With Extreme Rules coming later tonight, it’s about time (after four weeks, I know) that I reflected on this year’s WrestleMania, which did not have the most auspicious of beginnings. Last time out I said I was “hopeful that some exciting TV” would come out of the post-Rumble mess on the road to the Showcase of the Immortals. Alas, the build-up was fairly weak, despite all the potential being there.
Let’s ignore for now the main event set between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns — more a case of grudging inevitability than pulse-racing anticipation — and look at the rest of the card which, all things considered in this era, was fairly stacked. For the nostalgia kick, there was Sting versus Triple H, one of the few bouts to get a decent build before the show (perhaps because of the hook: WCW Legend takes on WWE Guy). Randy Orton against Seth Rollins best represented the contemporary product. The smart marks got the IC Title ladder match (Money in the Bank in everything but prize and name). Cena v Rusev filled the ‘big man’ requirement. Even the obligatory Divas match had some substance to it this year. The problem is that a lot of these match-ups and scenarios look fair enough on paper, and virtually write themselves. So the weekly shows seemed to hold back on the big sell, expecting — not necessarily wrongly — that you’ll be watching anyway, because it’s WrestleMania.
And the one match that suffered most from that, for me, was The Undertaker versus Bray Wyatt. Because when you see that written down, it’s not just the match you think about: there’s the weeks of creepy confrontations between the two, with Bray the master manipulator picking at the scab on Taker’s psyche after his aura-wounding, streak-ending loss to Brock Lesnar last year. But no, there wasn’t really any of that. Just a few random promos from Bray that pissed away the potential underlined by that first ‘look who’s in the casket’ surprise at Fastlane. No heavy emphasis on this being Taker’s comeback after that devastating loss 12 months ago until the understated pre-match video package. Not even any direct confrontations between the two until they were face-to-face in the ring at Levi’s Stadium, bathed in the daylight that sucked the necessary atmosphere out of their respective trademark entrances.
The match itself, as it happens, was very good for what it was. From the outset Taker busted out his signature old-school moves, the ropewalk and the apron legdrop, mixing it up with the later additions to his arsenal like the Snake Eyes and the Hell’s Gate. A proper hybrid of the biker and the Dead Man in action here, not just in appearance. And it gelled very well with Bray Wyatt’s sinister backwoods shaman shtick. Their ring psychology was spot-on, and they told a mesmerising story together. (And come on, that sit-up/spider-walk spot was perfect.) But the clash still lacked that depth of background — that sense of Taker redeeming himself after the streak — that would have taken it to another level and make what went down as it went down that much more resonant.
It’s the story in microcosm of WrestleMania 31 as a whole: very good for what it was. The matches fans forecast to be high-calibre were indeed that, but to a predictable degree. I hate to say it, but it would have been more interesting (in the Chinese proverbial sense) had the opening Tag Team Title four-way gone hopelessly wrong, Botchamania-style, rather than the smoothly done athletic ballet of the likes we’ve come to expect from Cesaro, Tyson Kidd and even Usos. Ditto the IC Title ladder match, which satisfied the smarks’ desire to see Daniel Bryan get his due, but added little if not nothing to the lineage of these bouts no matter how well it was done (and it was). The Divas tag match felt like part of a greater story arc rather than something thrown together for the sake of it but, as I’ve brought up here before, it also feels like a story we won’t really be privy to till whatever season of Total Divas is on six months from now. (Plus, AJ Lee didn’t really seem into it, for reasons we would learn within a week of the show as she announced her ‘retirement’.)
No WrestleMania moments there, so. But they were provided elsewhere. The cameraman who captured that shot of Cesaro rising up behind The Big Show in the pre-show battle royal deserved a bonus. Ronda Rousey got a photo op out of arm-barring Stephanie McMahon towards the end of a too-long promo spot between The Authority and The Rock that felt more appropriate for the following night’s Raw, rather than padding out what’s supposed to be the biggest wrestling show of the year (but yeah, maybe that’s my problem, wanting wrestling from WrestleMania).
