WrestleMania 33 In Review: The Deadman Becomes Immortal

WrestleMania 33 was a show of two halves, front-loaded with work rate, punctuated by a preposterous slice of pseudo-reality TV, and with an ending that felt gratuitously melancholic more than triumphant, fond, or hard-won, even if it did mark the final brief chapter in the twenty-six-and-a-half year career of arguably the greatest and most beloved WWE superstar of all time.

The hot opener is a staple of the wrestling business, but beyond WWE’s penchant for variety – especially when it comes to WrestleMania – the idea is still usually to leave the best until last. In fact this iteration of the company’s premiere event stuck to a fairly rigid hierarchy – aside from the placing of the SmackDown Women’s Championship ‘six-pack’ challenge, which ousted the Cruiserweight and Intercontinental title matches and the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal for a place on the main show – and the match of the night proved the first on the card.

But all in all, even amid the inevitable disappointments, the bathos and the descents into the idiotically absurd, this WrestleMania rarely dragged – quite a feat for a show that ran to little over five hours. The quality of the wrestling and one big surprise across the first flurry of matches sustained the rest of the event when it started to flag, only one match fell flat entirely, and if the ending felt subdued it was certainly still memorable, providing a fitting sendoff as the Deadman became truly immortal.

That ignores for the most part the pre-show, but ahead of such a long event, with much of the crowd still filtering into Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, the pre-show was destined to feel utterly ignorable. Despite a couple of brutal head bumps and Austin Aries landing a top-rope hurricanrana followed by a 450, Neville ruthlessly capitalised on Aries’ injured eye socket to snatch the evening’s first victory. In the process he retained his Cruiserweight Championship, but the quality of the match was diminished by the audience’s lack of focus. Neville and Aries are tremendous talents and the two biggest draws in the nascent Cruiserweight division, and could have been usefully highlighted up on the main show.

The Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal was more of a cluster than usual, with some peculiar names among the final contestants after the early eliminations of Big Show and Braun Strowman. Jinder Mahal, Killian Dain, and Mojo Rawley were the final three, with Mahal leaving the ring to get in the face of Rawley’s apparent friend, the New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. After some hesitation courtesy of an overzealous member of security, Gronkowski tackled Mahal to help Rawley win the battle royal, a setup that seemed devised for the benefit of ESPN rather than any of the in-ring talents. The final match on the pre-show saw Dean Ambrose retain his Intercontinental title against Baron Corbin, in a throwaway that encapsulated the air of aimlessness around the whole pre-show endeavour.

The New Day are underrated wrestlers, who beyond the jokes have always told a compelling story as a trio when up in the ring against genuine challengers. But without a feud or the tag titles, they were perfect as the hosts of WrestleMania 33, slick and engaging and vibrant enough to add a shot of personality even while they served for few and brief segues. They appeared, for the sake of WrestleMania 33 sponsors, clad as Final Fantasy characters to open the show proper.

And the first match was an astute choice, as AJ Styles faced off against Shane McMahon, the SmackDown Commissioner. This was a special attraction but with little at stake: if placed later on in the card, in front of a tired crowd it could have been lost in the shuffle, with the risk of the fans even turning on Shane out of resentment over AJ’s diminished role. As the opener however, it found the fans full of anticipation, with AJ probably WWE’s most popular performer and Shane boasting a reputation for the recklessly spectacular.

In fact the story here was Shane’s attempt to prove himself as more of an all-round wrestler. While AJ boastfully bettered his opponent in the early going, Shane showed his resolve and came back with corner strikes and submissions, falteringly transitioning between an armbar and a guillotine, but the crowd were paying close attention and appreciated the thought. The big spots came, with Shane landing a Coast to Coast before missing a top-rope elbow drop through the announce table, but the focus was just as much on the grappling. Shane survived a Styles Clash and countered a Phenomenal Forearm with a stiff DDT, but a second Phenomenal Forearm connected to give Styles the pinfall.

In terms of high spots, crowd reaction, telling a story and altogether exceeding expectations, Styles vs. McMahon was the match of the night, and a tough act for Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens to follow. Perhaps as the blow-off to the best long-running angle on Raw, this warranted a place further up the card, a longer running time, and a more epic presentation. But for the second match on the show it was thoroughly successful, with Owens stealing the Walls of Jericho and breaking a pinfall by reaching the ropes with just one finger, before a pop-up powerbomb onto the ring apron allowed him to claim Jericho’s United States Championship. The match worked as a solid wrestling bout with enough aggression and antagonism to settle a personal vendetta, and it also settled the audience, who had to buy into proceedings again after coming down from the early excitement.

