Oh, don’t give me that look. There’s a hundred other TV journos recapping Game of Thrones. I spent my Sunday engaged in my annual tradition, watching WrestleMania. Their venue? The New Orleans SuperDome. My venue? A chain bar/restaurant that was showing it, because Pay-Per-View is expensive and also I didn’t feel like cooking. Which one? Never you mind which one. Suffice it to say, nocturnal Strigiformes and cheeky double entendres are involved.
That’s not to say that I’m only hijacking my own column for a sports-entertainment recap because I felt like professionally justifying one or more of my tragic manchild vices (although, come to think of it… I guess that’s literally my entire schtick. Huh.) Apart from being an annual event, this year’s WrestleMania (number 30, if you’re keeping track) is positioning itself as a legitimate game changer for televised events. It is the biggest test yet for WWE Network, the titular company’s newest venture – a subscription service offering access to all Pay-Per-View events and also a streaming backlog of matches from the institution’s archives (and the archives of the various institutions it’s managed to absorb over the years) which some believe could be the next big thing in an evolving broadcast landscape already rocked by Netflix and the Cable Renaissance.
Since WWE can only hold so many PPV events a year, it’s that aforementioned back-catalogue streaming that’s been the big fan-marketing push thus far, meaning that nostalgia is the company’s main brand at the moment. Thus, this ‘Mania leaned heavy on cross-generational callbacks starting with the presence of Hulk Hogan as the event’s host. The event started with a pre-event 4-way Tag Team Championship match between current champs The Usos, Los Matadores, Curtis Axel/Daniel Ryback and The Real Americans, but my broadcast skipped that part. The Usos kept their title.
Hogan comes out to “Real American,” takes the mic and does what he does best these days: Make an alternately endearing and awkward spectacle of himself to give a nostalgic charge to Gen-X wrestling fans. You can’t say he doesn’t still have it, he’s in good shape as older pros go and it helps that his persona was always more than a little cartoonish. The catchphrase laden braggadocio has evolved to call-repeat pop-gospel, delivered with a knowing “Heh. This still works on you guys, huh?” humblebrag smirk; which makes it (mostly) okay when The Hulkster stumbles over the event’s actual number and location in his monologue.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin, often seen as Hogan’s successor as “the” WWE star of the 90s (Hogan spent most of that era working in the now-defunct WCW), makes an unannounced entrance. Neither of these guys are in shape to fight, but for the assembled crowd it’s enough for them to stand face-to-face and spit their catchphrases. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (the next big star post-Austin) joins them soon after. Pure crowd-service, nothing more – they’re here to provide a “3 Generations” pose-off to be the money shot of every WWE montage from now until the end of time, and it works. It’s also nicely illustrative of the peaks and valleys of the sport’s identity: Hogan’s cartoon/superhero mugging still works, ditto The Rock’s smirking self-caricature spin on the same. But Austin’s annoyed/dismissive blue-collar brute persona, so refreshing in its day? Weightless. If his beer can salute gag didn’t make for a good capper to the bit, he’d have no purpose for showing up at all.
Match I: Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H
WrestleMania is built on stories, and this is Act I, Scene I of this year’s. The feud between heel Triple-H (aka “Hunter Hearst Helmsley,” semi-retired former champ, current chairman of the company and husband to “heiress” Stephanie McMahon) and babyface Bryan has been running about 8 months. It’s possibly the most “meta” setup the company has ever engaged in. The gimmick: Since the start of the broadcast era of the sport, fans (well, the “smarts” in on the joke anyway) have lamented the script being written to push bigger, more colorful/sellable performers over technically-skilled hardworking audience favorites (think the late Chris Benoit.) Bryan’s storyline is an “in universe” version on that theme – he’s the “rightful” champion, but Hunter and Stephanie’s mustache-twirling authority figures keep interfering with his matches because they’d rather have more marketable icons like Randy Orton (the current World Heavyweight Champ) or the returned David Batista in the top spot.
