Monday, February 22, 2016

PPV Showdown: WrestleMania 30 vs. WrestleMania 31

Hello, and welcome to a new variation on my Showdown series!  In the past I've pitted two similar films head-to-head (Superman Returns vs. Man of Steel; Hulk vs. Hulk; Manhunter vs. Red Dragon) and examined in detail which film I thought was superior.  Today though I'll be pairing up the last two editions of WWE's annual flagship WrestleMania!

WrestleMania 30 took place on April 6, 2014 and was primarily built around the against-all-odds Championship quest of Daniel Bryan, who unexpectedly captured the hearts and imagination of WWE fans across the globe as the little guy being screwed by WWE's corporate machine.  WWE's holding Bryan down both onscreen and to a certain extent behind the scenes led to a massive fan backlash, and the company restructured their intended 'Mania card to make Bryan the centerpiece.  Thus Bryan would face COO Triple H, with the winner being added to the Randy Orton-Batista WWE Title match.  Elsewhere on the card, John Cena faced the mysterious Bray Wyatt, The Undertaker defended his undefeated streak against Brock Lesnar, and 20 men competed in the first Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal.  The card was met with very positive feedback, particularly due to the two Daniel Bryan matches, but fans were also appalled by the shocking Undertaker loss at the hands of Lesnar.

WrestleMania 31 followed nearly a year later, on March 29, 2015, and the big story this time was the ascent of Roman Reigns, whom Vince McMahon had picked to be the next big star in the company.  Sadly the fans didn't share Vince's enthusiasm for the young Samoan, offering Reigns a cold-at-best reaction at just about every turn.  Reigns had won the Royal Rumble to a barrage of irate crowd boos, earning him the right to challenge WWE Champ Brock Lesnar at 'Mania.  The card also featured The Undertaker facing Bray Wyatt, John Cena challenging US Champ Rusev, a seven-man Intercontinental Title Ladder Match, and the WWE debut match for Sting, against Triple H.  Despite an infamously poor buildup, this show was an immense crowd-pleaser and received glowing praise from most reviewers, many of whom considered it one of the best WrestleManias of all time.

But which show was superior?  Let's take a look, shall we?

Pre-Show Tag Team Title Match

WM30's in-ring festivities kicked off with a Fatal Four-Way Tag Match as The Usos defended the straps against The Real Americans, Los Matadores, and RybAxel.  The bout was a fast-paced, enjoyable elimination match showcasing The Usos' considerable talent and also brought about the long-overdue split between Cesaro and Jack Swagger.  Cesaro was hugely over, and this was one of two big moments for him on this card.

WM31 featured a similar pre-show tag match but without the elimination rules.  This time it was Champions Cesaro & Tyson Kidd vs. The Usos vs. The New Day vs. Los Matadores in a blazing ten-minute melee.  Cesaro & Kidd were just coming into their own as a killer tandem and this helped build their momentum.

Despite the latter bout involving superior talent, the WM30 opener had more time to breathe and the elimination rules made it a bit more fun.

Point: WrestleMania 30

Andre Battle Royal

Since WM31's Battle Royal also took place on the pre-show (a baffling decision if you ask me), we'll discuss this matchup here.

'Mania 30 introduced this special schmozz match to presumably help elevate a deserving talent, complete with an Andre the Giant trophy.  Not all of the 20 participants were announced ahead of time, but the crowd perked up huge when Cesaro threw his name in.  This was easily one of the best Battle Royals in recent memory, as all the important names got their moment in the sun, and the finish was superb.  Echoing arguably the most famous WrestleMania moment of all time (Hulk Hogan slamming Andre), Cesaro picked up the 400-plus pound Big Show and slammed him OVER THE TOP ROPE to win the match.

'Mania 31's Battle Royal upped the participation to thirty and included the four tag teams featured in the previous match, as well as one chosen NXT star, Hideo Itami.  Unfortunately Itami got almost no in-ring time and was easily dispatched by The Big Show.  The match eventually boiled down to Show vs. Team Mizdow, who'd been on the verge of splitting for months.  Damien Sandow had become a hugely popular comedy figure as Miz's "stunt double," and this seemed to be his defining moment.  Instead though, after tossing out Miz, Sandow was defeated by Big Show, who didn't really benefit at all from winning this match.