The fatal four-way elimination match for the Women’s Championship served in a similar fashion. Bayley, Sasha Banks, and Charlotte have a storied history together, but there was nothing specific or especially personal about this match-up, with Bayley the title holder and Charlotte’s pay-per-view streak already broken. Nia Jax, the fourth wheel in the match, set to be positioned in the long term as the monster of the women’s division, was eliminated first after a triple-team powerbomb. Sasha followed after being shoved into a barely-exposed turnbuckle. And with Bayley and Charlotte left, the current champion showed her mettle, Charlotte running into the same turnbuckle before Bayley hit a big elbow drop for the pinfall victory.

The match wasn’t perfect, and the finish seemed to catch some fans by surprise, as though owing to a lack of time or a lack of ideas it had found itself cut short. Charlotte struggled to fully expose the turnbuckle that became essential to subsequent events, blurring the impact of the visual especially as Sasha collided with it head-first. But every match cannot feature finishing moves and near falls ad infinitum: this was an old-school affair, with a coherent narrative, an homage to the past via Bayley’s summoning of ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, and it was a crucial palate cleanser after two sprawling men’s bouts.

After an appearance for the 2017 Hall of Fame class led by Kurt Angle, it was time for the Raw Tag Team Championship ladder match, provisionally set for three couples. With Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, Enzo Amore and Big Cass, and Cesaro and Sheamus set to get things underway, The New Day halted the onset of the match and teased their own insertion, only to reveal the return of the Hardy Boyz, switching the concern into a fatal four-way.

The return of the Hardys had been widely speculated since their departure from Impact at the end of February, but they managed to keep their WrestleMania appearance just about under wraps, a rarity in today’s business. The sound of their music brought the biggest response of the night, followed by chants of ‘Delete, delete, delete!’, an ode to the ‘Broken’ Matt Hardy. Matt himself looked positively beatific as he made his way down the long ramp, and with Jeff lithe as ever, the Hardys initiated the offence, hitting the ring and twice landing the Poetry in Motion.

Without resorting to death-defying stunts, there were plenty of clever spots across the relatively brief duration of the ladder match. Cesaro showed his balance and athleticism, hitting a Swiss-19 and leaping off the second rope to propel himself up a ladder, Enzo similarly progressed perched on Big Cass’s shoulders, and a big boot from Big Cass sent Jeff Hardy careening off the ring apron into the crowd of wrestlers brawling on the floor. Eventually, as Matt delivered a Twist of Fate from the top of one ladder, Jeff propped another between the ring and the barricade and came crashing down onto Cesaro and Sheamus with a Swanton Bomb, buying Matt enough time to ascend and grasp the tag titles.

So far pretty fantastic, even if the scheduling seemed a little lopsided, for after two singles matches featuring some of WWE’s best workers, now we moved onto our third multi-person match in a row and our second and last tag of the night, with Maryse and The Miz squaring off against Nikki Bella and John Cena. From hard-hitting in-ring promos that drew upon the reality of their main event at WrestleMania 27, to parodies based on life as it plays out via Total Divas, The Miz had carried this feud while enshrining himself as WWE’s biggest talent on the microphone. And the bulk of this match involved him playing to the crowd while Cena did his usual job of lying face-down and no-selling.

A series of ‘Yes!’ kicks from The Miz proved Cena’s breaking point, and the tide turned especially after a dive to the outside by Nikki Bella. Cena and Nikki performed twin Five Knuckle Shuffles, and while Nikki hoisted Maryse for the Rack Attack, Cena landed the Attitude Adjustment to secure a swift victory. The match was a bit of fluff that would have received a passing grade thanks to The Miz’s antics. Afterwards however, Cena embarked upon an elaborate, drawn-out marriage proposal which rent WrestleMania 33 asunder.

The marriage proposal killed the momentum of the show. It was in bad taste, a hollow slice of reality television which detracted from the wrestling on display and lacked the merest semblance of logic. The fans respect John Cena as a person for his charitable work with organisations like Make-A-Wish, but his obviously contrived begging of the question elided his private life with an overworked, hyper-positive, frequently disliked wrestling character. If John Cena really was proposing to Nikki Bella live in front of a hostile Orlando audience, he was showing a remarkable lack of class and an inability to judge mood and setting, but if not, who cares for such a forced show of emotion? WWE refocused the microphones during this segment, turning the bulk of the audience down but managing to find a couple of screeching women.

