I look forward to Kevin Owens’ PPV matches more than anyone else in the company, and even on a bad night, he’s one of the all-around best performers WWE has. So I was trying to be optimistic going into his WrestleMania match, even knowing that he and Sami Zayn would be in against Shane McMahon. While I was hardly a fan of Shane taking prominent roles in three straight WrestleManias, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world; his match against AJ Styles last year was somehow the best on the show, and his Hell in a Cell blow-off (supposedly) against KO last October was even better. The story between the three of them is strong, and they even managed to up the stakes by putting Owens and Zayn’s careers on the line. But it still felt wrong, like the kind of match we didn’t really need to see. Then came the huge announcement that Daniel Bryan had been cleared to wrestle, and would likely be put into the match on Shane’s team. That made it all a little better, and while I hate to celebrate his misfortune, Shane getting hospitalized fordiverticulitis and a hernia made things look even more promising from a wrestling standpoint. Of course Shane got cleared, so it’s still not definite how much of his injury was legitimate or not. In his absence, Zayn and Owens turned on Bryan and tried to put him out of action too, so the build was going great. The match itself was pretty emblematic of the mixed nature of the angle, both good and bad at times, and never as great as it could have been.
Bryan came out to a massive crowd reaction, but that was the least surprising thing on the show. Zayn and Owens skipped out on their entrances to pop out from the ring and attack Shane and Bryan before the bell, laying the latter out with an apron powerbomb. That was where the trouble with the match started, since that move kept Daniel out of action for the first ten minutes of the fifteen minute run time. The crowd was pretty pissed at that point too, since this was supposed to be Bryan’s triumphant return, not Shane McMahon taking a beating from the heel team. Shane was selling his stomach the whole time, and he did look to be in some sort of pain, but definitely not as bad as we were made to believe. I didn’t remember any of this part of the match, so I had to rewatch it the other night; turns out there was just nothing especially memorable about it. Once Bryan did recover and make the hot tag, however, the Superdome lit up, and the match picked up a ton of heat. You would have a hard time telling he was away for two years by how smooth he was in the ring, and yet again he’s one of the most exciting wrestlers in the company at this point. In the last five minutes of the match, he held his own against both Owens and Zayn, and pulled out a number of his signature spots, with a top rope Frankensteiner standing out in particular. Finally, Bryan tied Sami up in the Yes Lock and forced him to tap, leaving the heels unemployed. It wasn’t a bad match, but if Bryan had been in the whole time, even as a handicap match, it would have been the best of the night, no question.
While it wasn’t ever going to deliver the rush that Charlotte vs. Asuka promised, I had been looking forward to Alexa Bliss vs. Nia Jax for the RAW women’s title regardless. Bliss has been one of the bright spots in either brand’s women’s division for the better part of two years, with fantastic mic work and the in-ring talent to back it up. She’s basically been the Miz of the women’s division, attracting legit heel heat while holding the belt for the better part of that time period. Jax has always been a convincing monster heel, and lately, even if she’s lost her prestige on the card, her character has developed a bit to make her better-rounded. That all said, this wasn’t going to be a classic match, even with the performers’ contrasting styles on full display. Instead, we got a ten-minute contest that was about all it needed to be, with both wrestlers getting in some good offense and demonstrating some decent chemistry. The title change didn’t pick up much of a reaction since fatigue was likely setting in for the crowd by this point, but Nia deserves a decent run with the championship.
I don’t think there was a more anticipated match at Mania than the WWE championship match between AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura. This has been building for well over a year, and has been teased multiple times since Shinsuke was called up to the main roster. When he won the Royal Rumble this year, it seemed like WWE had finally pulled the trigger on the surefire best possible match they could book. The build since then was fantastic, with teases but no outright confrontations, and there was interest way beyond what would be expected for a standard face-versus-face match. Everything was in place, with the biggest factor being that the two participants are among the best wrestlers in the world right now. Which is exactly why it felt like such a big letdown, despite being a perfectly fine match. The pace was definitely slower than anyone expected, but the crowd was totally vocal for the first chunk of the action, knowing how capable AJ and Shinsuke are. They traded strikes and a number of teased finishers, but everything stayed fairly equal as they went along. A little less than halfway through the match’s twenty-minute slot, however, the crowd started to die down, beginning to realize that this wasn’t going to be the nonstop action and drama they’d been anticipating for so long. The chemistry between the wrestlers was there, but it just looked like they were being held back somehow, which I’d like to blame on the rehearsal-intensive WWE layout style. And despite a lot of things failing to connect, they both looked great, with Shinsuke even kicking out of the Phenomenal Forearm and springboard 450 splash. Unfortunately, this is another match that really didn’t stick with me apart from a feeling of disappointment. After watching it a second time, I was still let down, but realized that it wasn’t bad by any stretch, just a very different experience from what we were expecting. AJ eventually won by countering a Kinshasa into a Styles Clash, which was a fine way to close this one out, but the post-match angle got as much heat as anything in the bout itself. Shinsuke and Styles looked to express mutual admiration, much like Charlotte and Asuka, but Nakamura hit a low blow and repeated knee strikes to Styles. The heel turn was definitely unexpected, and the crowd was totally mixed on how they should feel. Personally, it seems like a good move, as it should bring a more ruthless edge to Shinsuke’s character. Then again, he played a “no-speak-English” card in his promo (certainly scripted by a white man), so maybe he’s just a tired, offensive foreign heel now and that’s the end of it.
