Friday, March 20, 2015

Why I'm Not Excited for WrestleMania 31

As the card for WrestleMania 31 (Oh excuse me, WrestleMania *Play Button* - I forgot numbers make things sound old) comes together I'm reminded of a line from The Wizard of Oz.  Our heroes finally meet the Wizard, who grants The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and The Lion gifts to show each of them they were never respectively lacking a brain, a heart, or courage.  When it's Dorothy's turn she laments, "Oh, I don't think there's anything in that black bag for me." 

And this is how I feel about the 2015 edition of the Show of Shows.  WWE has lined up a series of matches, all of which seem geared toward the casual fan, while essentially ignoring its diehard base.  In being so single-minded about making Roman Reigns WWE's next mainstream megastar, Vince McMahon is seemingly sabotaging the credibility and importance of every babyface with whom the fans actually feel a connection.  Worse, the five matches billed as the featured attractions have been built up so poorly and with so little urgency there isn't even anything the casual fan would be very eager to see.

Here's how the big matches on the card strike me. 

7-Man Intercontinental Ladder Match

I touched on this in my latest Top Ten Things, but I find this 7-man clusterfuck of a match just a total slap in the face to fans of my ilk.  Look, many people were disappointed about Daniel Bryan being passed over this year for the 'Mania main event.  Speaking for myself I was hoping to see Lesnar vs. Bryan since we didn't get it at last year's SummerSlam due to Bryan's injury.  But no one was surprised by Reigns winning the Royal Rumble and Bryan being moved down the card a bit.  This kinda thing happens all the time.  It is what it is.  What I can't stand for are things like Bryan (and Ziggler and Ambrose for that matter) being reduced to cameos in the Rumble, unceremoniously eliminated like so many Bushwhackers of years past, and then being shoehorned into one match at WrestleMania simply because Vince and Creative have nothing better for them to do.  Vince may not see any of them as The Guy, and that's fine, but the fact is Bryan, Ziggler and Ambrose all connect with the fans infinitely better than Vince's Chosen One.  And whether or not he thinks they belong in the main event, they at least each deserve their own feud and match on the card. 

There was such a simple solution presented to him too - Bryan vs. Ziggler.  This match would've placated the diehard fans, giving them That One Match to look forward to.  Every WrestleMania needs a match like that, where no matter how jaded the "smart" fans may be, they still can't wait to see that one show stealer.  I'd liken Bryan vs. Ziggler to Shawn Michaels vs. Kurt Angle from ten years ago.  The Title picture was all about pushing Batista and John Cena, but fans like me still had that one red-hot match to be excited about.  "Nope, couldn't be bothered.  Not enough time for Bryan-Ziggler, let's just toss 'em in the I-C picture and throw a ladder in there, that'll shut the smarks up." 

Christ, WWE couldn't even present a compelling build for this match, or at least limit it to credible contenders.  This all started with the I-C Champion Wade Barrett, who I'm pretty sure hasn't won a televised match since regaining the strap (Great way to build equity in a Championship, dolts!) feuding with Dean Ambrose.  Ambrose winning the Title at 'Mania and keeping it long-term could easily revitalize the division.  It would be a great moment for him and he'd have a solid field of challengers to turn back, elevating both himself and the belt.  Instead though, let's toss in recent Champs Luke Harper and Dolph Ziggler, neither of whom really has a beef with Barrett, and R-Truth for no reason (When was the last important match Truth won?), and we'll round out the field with Stardust who's still sorta feuding with his brother (who incidentally is NOT in this match), and Daniel Bryan, who despite being the most over guy on the roster is still sorta feuding with no one.  The entire build for this mess has consisted of the various challengers stealing Barrett's Title while he's not looking, and playing Keep-Away with it as Barrett sells annoyance.  This is just a super strategy for making people care about the Championship.

Clearly Vince is trying to draw parellels between this group of guys and the participants of the original Money in the Bank match from 2005.  Bryan, who stood tall to close out last year's 'Mania, is in Vince's mind this generation's Chris Benoit.  Now I'm not sure why Vince would want anyone reminded of Benoit's career path at this point, but Bryan is significantly more universally popular than the Crippler was and has demonstrated much greater crossover appeal.  Also Money in the Bank was a novel idea a decade ago.  It was six upper-tier guys battling for a guaranteed WWE/World Title shot.  The problem is the multi-man Ladder Match has been done so many times it's no longer fresh.  In the first place, no Ladder Match will ever equal the Edge & Christian vs. Hardyz vs. Dudleyz matches from 2000-01.  How could they?  High spots like that can never again be attempted in a WWE ring.  So at best this match will be a weak reminder of a more dangerous and entertaining era.  Second, multi-man matches in 2015 are like a meal at Burger King.  You enjoy it while it's happening, but it's instantly forgettable.  There's no story being told and no groundbreaking high spots.  Relegating Bryan, Ziggler and Ambrose to a match like this is such a clear statement by Vince that not only doesn't he care about who the fans like, but he is actively trying to make us all see them as afterthoughts.  Has an entertainment figure ever shown such unbridled contempt for his own audience?