Triple H vs. Seth Rollins was up next, a contest it feels harsh to describe as merely ‘solid’ or ‘decent’ – shorn of its context, it was a very good match that could easily have stood among the best of the night. But for a variety of reasons it felt off from the get-go, and though some of the issues dissipated as it wore on, the match wound up being overlong with the crowd subdued until an admittedly satisfying finish.

As with his Terminator schtick at WrestleMania 31, Triple H has an unfortunate propensity for ostentatious ring entrances. Seeming to bear fictional, even narrative qualities which have little to do with the matter at hand, here he emerged on a three-wheeled motorcycle with Stephanie McMahon at the rear, the power couple led to the ring by a police escort with sirens blazing. Seth Rollins was left to stand all clad in gold with a flame in his hand, a cast-off from Game of Thrones or some rejected Olympics. He ‘lit’ the huge WrestleMania 33 ramp with his torch, one of a few instances across the show of presumably state-of-the-art electronics producing dismally outdated visuals.

This was supposed to be a personal issue almost three years in the making, but the elaborate entrances suggested that the fighting could wait. A legitimate knee injury suffered by Rollins at the hands of Samoa Joe, Triple H’s newest protege, back in January put the contest in doubt. In order to get his hands on his former mentor and authority figure, Rollins eventually agreed to a non-sanctioned match. Yet once they’d stepped inside the ropes in Orlando, the pair put on a fairly staid wrestling clinic – competent no doubt, but not what the audience had been led to expect.

So the match was well structured but seemed lacking in ferocity, and as a consequence the audience sat back in their seats. The other issue is that when you build a match around a legitimate leg injury, the selling of the injured limb has to be especially meticulous. Rollins expressed the pain of Triple H’s repeated assaults well enough, but it didn’t sufficiently hamper his own offence, as the match settled into a pattern whereby his leg would be attacked, only for him to muster a whole array of kicks and high-flying manoeuvres regardless.

Rollins remains depleted without his Curb Stomp, a unique and truly characteristic finisher. Here however he and Triple H made a real show out of the Pedigree, teasing the move and running through a wealth of counters. A Phoenix Splash from Rollins brought a near fall, only for Triple H to return to the injured knee. But when The Game felt the force of a superkick and inadvertently sent Stephanie off the ring apron and through a table, he was distracted enough to succumb to the Pedigree for the 1-2-3, Hunter and the Raw Commissioner receiving their belated comeuppance.

A break for Pitbull, Flo Rida, Stephen Marley, and LunchMoney Lewis should have nicely separated two epic singles bouts – regardless of your thoughts on the music. But Bray Wyatt vs. Orton was the disappointment of the night, a spectacular misjudgement and a very sorry joke. Whether someone genuinely thought this was a good idea, or sold it as an attempt to innovate or merely switch things up, having bugs projected at intervals onto the canvas was gimmickry at its worst. Portrayed as the unsettling conjurings of Wyatt, they halted the flow of the match and robbed it of any real atmosphere, less Southern Gothic than a cardboard carnival trick.

It is difficult to believe that Wyatt himself – who has such a strong grasp of the real life roots and cultural influences stretching through his character – devised the conceit, but whatever it was it didn’t work, and Wyatt lost anyway when Orton got bored of the maggots and hit his traditional RKO ‘out of nowhere’ for the victory. So Bray’s first WWE Championship reign ended most unceremoniously, and what at one point looked like his coming out party, his consolidation as a singles competitor in the main event, in the end sent him back to the drawing board and groping for new material.

Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg on the other hand was better and cleaner than anybody probably had the right to expect. Touted earlier in the week as the closing match of WrestleMania 33, it ended up placed third from last. While some commentators and industry insiders had pondered the possibility of interference as a way of prolonging the match – and though Braun Strowman’s absence from the card proper was frustrating given how strong he looked just a month ago – left to their own devices the two men managed 4 minutes and 45 seconds which couldn’t have been served any better, bullish and breathtakingly action-packed.

Goldberg did have to be woken from his slumbers, requiring a knock on the locker room door before his long entrance could commence. And if he was feeling at all reticent, he received plenty of justification as three German suplexes brought a savage start to the match. So already this bore a very different complexion than the lopsided encounters between the pair at the Survivor Series and Royal Rumble. But Goldberg retaliated with a rush of spears, including one on the outside through the barricade.

The Jackhammer was the cause of Lesnar’s downfall last November, but this time he reversed Goldberg’s first attempt at the move, and when on the second go he was successfully hoisted and slammed into the mat, he managed to get his shoulders up on the count of two. Urged on by his advocate Paul Heyman, when Goldberg charged in for yet another spear, Lesnar performed a remarkably athletic leapfrog, landing on his feet as the German suplexes swiftly resumed. He suplexed Goldberg ten times in total, before an F-5 gave The Beast vengeance and the WWE Universal Title. For Lesnar rather than Goldberg, the question remains: who and what next? But whether Lesnar increases his television appearances, there is no doubt that he has been replenished as a consequence of this feud, seeming fresher and stronger, and more appreciated by the audience than he was six months ago.

