By: Jordan Ferguson
There are two ways to write about wrestling in 2015. On the one hand, you can do your straight-ahead rundowns of the card, play fantasy booker, make your predictions; you know, the fun stuff. The other option is to look at an event in the larger context of what it means for the state of the business, which often leads to a lot of overdramatic handwringing and pearl-clutching by people who, if we’re being honest, are barely qualified to comment upon it, present company included.
But we worry because we’re invested, because there’s always the unlikely but possible fear that the sport we love could disappear. One family, one man, has set the course of the industry for almost two decades. A man who took a regional promotion and built into a publicly traded global “sports-entertainment”[i] conglomerate. A man who thirty years ago years ago took the dream of a wrestling supercard and transformed it into the annual spectacle known as WrestleMania, the latest installment of which goes down this weekend.
I gotta be totally honest with you, friends: I really don’t know what to make of this one. WrestleMania is supposed to be special. It’s the “Showcase of the Immortals,” the epoch-defining event where the now and future legends of the business cement their legacies. It’s the night that sets the tone for the business going into the next twelve months. It’s our Superbowl, Oscars and Daytona 500, loaded into a cannon and shot into space from the back of a flaming Pegasus.
At least, it’s supposed to be.
Dress it up with all the usual trappings, but in the age of stockholders and the WWE Network, WrestleMania is just one more card packaged as part of your $9.99 subscription fee. Maybe that’s why the card feels so much more like a really solid episode of RAW than the show of shows. With very few exceptions, there’s nothing here that we haven’t already seen play out in some combination during the last six months.
The frustrating thing about the wrasslin’ business is the way it can simultaneously surprise you while feeling underwhelmingly predictable. Despite some frantic and impressive audible-calling by the creative team in the immediate aftermath of a terribly booked Royal Rumble[ii], Daniel Bryan still finds himself tumbled down the midcard and Roman Reigns is still in the main event. The Road to WrestleMania might take a few detours, but you still end up in the same spot. Which is exactly where Vince wanted it in the first place. At any rate, we’ve still got a show this weekend, so let’s look at what’s on offer.
AJ Lee & Paige vs The Bella Twins
I went back to check my Rumble column from January, and do you know what the Divas match on that card was? Paige and Natalya vs. The Bella Twins. Soooo, huzzah for consistency? The Divas Division has become damn near tragic in recent weeks, especially when their counterparts in NXT get better treatment and opportunity. The talent involved in this match is about the best we can get on the main roster, but I severely doubt they’ll get the time required to make anything noteworthy out of it. I really don’t have a stake in this one, but I think the Bellas are more interesting as winners, and as the faces of Total Divas, I’m sure creative feels the same way.
Should win: The Bellas
Will win: The Bellas
Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royale
Shop talk for a moment: When you are employed as a performer with the WWE, you are considered an independent contractor providing your services to the company. You get a guaranteed salary with ample opportunity for bonuses contingent on things like merchandise sales and appearances on Pay-per-view shows; the bigger the show, the bigger the payday. This is why matches like this exist. To their credit, the WWE will go out of their way to ensure they can give facetime to as many people as possible during WrestleMania. This is why there’s always some sort of eight-man tag, lumberjack match or battle royale to load with curtain jerkers and jobbers, it’s a way of doing a solid for the boys. So you can look forward to titans like Heath Slater and Fandango duking it out in this one.
When they brought this gimmick out last year, it seemed like it could take the place of the Money in the Bank ladder match[iii], especially after they booked Cesaro to win it, a guy beloved by “smart” fans who seemed destined for bigger things. Twelve months later and Cesaro’s one half of the tag champs wrestling on the pre-show, so don’t look for this to be a star-making affair.
That said, it’s safe to say the winner of this one is on the early roster of entrants listed on the ‘Mania website, and of those wrestlers, Damien Mizdow is the only one that could take a win like this and use it for something meaningful, like freeing himself from the “Miz’s stunt double” gimmick, sad as I’ll be to see it go. The other variable in this one is whether Seamus makes his long-rumoured return in this match. If he does, he’s probably a lock to win it.
Should win: Damien Mizdow
Will win: Damien Mizdow (barring Seamus).
