WrestleMania 33: Surprise of Surprises follow @bigvinvader
Color me completely, happily surprised at the general success of WrestleMania 33. Expectations were pretty low going in, with only a few matches seeming to have any promise, and little justification for the seven-hour runtime. Somehow things turned around in a big way, and this year’s show delivered on promises that nobody took seriously and even managed to pull off some legitimately shocking moments. Sure, the show was bloated with an overlong marriage proposal post-match, and an entirely unnecessary Pitbull mini-concert. And there is absolutely a case to be made that the first half of ‘Mania far exceeded the latter portion, with the final four matches in particular coming up short. But I’m not going to hold that against the show and performers, simply because when the PPV was good, it was very good.
Now, the card was overlong, and with thirteen matches from start-to-finish (including the pre-show), it’s easiest to just go over everything in a brief recap.
The Show of Shows
Up first on the preshow was the Cruiserweight Title match between Neville and Austin Aries. This one really belonged on the main show, and the build was great, with Aries making the seamless transition back from announcer to wrestler. There were a number of great spots, and the hard-hitting nature of most of the match made this one feel way more important than a preshow match. Even the crowd was won over, leaving this unquestionably one of the better matches in the revamped division’s history.
Next was the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, a very strange match. But more on that later.......
The first big surprise of the night came with the surprise announcement that the Intercontinental Championship match between Dean Ambrose and Baron Corbin had been moved to the preshow. The lack of stipulations made this one less than promising already, and its resignation to the preshow pretty much sucked the air out of everything. It was a pretty tepid brawl in the end, with little excitement on any end and a pretty dead crowd. In a strange move, Ambrose won and retained the belt, seeming to halt Corbin’s major push before ‘Mania had even begun.
It seemed an interesting choice to put the highly-unanticipated Shane McMahon-AJ Styles match up first, but it ended up being the right call. The best wrestler in the company and the boss’ daredevil son actually managed to deliver one hell of an exciting match, shutting up everyone who doubted the booking. Things looked up pretty much immediately, as Shane took the cocky Styles down and matched him hold-for-hold with pure wrestling. Yes, Shane McMahon actually delivered a good, technical wrestling match. On top of that revelation, we were treated to some spectacular high flying from both men, and a beautiful Coast to Coast with a trash can in AJ’s face. Sure, as good as it was, AJ could have had an even more amazing match with someone like Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, or even Finn Balor, but that’s all in the past now. This one absolutely shut my doubting mind up and was possibly WrestleMania’s best match in the end.
Up next was Chris Jericho versus Kevin Owens for the United States Championship, which was my most anticipated match of the evening. The story between the two former best friends was one of the best-booked of the year, and Owens’ assault on Jericho not only turned Chris face once again, but ensured that KO got the sort of flat-out heel reaction he needed to regain his edge. The match definitely delivered, with a fast, intense start, and several teased finishers and great back-and-forth action. There was natural heat stemming from the storyline, as well as Owens’ brutal trash talk (telling Jericho “You have no friends!”), and a great near-fall Owens managed to beat by placing one finger on the rope. KO put his former best friend away abruptly, ensuring a match on the next PPV, and sealing the deal on what would have been the best match on a lesser show. At this point, things were looking good, with two very good matches up first.
The RAW women’s four-way elimination promised a lot as well, and delivered on some of that anticipation. Charlotte, Sasha and Bayley, three of RAW’s best athletes, looked great in their offense, and told a great story in teaming up to eliminate the dominant Nia Jax first. That was the proper way to handle a monster heel, not Braun’s early elimination from the Battle Royal. What followed was a good match given too little time to stretch out, but still delivering some great moments, like a corkscrew moonsault from Charlotte onto the outside. Sasha got eliminated a little sooner than necessary, and while Charlotte took a strong lead over Bayley, she too got pinned, allowing the champ to retain her title. Another good match, even with the clipped length.
The RAW tag title match was next, and, as everyone knows by now, was the major talking point of the night. Rumors of the Hardys returning to WWE have been circulating for over a month, and the addition of a ladder stipulation left fans wondering if ‘Mania was the time for their debut. Even anticipating the return did nothing to prepare me for the moment Matt and Jeff walked down that long-ass entrance ramp, and the crowd pop was insane at that moment. This was the type of moment WWE continually strives for yet never manages to pull off. That they did so successfully, and managed to deliver what was a very good match on top of it, with all four teams (Hardys, Enzo & Cass, Gallows & Anderson, Sheamus & Cesaro) shining in their own ways, truly speaks to the quality of the show. The Broken Hardys gimmick has been one of the most entertaining things in pro wrestling since last summer, and the fact that it is hopefully on a WWE stage, with the returning team the new champions points to great things for the coming year.
I had mixed feelings going into the SmackDown mixed tag match pitting John Cena & Nikki Bella against the Miz & Maryse. After all, this kind of came at the cost of an Usos vs. American Alpha match for the actual SD belts. Plus, as good as the Miz and Maryse’s work has been lately, this feud was a one-note affair to lead up to Cena’s proposal to Nikki. So, the match was nothing special, but it completely met my low expectations, although I did learn just how over the Miz is when faced against John Cena. And as for the proposal, it’s great for them, it really is, but it went way too long on a wrestling show.