The ‘six-pack’ challenge for the SmackDown Women’s Championship found itself in a prestigious spot – especially as a match thrown together from the entire SmackDown women’s roster, which until the past week seemed destined for the pre-show. The champion Alexa Bliss faced off against all-comers, including Carmella, Mickie James, Natalya, and Becky Lynch. But it was no surprise when Naomi clinched the title, regaining the strap which injury forced her to relinquish mere days after her moment of triumph at the Elimination Chamber. She forced Bliss to tap following a dive which cleared out everyone at ringside, in another quick match which featured a double sharpshooter from Natalya and an exploder suplex to James Ellsworth from Becky Lynch.

After The New Day touted another fake ‘record’ attendance, Jim Ross made his return to WWE to commentate on the main event. While the devastating loss of his wife Jan and the raw emotion of his return was understated in favour of a focus on the match at hand, it was great to have JR back at the announce table, his ability to tie threads together and tell a story out of events in the ring remaining unsurpassed.

The only downside was that in the presence of such competence, Michael Cole and JBL groped more than usual, making the three-man announce team seem especially redundant. In all it wasn’t a bad night for the commentators, although Jerry Lawler did his utmost to ruin the mixed tag match, the ‘King’ obviously under strict orders to downplay fan support for The Miz while propping up the pretence of the Cena/Bella romance.

JR did a fine job as he sought to place emphasis on who would emerge as the ‘big dog’ in the ‘yard’. But the subtext to Roman Reigns vs. The Undertaker – the only story which really mattered, much more than WWE once again muting tens of thousands of boos – was the audience grasping in real-time that this must be The Undertaker’s last match.

As a wrestling match it was an utter dud. Reigns as always hit an unfathomable number of Superman punches, each one weaker than the last. There was some brawling on the outside, incorporating a couple of Drive Bys, culminating in a spear through the announce table, with Reigns retreating to the ring as ‘Taker for one last time sat up. They exchanged chair shots, and a Last Ride, chokeslam and Tombstone piledriver only brought close two counts. Then in the most uncomfortable section of the match, Reigns struggled to lift the dead weight of The Undertaker, whose legs were barely propping him up, as he crawled about the ring briefly attempting a Hell’s Gate amid a string of fumbles, only for the hold to be unceremoniously broken.

In the end a sullen, subdued audience found new life when The Undertaker kicked out of two spears in quick succession – less because they thought ‘Taker might turn things around, more in a show of support as they witnessed one final time the glimmer of old. Alas a third spear, after Reigns hesitated then ran the ropes, proved enough to get the job done. The main event saw Reigns claim a handy statistic, which will be used in his favour henceforth – especially as he looks set to embark on a year-long feud with Brock Lesnar, the man who broke The Streak and the only other person to triumph over The Undertaker at WrestleMania. But the match added nothing to Reigns’ character, for he was barely more than a cipher, neither mean nor particularly sorry as The Undertaker breathed his last.

As WrestleMania 33’s grand finale, Roman Reigns vs. The Undertaker hardly invigorated or inspired, but it was impossible to begrudge the Deadman the opportunity to bring down the curtain on wrestling’s greatest stage, and after the match ended, impossible not to get caught up in the emotion. He left his gloves in the middle of the ring after last year’s match with Shane McMahon, but this time was more decisive, leaving too his hat and overcoat, and embracing his family at ringside as the audience unanimously stood. Stopping halfway up the ramp, he raised his fist and descended back whence he came, one final gong and the rest is silence.

Thus WrestleMania 33 ended, and without an appearance from The Rock, Steve Austin, or Hulk Hogan. There was no return for Finn Balor, Kurt Angle popped by but only in Hall of Fame attire, and there were no new NXT arrivals. Most of the surprises of the week were kept for Monday and Tuesday night – which suited WrestleMania 33 perfectly, only crystallising the unforgettable return of the Hardys. Raw on Monday saw a debut for The Revival, further bolstering the tag team division, returns for Emma and Finn Balor, and Kurt Angle installed as the brand’s new General Manager. SmackDown did equally well for itself, capturing the signatures of Tye Dillinger and Shinsuke Nakamura. And with Vince McMahon announcing a roster shakeup next week, the timing might be off, but there’s still plenty to play for.