Monday, April 1, 2024

The History of WWE WrestleMania: 34

WrestleMania has reached its mid-30s and is starting to question its life choices as it hurtles toward midlife crisis territory....

Image result for wrestlemania 34 logo

This here was a straaaaaange WrestleMania.  At times excellent, at times frustrating, this was a show full of contradictions.  The long and short of it is, WrestleMania 34 had a slew of good to very good matches, a refreshingly renewed focus on current full-timers, a variety of bouts that appealed to the different fan segments, and sadly a few issues that prevented it from being an all-time great WrestleMania.

But man, it was really shaping up to be one of the best ever for a while.  The PPV Proper kicked off with a pretty stellar Triple Threat for the Intercontinental Title, with Finn Balor and Seth Rollins challenging The Miz.  These three worked a blistering pace, with high spots and reversals abound, and had the crowd on the edge of their seats the whole time.  Balor appeared to have the match won after a Coup de Grace on The Miz, when Rollins came out of nowhere with a Curb Stomp, knocking Balor into Miz's back, and following up with a second Curb Stomp on Miz himself for the win.  Just an excellent 15-minute-plus opener that got the crowd (who for the first half of the show was one of the better 'Mania audiences in recent memory) super-energized.

Second was the highly anticipated Smackdown Women's Title match pitting Charlotte against the undefeated Women's Rumble winner Asuka.  This was a fantastically worked match; both women looked stupendous and tough as nails.  Asuka at one point suplexed Charlotte off the apron to the floor, after which Charlotte repeated "I can't breathe" several times, and I'm not sure that wasn't legit.  Charlotte later hit a scary-looking Spanish Fly off the top rope, adding to her big move repertoire.  Asuka worked in some MMA-style submissions, countering a Charlotte moonsault into a triangle choke and later tying her up in a vicious-looking Zack Sabre-esque multi-limb hold.  Near the finish, Charlotte leveled Asuka with a spear (which looked better than any Roman's ever done), and after failing to get the three-count began crying in frustration.  She then slapped on the Figure-Eight, which Asuka fought for several moments before tapping out and taking her first-ever loss in WWE.  My initial reaction to this was "Dude. Bullshit."  But it became clear before long that the plan for 'Mania 35 was Charlotte vs. Ronda, which of course later morphed into a Triple Threat including the white-hot Becky Lynch.  So in retrospect this result made sense, even if I was pissed about it at first.  Regardless, I daresay this was the best-ever women's match at a WrestleMania up to this point.

Next up was the US Title 4-way, with Randy Orton defending against Bobby Roode, Jinder Mahal, and Rusev, who was BY FAR the most over guy in the match.  This was a nine-minute sprint, with more or less nonstop action from the get-go.  Every guy got ample time to showcase his stuff, and the finish came down to Rusev about to tap out Jinder with the Accolade before a Singh Brother jumped on the apron and ate a Rusev kick, allowing Jinder to hit the Khallas for the win.  This result made no sense given how over Rusev was, and Jinder dropped the belt to Jeff Hardy two weeks later in Saudi Arabia.  It's sad how badly they squandered Rusev.
The unexpected hit of the night was the big Mixed Tag match, as Ronda Rousey made her WWE debut teaming with Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon.  Now, this was by no means a five-star workrate classic.  But goddamn this was a helluva lot of fun.  It started off slow after Stephanie took Ronda out of the match with a hair pull that yanked her down to the mat, and Hunter and Angle worked the early portion.  Then after several minutes Angle made the hot tag to Ronda, and the place came unglued.  Ronda annihilated Stephanie and went for multiple submission attempts but Steph managed to wriggle free or was saved by Hunter multiple times.  For all the talking issues Ronda had early on, she immediately looked 100% in her element between the ropes.  Her ring presence was great, her selling was great, and all the wrestling moves looked crisp and believable.  The moment of the match for me was Ronda beating the crap out of Hunter and almost getting an armbar submission out of him before Steph made the save.  After twenty minutes it finally came down to Ronda and Steph, with Ronda slowly and sadistically cinching in the armbar and getting an instant tapout.  The match was definitely about five minutes too long and had a few too many teased finishes, but this was better than anyone could've expected and ended up one of the best matches all night.  Ronda's WWE run started with a bang, and she improved immensely from there, helping elevate the RAW Women's division along the way.