One of these Battle Royals was a lot of fun and proved that despite what Vince thinks about the Swiss, Cesaro was (and still is) a massively over star.  The other failed to elevate anyone and instead became a footnote in the career of the long-irrelevant Big Show.

Point: WrestleMania 30

Big Promo Segment

WrestleMania 30 opened with a host segment that starred Hulk Hogan.  Hogan introduced the show but was interrupted by both Steve Austin and The Rock.  The three then exchanged one-liners and 'Mania memories before finally stepping aside to let the show begin.  Their segment lasted 25 minutes.  Insane for a show from which a Tag Title match had to be bumped.  As I understood it, this segment was designed to get everyone excited for WrestleMania.  Even though we had already purchased WrestleMania and were watching it now.

The Play Button show also featured a long promo segment, albeit much later in the night, wherein Triple H and Stephanie McMahon congratulated themselves on assembling a "record-breaking" crowd (As usual their version of events included a highly inflated attendance figure), before being interrupted by The Rock.  Stephanie ordered Rock out of her ring, and the Rock momentarily obliged before welcoming special guest Ronda Rousey in.  An entertaining angle/possible WrestleMania 32 tease ensued, with Rousey judo-throwing Triple H and arm-barring Stephanie.  This segment also exceeded twenty minutes (longer than any match on the show), hence why the pre-show included TWO matches.  As I understood it, this segment was designed to kill daylight so it would be slightly darker for The Undertaker's entrance.

Both of these segments felt horribly out of place on a PPV; the whole point of a big promo is to hype an upcoming match, and as I recall The Rock wasn't announced for either show ahead of time.  Why then wouldn't you save his involvement for a pre-hyped episode of RAW where it would benefit ratings?  We've already purchased WrestleMania - what's the point of promoting WrestleMania after the fact?  But at least the WM31 segment resulted in something really memorable.

Point: WrestleMania 31

Ladder Match

Here's where it gets a little tricky.  The rest of the respective cards can be pretty well matched up except for 'Mania 31's Ladder Match.  Nothing on WM30 was at all similar.  The 7-man Intercontinental Title bout was simply a way to cram all the remaining stars on the card, particularly crowd favorites Daniel Bryan, Dolph Ziggler, and Dean Ambrose, and the eventual object was the rehabilitation of the long-maligned I-C belt.  At the time I felt pretty slighted as a fan that not one of the aforementioned three was deemed worthy of a major singles bout, particularly given that one of them headlined the previous WrestleMania.  I still resent the hell out of WWE for this match, as 1) multi-man Ladder Matches are generally all the same now, and 2) WWE was supposedly so concerned about Bryan's health they placed him in one of the most dangerous gimmick matches ever created.

Still, this match was fine for what it was, and WM30 didn't have anything comparable, so...

Point: WrestleMania 31

Now for the real comparisons....

Triple H Match

The longest match of both cards not surprisingly involved Triple H.  At WrestleMania 30 he faced the defiant crowd darling Daniel Bryan for a WWE Title shot in the main event.  These two put together a fantastic 26-minute epic, with Triple H playing the oversized bully and Bryan the valiant underdog.  It was a classic good guy vs. bad guy dynamic, and when it was all over we were looking at arguably the 2014 Match of the Year.

In 2015 however Triple H faced WWE newcomer and WCW legend Sting.  Four months earlier Sting had interfered in The Authority's Survivor Series main event, helping Dolph Ziggler put Trips and Stephanie out of power.  Hunter vowed revenge, and this match was eventually signed.  The two started out with a somewhat enjoyable, if rudimentary, wrestling match, and then all hell broke loose as Hunter's old pals DeGeneration X interfered, followed by Sting's old mortal enemies the nWo.  Inexplicably Hogan, Hall & Nash helped Sting despite their long history of animosity in WCW, and despite two of the three being well-known best friends of Hunter's.  The storytelling in this match made zero sense, and the over-reliance on nostalgia was groan-inducing.  It all ended when Hunter bashed Sting with a broken sledgehammer for the win, and then Sting actually shook his hand.  What was supposed to be a one-on-one grudge match between an overbearing authority figure and a heroic vigilante turned into yet another WWF vs. WCW mess.