The Ladder Match is one of three on the card where a whole slew of talent is just being thrown together for lack of any creative direction for them.  Between that, the Battle Royal and the impending 4-Way for the Tag belts, that's 35 guys in three matches.  Really Vince, you couldn't come up with anything meaningful for THIRTY-FIVE members of your full-time roster?

Moving on to the five headlining matches....

Undertaker vs. Bray Wyatt

I'm really not sure why Taker is coming back at this point.  Without The Streak, where's the intrigue in seeing him wrestle once a year?  I won't opine whether or not Taker should've lost at WM30, as that's been debated to death.  What I will say is, if he was going to lose at WrestleMania, it probably should've been to someone like Bray Wyatt, who could hang his hat (no pun intended) on being the guy who ended The Streak.  He'd be a made man after that.  Lesnar was already a made man with many accomplishments, so for him beating Taker isn't really that significant.  Anyway, now that there's no Streak for Wyatt to threaten and Taker's not going to appear prior to 'Mania, where's the heat supposed to come from here?  This seems to literally be a Taker match for the sake of a Taker match.  It's also a no-win situation for Wyatt.  If Wyatt beats Taker, he's beaten a broken-down 50-year-old whose Streak was broken last year.  If Wyatt loses to Taker, he's lost to a broken-down 50-year-old whose Streak was broken last year.  So I'm not sure who this match benefits.

Rusev vs. John Cena

From an in-ring standpoint this should be pretty good, as their match at FastLane was immensely better than I anticipated.  Unfortunately the match probably should've been saved for 'Mania, as now the novelty is gone.  Also having Cena physically attack Rusev and lock in the STF until Lana agreed to a rematch is about the least heroic way he could've earned said rematch.  So who are we rooting for here?  I will say I like that unlike the I-C strap, the US Title is being presented as a big deal.  Rusev has been an excellent custodian of this Championship and having Cena chase a midcard title is actually a superb way to make it important again.  But again I'm not emotionally invested.

Randy Orton vs. Seth Rollins

This is the one match I'm actually looking forward to.  If this doesn't steal the show I'll be very surprised.  Seth Rollins has for months been the best thing about WWE programming.  He fully understands what a top-level heel's job is - to make every fan in the arena want to murder him.  In my estimation Rollins, not Reigns, is the future of WWE.  If it were up to me I'd give Rollins a long-term run with the WWE Title where like Ric Flair, he's the asshole heel Champ who's just vulnerable enough to make everyone believe "This is the night I finally get to see that jerk get what's coming to him."  But then he finds a sleazy way to hold onto the Title every time.  Make WWE a heel territory for a while, until you find that one babyface who's just Magic, and when Rollins loses the strap to that guy it'll galvanize the fanbase.

The build for this match, like everything else, has been a mess.  Orton should've returned and instantly made his intentions known by chasing Rollins all over the arena.  Rollins should've stayed just out of reach the entire build, so when 'Mania finally arrives we can't wait to see Orton beat a rain check into that weasel.  Instead Orton toyed with him for two weeks and then gave him a debilitating ten-minute beatdown, instantly diffusing all the tension in the feud.  Remind me, why are we paying to see this match now?

Triple H vs. Sting

This match is about ten years too late.  As of March 29th the combined age of these men is 101.  Not to be ageist, but the idea of seeing two guys with an average age of fifty trying to deliver on 14 years of anticipation (which is what this feud's built around - yet another WWF vs. WCW angle) simply doesn't do anything for me.  While I have the utmost respect for Sting, I was never a huge fan of his, so the nostalgia factor is lost on me.  And on March 30th neither of these guys will be donning the tights to wrestle on RAW, so this is yet another standalone match designed to pop a quick buyrate (which thanks to The Network is no longer a thing).

A side note: I'm EXHAUSTED with WrestleMania's lineup being built every year around Legends and part-timers.  I really am.  It's special once in a while, like when The Rock faced the returning Hulk Hogan, or when John Cena faced the returning Rock (the first time anyway).  But this kinda thing happens annually now, and it never delivers the kind of in-ring magic two full-time guys in their prime years can.  There's a reason RAW eventually beat Nitro - RAW featured young, hungry, cutting-edge talent clawing their way to the top of the roster.  Nitro featured aging, complacent, part-time stars of yesteryear lumbering through matches just to collect a fat paycheck as the young stars were all crammed into meaningless undercard feuds.  Watching old men fight is not and will never be as exciting as watching their younger, more athletic counterparts.  And once 'Mania's over we all then have to decompress and go back to watching the full-time roster try in vain to sell the other eleven PPV events after being conditioned that they aren't as compelling or important as the old-timers.  This is a business model that simply cannot succeed long-term.

Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns

Aaaaaaand we've arrived at the main event.  The match on which Vince has pinned his hopes for WWE's success over the next decade.  WWE is betting everything on Roman Reigns to carry the company and draw those elusive mainstream crossover fans till about WrestleMania 40.  He's so intent on this being the outcome in fact, that he's demoted the three most consistently popular babyfaces and tweaked John Cena's character to be an elder statesman fighting to stay relevant (despite Cena being just shy of 38). 

I've written extensively on why I don't think Reigns is right for this role yet (Here and Here), and judging by the crowd's lukewarm-at-best and venomous-at-worst reactions to Reigns, I'm certainly not alone.  Vince really believes Roman Reigns is the next Hogan, the next Austin, the next Rock, the next Cena.  I don't claim to be right all the time (Really, I don't), but in a year I see Reigns being viewed as the next Diesel.  Remember Diesel? 

The year was 1994 - Hulk Hogan had jumped to WCW and Vince was desperate to find a larger-than-life star to fill the void.  Bret Hart had spent most of 1993-94 carrying the WWF on his back (minus Vince's failed attempt to make Lex Luger the next Hogan), and while financially Bret didn't exactly light the place on fire, the fans were quite content with him being the top dog.  Enter Kevin Nash.  At nearly seven feet tall and 300 pounds, Nash fit the mold exactly of who Vince wanted representing his company.  It's all about the look, folks.  Vince has always wanted the top guy to look like a superhero so casual fans flipping channels will stop and say, "Wait, who's that??"  Only problem was, no one wanted Diesel as their hero.  Nash wasn't a natural babyface and he was pushed so hard and so fast the fans resented him.  He was matched against Bret at the 1995 Rumble so Bret could make him look like a million bucks and in the end put his "stamp of approval" on Big D.  But the fans still preferred Bret.  Sound familiar?  Then Diesel took on Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XI, and the fans were so impressed with Shawn's showmanship and athleticism they turned on Diesel and cheered his smaller heel opponent.  Vince was forced to turn Shawn babyface the next night on RAW just so Diesel could get Shawn's residual crowd support.  Consequently that didn't work either - Diesel proved to be the WWF's worst-drawing long-term Champion ever.  He dropped the Title to Bret that November and eventually turned heel again before leaving for WCW.

Now while Reigns won't have the option of leaving WWE for a more successful rival company, I cannot envision a 'Mania 31 climax in which Reigns wins the Title from Lesnar and stands tall while 70,000 fans explode in adulation.  Reigns' fan support is so soft right now, and his character has been presented so poorly I can almost guarantee he'll either be met with a chorus of boos from a typically diehard-heavy WrestleMania crowd, or worse, a wall of apathetic silence.  Neither of those outcomes would bode well for the man Vince thinks is WWE's new poster boy.  Furthermore, should Seth Rollins cash in his briefcase and take the belt off Reigns, I'm even more confident Rollins would be strongly cheered for it.  Hell, they might even have to pull a double-turn to save the inevitable Reigns vs. Rollins feud.

There's one more X-Factor to talk about in this main event - Brock Lesnar.  Lesnar and Vince have apparently come to an impasse in negotiating Lesnar's contract renewal.  The details haven't been made clear, but having an unhappy, unmotivated Brock Lesnar in the main event of WrestleMania could quite frankly be a disaster.  Look no further than his WM20 match with Goldberg for a worst-case scenario.  If Lesnar isn't interested in delivering on March 29th, this could be a terrible main event and would further hobble Reigns' main event run.  Do I think the match will be Lesnar-Goldberg bad?  No.  Do I think it'll be worthy of the biggest PPV main event of the year?  Not really.  I'm banking on about a 2.5-star match. 

One of the columnists I read regularly,'s The Doc likened this match to a battle of Marvel superheroes, i.e. Iron Man vs. Thor in The Avengers.  If the match plays out like that I'd be satisfied I think, and might even be forced to admit that Reigns has won me over.  I'm not sure I can be that optimistic about it though, nor do I buy Reigns' offense as effective or stiff enough to take down a force of nature like Brock Lesnar.  I'm just not sure how we're supposed to buy the guy who broke The Streak, annihilated John Cena, and bested Triple H two out of three times being taken down by a Superman Punch and a Spear.  That one-two combo strikes me as one of the weakest finishing sequences since Hogan's big boot-legdrop.  This isn't the 80s - today's fan needs a more believable offensive arsenal to really get behind a superhero character. 

Today's fan also doesn't care so much about what a top guy looks like, as long as a) he can carry his end of a PPV main event match, and b) he has the natural charisma/presence and/or promo skills to connect with them on a fundamental level.  Guys like Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose have both of those things.  Thus far I'm not convinced Roman Reigns has either.

Well that's where my head's at going into this year's WrestleMania.  Will WWE do something in the next two weeks to get me excited for the show?  I kinda doubt it.  Maybe the show itself will surprise and we'll be treated to a slew of Match of the Year candidates.  I doubt that very highly, but anything is possible.

Anyway, check back here in a couple weeks for the official WrestleMania predictions!

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