After nine years with the company and not one WrestleMania main card match to their name, The Usos were given the dubious honor of following the Ronda match, in a brief six-minute Smackdown Tag Title defense.  This match against The New Day and The Bludgeon Brothers was fine for what it was, but the three teams could only do so much with the time allotted.  This was all about getting Luke Harper and Erick Rowan over as unstoppable monsters.  The BB made short work of the other two teams, nailing Kofi Kingston with a SuperBomb to win the belts.  Unfortunately both Bludgeons got hurt only months after this match and their run was cut short.  RIP Brodie Lee....

Up to this point there was basically nothing to complain about on this show.  Then one of two utterly pointless segments took place.  John Cena, who'd spent weeks challenging The Undertaker to a match, vowing to simply sit this one out if Taker didn't accept, had run to the back after a referee whispered something to him.  Cena came back out in full ring gear and asked Taker to fight him.  But Elias appeared instead, jumping into a song before Cena laid him out with an AA.  Cena's music played, and Cena walked up the ramp, disappointed that there was no Undertaker.  But then the lights went out, Taker's gear appeared in the ring, and was promptly STRUCK BY LIGHTNING.  The lights went out again and when they came back Taker was standing at the top of the ramp.  His interminable entrance followed, and then he squashed Cena in under three minutes.  I'd like to repeat that.  The Undertaker squashed John Cena, in less than three minutes, at WrestleMania.  Now, I for one had zero interest in seeing a Taker-Cena match at 'Mania in 2018.  So I was not upset in the slightest that this was a three-minute mauling.  But for the legions of fans clamoring to finally witness this, what the actual fuck was the point of this segment?  Why would Taker come out of retirement for that?  At that point just leave this off the show entirely and conserve time; this PPV went over five goddamn hours.

Moving on, the next match was the long-awaited in-ring return of Daniel Bryan, who teamed with Shane McMahon against Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn.  Bryan's entrance got a nuclear pop; the New Orleans crowd overjoyed to see the Yes Man back where he belonged.  Unfortunately this match got off to a baffling start as Owens and Zayn jumped the babyfaces before the bell, powerbombing Bryan into the ring apron and leaving him incapacitated for the first half of the bout (not to mention deflating the crowd).  The less-than-100% Shane was then left to carry the match for his team, and this portion of the match moved along at a snail's pace before Shane's awkward comeback.  To his credit Shane did nail a Van Terminator on Sami without the aid of a trashcan, and finally made the hot tag to Bryan.  Bryan then finished the match himself, dominating Owens and Zayn, hitting all his signature offense, and finishing Zayn with the baisuke knee and Yes Lock.  This was a wonderful moment and felt like making up for lost time.  The followup to this match was unfortunately handled very badly, as Bryan feuded with Big Cass for two boring months before finally reigniting his rivalry with The Miz.  But by then it felt like they'd waited too long, and Bryan's stock fell pretty sharply until he turned heel and found a new lease on his career.

The second Women's Title match pitted former best friends against each other, as Nia Jax sought retribution after being insulted and degraded by Alexa Bliss.  This bout didn't exactly light up the Superdome crowd, but I liked it quite a bit.  They told the story really well, with Jax beating a rain check into Alexa's new best friend Mickie James before the bell, and then dominating the early parts of the match itself before Alexa used an eye gouge to take over.  My favorite moment of the match (and one of my favorite of the entire show), was near the beginning when Alexa slapped Nia, who then screamed angrily, prompting an immediate, terrified scream from Alexa.  The timing of both the scream and the cutaway were spot-on; whoever came up with that bit is a goddamn genius, as it summed up the story of the match in three seconds.  Alexa was the cocky heel champion poking the bear and then running away from her comeuppance.  Both women hit very cool spots, Alexa hitting Twisted Bliss from the top rope to the floor, and Jax finishing the bout with a second-rope Samoan Drop to win the RAW Women's Title.  This was pretty swell, even if it had to contend with an increasingly restless crowd.  Jax's babyface run of course was a flop and she turned heel again not long after.

Probably the best match of the night mechanically unfortunately suffered from even further crowd burnout; AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura had a really good 20-minute WWE Title match that sadly wasn't on the same level as their WrestleKingdom 10 classic (and was considered a disappointment as a result).  Had this exact same match been executed one hour earlier when the crowd still had energy, I guarantee all the reviews would've been a full star rating higher.  This felt like they were holding some stuff back for a rematch (which was confirmed by the aftermath), but they still hit a lot of their big moves.  Nakamura kicked out after a Phenomenal Forearm, countered a 450 splash, and fought his way out of a Calf Crusher, while AJ withstood a Landslide (Nak's old finisher from his pre-King of Strong Style days), a reverse exploder suplex, and a Kinshasa to the back of the head.  As Nak went to finish him with a full Kinshasa, AJ rolled through and nailed a Styles Clash to retain the belt.  Post-match, AJ hugged Nakamura, and Nak got down on one knee to hand AJ his belt, before swerving everyone with a nutshot.  This was the Nakamura of 2013, who toyed with his opponents like a cat would with a dying mouse; Nak swatted AJ with kicks, pushed him out of the ring, and flattened him with a Kinshasa on the outside.  The two had multiple rematches over the next few months but most of them were ruined with stupid finishes, and by the time the feud was over no one cared much about it.  AJ vs. Nakamura sadly ended up the most disappointing feud of the year and Nak was dumped into the midcard after that.  The Curse of Stupid WWE Booking strikes again.