I loved the Hunter-Bryan match.  I more or less hated the Hunter-Sting match.  No contest here.

Point: WrestleMania 30

Seth Rollins Match

Yeah I know, these two matches (The Shield vs. Kane & The New Age Outlaws; and Seth Rollins vs. Randy Orton) were nothing alike.  But they both involved Seth Rollins and they both took place second on the main PPV.

The Shield had just turned against The Authority a month prior to WrestleMania 30, so Hunter sicced his old buddies Road Dogg and Billy Gunn plus his Director of Operations Kane, on them.  What followed was little more than a squash, as Ambrose, Rollins & Reigns made short work of Team Authority.  Three minutes to be exact.  This was just a showcase for The Shield on their way to bigger things.

WrestleMania 31's biggest potential show stealer was placed early on the card, as The Authority's "chosen one" Seth Rollins faced their former "chosen one" Randy Orton.  The two delivered a blazing 13-minute bout full of intricate maneuvers and featuring one of the best finishes I've ever seen - Seth attempted a Curb Stomp as Orton stood up, pushing Seth high in the air for Orton to nail an RKO Outta Nowhere.  A very good match with a great finish.  Unfortunately it was about five minutes too short to be a great match.  Still it crushes its six-man counterpart.

Point: WrestleMania 31

Divas Match

WrestleMania 30 included yet another case of "let's dump all the Divas into one match."  In this case it was the Vickie Guerrero Invitational, where 14 women all competed for the Divas Title held by AJ Lee.  The result was a fairly forgettable but somewhat entertaining mess which AJ survived after trapping Naomi in her Black Widow submission hold and tapping Naomi's hand on the mat for her.  Not great but it made AJ look good.

'Mania 31 had a tag team match pitting The Bellas (who spent three months in 2014 feuding with each other only to reunite without explanation at Survivor Series) against "frenemies" AJ Lee and Paige.  This match was built up via several Divas Title matches, which seemed backwards.  It also only went 6:42 and didn't feature any memorable moments.  AJ and Paige won, but AJ announced her retirement five days later.

Neither of these matches will go down as any sort of women's classic, and it wouldn't be until late 2015 that the main roster made even the slightest effort to feature meaningful women's wrestling.  Compared to NXT they're still light years away.  But it's a start I guess.  As for this face-off, one of these at least had a good finish and something at stake.

Point: WrestleMania 30

John Cena Match

'Mania 30 saw John Cena face new top heel Bray Wyatt, in a match where Bray repeatedly attempted to turn Cena to the dark side, so to speak; for example Wyatt repeatedly taunted Cena to hit him with a chair (Nevermind that Cena has hit plenty of people with chairs and it wasn't akin to selling his soul to the devil).  The match was methodical but very well-worked overall.  Wyatt was expected to get a big win that would catapult him to the next level, but WWE played it safe and gave Cena the duke.

Fast-forward a year and Cena was facing another rising heel star, undefeated US Champion Rusev.  The two had wrestled a month earlier at FastLane and Rusev won by ref stoppage with his Accolade finisher.  Coming after that bout, this was a disappointment.  It was shorter and less intense, and Cena won in rather anticlimactic fashion with a single Attitude Adjustment (where most big Cena matches see him use at least two).  The announcers also completely failed to sell the magnitude of Cena breaking Rusev's long undefeated streak, and it's barely, if ever, been mentioned since.

Cena's WM30 match felt like it belonged on a WrestleMania card.  His WM31 match felt like a RAW main event.