There’s no title on the line here. Rather, the winner gets to join a three-way fight for World Heavyweight in the main event. Bryan wins, obviously (this isn’t the kind of wrestling story that ends well for the villains), but it’s an interesting setup. Guys with Bryan’s build usually get pushed as speed/stunt performers and Triple-H was always best in street-fight mode, but they both play strategic technical grapplers. With lots of reversals, the well sold and pre-fab “people’s champion” Bryan routine has the crowd absolutely buying it. Bryan wins, but Hunter and Stephanie gang up on him and injure his shoulder. Oh no! How can he win the Title back now??
Match II: The Shield vs. “Corporate” Kane & The New-Age Outlaws
And now to resolve (sort of) a B-story to the Bryan/Authority feud. The tactical-gear aficionados The Shield (short version: Seal Team Six, but for wrestling) disobeyed the bosses orders to interfere with various matches. Now they have to fight the “corporate sellout” version of Kane and the New Age Outlaws, 90s icons on a nostalgia-trip tour of duty. Short match (it’s already being suggested that the first match went long), largely uneventful. Shield wins, showing off their signature coordinated powerbombs.
Match III: Andre the Giant memorial battle royale
Thirty guys, mostly consistent peformers who didn’t otherwise have gigs for the night, all fighting at once until last man standing (over the top rope = out) for a huge statue/trophy of the late great legend, Andre the Giant. Pure, ridiculous spectacle (set up as the “brainchild” of Hogan, which I kind of doubt) with little rhyme or reason, but fun in the way these things tend to be. Mid-match highlight easily Kofi Kingston staying “in” when he lands with his feet touching the ring steps.
The “surprise” victor is Antonio Cesaro, after improbably managing to deadlift and dispatch the 450lbs Paul “Big Show” Wight (the supposed favorite) in a manner that just-so-happened to recall Hogan’s legendary defeat of Andre WrestleMania III. What a coinkydink!
Cesaro sells it, though, and it’s been a long time coming – the guy’s a real talent who’s struggled to find traction or a solid angle of his own. This, plus the non-event of the earlier Tag bout almost certainly means the beginning of the end for his association with The Real Americans, whose bad-guy gimmick (a gang of anti-immigrant xenophobes inspired by the Minutemen) never fully took off. He’ll probably be turning on teammate Jack Swagger and manager Zeb Colter on Monday’s RAW.
Match IV: John Cena vs Bray Wyatt
And now, the customary (if tiresome) feeding of a love-to-hate new heel to Cena, whose appeal I’ve never really understood. Don’t tell anyone from Massachusetts I said that…
The angle is good, at least. The Wyatt Family are a backwoods apocalyptic cult that seem to be inspired by Rob Zombie movies, though now they look eerily predictive of True Detective. Their leader Bray is fixated on tearing down Cena’s All-American Golden Boy stature because… he’s evil, basically. The important thing is that Bray is a great performer (his taunt, twisting into a Linda Blair “spider-walk” pose, is unnerving as hell) and staging Cena as square-jawed Boy Scout against cartoonish evil almost makes him interesting.
To my happy surprise, this turns out to be a “narrative-driven match,” which we see too few of these days. Said narrative: Wyatt tries to tempt Cena into fighting dirty and thus becoming “like him.” It’s preposterously silly in execution, but it’s my kind of cheese: Cena is a terrible actor, and his version of “moral anguish” as whether or not to brain Wyatt with steel steps is a riot. At the climax, Wyatt hands him a chair and drops to his knees Emperor Palpatine “Strike me down with all your hatred!”-style, but Cena goes for the clean win – this won’t be the evening’s obligatory “sad ending.”
That came next.
Match V: The Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar
Lesnar wins. Undertaker’s streak of 21 consecutive WrestleMania victories ends, and his professional career probably ends with it. The audience is shocked into absolute silence, both at the venue and where I’m watching from. People stand slowly, jaws hanging open, eyes bugged out, hands clasped to their temples. As ‘Taker staggers to his feet and slowly walks out of the ring, grown men are sobbing openly (seriously, two guys got up and left the bar!) No, nobody thinks these fights are real, but age and mortality are and for Wrestling fans this guy is living history taking his last walk. For a minute there, this is all real. Too real.
