Tuesday, April 2, 2024

The History of WWE WrestleMania: 36

WrestleMania in the time of COVID..... 

The one WrestleMania to take place in front of zero fans, in the Performance Center, Number 36 was definitely a mixed results-type show.  The lack of live crowd certainly hurt the overall vibe but everyone worked hard to negate the effects of the room silence; one side effect that was often entertaining was being able to hear the wrestlers trash-talk during each match.  My biggest complaint is that on both nights the final two matches were either underwhelming or just plain stupid.  Why Vince thinks a top championship match going under five minutes is acceptable at WrestleMania, I'm sure I don't know.  

After a pretty entertaining 4-minute pre-show match pitting Cesaro against Drew Gulak, the proper show began with the Women's Tag Titles.  Asuka & Kairi Sane faced Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross, in a pretty well-worked match that just went too long.  In front of a crowd this 15-minute match might not have worn out its welcome, but here it ended up dragging a bit by the end.  Asuka came off great in this empty-arena environment though, taunting her opponents for much of the bout.  The Kabuki Warriors dominated much of the bout, but in the end the babyfaces hit a Cross neckbreaker/Twisted Bliss combination on Kairi to regain the belts.  This was a fun opener that just went about three minutes too long.

The match I was least looking forward to was next, as Elias faced everyone's favorite reason to change the channel, Baron Corbin.  After an angle on Smackdown where Corbin knocked Elias off the camera perch to the concrete floor, they teased Elias not being able to wrestle.  But of course Elias came out, not selling anything, bashed Corbin with his guitar, and the match was underway.  This ended up an okay 9-minute TV match but nothing more.  Corbin dominated a lot of the action but after a rope-assisted pin attempt that failed, Corbin got rolled up by Elias (with a handful of tights) for the three.  

The most baffling match placement of either night was next as Becky Lynch defended against Shayna Baszler.  How this went on third and only got eight-and-a-half minutes is beyond me.  This was pretty much all action as they traded strikes and submission attempts back and forth.  Becky at one point hit a uranagi on the apron which looked great.  The match ended when Becky went for Disarm-her but Shayna reversed into the choke.  Becky refused to submit and did the Bret Hart-Steve Austin spot where she rolled backward to pin Shayna and retain.  A year into Becky's title reign this was the wrong move, Shayna should've won here.  What's worse is that Becky announced one month later that she was pregnant and would be relinquishing the title anyway.  So having her go over in this match was pointless.  One of a few booking decisions that didn't make sense to me, but a solid if underwhelming match. 

Match four was the disappointment of both shows for me, as Sami Zayn faced Daniel Bryan in what turned out kind of a nothing match.  Zayn spent the first couple minutes stalling and running away from Bryan, but Drew Gulak took out both Nakamura and Cesaro on the outside.  Zayn threatened to walk out and Bryan told him to go, but then chased him up the ramp and threw him back in the ring.  Bryan did his usual strikes and kicks, dominating Zayn for several minutes.  Nakamura and Cesaro came back out, beat down Gulak, and Bryan hit a suicide dive on both guys.  Then a psychology-free finish ensued, as after kicking Zayn's ass all over the place, Bryan went for a missile dropkick but was met with a Helluva kick and got pinned.  Just like that, out of nowhere, Bryan was taken out with one move.  What an idiotic ending.  I was hoping this would steal the show but it wasn't given the chance and thus didn't even come close. 

Things picked back up with the Triple Threat Ladder Match as John Morrison finally got a chance to remind everyone what a unique talent he is, defending the Smackdown Tag belts against Kofi Kingston and Jimmy Uso.  This was another match that would've killed in front of a crowd, but even in silence it was a lot of fun.  There were numerous big spots but the highlight of the match was Morrison walking across the top rope, hands-free, from one corner to another and then hitting a Spanish Fly on Kofi.  After all these years Jo-Mo finally got his WrestleMania moment.  Jimmy Uso took an obviously edited bump from the top of a ladder to the floor, as he landed off camera, almost certainly on a crash pad.  At the end all three guys ended up on different ladders and going for the belts.  They unhooked the belt holder and a tug of war broke out, but Kofi and Jimmy headbutted Morrison simultaneously and he pulled both belts off the hanger and fell to a bridged ladder below, retaining the titles.  Not an all-time great ladder match by any means, but this was quite good. 

