The Long, Worthwhile Road of WrestleMania follow @Bigvinvader
WrestleMania was, as always, a mixed bag. I went into the show fairly excited, with Asuka vs. Charlotte and AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura my picks for matches of the weekend; both ended up disappointing in some regard. Other matches lived up to their marginal potential (looking at the tag title matches), and the Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns main event was just total dead weight despite its promise of action. And it was an exhausting, seven hour slog counting the pre-show, so the final part of the card was just a blur. That said, however, I had a blast watching the show, and even when the quality was lagging, something about the spectacle of the whole thing had me on board. There’s a joy in giving over an entire Sunday to the biggest wrestling event of the year and letting yourself become immersed in the experience. It’s the kind of exhaustion that you deserve after choosing to spend an entire day on your ass watching nothing but a single wrestling show. After all, nobody has to stay put for the entire seven-hour stretch, but I know more people who do than give up halfway.
Top to bottom, 5:00 PM to midnight, there were fourteen matches planned for the show, since just about everyone expected the Undertaker to answer John Cena’s challenge. That said, I was incredibly into the idea of John getting stiffed and just sitting in the crowd to watch the action. WWE humored me for a while, and some of the most entertaining moments of the whole evening were the cutaways to Cena sitting in the front row, sipping beer and mingling with fans. Even better were the mid-match shots of him nodding, impressed, and giving thumbs-up to the action in the ring. It was great, and on another level, it was Cena watching and admiring the undercard workhorses who never get the spotlight; he was seeing pre-show matches he would probably never view in any other circumstance. But all of the fun was ruined a few matches in when a ref came out to whisper in John’s ear, and off he went backstage.
The dual Battle Royals were put on the pre-show, which was about the wisest move they could have made, after dropping the Fabulous Moolah’s name from the women’s bout. There isn’t really much to say about either, although it was very nice to see some representation of NXT’s women’s division in the latter match. They also deserve some praise for their surprise choices of winners. Matt Hardy won the men’s match over Baron Corbin, and when it looked like Bayley had the women’s match on lock after turning on Sasha Banks, Naomi snuck in and snagged the victory. Nothing too exciting as far as overall action, and given how little has happened to last year’s winner, Mojo Rawley, it remains to be seen if there’s anything to come based on the results. Also, the women's trophy was clearly shaped like the female reproductive system, complete with uterus and ovaries. Can't believe I haven't seen anyone mention that.
In between the Battle Royals was the final tournament match to decide the new Cruiserweight champion, following Enzo Amore’s ouster from the company. Cedric Alexander was one of the strongest participants in the Cruiserweight Classic, and he’s been a highlight of the division ever since having the match of that tournament against Kota Ibushi. Mustafa Ali has been a quieter part of the roster since the initial event, but has been putting in some impressive showings. It made perfect sense that these two would make it to the finals (although I wouldn’t have minded Drew Gulak going further), just as it was hardly surprising that their match ended up on the pre-show. Despite that, they had a pretty captive audience, and the crowd actually reacted to everything, which made it come off better than last year’s Neville vs. Austin Aries match, even if it wasn’t quite on the same level wrestling-wise. All told, it was a very enjoyable twelve minutes, and both wrestlers looked great, easily outshining the other pre-show matches. Ali busted out his great inverted 450 Splash, but Alexander rightfully got the title with a Lumbar Check. It isn’t an all-time classic, but it was definitely the right match to get me into the spirit of the show and move things along.
