Surprisingly strong title matches surround the Royal Rumbles

Brock Lesnar's first title defense since September highlights an unusually strong cast of supporting matches for the Royal Rumble this year. Courtesy @WWE

The centerpiece of every Royal Rumble pay-per-view is the eponymous match, and rightfully so. With over an hour invested in each match, the significance of the result and all of the WrestleMania-bound stories that develop make it hard for anything else to stand out.

With two Royal Rumble matches in the cards for 2018, that gap would seemingly double. In the past, the WWE often experimented with unusual title challengers (like Hardcore Holly challenging Brock Lesnar) or went with DQ finishes so as to keep a big moment from being overshadowed by the Royal Rumble match.

But that certainly doesn't seem to be the case in 2018, as the Royal Rumble features four title matches that will go just as far in defining the road to WrestleMania 34 as either of the Royal Rumble matches. Even with the two lengthy showcase matches likely bookending the proceedings, there's plenty of room in a four-hour broadcast for each contest to get ample time to tell their stories.

We'll break down the Royal Rumble matches individually later this week, but for now, we're digging into everything else on tap for Sunday night.

Triple threat for the Universal championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Braun Strowman vs. Kane

Brock Lesnar has not defended the WWE Universal championship since September. He has made a number of appearances and had one of the best matches of his career against AJ Styles, but by the time the bell rings for this match on Sunday, it will have been four full months without a single televised title defense.

That's an even bigger deal when you realize that, if Lesnar retains at the Royal Rumble, he'll almost certainly have just one more title defense (at most) until WrestleMania. With the exception of the one-off match against Styles, it has been all about four challengers: Braun Strowman, Roman Reigns, Samoa Joe and, most recently, Kane. The title seemed to be most in peril during the Fatal 4-Way at SummerSlam, which was another great match in and of itself, and a similar dynamic is in play at the Royal Rumble with both Strowman and Kane getting their shots in a triple threat.

The buildup to this match has been entertaining, largely highlighting the ridiculous adventures of Strowman. He has shown grappling hook skills, pushed over a truck cab in anger over being fired, and got the last laugh on Monday night by putting Lesnar through a table to end Raw's 25th anniversary show. But has all of this momentum only been a move to soften the blow of another title challenge gone awry?

With all apologies to the Kanenites out there, it basically breaks down into two schools of thought. The first possibility is that Lesnar wins this match, rolls through whatever challenge lies ahead at the Elimination Chamber and has his long-awaited date with Reigns and destiny in the main event in New Orleans. The other is that Strowman pins Kane and walks out of Philadelphia with the Universal championship in hand. He could revisit his rivalry with Reigns that frankly has a lot more juice in it for casual and hardcore fans alike, or the path could change at Elimination Chamber with any number of other outcomes.

No matter the outcome, this match will be an ugly, physical spectacle that could tell us a lot about the direction the men's Royal Rumble match could go in. For the record, if Lesnar wins earlier in the night, I don't think that even the goodwill from the Eagles' Super Bowl berth would keep Philadelphia from an intensely negative reaction should Reigns walk into town and win there a second time.

Handicap match for the WWE championship: AJ Styles (c) vs. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn

On paper, there doesn't seem to be a logical way for AJ Styles to successfully defend his WWE championship against two superstars of the caliber of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn in a triple threat match, let alone them working together toward a common goal of being "co-champions".

On the other hand, having the WWE's most historically prestigious title split between two people does not jell with decades of history and precedent.

So which end is going to give? It will all come down to how the cold war between SmackDown GM Daniel Bryan and Commissioner Shane McMahon finally explodes. As good as Styles, Owens and Zayn have been in the ring, as far as the WWE championship itself goes, this rivalry has been far more about the journey than the destination.

Though Styles seems like the overwhelming favorite to win this match one way or another, watching Zayn and Owens continue to jell and improve their on-screen act has been one of the highlights of the past few months of SmackDown Live. Zayn in particular, who was languishing on SmackDown, has come into his own as the smarmy, smirking bad guy who makes everyone want to punch him in the face. His matches with Styles have been a reminder of just how skilled an in-ring performer Zayn is in his own right, and a pair of pinfall victories in the center of the ring doesn't hurt, either.

Owens and Zayn seemed poised to carry on as nuisances for the foreseeable future, while Styles might have a new challenge to come once the Royal Rumble match is said and done. In order for their paths to diverge, something big has got to give, and it's almost certain to be beyond any of their control.

Two-out-of-three falls for the SmackDown tag team championships: The Usos (c) vs. Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable

When Chad Gable first gained momentum and popularity in NXT, it was thanks to his unbreakable will, genuine spirit and flashes of crazy athleticism in the ring. Though American Alpha never truly reached their potential once they made it to SmackDown, Gable continued to polish his in-ring repertoire while searching for the right way to truly break out.

A series of matches with Rusev certainly helped, but his partnership with Shelton Benjamin and turn toward his darker instincts has put Gable in a position to reach new heights. In fact, Gable's now channeling more of Kurt Angle's instincts and personality traits than Angle's "son" Jason Jordan. Since The Usos took control of the SmackDown tag team division they haven't had a lackluster opponent by any means, but against Gable and Benjamin and a two-out-of-three falls format, the Royal Rumble pay-per-view represents another opportunity to do something special.

As The Usos' popularity drives them from being pure "bad guys" toward something in the middle, Gable and Benjamin present the perfect kind of opponents transitioning in the other direction. The athletic abilities of all four men and their previously displayed desire to do whatever it takes to keep from being overshadowed sets up the SmackDown tag team title match as a potential dark horse, not to be overlooked.

Raw tag team championships: Seth Rollins & Jason Jordan (c) vs. The Bar

Regardless of the result, may this be the end of the multi-directional Shield vs. The Bar rivalry, at least for a little while. For the better part of the past year, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns and now Jason Jordan, by proxy, have been unable to escape the gravitational pull of Sheamus and Cesaro.

It has led to some incredible tag team matches, to be sure, but all good things must come to an end. With everything that has transpired over the past few weeks -- from Jordan cheating to help his team win, to Rollins bringing back the Blackout as a finisher, to Rollins accidentally nailing Jordan with a flying knee -- it's clear that whatever comes out of this match will most directly affect those two. As Jordan starts to roll with the increasingly hostile reaction he's getting from crowds, will he pull Rollins with him toward the dark side, or will whatever cuts the ties between them ultimately send Jordan spiraling?

That's not to dismiss what Sheamus and Cesaro have accomplished to date, either. Every time they've been overlooked as a team, they've seemingly gone out and reminded everyone just how good they are. With the Raw tag team division seemingly turning back in the right direction of late, there are a number of other great teams The Bar can square off with and make new history with.

But as WrestleMania season officially kicks off, it's time for a clean break.