Nostalgia and big wins for fan favorites (Bryan beating Triple-H, Cesaro hoisting Big Show) have been the order of the night (even Cena’s bout was billed as “Preserving The Legacy”) and this is meant to be the “All is lost!!!” moment. Sorry kids: Spot is too old and can’t play fetch anymore. Mom and Dad are “getting up there,” The Streak ends at the hands of a despised part-timer and you’ll get old and die yourself one day. Bummer. Man, if only there was some kind of guaranteed good-conquers-evil climax in the offing to turn all this depression into catharsis, huh?
The match? Solid but unremarkable. Lesnar is a part-time also-ran with the physique of a He-Man figure and the personality to match, while ‘Taker is an aging icon finally showing real signs of slowing down. Everyone knew that going in. But this will be the moment fans remember this ‘Mania for. It’s something of a tradition for true-legend wrestlers to lose their final matches, and everyone knew Undertaker was heading toward retirement… but nobody actually thought it’d be Lesnar to do it. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe this much hatred from the fans can fill the void in Lesnar’s act where a personality should be.
Match VI: Divas Championship Invitational
Alternate title: “Awww, there, there champ. I know it’s sad, but it’ll get better. You wanna get an ice cream? You want Mister Bear? You want a dozen or so half-dressed pretty girls rolling around grunting and clawing at each other for a few minutes?”[/i]
Storywise, the bit in play here has felt to me like yet another “meta” angle – an opposite-inverse/gender-flip of the Daniel Bryan story. Corporate honcho Vickie Guerrero throwing disobedient Divas Champ A.J. Lee to the rest of the stable battle royale style. The “meta” part is playing off the ever present (though occasionally more perceived-by-fans than real) tension between female stars who can “really” wrestle versus those assumed to be little more than models doing rasslin’ pantomime between Maxim shoots. A.J. is the nominal heel caricature of the later type in as much as she’s just a little bit smaller and more “girly” (skipping to the ring, batting eyelashes at the cameras) than most of the other (relatively) more “Amazonian” Divas.
A.J. keeps the title. It’s a so-so match, which is a shame because there are some solid athletes among the Divas (I’d include A.J.) but WWE doesn’t seem to want them to do anything but promote their tie-in reality show. Oh, well. It’s main event time…
Main Event: Daniel Bryan vs. Batista vs. Randy Orton Triple-Threat Championship
Ends how everyone knew it would: Bryan wins, The Authority humiliated, the crowd (drooling for the company’s blood after Undertaker’s defeat) electrified, and the is stage set for some new wrinkle to emerge on Monday’s RAW. It’s the details that matter, and they’re pretty satisfying. Batista and Orton are both interesting performers in that they’re both bruisers but also unusually subtle actors in-character. Both are better at selling a moment by glowering at the camera than projecting to the bleachers. Bryan is a pep-rally emcee who can work a submission hold. It’s a fun set of contrasts.
The setpiece moment, of course, is an “injured” Bryan ripping his way off of a medical team’s stretcher to rush back into the ring and throttle his opponents for the win. And I love old school wrestling nonsense-logic like Triple-H and Stephanie yanking the referee out and shoving an “evil” crooked ref in to replace him. There was even a (brief) reality-break: Orton very clearly sustained an extremely real back injury after being Batista Bombed directly onto a monitor on the announcer’s table, but finished the match.
And… that was that. At least, until Monday night on RAW, where we’ll presumably find out who gets to become Wrestling fandom’s new most favorite person ever for throttling Brock Lesnar. Or will they set him against Kane, who’s character is technically still supposed to be The Undertaker’s evil, hellfire-powered half-brother? Time will tell as to whether or not this was the mega-push WWE Network needed, but the best they could’ve hoped for was a memorable show – and they certainly delivered that.