Pretty much everything about the lead-off Intercontinental Title three-way between The Miz, Finn Balor and Seth Rollins was great. It was one of the matches that seemed like a sure shot in the weeks leading up to Mania, even if its build was somewhat quieter than the other title matches. It goes without saying at this point just how great Rollins and Balor are in the ring, and there’s no denying how over they are with the fans. Plus, The Miz has rarely faltered since he first came into the IC belt picture after WM 32, and his terrific heel work has helped restore that title to prominence. Also of note was Balor’s pro-LGBTQ entrance, a stance which doesn’t smack of the usual WWE cynicism simply because there’s no doubt that Finn is totally genuine. From there on, there was nonstop action for the entire match, and the crowd was completely hot for the opener. The pacing was perfect, and these three have great chemistry in the ring, making sure everything went smoothly and looked perfect. The Miz kept the Miztourage out on his own accord, which proved that he can work a match and hold the crowd just as well when he isn’t a blatant heel. At fifteen minutes, it was the perfect length, and I can’t think of a better choice to open up the show. Rollins won his first Intercontinental title after pinning The Miz, becoming a Triple Crown Champion in the process. Personally, I was hoping for a Balor win since he’s been title-deficient since forfeiting the Universal Championship, but I was fine with any of the three winning. In hindsight, this was one of the best matches of the night.
I was honestly looking forward to the SmackDown Women’s title match between Charlotte and Asuka just as much as AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, which is why it was confusing to see it come so early on the show after the IC match. Ever since Asuka (deservedly) won the Women’s Royal Rumble, it seemed more or less certain that she would go on to challenge Charlotte as they are two of the company’s best all-around performers, let alone in the women’s division. Plus, there was everything at stake since Asuka was putting her undefeated streak on the line for the title. Everything about it spelled out a classic. The match definitely delivered on its promise, and both wrestlers were fantastic, showing some good chemistry and maintaining an equal footing. They had just shy of fifteen minutes to work, which was about the perfect amount of time, although I wouldn’t have minded it going a bit longer. Asuka’s in-ring game is nearly flawless, definitely one of the best in the company, and she really seemed to shine here since she was paired with somebody nearly at her own level. Charlotte always manages to step her game up at WrestleMania, and she pulled out a number of brand new moves that were especially impressive. There was plenty of high flying, and the right balance of strikes and mat-based work to keep the crowd on edge with them. This was probably my pick for match of the night, and everything came off so well that the finish was all the more disheartening. After almost no work on Asuka’s legs, Charlotte got her to tap out almost instantly to the first Figure Eight she managed to lock on. Not exactly how I wanted to see the streak end (if it had to at all), and even worse was Asuka announcing that Charlotte was indeed ready for her. Good god. Still, a very good match I enjoyed all the way through. Also, this was the first time we saw the horrible 3D-projected graphics they insisted on using throughout the show. In this case, Asuka’s entrance featured giant 3D Kabuki masks hovering above the ramp.
The US Title match was up next, which in hindsight should have been the first warning that they were front-loading the card. This one looked to be nothing special, just a solid title match with the ever-reliable Bobby Roode and Randy Orton, as well as Jinder Mahal for some reason. There was a lot of excitement at Rusev being added at the last minute, and he’s arguably the most popular wrestler on the roster at the moment, despite floundering with no notable wins in some time. The possibility of his victory was really what appealed in this match, but instead we got two disappointments back to back. The match went less than ten minutes, which was smart, and it had some good exchanges between all four competitors, with some decent near falls and finisher spots. It didn’t overstay its welcome, which is even better given the fact that Mahal actually pinned Rusev after another run-in spot from Sunil Singh. Nobody was ready for that, and nobody can really claim that it’s how it should have ended. Even discouraged as I was by this point, I was still having a great time with the show overall.