Triple H versus Seth Rollins has been building for over a year, way back to the days of the Authority, and specifically back to August, when Trips cost Seth the Universal Title. The knee injury angle cast some serious doubt as to Seth’s ability to perform, and really teased things out while setting up Triple H’s heel stable. There was little doubt that the match would be good, and it definitely was, despite its odd pacing and bloated length. The unsanctioned angle gave the two free reign to make this one as hard-hitting as possible, involving weapons and some great street fighting on the outside of the ring. Cut this one by seven to ten minutes and you could have had the match of the night. As it stands, it was a very good brawl rooted in each man’s great wrestling abilities. Also, Triple H bumping Stephanie through a table got the second biggest reaction of the night, following the Hardys’ return.
I’ve been interested by the Bray Wyatt-Randy Orton angle and feud, with Bray looking better than ever as World Champion, and Orton coming off as more interesting than he’s ever been in my opinion. There was a good build, with some appropriately-absurd storylines involved, but none of that mattered at the end of the day. Both Orton and Wyatt are talented wrestlers and are capable of delivering exciting matches. Unfortunately, this one proved to be the main show’s first real misstep, lasting barely ten minutes despite the company’s top title being fought over. Bray used some interesting mind games, projecting maggots, worms, and beetles onto the ring, which I thought was pretty interesting. Until Orton hit a surprise RKO and claimed his thirteenth World Title. The first match to significantly underperform as far as my expectations went.
In a complete reversal of expectations, I had no interest in Goldberg vs. Lesnar for the Universal Title. It was rumored to be a squash, just like Goldberg’s win over Kevin Owens last month, and the rumor that it would be the headliner with two part-timers involved didn’t help things. Despite all of that, the match, despite being no classic by any stretch, actually delivered some good action. The two traded finishers and power moves, before taking the fight to the outside, with a Goldberg spear absolutely demolishing the timekeeper’s area. At a shade under five minutes, this one went the perfect length without exposing either man’s weaknesses. Lesnar winning was the right call, especially with Goldberg riding off into the sunset now, and Brock even pulled of a great leapfrog over his opponent, reminding everyone of the sort of athletic feats he was—and clearly still is—capable of.
By this point it was nearly 11:00, so I expected the SmackDown Women’s Championship match to have been cut. Thankfully that wasn’t the case, though they were given just six minutes, concurrent entrances, and the death-spot on the card. Regardless, I was looking forward to this, especially since Alexa Bliss and Naomi are two of my favorite wrestlers in the division. What we got wasn’t great, and it really would be nice to see SmackDown’s women get the chance to shine on PPV that the Raw division have, but it seems like that’ll take a while to happen. Still, the pace was fast, and Naomi, Alexa, and Becky Lynch all put in some good ring work. Plus, having Naomi reclaim the title was the absolute right decision, and the crowd certainly seemed to agree.
Up last, the technical main event (and here I though Randy Orton was guaranteed a main even spot by winning the Royal Rumble), came Undertaker vs. Roman Reigns. This one is hard to write about, not simply because of the outcome, but mainly doing so in a way as to not bash Roman and not disrespect ‘Taker. Whether it was Reigns or John Cena or Finn Balor doing it, the fact remains that Undertaker was due to retire, and his mounting health issues were on clear display throughout the match. This naturally limited the in-ring work, not to say that either Reigns or ‘Taker have been known for their technical prowess. Still, it was hard to watch one of my favorite wrestlers (that would be Undertaker) plod through such a tepid match. It was mostly sloppy brawling, with some notable botches, and several spears from Reigns, the weakest-looking of which actually ended things. Even with Jim Ross back on commentary (and signed to WWE once again), this one just felt like an inevitability, not an exciting spectacle. And beyond the thunderous boos that followed Roman out, it really was tough to watch the Undertaker remove his hat, coat, and gloves and limp up the monstrous entrance ramp. A bitter finish to the show.
The Weird Stuff
Being WWE, and thus representing “sports entertainment,” there were naturally a number of bizarre moments throughout the show that deserve special mention here, at least in brief:
-The Andre the Giant Battle Royal—I held off discussing this one earlier just because it was so bizarre to watch unfold live. Braun Strowman, the clear and seemingly only favorite to win, got tossed out by everyone very early on. Jinder Mahal was one of the final three in the match, and ran to the outside to harass Rob Gronkowski, present ostensibly because he’s friends with Mojo Rawley, but really because WWE loves crossover exposure. Gronkowski ended up in the ring and helped Mojo win. Again, bizarre as hell to see play out, and totally unpredictable.
-Al Roker referring to himself as “Chocolate Thunder” as guest announcer of the Cena/Bella vs. Miz/Maryse tag match and doing very little else.
-Triple H’s long, elaborate entrance of the year, featuring himself and Stephanie on a motorcycle, guided down the entrance ramp by several police escorts. This looked like something a fifteen-year-old fan would have dreamed up, not a man nearing fifty and trying to look cool. Also, points off for this being pretty much the only special entrance all night.