Point: WrestleMania 30

Undertaker Match

WrestleMania 30 will be remembered as one of the most significant nights in The Undertaker's storied career.  It was the night his 'Mania Streak was snapped by the Baddest Man on the Planet, Brock Lesnar.  The build for this match was absolutely horrid.  Lesnar had demanded a WWE Title shot at 'Mania, but when that didn't happen he issued an open contract to whoever wanted to face him.  Out came Taker, who signed the contract without a word and then stabbed Lesnar with the pen before putting him through the contract table with a chokeslam.  In the weeks that followed Lesnar was portrayed as totally out of his depth against Taker, leading most fans to think Taker would rather easily turn back Brock's challenge.  The bout itself was a plodding affair mostly due to an early-match concussion Taker sustained on the outside of the ring.  Still the two worked a somewhat entertaining match that eventually led to one of the most shocking endings of all time.  Lesnar hit the third F-5 of the bout before pinning Taker clean in the ring and ending The Streak.  A stunned New Orleans crowd sat in silent disbelief for several minutes as Taker regained his feet and walked slowly to the back in defeat.  Taker was then rushed to the hospital.

Taker's return match at 'Mania 31 would be against Bray Wyatt, tasked with singlehandedly hyping this match, as Taker wouldn't appear at all on RAW leading up to the PPV.  Wyatt's storyline reason for the challenge was to become WWE's "new face of fear."  Sadly there was no suspense whatsoever that Taker would lose two in a row, and after a mediocre fifteen minutes he dispatched Wyatt with a single Tombstone (after years of opponents kicking out of the first attempt).  Wyatt was relegated back to the midcard and hasn't presented much of a threat to anyone since.

Neither of these matches stacks up at all with Taker's two classics against Shawn Michaels, or even his two very good matches against Triple H.  But at least the first bout culminated in a very memorable moment and was designed to make Taker's opponent stand out from the pack.

Point: WrestleMania 30

WWE Title Match

After defeating Triple H in the WM30 opener, Daniel Bryan had earned his spot in the main event against WWE Champion Randy Orton and Batista.  The two former allies worked diligently to halt Bryan's momentum and take him out of the match, eventually putting him through an announce table.  Bryan was then carted away from the ring before making a late-match comeback, and the three participants strung together a breathtaking series of near-falls.  After knocking Orton out with a flying knee, Bryan then snared Batista in the Yes-Lock, and Big Dave had no choice but to tap out.  Daniel Bryan had finally achieved the impossible, winning the WWE Title in the main event of WrestleMania, and defeating all three former (and future) Evolution members in one night.  The New Orleans crowd erupted in adulation and the show ended with Bryan leading 75,000 in "YES!" chants.  This was one of the most satisfying WM main events of all time.

WrestleMania 31's main event pitted the superhuman Brock Lesnar against McMahon pet project Roman Reigns, and despite most of the crowd rejecting Reigns and being less than excited for the match, this had a big fight feel.  Lesnar dominated most of the action, pounding Reigns into submission with suplexes galore ("Suplex City, bitch!"), and Reigns took all of it with a smile.  Reigns fought valiantly, bloodying Lesnar on a ring post and nailing him with a barrage of Superman punches.  After Lesnar hit his third F-5 of the night, Seth Rollins' music suddenly hit, to an explosion by the live crowd.  Rollins cashed in his briefcase and eventually hit the Curb Stomp on Reigns to steal the WWE Title right out from under the two monsters.  While an unconventional way to end WrestleMania, this proved to be one of the most cleverly booked finishes ever, and rightfully positioned Seth Rollins as the company's #1 heel.

So both main events were rewarding and memorable.  But while one was just very good with a great ending, the other was truly a great match and the climax of a long journey.

Point: WrestleMania 30

By my count that's a final score of 7-3 in favor of WrestleMania 30.  A better main event, a better Tag Title Match, a better Cena match, a better Triple H match, a better Battle Royal, and overall a better story.  I'm still not sure how 'Mania 31 is considered one of the best of all time when just a year before WWE presented a far superior show.  For me it's not even close, and I'd rank WM31 somewhere in the middle of the pack, while WM30 is a Top Five WrestleMania.

What do you think?  Comment below....

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