fans really wanted Daniel Bryan to challenge Randy Orton for the WWE Champion. An indie darling who came up in Ring of Honor, Bryan was loved by fans for his charisma, for his underdog mentality, and for his ability to kick butt in the ring regardless of whether he was booked against a bigger or smaller opponent.

Unfortunately, there was a problem: Batista returned to WWE after spending a few years in Hollywood – Guardians of the Galaxy, you ever heard of it? – and Vince McMahon wanted to give him the rub at WrestleMania XXX in a match against Orton. Though it’s impossible to know how much thought was given into each performer’s booking heading into the Rumble, when Batista won the event, it left more than a few fans wondering why the company refused to give the fans what they wanted.

In that situation, however, the company found a creative solution to their problem, as Bryan entered into a feud with Triple H that saw the “American Dragon” win himself a spot in the main event of WrestleMania XXX; a match he eventually won over Batista and Orton despite having worked another match against Trips earlier in the night and having seemingly everything else working against him. The Yes movement was validated, the fans cheered for joy, and WWE got a signature moment even if they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to get there.

Can WWE come up with a similar compromise to keep the hype at an all-time high for both Rhodes and Zayn? Can the company keep two babyfaces – three if you count Jey Uso – who are all feuding with the same foe over and pay off each of their storylines in a creatively fulfilling way? Or will one or more of the performers see their enthusiasm halted by creative’s decision-making likely spurned on by The Rock opting out of the show? Fortunately, fans will find out soon enough.