-The enormously long entrance ramp, which was actually distracting in its sheer scale. So long was it, that they had to either cut to video packages as the wrestlers made their ways down, or send several out at once, as they did with the SmackDown women’s match.
Naturally, post-WrestleMania the course of the rest of the year starts to set itself into motion, particularly with the brand Shake-Up coming next week. Everything is made all the more exciting by the current state of the roster, with RAW and SmackDown following WrestleMania marking a number of major main roster debuts.
Moving up to RAW, finally, are The Revival, hands-down the absolute best tag team in the entire company, and one of my favorite things in wrestling at this time. It would be foolish for the company not to set a feud in motion between The Revival and the Hardys. The Revival kept their natural heel heat by attacking and beating the New Day in a hell of a debut, and their psychology and matwork heavy style would make an interesting contrast to the Hardys’ high flying, spot-heavy antics. Regardless, it’s a joy to see them on the main roster, finally giving the tag division a hope of putting on match-of-the-night caliber efforts if given the chance. Things are looking very strong for the RAW tag division, although SmackDown certainly would have benefitted from the presence of The Revival on their brand.
Returning on the same show was Finn Balor, who was sorely missed at WrestleMania, but will hopefully be inserted right back into the main event picture where he left off. Regardless, Finn is one of those guys like Sami Zayn (but given much better booking) who is incredibly over regardless of his position in the company. The company have faith in Balor, something that was made eminently clear last summer by just how quickly they were willing to push him to the top of the RAW brand. It will be interesting to see where things go with Brock Lesnar holding the Universal Title, particularly as he lost some momentum by losing so quickly to Goldberg prior to WrestleMania. Lesnar is a massive draw for crossover audiences and hardcore fans alike, so keeping him on top makes good business sense, but as a part timer who’s already rumored to be missing the next RAW PPV, some issues come up. Namely, if it wouldn’t be better to have a full-timer like Balor hold the championship. But tangled up with that one is the fact that WWE aren’t going to simply give just anyone a win over Lesnar because he is a legitimate hardass, and not just anyone could bring him down. There’s a good chance that Balor is the person to do that, but until the storyline emerges, and Brock actually appears on TV consistently, that remains to be seen.
Also back, finally, is Emma, with her original heel gimmick. Emma is a great allround performer, and this should be her opportunity to finally shine on the main roster after a number of false starts (Emmalina, anyone?) and a long hiatus due to injury. My hopes are that she will be considered a serious contender for the Women’s Championship, especially as the title needs some fresh challengers in the picture. Even if that program falls through, the idea of a Charlotte/Sasha/Bayley vs. Emma match in any capacity holds great promise.
On the SmackDown end, easily one of the most important debuts in years came with Shinsuke Nakamura’s long-overdue call-up. The fact that he appeared and instantly went over with the crowd proves that WWE were holding him back in developmental for far too long. His presence on the main roster, on the blue brand especially, signifies an entirely new era for the company, and I dare them to book him in any bad matches, simply because the man, at this point in time, is seemingly untouchable. The only problem I can see at this time, is the rumor—which seems as likely as that of the Hardys’ return at ‘Mania—that AJ Styles is going to be sent over to RAW, depriving us of an amazing, long-building match. The two have pulled of incredible matches in the past, and to have them on the same brand would be absolutely ideal, as it’s the type of rivalry that promises incredible matches and fan involvement, even without any titles on the line. If WWE really wanted to move towards a more Japanese style of wrestling, those are the two people to do it for them, and they could very well be squandering that opportunity, holding off the match until SummerSlam at least, and very possible next year’s Wrestlemania.
Also making his debut on Tuesday was crowd favorite Tye Dillinger, although his appearance was somewhat lesser to Shinsuke’s. From the matches of his that I’ve seen, Dillinger is very capable in the ring, but always seems to come up short as far as actually winning a bout. Even his crowd-pleasing appearance at the Royal Rumble only lasted a few minutes. So I have my doubts as to what he’ll actually achieve on the main roster, but I’m more than willing to be proven wrong. If things go well for him, he’s definitely the type of performer I could see getting inserted into the Intercontinental Title picture. Or, simply because he’s so well-liked by the crowd, he could start feuding with natural heel the Miz, although he proved to be pretty over himself at WrestleMania, so there’s no telling how that would actually go.
Until the brand Shake-Up actually occurs, however, so much of the year is up in the air. What does seem certain, however, is Samoa Joe and Kevin Owens joining in Triple H’s heel stable. Little as I may care for his in-ring persona and ego, there is no denying the fantastic work he’s done with the NXT developmental system. This stable would have two of the most imposing and impressive wrestlers on RAW acting as the unstoppable, ruthless forces they should be. On top of that, it would be an interesting opportunity to merge Triple H’s Authority heel figure with his benevolent NXT commissioner face persona.
Things look good, with the surprise success of the majority of WrestleMania 33 proving that WWE cans till pull of some legitimate surprises as they’re being doubted the most.
Big Vin Vader covers WWE for Pencilstorm. Follow @bigvinvader