Wrestling Christmas has finally been and gone.
Much like regular Christmas, following months of build up and excitement, after a few hours you were thankful it was done for another year. Time to… Take down the Wrestling Tree?
Wrestlemania 34 had fans reaching almost unheard of levels of uncynical hype before showtime. WWE had not only thrown together a fairly compelling card, but it was so stacked that people forgot that sitting still and watching anything for seven hours is fucking insufferable.
I know it’s a bit trite to continue lamenting the sheer volume of content WWE churns out these days, but it’s also hard to ignore. What’s more interesting to me is looking at whether or not the show’s runtime was the reason the latter part of it felt like a drag, or just part of a larger problem.
Indeed when hours one and two (OF SEVEN) were said and done, things were going pretty well. The men’s pre-show battle royal was crap, with a shrug-inducing Bray Wyatt assisted win for Matt Hardy, but the main card was so stuffed with quality midcard matches it was hard to muster a reaction to that. It really was the most disposable collection of people they’ve ever assembled for one of these.
The women’s battle royale fared much better, with some small-but-fun stories such the NXT representatives teaming up, the Riott Squad actually doing something, and of course the continuation of the Sasha Banks versus Bayley feud. Bayley finally got one up on ‘The Boss,’ eliminating her near the match’s conclusion, only to be immediately tossed by eventual winner Naomi. So Bayley got a flash of success but was quickly busted down a peg or two, meaning her problems with Sasha are sure to continue.
The final of the excellent tournament to crown a new Cruiserweight champion was good, with Cedric Alexander beating Mustafa Ali, but the disinterested crowd illustrated that people haven’t started taking 205 Live seriously, despite the show’s continued improvement recently.
Ignoring the ever-vapid analysis of Booker T and Paul Rosenberg, and airing the least appealing teaser for a film ever, the pre-show was a fine time.
As the real deal got underway, Wrestlemania 34 immediately began living up to the hype that preceded it.
Seth Rollins’ Intercontinental title win over The Miz and Finn Balor was a pitch perfect opener for a card like this. It was all action with very little downtime, but never veered into excess. Well, except for Seth’s ‘white walker’ entrance, which was the very definition of ‘extra.’ Is this a play on the fact he has a move called Kingslayer? Is he just a giant Game of Thrones nerd? OR! Was this an homage to the unforgettable period of time when his Shield stablemate Roman Reigns wore blue contacts for… Some reason?
The build up for this was as basic as it gets, as was the story of the match itself, but hey, it did its job. Everyone shined, the crowd loved it, and there was really no wrong result they could have gone with, so people were happy Seth got the win, and is now a GrandSlam winner… Whatever that is actually worth.
Match two was, to me, a dark horse to main event; Charlotte ending the undefeated streak of Asuka, to retain her Smackdown women’s title. A result like that is always going to raise a stink, to some degree. I really don’t know if there’s a perfect time to end a streak, especially in the modern, extremely reactionary era of wrestling, but I thought this was pretty damn great, as these things go.
While Asuka as been built up as an unstoppable killer for the last two years, I think it’s worth remembering that Charlotte has been building a legacy of her own. If you’ve been watching for the last few years you know this already, and if you haven’t they had a video package that basically told you; Charlotte will be remembered as the era-defining female of this generation. Given the strides the division made with her as the heavily protected ‘Ace,’ she will likely be remembered as one of the most important figures in the company, period — at least in their in-canon, company narratives.
If there was a person to lose to, and a time to do it, it was to the best protected star of the era, in one of the best women’s matches in company history.
And this really was that good. The entrances and circumstances leading to the match were suitably epic. Both women worked hard and had a gripping back and forth match with Charlotte, as she usually does, taking some huge risks to make sure the match lived up to the Wrestlemania expectations. The ending felt a bit abrupt, not to say a great match requires MOVEZ to be kicked out of at 2.999 (more on that later), but a few more near falls wouldn’t have gone astray here.
From here, things got very WWE.
As maligned as 75% of the match is, Randy Orton’s US title defence against Jinder Mahal, Bobby Roode and Rusev was a largely fine. It moved along briskly enough, and the crowd were having fun singing for Rusev. But that was their first mistake. Rusev was inexplicably added to this match a week beforehand, and it sure seems like that was done as a good old-fashioned FUCK YOU from WWE to fans getting behind a lowercard act who is not allowed to be over. Making matters funnier, the new champion is Jinder. So don’t fight me on my ‘fuck you’ theory.