I almost don’t want to write about the RAW tag title match, but suppose I ought to say something. In the weeks leading up to it, there was a lot of talk that Braun Strowman would be alone in challenging Sheamus and Cesaro for their titles, which made sense in a half-baked jokey sort of way. There was also plenty of speculation that a returning wrestler would be his surprise partner. What we actually got was Braun pulling a kid out of the audience (who we later found out was a ref’s son) and putting him in the match. I stopped caring there, and really couldn’t tell you what exactly happened in the match apart from the joke team winning. Nicholas, the kid, looked terrified of having to do anything, but the whole match lasted less than five minutes anyway, so no worries there. This was a mess, just a stupid idea in the hopes of getting a little attention for a throwaway match right before the main event.
I made it pretty clear in the weeks leading up to Mania that I was looking very forward to Lesnar versus Reigns in the main event spot, and that continued up to the night of the show. The plan for Reigns to win the Universal Title had been in place for well over a year, so I had accepted it as inevitable far more willingly than most fans. On top of that, I’ve moved beyond constantly trashing Reigns and his endless do-no-wrong push, mainly because it isn’t worth the time and energy most fans expend on it. More than that, I’ve pretty much become a fan of the guy, enjoying nearly all of his main event matches in the last year or so, and it’s hard not to see how good he really is as a wrestler. One of his best matches in recent years was his previous World title match with Lesnar at WM31, so I came into this one with fully formed expectations. And even more appealing was the fact that Reigns had been scheduled to take down Brock, who I’ve made it clear I’m no great fan of. Even as he’s had some great matches over the years, his part-time schedule and ability to simply coast with the Universal Title for more than a year have been constant sources of frustration. And that’s just looking past his homophobia and general bad attitude.
I don’t think anyone, Reigns fan or not, could have predicted the sort of weird mess we actually ended up seeing at Mania, and its consequences are still fairly unclear. The crowd was so ready to hate the match that they started with “this is awful” and “CM Punk” chants before it even got underway; it was the weirdest sort of self-defeating animosity, the kind you’ll only find in wrestling. You can’t even claim it was fatigue from the runtime causing it, simply because they put so much energy into their vitriol. Unfortunately, the main event’s problems didn’t end with the crowd reaction since the whole match felt completely off. It was a typical Lesnar match, with him hitting multiple German suplexes and F-5’s in the first few minutes, all of which Reigns managed to absorb. They spilled out onto the floor by the announce tables, but instead of ratcheting up tension and teasing table spots, they just threw each other around and looked like they were on totally different pages. The majority of the match was Lesnar and Reigns trading big moves and kicking out of finishers, but there was no chemistry, and the entire flow just felt wrong. Near the end, after making it back in the ring and trading some more spears and F-5’s, Lesnar hit Reigns with some legit elbow strikes and busted him open bad. Even for me, it was a pretty shocking amount of blood, and it covered Roman’s face, the ring mat, and both men’s arms. Again, it seems so wildly stupid and irresponsible that tiny nicks from blading are banned, but potentially-concussion inducing strikes are the approved method for generating sympathy blood. And instead of capitalizing on that sympathetic tension, Reigns ate his sixth and final F-5 shortly afterward, ending the match totally against the plan. Even the anti-Roman legions were shocked by that, and word is the finish was changed the day of the show, so the surprise was legitimate. That change of plan seems to contradict the assumption that Brock is UFC-bound, as does his newly-signed (though allegedly short-term) contract, so everything is up in the air at this point.
That was a lot of wrestling for a single afternoon/evening, and it sure felt like it at the time it was playing live. But it was still a pretty damn enjoyable show, and in my opinion, totally worth the time spent watching. There were no huge surprises like last year’s Hardy Boyz return, and there were no all-time classic matches. At the same time, there were no meandering, throwaway segments catering to mainstream media coverage, or unbearable live music performances for the same purposes. There was plenty of weirdness, a few title changes, and some legitimate surprises on the booking front, so I doubt anyone will remember this Mania as a minor event. I’ve watched the last four shows live, and while 31 holds a special spot for me, this was definitely the best one since the 2015 incarnation, and at least the low points look to drive some interesting stories in the future. Some things are already even set into motion, with varying results.
The next major show is the so-called Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia, a PPV which has stirred up decidedly mixed reactions. First of all, nobody wants to see a fifty man rumble match that will last nearly two hours. That’s way too long, and way too many people in the ring, even if it does mean we should get to see some NXT talent make appearances. The biggest issue is the fact that there will be no women’s matches on the show, nor any of the female talent on the tour itself due to the cultural restrictions in place. For a company that constantly touts its role in breaking new ground for female wrestlers, they sure did sell them down the river for a hefty sum of cash from the Saudi government. Then again, it’s always been about the business, and progressive politics really have no place in wrestling unless you’re getting a soundbite out of them. It’s like we shouldn’t even be disappointed at this stage. Also, the Rusev vs. Undertaker casket match is either back on or not. I can’t keep track, but it seems like WWE haven’t made up their mind if Rusev or Jericho will take part in the match nobody asked for.
On the positive side, there are a number of matches that look to be pretty incredible on paper. Seth Rollins, Finn Balor, The Miz, and Samoa Joe are in a four-way ladder match for the Intercontinental Title, which should outdo Mania’s IC match and then some. Here’s hoping Joe is bound for a big win now that he’s back from injury. Also, even though I should know better, I’m looking forward to the Universal Title match between Lesnar and Reigns yet again, mainly because this one is a steel cage match. If this is the time for a title change, there’s no way they wouldn’t up the stakes as well as the brutality for such a publicized show. Also, it’s not really good news, but the RAW tag titles are up for grabs again after Strowman and Nicholas were forced to vacate them the night after Mania. That means that match was as much a waste of time as Nikki Bella & John Cena vs. The Miz and Maryse at last year’s WrestleMania. As much as I want to complain about that, and the Greatest Rumble itself, we all know that I’m gonna watch at least half of it and can’t really complain.