From the moment Ronda Rousey appeared at the Royal Rumble and signed with WWE, I had a bad feeling about her role at WrestleMania. It only got worse as the news broke that they were planning a mixed tag match pitting Rousey and the Rock (ultimately Kurt Angle) against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. That just smacked of the worst sort of McMahon family egotism, and it wasn’t hard to picture the Helmsley/McMahon dynasty putting themselves in the main event spotlight. Not to mention the fact that Rousey had yet to be tested in a wrestling match and Angle hasn’t exactly inspired confidence in his most recent outings for the company. Luckily it wasn’t the main event, but came fourth. Still, I carried that predisposition to hate the match with me Sunday night, and it definitely colored my first impression. It wasn’t a great start to see another absurd entrance from Triple H, with him and Steph riding in on motorcycles like he did the previous year. Things started slow with Triple H and Angle wrestling for the first few minutes, and it was fine. Regardless of their ages and whatever shape they may be in, they both know what they’re doing more than most of the roster, and it was more than capable action. The real problem is that they aren’t the people I want to see wrestling at this point. Steph was getting in all sorts of cheap shots on Rousey, as you would expect, and it continued even after she’s in the ring. Despite WWE’s weird mixed tag rules, there was a fair amount of interaction between each member of the two teams, and everything spilled to the outside before long. It seemed kind of like a mess at this point, with everyone running around after one another and very little actually happening in the ring. Still, even I got excited through the final few minutes, which had some insane spots and teased finishers. The crowd was wild the whole time, and it was hard not to get caught up in it as Rousey and Angle blocked stereo Pedigrees, before Ronda locked Steph in an armbar to pick up the win.
I feel weird about this match, and my thoughts now are totally at odds with my first impression as it played out. It was definitely too long, lasting over twenty minutes, but there were no dead spots in the crowd’s reaction at any point. I honestly hated this while it was happening, with the opening between Angle and HHH standing as the worst thing on the card so far. Even the faster-paced wrestling and big spots that came later didn’t do much for me since I had made up my mind to hate this match before it even started. Then, after watching the finishing sequence, and seeing the match wrap up, I had a total change of heart. Really, in just a few minutes’ time I thought back and realized that it actually was a pretty damn great match, one of the best on the show so far. Everything was laid out perfectly, and despite having four performers with various limitations in the match, it actually went off without a hitch. This was a great way to introduce Rousey, and she looked way more natural wrestling than anyone could have predicted. It still remains to be seen what role she’ll actually have on the main roster, but this was beyond promising and gives us all something to look forward to.
Neither brand’s tag title matches seemed worth getting too excited over, not because of the wrestlers involved, but because Mania is rarely the place for classic tag contests to take place. True to form, the SmackDown match was just over five minutes long, and ended abruptly with a victory for the Bludgeon Brothers. Terrible name aside, I’m totally happy with that result, as Luke Harper still stands as the most underrated wrestler on the main roster, and seeing him with any sort of championship is encouraging. Even if the match was short, it delivered some good action, which is hardly surprising given the years of chemistry between the Usos and the New Day, and Harper and Rowan are a great team of deceptively agile bruisers. Even if Mania wasn’t the place, it would be great to see these teams have a shot at a match with a more substantial runtime to show off what they really can do.
After all the fun I had watching John Cena act like a total dork and cheer on the show from the sidelines, it was time for him to get in the ring. They got this one off to a false start by having Elias come out to greet Cena instead of the Undertaker. That was a smart move: Elias can drum up some great natural heat, and any appearance from him is good for a reaction, plus he had no other spot on the show. After Cena dispatched him quickly, however, we got more of those horrendous 3D graphics, this time in the form of crappy-looking lightning bolts zapping the ring, where we saw ‘Taker’s coat and hat from last year. After they disappeared magically, ‘Taker came running out and brawled with Cena before taking him out with a Tombstone in under three minutes. That was not the classic pairing they’ve been teasing for years, but it was a really fun, fresh way to handle the situation. Undertaker looked and moved so much better than he did at last year’s Mania, which was encouraging, and Cena laid down and took a convincing loss as he should have. My dream angle coming out of this is Cena blaming his being unprepared and drunk on the loss and the feud evolving from there. That seems unlikely since Rusev vs. ‘Taker in a casket match is booked for the next major show (or maybe it’s Jericho vs. ‘Taker). Regardless, this was a fun little diversion.
There was no intermission on the show, although there certainly should have been one. I’m going to take mine here.
Part Two coming soon. Follow @bigvinvader on Twitter