This led to one of marquee matches on the card; the pro wrestling debut of Ronda Rousey, teaming with Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. Lets start with the positive; Ronda gave WWE their much adored ‘SportsCentre Moment!’ She looked great, albeit very choreographed, in her first match. It kinda came off like when WWE gets celebrities in to do cameos; a halfway house between Brock Lesnar and Hugh Jackman. Proving her commitment to be more than that, she did an awful lot of stuff in this, and looked confident and physically capable at every turn. But, as is often the case in WWE, the aforementioned volume lead to the negatives in this match. The first time Ronda took down Stephanie and teased the armbar, the philanthropist-cum-black belt BLOCKED IT! And she blocked it several times! Steph and Triple H were excellent in their roles as video game final bosses, but the level of back and forth between the women here was frankly shocking, and quintessentially McMahon. It was redeemed by Rousey getting tonnes of offence on Triple H, which the crowd lapped up, and she still came out of the match as a huge star. For all its weirdness and failings, including a depressing reminder of 2018 Kurt Angle’s physical state, this match felt like more than the sum of its parts.
After a forgettable five minute affair that saw The Bop-It Boys, Luke Harper and Erick Rowan, win the Smackdown tag team titles, John Cena’s music hit.
After ‘attending as a fan’ earlier in the night, resulting in some fantastically awkward reaction shots of Cena pounding some over priced beers in the front row, he was eventually alerted to Undertaker’s presence.
Before ‘Taker came out, Elias got his Wrestlemania moment, playing his way down the ramp and quickly being dispatched by Cena. Then out came the deadman — and he was certainly dead. It was mascara and horrid CGI lightning, not motorbikes and 2nd Amendment rights, unfortunately. In what should have been a sign that shenanigans were afoot, Undertaker was tearing around the ring in a manner he hasn’t done for about a decade. Sure enough, the match went under three minutes. I don’t know what to make of this, and I mean that in a bad way. I am completely stumped as to what I’m supposed to FEEL for John Cena. I was intrigued with the idea of this match simply not happening, and him yearning for redemption next year. A squash match was my distant second choice, and then when I got it, I realized I didn’t really want it at all. I’m not sure that I am rooting for Cena any more. I’m really not sure I want to see these two have a ‘real’ match next year. And who the fuck knows what Undertaker’s situation even is? The commentators said he was ‘back’ several times, but you know that means nothing. Was this an attempt at ‘redoing’ his retirement, with a less embarrassing match? Because this was hardly a great note to go out on either.
Undertaker has felt so thoroughly directionless and superfluous since his streak ended. Other than a good Summer program with Lesnar, he has felt very tacked-on to the modern WWE program – especially around Wrestlemania time. I don’t exactly consider this going out on a high, but I definitely wouldn’t be sad if this was the end.
Anyway, ENOUGH TALKING ABOUT PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT MCMAHONS!
Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan versus Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn might have been the more inexplicable McMahon-o-Mania match on this card, even keeping in mind Stephanie McMahon having a better ground game than Meisha Tate.
Bryan is returning from a bizarre two-year hiatus, due to forced retirement by WWE doctors. Naturally, his entrance produced an emotional reaction from the crowd. I genuinely felt the hair on the back of my neck go up when those first notes of his song hit. While I can understand the desire to milk Bryan’s perceived injured-state for heat, the opening minutes of this match were so mind numbingly wrong. Bryan is powerbombed on the apron and we get the massively over-done spot where he is tended to by EMTs at ringside. If they had actually stretchered him out, as they typically do in these instances, I might have stopped watching. Naturally, this left ‘The Real Shooter’ Shane McMahon to alternate between his hideous strikes and his wheezy selling for a few excruciating minutes. If not for the natural drama and intrigue of Bryan’s presence, this would have been one of the biggest stinkers on the card. Thankfully, Bryan won after a big fiery comeback, hitting his trademark corner dropkicks, and YES kicks to both opponents.
This is the point in the show where you might start to hear a lot of complaints that the crowd were getting ‘tired,’ and naturally it began to suffer. While the never-ending nature of the card undoubtedly hindered the heat in some capacity, I think the real issue is that the next four matches were simply not as compelling in terms of in-ring action or build.
The crowd were respectful but subdued for Nia Jax’ womens’ title victory over Alexa Bliss – the work was solid, especially given the unusual size disparity between the face and the heel, but there really wasn’t a sense of energy to the feud. Bliss is an excellent heel, and Jax’ delivered a superb go home promo on Raw, but I think most viewers felt the finish was a forgone conclusion given some of the comments Bliss made about Jax’ weight – which would have been death for the Jax character were she to lose.
