Thoughts Upon WrestleMania 31

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WrestleMania 31, emanating last night from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, appears to have been widely embraced as a resounding success. The six-hour show – with a full four hours devoted to the show proper; and an additional two making up the pre-show, which featured two matches in its second hour – roundly surpassed the worried expectations many fans held for the event, after a decidedly below-par build beset by anger over the main-event involvement of Roman Reigns, and nominal interaction between some primary competing superstars. WrestleMania 31 became the highest grossing live event in WWE’s history, earning the company $12.6 million; and it set a new attendance record for Levi’s Stadium, gathering 76,976 fans.

As I suggested yesterday in my ambivalent preamble and predictions piece, despite the poor build, WrestleMania 31 actually possessed one of strongest cards in recent memory; and when it comes to the crunch, WWE is eminently capable of producing a captivating show in and out of the ring. The promotion rarely disappoints with WrestleMania. The fact that the period from the Royal Rumble at the end of January, until the show appears at the end of March or in early April, is dubbed the ‘Road to WrestleMania’; and the importance WWE places upon its central night of the year, conceived as a continuous coming-out party, which offers the company its fullest engagement with the mass media and a wider world of celebrity, and affords the greatest opportunity for enticing new or returning fans – all of this does not entirely excuse the frustrating nights fans have endured across recent pay-per-views, RAWs and SmackDowns. But WWE succeeded yesterday in putting on an exciting, sometimes startling, and ultimately well-told spectacle, that left the promotion in a strong position with regard to developing storylines and enhancing young talent.

WrestleMania 31 properly began with the seven-man ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship, which was expected to be one of the liveliest and most competitive bouts and didn’t disappoint; and it ended with an intense and high-impact main event, engrossing until the very last. There were, however, some notable missteps during the middle of the show, which prevent me from giving WrestleMania 31 the sort of rapturous reception I endowed WrestleMania XXX, a lower-key but more cohesive event, which challenged as one of the greatest of all WrestleManias.

Bryan Ziggler

It is worth noting that, southeast of San Francisco with the in-ring action commencing from 3 pm local time, this WrestleMania was bathed in sunlight. The stage and the setting looked fantastic, and the daylight made all of the superstars appear crisp and vibrant; but the sun does take something away from a number of wrestler’s entrances, most notably The Undertaker’s which loses some of its pungent mystique. The first match on the pre-show was the fatal 4-way for the Tag Team Championships, and this was lots of fun, with an abundance of double-team moves and blind tags; frequent European uppercuts; and Natalya putting El Torito in the sharpshooter before a dive to the outside from Naomi took out all of the competitors. Tyson Kidd and Cesaro retained their titles, with Cesaro stealing a pin on Big E after a splash from Jey Uso.

The André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal was up next; and my pick for a surprise victor, Curtis Axel, was the first man to be eliminated, as he Hulked-up in front of his competitors and was unanimously tossed from the ring. The crowd were heavily invested in Cesaro and Damien Mizdow through the course of this match. A repeat of his victory last year was never plausible once he had gained the pinfall victory in the match for the tag titles; but Cesaro impressed once again, hoisting Kane over the top rope before falling at the hands of Big Show. As useful as his teaming with Kidd is for the sake of the tag division, Cesaro is a remarkable talent who ought to be pushing for a spot in the main event.

After Ryback was also eliminated, we were left with Show, Mizdow, and The Miz. Mizdow finally came through with his much-teased turn on The Miz, presumably leading to the demise of their tag-team and a short-term feud; but he couldn’t quite manage to eliminate Big Show, whose victory effectively consigned this battle royal to the waste basket. It was risible to hear the commentary team present this as a career-defining moment for Show, on the basis that he shares with André exceptional height. His triumph merely indicated that this match was paid little mind, and not conceived as a useful vehicle for pushing any other superstar.

The ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship which opened the full show was an excellent encounter, all the better for foregoing an excess of high spots in favour of a fraught and physical battle for the gold. Dean Ambrose completed a jump from the ladder to the floor onto his host of opponents, before Luke Harper – who enjoyed spells of dominance, diving to the outside, and spinning a ladder above his head to clobber his various counterparts – put him out of action with a devastating powerbomb through a ladder to the outside. After a sequence of Bull Hammers left Wade Barrett to take a Running Knee, it was Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler who ascended beneath the title belt; and Bryan became the champion after gaining the upper hand through a series of tense blows and counter-blows, punches and headbutts.

The only flaw with this match and its successor, pitting Randy Orton against Seth Rollins in the culmination of their long-running feud, was that they could have been afforded more time. Orton vs. Rollins was another engaging match, which saw Orton take the pinfall after an innovative and perfectly executed counter transitioned an attempted Curb Stomp into an RKO. It seemed likely, at this point, that we hadn’t seen the last of Rollins as part of WrestleMania 31.

Sting

Sting vs. Triple H surely divided opinion more than any other match on the WrestleMania card, with some fans revelling in the nostalgia of the appearance of so many grand old men; while others lamented how these appearances distracted from Sting’s brief time in a WWE ring. The entrances of Sting and Triple H were entertaining – Sting’s was particularly artful, and they offered an interesting contrast reflective of two different personalities – although Triple H’s edged uncomfortably towards farce with its overt tie-in to the new Terminator film.

From my perspective, this match had one clear purpose: to give Sting a genuine WrestleMania moment. It failed to achieve this, amid all of the outside interference. When D-Generation X’s music hit and there emerged – not Shawn Michaels – but Billy Gunn, Road Dogg, and X-Pac, it felt like a travesty for a match of this magnitude. The sense that this amounted to jobs for the boys, rather than serving any sensible narrative purpose, was barely lifted when the nWo appeared to fight back on Sting’s behalf. Although Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall are some of the wrestling business’s preeminent names, this was revisionist history that marginalised Sting while regurgitating old issues that are scarcely relevant today. Things improved markedly when Shawn Michaels did arrive with a superkick; but it is difficult to fathom why, given the direction taken, Scott Hall could not fulfil the promise of a Razor’s Edge; and why Ric Flair, shown backstage in a subsequent segment, did not appear to fight WCW’s corner alongside his most famous in-ring collaborator.

Perhaps there were fears over the quality of the match Sting and Triple H were capable of putting on alone; but more likely, it is understandable if there was the concern that a slow-paced encounter here would clash with and detract from The Undertaker’s match still to come. Whatever, this was silly booking, with Triple H’s victory achieving nothing for either wrestler’s legacy or for the status of the show. Triple H patting Sting’s shoulder after the match bordered on brazen condescension.

PaigeAJ

There followed a backstage bit with our new Intercontinental Champion congratulated by Pat Patterson, Roddy Piper, Ricky Steamboat, Ric Flair, and Bret Hart. The women’s tag match featuring AJ Lee and Paige against The Bella Twins was solid, while allowing the four women insufficient time to really display their capabilities. AJ Lee achieved the victory for her team, making Nikki tap out via the Black Widow.

After the Sting vs. Triple H encounter, Rusev vs. John Cena was the only other match of the night which disappointed. With the most consistent build behind it, this bout for the United States Championship was steady enough but it lacked some of the expected physicality and never quite burst into life. The focus was upon submissions, with Cena repeatedly going for his STF and Rusev attempting to lock in the Accolade. But although he kicked out of the Attitude Adjustment last month at Fastlane, this time Rusev succumbed at the first turn after bumping into Lana on the ring apron. Evidently she is even sturdier or else much sharper than she looks.

It was difficult for WWE to refrain from giving Cena the victory here: and with Bryan as the Intercontinental Champion and Cena as the United States Champion, WWE moved into an encouraging position whether Rollins was to cash in and reign as a heel World Heavyweight Champion, or Lesnar was to retain his belt and continue to work part-time. But the conclusion to this match wasn’t only unsatisfactory owing to the manner of Rusev’s defeat. Rather, he needed to go over in order to be consolidated as a much-needed top-tier heel. Rusev has looked strong for large portions of this feud, and he continues to make great strides as an in-ring talent – but so much of John Cena’s career has been lacking in nuance, with the character repeatedly overcoming adversity in the manner of a comic book hero, that it is impossible to suddenly demand from the audience a nuanced appreciation of his opponent’s merits when they are faced with what is, if only on the surface, yet another instance of Cena winning out. It is hard too to see Rusev benefiting from any imminent split with Lana.