Bad News Barrett (c) vs. Daniel Bryan, Dolph Ziggler, Stardust, R-Truth, Dean Ambrose, Luke Harper, Intercontinental Title Ladder Match
The clear front-runner for match of the night just on the strength of the talent involved, and the feud between them has made for good TV, but that list of opponents just saddens me. It’s like they have such an abundance of talent, including two overwhelming crowd favourites in Bryan and Ziggler, and just dumped them all in a match for a meaningless title. Never mind that they gave away the Bryan/Ziggler singles match many of us (including Ziggler) were hoping for on RAW last week. If Bryan’s not headed back to the World Title picture anytime soon, a feud with Ziggler for the IC belt would make for a great feud, but part of me feels like creative doesn’t think they’ve ever gotten their money’s worth with Barrett, so they’ll try to hit the reset button on him with this match.
Should win: Dolph Ziggler
Will win: Bad News Barrett
John Cena vs. Rusev, US Title Match
After a hot start following a pretty good match at the February’s Fastlane event, the build to this match has been in a holding pattern for the better part of three weeks. I would like to believe this is one of those moments where creative will surprise me and recognize not only that they have a monster heel simmering in Rusev, but that John Cena needs a third nipple stitched onto his elbow about as much as he needs the US Title. But I also know that it’s just not WrestleMania if the kids don’t get to cheer Cena roaring in victory, and it’s been a hard year for all the little Cenation members. Lana’s absence has been acutely felt in this feud, and hopefully she makes her presence felt during the match itself, I just hope it’s not the ‘costs him the match while trying to help him,’ bit.
Should win: Rusev
Will win: John Cena
Randy Orton vs. Seth Rollins
Is it happening? Is Randy Orton over as a face? Do I actually not mind it? Orton’s been a walking bathroom break to me for years, but just by keeping his mouth shut and rebelling against The Authority, he’s sidestepped into becoming a credible tweener who really hasn’t changed his tactics or attitude, just his targets. And Rollins is so legitimately hated by this point anyone he squares off with becomes a babyface by default. After having the shit summarily kicked out of him for the last month by Orton, plus a star-making turn in January’s Triple Threat title match with Cena and Lesnar, this could be the moment Rollins fully breaks through into that upper echelon, especially if he and his briefcase make his presence known in the main event.
Should win: Seth Rollins
Will win: Seth Rollins
Bray Wyatt vs. The Undertaker
If anyone can explain to me why this match exists, I’d be happy to hear it. Wyatt’s been drifting since the dissolution of his stable, apparently looking to become the “new face of fear” and capitalize on the Deadman’s moment of weakness following his surprise loss to Brock Lesnar last year. I’ll give them this, they’ve certainly nailed the air of mystery for this one by keeping Taker off of TV all year. We have no idea what kind of shape he’s in or even what he looks like. I’m one of those sorts who feels that if the streak was ever going to end[iv], he should have retired afterwards, but Taker’s old school, and if he thinks he’s got enough gas in the tank to make a new guy, he’ll do it, poetry be damned. And Wyatt, despite having rarely lost a match clean, still needs something to give him direction and start to elevate him to a main event heel. But I can’t see The Deadman laying down two years in a row, and with the streak off the table, there’s nothing lost if this one ends in a DQ.
Should win: Bray Wyatt
Will win: The Undertaker (via disqualification)
Sting vs. Triple H
The only match on the card with that “big show” feel. WrestleMania is supposed to bring moments, the things you never thought you’d ever see, and I don’t think anyone ever thought Sting would actively compete in a WWE ring. Really, the specifics of this match don’t even matter, as long as there’s a Stinger splash, a baseball bat and a Scorpion Death Drop or two, that’s all we can hope for. Trips always goes for broke when he steps back in the ring, and Stinger’s been keeping up despite being well over 50. Whether or not Sting sticks around or (more likely) ducks out until next year’s show to go after his often-mentioned dream match with The Undertaker remains to be seen, but look for this to be a deliberately paced match with a lot of psychology from two consummate pros who know how to tell a good story.
Should win: Sting
Will win: Sting
Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns
Did you really ever doubt we’d end up here? Seems like a lot of people thought that brief sidebar with Daniel Bryan in February would lead to something other than what Vince wanted in the first place. I was not one of them, I think Vince is too stubborn to think the crowd knows more than he does when it comes to a guy he’s high on, and Roman Reigns looks like he was made in a lab and saved in a folder marked “McMahon Wet Dreams.” Not only is he built, dude is pretty.[v] Adult males were never going to pick him over Daniel Bryan, and Vince is either ignorant of that fact or (more likely) doesn’t care.