That was the second appearance of the night for Triple H, who had his own moment a bit earlier in the show: while his match with Sting was never going to be something to write home about, his Terminator-themed entrance set a new standard that fluttered the needle between awesomeness and complete stupidity. Just the way to do it, really. But even that was surpassed by the intros for the Cena/Rusev US Title match, the closet WWE gets to satire in my book. Rusev, the dastardly foreign heel, got a super bad-ass entrance on a fucking tank while Cena the all-American hero was heralded by a pompous video package, with Ronald Reagan of all people, that was so overblown and ridiculous it can only be taken as parody (Cena’s sarcastic appearances on the talk show circuit in the days before only back that up for me).
In the ring, Rusev stepped up his game before the 77,000-strong crowd and carried the match, physically and psychologically. For a brawling, bruising Big Man, he’s got an inventive arsenal of moves to match his commanding presence, putting the multi-year veteran Cena to shame. For his part, Cena pulled out a few tricks from the end of his bag, yet he’s so sloppy and careless in his execution, and can’t sell a story to save his life, that it never adds up to much, and this time was no exception. The bookers may have put Cena over in this one and handed Rusev his first TV loss, but the Bulgarian Brute has a bright future ahead of him.
However, the best moments for me came both early on in the show, and close to the end, and both involved a certain Seth Rollins. The idea of his match with Randy Orton did not inspire me in the slightest, because Orton literally bores me to sleep, but they surprised me by waking me up in my chair with an exciting battle (no time for chinlocks, here) that culminated in The RKO That Shook The World, and that was all down to the former Tyler Black getting more air than Michael Jordan before Orton brought him crashing down. Now that was a WrestleMania moment.
But one wasn’t enough for him that night, as he interjected himself, wielding his Money in the Bank title shot, in the main event between part-time champ Brock Lesnar and the people’s scapegoat Roman Reigns. Or as it was swiftly subtitled: “Suplex city, bitch.”
Now have I expressed before how much I absolutely disdain wrestling fans’ over-the-top antipathy to Reigns as a contender? Sure, Reigns is green, and could have done with more seasoning before getting pushed into the spot he’s in. But since when is that new in wrestling? There’s no telling the IWC, though, with their absolute conviction that Reigns is the tool of The Man and must be vocally opposed at all costs. Yes, the same guy they loved last year when he was part of the Shield is now the enemy, and all because he had the temerity to do what was asked of him by the WWE’s creative powers, as if wrestling is a job or something. As if!
So we didn’t get the smarks’ wet dream match between Brock and Daniel Bryan, and a good job too because with Bryan’s recent health concerns, his career might literally have ended in front of everyone eyes that night. What we got was what we were promised, Brock versus Reigns, and the resulting match played to both of their strengths. Brock was the destroyer, uncompromising in his deliberate disassembly of the upstart challenger. And Reigns sold it like a man who knew he was in way over his head but was too far gone to back out. As the blows rained down, the suplexes and F5s thrown, Reigns started grinning and chuckling like a loon, punch-drunk from the assault and lacking the good sense to quit. Lesnar’s blade job, which in the heat of the match came across as a hardway cut, only added the the realism.
The two of them together put on one of the more memorable WrestleMania main events in recent years, and ultimately gave the fans what they wanted: the guy they rate decimating the guy they hate. Not that the smarks will see it that way, of course. They only marked out for Seth Rollins running in for the final countdown, cashing in his briefcase — and making it a triple threat match, as if that’s a thing that’s ever happened before — and running away with the championship like the chicken-shit heel he is. He, too, played his role perfectly, so he can’t be faulted. I wouldn’t have booked it that way, but the show ended with all the pieces more or less in the right place.
That was four weeks ago, and tonight I’ll be watching WWE for the first time since, not counting the post-Mania Raw (or NXT, but that’s in a parallel universe of its own), so to be honest I don’t know what moves they’ve made since. Pitting Rollins against Orton for the WWE Title in the main event, the only bout on the card I know without having to look it up, betrays their hopes that lightning will strike twice. I don’t have that same confidence, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise. In fact I hope I am.
- Grantland: The Gambler’s Guide to ‘WrestleMania 31’ and Why Fans Should Feel Good About Lesnar-Reigns
- Grantland: What We Learned From ‘WrestleMania 31’: Notes on an Event That Could Be Remembered As One of the Best in WWE History
- The AV Club reviews WrestleMania 31
- With Spandex: The Best And Worst Of WWE WrestleMania 31