Pointless segment #2 was in the death spot, as it was time for Braun Strowman to reveal his surprise tag team partner against The Bar.  Now I was up in New Hampshire, having gone to see Chris Jericho and Fozzy in concert.  The deal was, the band would play a set, then hang out in the club and watch WrestleMania with everyone.  The band never re-emerged after their set, and I began to suspect Jericho had trolled everyone and was actually on a plane to New Orleans so he could be the mystery partner (How awesomely douchey a move would that have been??).  But no, Strowman picked a plant out of the audience - a 10-year-old boy named Nicholas (who as it turns out is the son of one of the WWE refs).  Pure idiocy.  Nicholas of course stood on the apron the whole match as Strowman squashed Cesaro and Sheamus in four minutes.  So this fourth grader was now in the record books as a WWE Tag Team Champion.  He's also 1-0 at WrestleMania.  Is this real life?  The next night on RAW Strowman and Nick relinquished the belts.  So this was a complete and total waste of time.  Just have Strowman win the belts by himself and be a one-man tag champ for a few weeks, how hard would that have been?

Given how inane that Strowman segment was, I'm baffled by some of the vitriol and hyperbole surrounding the main event, Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns.  Look, I get it, the New Orleans crowd did not care one single solitary fuck about this match, to the point that there were "CM Punk," "You Both Suck," and "This is Awful" chants throughout.  But if you really watch the match, this was Brock's best 'Mania match since the first bout with Roman.  This was a fantastic car wreck; Hulk vs. Thor.  Brock and Roman beat the SHIT out of each other for sixteen minutes, and by the end Roman had blood pouring out of his head.  Brock hit a dozen suplexes and six total F5s, one through a table (At one point Roman kicked out of an F5 and Brock yelled "MOTHERFUCKER!" which made me laugh).  Roman hit three spears and half a dozen Superman punches.  This main event was a King Kong vs. Godzilla-type spectacle.  Regardless of how the live crowd reacted after sitting through SEVEN HOURS of WrestleMania and being force-fed a main event they didn't want, this was a damn good Brock Lesnar main event.  Regardless of all the hyperbolic posts calling this the worst 'Mania main event ever (Come on...), it was at least on par with Brock-Roman I, and I might've even liked it better (minus the awesomeness that was Seth Rollins' cash-in).  That said, Roman not winning here made ZERO sense.  The whole point of the previous four years was to build Roman up as THE GUY.   Having him lose on the biggest stage, then get screwed in the steel cage rematch, only for him to win a totally underwhelming FOURTH match at SummerSlam, was a terrible plan.  Roman either needed to win here or Vince needed to move on from this experiment.  But this was a helluva good fight.

So yeah, this WrestleMania was overly long (WWE seriously has to trim the fat on these PPVs - get rid of the pre-match videos and the commercials), several booking decisions were questionable at best, and two segments were mindnumbingly stupid.  But by my count this show had five matches in the 3.5-4 star range and was just missing that one Match of the Year candidate to launch it into the all-time Top 5 discussion.  WrestleMania 34 was a pretty damn good show for the most part.  I like that it wasn't built around part-timers and nostalgia acts, I like that there were two singles women's matches and another centered around a new female star, I like that AJ and Nakamura got a full twenty minutes, and I like that Daniel Bryan got a moving homecoming.  This show had a lot of great things about it, even if it wasn't a truly great show.

Best Match: As much as I wanted AJ-Nak to steal the show, I have to go with Charlotte-Asuka.
Worst Match: Either Cena-Taker or Strowman-Bar, take your pick
What I'd Change: Trim Ronda's match to 15 minutes, add those five minutes to AJ-Nakamura, lose the Cena-Taker shit altogether, and give Strowman a real partner.
Most Disappointing Match: Imagine how good The Bar vs. Strowman & Samoa Joe could've been
Most Pleasant Surprise: The Ronda match was a helluva sports-entertainment spectacle
Overall Rating: 8.5/10

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