Five possible Royal Rumble match winners

Sports Mole picks out five WWE superstars who are leading contenders to win the Royal Rumble match on Sunday and go on to headline WrestleMania.

WWE's road to WrestleMania truly does begin at the Royal Rumble and the 27th edition of the company's January PPV takes place at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania this Sunday.

Below, Sports Mole identifies the five most likely candidates to win the 30-man over-the-top-rope brawl and go on to main event Mania against the WWE World Heavyweight Champion.

1. CM Punk

What better place to start than with the first entrant? The Authority's Director of Operations Kane revealed on Monday night that CM Punk will have to prove why he calls himself 'The Best in the World' by outlasting 29 other men as the number-one participant. He was the undoubted frontrunner to win a month or so ago, but this announcement changes things.

It is, of course, not impossible to win from this position. Shawn Michaels did so in 1995, and Chris Benoit in 2004, while Vince McMahon and Rey Mysterio have both triumphed from the equally implausible number-two spot. But, for an achievement that seems so unlikely, this is now a fairytale storyline too frequently written for it to reappear this year.

This, combined with Punk's developing feud with The Authority, means that his odds of winning the battle royal have fallen in recent weeks. The New Age Outlaws leaving their position as his tag team partners to expose him to another beating from The Shield on the January 13 edition of RAW will prove to have Triple H's dirty fingerprints all over it.

Billy Gunn and Road Dogg's affiliation to The Chief Operating Officer of the WWE from their rule-breaking D-Generation X days means that he was likely behind the betrayal and his agenda against Punk will be explained heading into WrestleMania.

A Triple H versus Punk match has been touted for the April spectacle and that is where this angle is probably going, with a bout against Kane at The Elimination Chamber providing a stop gap along the road. Look for 'The Voice of the Voiceless' to be this year's marathon man but then be dumped out late on after some sort of distraction from The Authority.

Conclusion: Almost certain to get screwed out of victory.

2. Batista

The manner of his much-anticipated, but slightly underwhelming, return on RAW this week put 'The Animal' immediately back in the title hunt. After nearly four years away from the company, Batista came back and set his sights firmly on WWE World Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton.

While it is an unimaginative way to make your mark, it makes perfect sense. What other reason for returning could Batista give? The history between him and his former Evolution comrade puts him in a strong position to win the 30-man slugfest and go on to face Orton at Mania. While they have a long and checkered past, their rivalry is missing that one defining match on a big stage and this could be the opportunity to set that up. It is a fight that many want to see.

But would the WWE award the now-Hollywood actor the honour of a Royal Rumble victory so soon after he ended his hiatus from the business? It would be a decision that would certainly anger a large proportion of the workhorses and younger talent on the full-time roster.

Plus, the six-time world champion has already won a Rumble match - back in 2005 - and to put somebody who has often badmouthed the company in the illustrious category of multiple-time winners - Michaels, Hulk Hogan, John Cena and Stone Cold Steve Austin - would be a brave call.

Batista will no doubt have an impact in Pennsylvania this weekend and be placed in a highlight spot on the Mania card, but the WWE may feel that him winning this Sunday would be feeding 'The Animal' too much food too soon. Then again, their part-time stars sell PPVs and that is the bottom line.

Conclusion: A sensible pick, but one that won't be universally popular in the locker room.

3. Roman Reigns

The man that many see as the next Batista is on a roll heading into Pittsburgh. He is coming off the back of a push that started with a record-breaking performance at Survivor Series in November, and that has been enhanced by consecutive RAW victories over Punk, both which came in clean[ish] fashion.

His stock within the WWE is clearly very high and although all three members of The Shield have been tipped for future stardom, Roman Reigns is expected to be the breakout star of the dominant faction that also includes Seth Rollins and United States Champion Dean Ambrose.

While the teasing of their inevitable split has, in recent weeks, been less evident, the trio are still likely to disband before WrestleMania and a Rumble match famous for double-crossing and backstabbing is the perfect stage on which to accelerate what will be an ugly separation.

Only 14 months into his WWE career, is it too soon for Reigns? Probably. But the WWE have not shied away from making big decisions recently - unifying the belts and announcing the WWE Network to name a couple. With Punk and perhaps Batista heading for other opposition at The Grandest Stage of Them All, handing the Samoan-born powerhouse the Mania title shot is an option that is worth exploring. A face turn and the pursuit of a Shield-enforced Orton would make excellent viewing.

Should he not be the last man standing, look for Reigns to throw Punk over the top rope in the process of recording an elimination count which could reach double figures. Ambrose and Rollins are not likely to be among his victims, but tensions between 'The Hounds of Justice' will reach an all-time high on Sunday.

Conclusion: Believe the hype. He's more than a dark horse, he's a definite contender.

4. Daniel Bryan

The two-time WWE champion is scheduled to take on Bray Wyatt in singles competition on the PPV card, but his entrance into the Rumble match has not yet been confirmed.

Should he compete, Daniel Bryan should be considered a favourite. Fresh off his separation from the Wyatt family, the submission specialist is now a fully-fledged face again, and a popular one at that. But will the WWE risk throwing him back into the title picture following his discouraging run in 2013?

If his angle with Wyatt was going to culminate in a WrestleMania match, then Bryan's turn against 'The Eater of Worlds' would likely have come further down the line and so therefore it is likely that the latest twist in that saga has been brought forward to free him up for a fresh path to New Orleans.

That could mean another championship pursuit. If the WWE have as much faith as the fans do in 'The American Dragon', then he could win the Rumble, go onto Mania and recapture, and finally keep hold of, the WWE title that was suspiciously taken away from by The Authority twice last year.

With the Rumble likely to close the show, a good clue into Bryan's chances will come in the championship match that precedes it. Should Cena win over Orton, Bryan's odds improve further as there is unfinished business between the two following their solitary clash at SummerSlam 2013.

Conclusion: The people's choice, but will the WWE take the plunge on him again?

5. Chris Jericho

Chris Jericho is a dancer, a rockstar, an actor and a podcast extraordinaire, but primarily he is a great wrestler, and one that the WWE has often called upon for the road to WrestleMania in years past.

Y2J has Fozzy commitments in the coming months and has denied speculation that he could be poised for another comeback but, of course, that should not be taken for gospel. The cloak of surprise is one Jericho has frequently used for his returns, including his shock entrance in the number two-spot last year.

So if he makes an appearance, can he win it? Most definitely. Jericho proved in 2013, when he put over Fandango, that he can work a good programme with anybody, so both Cena and Orton would make suitable foes and a Royal Rumble victory is one of the few things missing from his stellar resume.

And with 'The Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Rolla' being the first ever Undisputed Champion, there is a natural storyline for the WWE to follow if he wins and takes on the holder of the recently-unified belts.

It isn't a probable scenario, but it is one that is just as likely as any superstar on the roster, other than the four mentioned above, pointing to the WrestleMania sign at the end of the night. Talented stars such as Cody Rhodes or Dolph Ziggler don't have the momentum to be credible contenders and those that do, such as Big E Langston, are too inexperienced to be considered. There are no such worries with Jericho.

Conclusion: Unlikely, but rule it out at your peril.

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