The most divisive match on the card, in terms of whether or not the crowd heat was the cause of or caused by a middling match was Shinsuke Nakamura versus AJ Styles. Styles and Nakamura had a fine match that felt like it was building to something bigger down the line, especially given the post-match heel turn by Nakamura. The problem here is that this is Wrestlemania. It’s the semi-main event. It’s a much-anticipated ‘dream match,’ WWE’s words, and is following up a fondly remembered match from earlier in both men’s career. Doing a ‘solid’ match doesn’t really cut it. If this match was on Smackdown, it probably would have been one of the better matches on that show in a while. But the fans expected more; and they weren’t wrong to do so. Were they tired? Almost certainly. Is that the main reason they didn’t care about this match? No.
Proving this crowd still had a little gas in the tank was the infamous ‘buffer match’ before the main event; Braun Strowman, and a partner of his choosing, versus The Bar for the Raw tag titles. Braun picked a young man named Nicholas, who frankly doesn’t seem to have the height WWE typically goes for in a top star, and ostensibly won the belts on his own.
The crowd were WAY into the idea of Nicholas tagging in, so given the buffer match comes with no real standards for quality or crowd engagement, this was kind of a success.
On the other hand, what the fuck was this?
It’s really obvious they had no plans for Braun on this show, which is a real indictment of WWE given the year he had in 2017 and how some of the chosen main eventers flopped on this card. The level to which they’ve had him lean into comedy is also worrying. While he’s certainly able to do it, he’s a charismatic guy with a surprisingly good comedic delivery, it feels like his main event credibility diminishes by the week.
Finally, we come to the main event.
Brock Lesnar versus Roman Reigns, chapter two.
This match was a compounded of all the mistakes WWE has made in the last three or four years.
First of all, the crowd weren’t behind Roman. Surprise, surprise! He wasn’t as vehemently reviled as he has been at other Wrestlemanias, but he was not cheered. Brock was partly cheered, partly booed. When the match started; the mutual distaste for both men allowed the 70,000 fans to come together and agree they wanted no part of it. There was lots of silence, there was some decent but not thunderous chants of ‘this is awful’ and ‘CM Punk.’
There are several reasons for this failure. Obviously, Roman Reigns is still resented and viewed as the company guy. We can dissect whether or not that is justified, likewise his perception as a poor worker which I absolutely disagree with, but it doesn’t matter. A huge amount of fans resent him; that’s what matters. It seems that resentment has now grown to encompass Brock as well. In the lead-in to this match, WWE tried to leverage Brock’s part-time status and continuous flirtation with UFC to galvanize the audience into hating him and cheering WWE frontline solider Roman Reigns. Well, it seems they successfully turned a portion of the fans on Brock, but of course that second thing never came to fruition.
And the match itself? It was weird. Brock brought the same physical charisma he always does, and Roman was tremendous in his role. Firing up as blood GUSHED his head was a great visual and did make me feel a bit sympathetic, but it was too little too late. It’s hard take the ‘match was good but the crowd were just tired’ talking point seriously, when this match blew off two years of storytelling to almost total silence. Brock has been beating people with a single F5 almost (but not quite) as far back as the last Roman match. Even Strowman at the peak of his push last Summer was felled by one finisher from Brock. Roman took FIVE in this match. One was through a table. Every time he kicked out of one, the match bordered on comical. There wasn’t booing. There wasn’t a loud ‘FUCK YOU ROMAN’ sentiment. People just didn’t care.
Did WWE fly too close to the sun by drawing focus on Brock’s role in the company? Maybe. Considering a section of their audience complains that Roman is just a series of spears and superman punches, it’s kind of miraculous ‘suplex city’ stayed as over as it has for this long.
Whether it’s Wrestlemania or your local shindie, if you’re splitting your opponents head open with shoot elbows and getting no reaction, you and your booker have fucked up.
So, how does this compare to the pre-Mania hype cycle? Is this one of the best ever? Obviously not.
There was so much stuff on this show that it almost creeps into ‘good show!’ territory just by attrition. That’s why modern ‘Manias are so hard to rank compared to their earlier counterparts, or other shows from other promotions. They are so fucking long, which sucks, but also means more people are getting shots, there’s more variety, and less restrictions on time. So while this wasn’t one of the best or one of the worst Wrestlemanias ever, it was the absolute epitome of what a modern Wrestlemania is, in the best and worst ways.