Fortunately or unfortunately, Roman’s presence in the main event has become little more than an afterthought, as the real story over the last month became the murkiness of Brock Lesnar’s contract situation, flawlessly sold as always by Paul Heyman. Up to now, it was unclear if Lesnar was going to remain a pro wrestler or try one last run in the UFC, but the latter always seemed more likely. It wasn’t until he got on Sportscenter Tuesday night to announce his re-signing with the WWE that a million ‘Mania predictions posts got dragged to the laptop recycle bin.
To be brief: there’s no way Roman Reigns can beat Brock Lesnar. Forget about whether he’s ready for the main event as a performer, from a storyline perspective, there is no way in hell Roman Reigns beats Brock Lesnar. If the Undertaker couldn’t do it, if John Cena couldn’t do it, there’s no way Roman can do it. Unless he pulls out the old “pin him with a forklift” trick, not a chance. This was a problem when it seemed like his victory over a departing Lesnar was a foregone conclusion, a coronation from Mr. McMahon as his next great meaty hope, but one many of us were begrudgingly trying to look on the bright side of, usually in the form of a last minute briefcase cash-in by Rollins. This is now no longer the case, and it’s actually made the main event the most interesting match on the card.
What I would like: If Lesnar’s staying, you double down on making him an unstoppable beast. Forget this “Roman Reigns’s courageous struggle in the face of adversity.” Nah, son. Fuck that. Make Roman put up a fight, maybe sell that he’s hurt Lesnar (which is a repeat of the Rumble, sure, but we’re spitballing here) but he still gets F5’d to oblivion. Hell, I’d even have Rollins try to cash in after the match and fail. Why?
Do you remember in the boom times of WCW when the nWo was running roughshod over everyone in the company for a year, and you wondered to yourself who could reasonably stop them? That’s what they’ve got in Lesnar. Shit, can you imagine if they’d let Roman slow burn for a year, Goldberg-style, building an undefeated streak until he finally squared off against the unstoppable monster? I admit the business doesn’t really allow for that sort of long-term planning anymore, but I weep for what could have been.
As it stands, they head into ‘Mania with a guy no one really thinks is a contender, and their top draw locked down for the foreseeable future. I would like to think not even Vince is so stubborn that images of Roman Reigns’s beautiful face glowing as he holds the title aloft amidst flurries of confetti as the show fades to black is a better ending than the matching shit-eating grins of Paul Heyman and his client standing victorious amidst the lifeless pile of would-be challengers at their feet.
Should win: BRAAAAWWWK. LESNAAARRRR
Will win: Roman Reigns. I hope I’m wrong, but I just can’t give Vince the credit.
What will be interesting going forward regardless of who wins is whether or not Lesnar’s new contract entails an increase in appearances, but I’m thinking not. Which means despite the excitement he brings, they still have to figure out how to maintain interest without him week to week. The only way to do that is to build new talent, which is the same story we’re always telling. But what if (admittedly a big if) wins for Cena and Bryan coupled with a Lesnar win (and subsequent absence) elevate the US and IC titles into something worth fighting for? The lanes would be wide open for damn near anybody to get some time on the TV main event, from Ziggler and Cesaro to the NXT guys likely to come up in the next year like Hideo Itami, Finn Bealor and Adrian Neville.
An insane notion, but that’s where we’re at right now. Lesnar’s re-signing took a rote main event and blew it wide open. We really have no idea what’s going to happen on Sunday, and whether it’s a random RAW or the grandest stage of them all, isn’t that the entire reason we watch?
[ii] When the crowd boos The Rock, things have officially gone tits-up.
[iii] Which has since spun off into its own pay-per-view event for reasons I’m sure make sense to someone.
[iv] And in the year since I’ve stopped being such a mark about it and come to realize ending the streak was the best thing that could have happened to Lesnar as a character, even more than demolishing John Cena a few months later.
[v] Ever read the comments when the WWE posts a photo of Roman on their Instagram? Don’t. RAW, indeed.