Rock Rousey

Though his appearances are hardly scarce, when The Rock does take to a WWE ring he always succeeds in surprising and electrifying the audience in attendance and those watching at home. And the segment which saw The Rock and Ronda Rousey face down Triple H and Stephanie McMahon – though perhaps a tad overlong, and with the odd microphone hiccup – provided WrestleMania 31 with a genuinely outstanding confrontation bringing together the realms of Hollywood, fighting, and wrestling, in scenes sure to be played and replayed time and again. As the fans chanted ‘Ronda’s gonna kill you’ towards Stephanie, Rousey’s interaction was exceedingly well judged – because it maintained a realism which would have been lost had she unnecessarily locked Stephanie in a more technical submission hold.

The Undertaker vs. Bray Wyatt was up next. Wyatt’s rhythmic entrance, as he steadily made his way to the ring bringing to life a horde of zombie-like scarecrows, complemented The Undertaker’s familiar slow march; and Wyatt’s facial expressions sold Taker’s entrance brilliantly, although the aesthetic contrast surely afforded the opportunity for a score of druids. The Undertaker showed his age last year; but this time round he looked muscular and energetic, naturally taking his time between spots, but moving with a lot of vigour in the ring. The match achieved its end effectively, presenting a carefully told story which resulted in The Undertaker returning to winning ways via a Tombstone Piledriver. On this showing The Undertaker will comfortably make it to the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas next year.

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The main event was remarkable both for its physicality and as sheer spectacle. With the fanbase fervently behind Brock Lesnar, he dominated from the outset, racking up suplex after bitching suplex on Reigns. After kicking out of a couple of F-5s, Reigns mounted a brief but vicious comeback: he had opened the match by opening a small cut below Brock’s left eye, and now he busted Lesnar wide open by throwing him face-first into the ringpost from outside the ring. Without meaning to detract at all from the intensity of both mens’ performances, or from the levels of punishment suffered, the blade work here was immaculate.

On the back of three Superman Punches and two spears, Lesnar restored the balance with yet another F-5. But with both men down and all but out, Seth Rollins – in possession of the Money in the Bank briefcase – ran to the ring and turned the match into a triple threat with the World Heavyweight Championship still at stake. Upon a Curb Stomp to a prone Lesnar, and then to Reigns after a third spear broke Lesnar’s attempted F-5, Rollins pinned Reigns and stole off with the title. It is his first WWE World Heavyweight title reign; and makes him the first product of NXT to attain the ultimate gold.

The decision in the title bout could have gone either way: to Lesnar or to Rollins. But perhaps this was the safest way of planning out the main event, given the WWE audience’s visceral response to Reigns from the close of the Royal Rumble, and Lesnar’s contract situation, settled only at the start of WrestleMania week. A victory for Rollins would have worked whatever the outcome of Lesnar’s contract negotiations, guaranteeing a big pop and an enthralling end to WrestleMania 31. It remains to be seen whether, as seems likely, Reigns will begin to feud with Rollins; or whether Lesnar will look to immediately recover his belt. And I’m not sure what to make of Reigns repeatedly grinning through the course of the beating he took in the ring last night. More than a glutton for punishment, this suggests a sadistic side to his character which could be used for a future heel turn. Whatever, the finale of WrestleMania 31 was expertly conceived, cast, and enacted, closing the show on a high, and offering a wealth of intriguing possibilities for the immediate future. Rollins is a rarity in today’s business, as a good-looking athlete with a highly individual style, who is uniformly praised for his wrestling ability, yet can still antagonise the audience as a legitimate heel. The WWE World Heavyweight Championship will suit him well, and he has the rough edge required to keep things exciting.