Match of the Night honors went, by a significant margin, to Seth Rollins vs. Kevin Owens, a heated, crisply worked brawl that managed to overcome the lack of an audience and included a crazy spot that will be long-remembered.  These two former ROH Champions did their best to tear the house down, with loads of nearfalls, finisher counters, a Falcon Arrow on the apron, and a Curb Stomp attempt countered into a Pop-Up Powerbomb, before Seth ran away and hit Owens with the ring bell to draw a disqualification.  I was seriously pissed for about thirty seconds, thinking this was the actual finish.  But Owens took the mic and demanded a restart with no disqualification, and Seth obliged.  Relishing the new lack of rules, Seth hit Owens with the ring steps and whacked him over and over with a chair, then tried to set him up on the announce table.  But Owens used the bell, laid Seth on the table, and came off the big WrestleMania sign above with a brutal-looking elbowsmash through the table.  Owens rolled Seth into the ring and hit the Stunner to win the match.  Helluva fight that would've been a classic in front of an audience, but was still good enough to steal the show. 

At this point the show drove right off a cliff.

The Universal Title match consisted of Braun Strowman going for a powerslam, Goldberg slipping out and hitting four spears, Goldberg going for a jackhammer, Strowman countering into a powerslam and three more powerslams to win the belt.  They sacrificed red-hot merch mover Bray Wyatt, to Goldberg, for this.  A two-minute match consisting of two moves.  Fuck this place.  This is why you don't put top belts on old fucks. 

Now for the most controversial match of the evening, if you can call it a match - AJ Styles vs. The Undertaker (using the American Badass gimmick) in a Boneyard Match.  For some reason most people loved this.  I cannot wrap my brain around that; I thought this was absolute twaddle.  Think Broken Matt Hardy's Final Deletion, except not funny.  This was a badly shot action-horror film sequence that took place in a cemetery, under Buried Alive rules.  And it had a background score, cinematic camera angles, silly pyro effects, and a teleportation.  Yeah, that's right, a teleportation in the middle of a match.  AJ had the match won, bashing Taker in the face with a shovel and tossing him in the open grave.  But when he went to dump the dirt on him, Taker suddenly appeared behind him, fresh as a daisy.  So hold on though, why doesn't Taker just do that in every match when he's on the verge of losing?  Yes, I know he disappears and reappears all the time in angles, but he's never done it during an actual match before.  So now he literally has the ability to not only teleport, but can also instantly shake off any damage sustained.  This made Hogan's superhero comebacks in the 80s seem realistic by comparison.  So SuperTaker then beat the shit out of AJ, took out a host of druids, threw Gallows off the roof of a building, Tombstoned Anderson on the roof, and chokeslammed AJ off the building onto some wood pallettes.  He shit-talked AJ, who was now crying and begging not to be buried (Too late AJ, you already were).  Taker hugged him, saying he gave him a good fight, and teased walking away, but then kicked him into the grave and buried him.  Taker drove away on his bike and they showed AJ's hand sticking out of the dirt.  Yeah, this was stupid.  And had no business going on last.  And did zero for AJ, who had already been pinned by The Undertaker after a single chokeslam.  AJ was buried literally and figuratively.  1) Why are we continuing to sacrifice full-time stars to a twice-a-year 55-year-old who needs movie editing to make his matches not suck?  2) If I wanted to watch bad horror movies I'd subscribe to Shudder.  This could've just been a Buried Alive match, presented as a live contest, and been a whole lot better. 

So yeah, under the circumstances Night 1 was an okay show.  A few of the matches would've really benefitted from a live audience, but there were still four good to excellent bouts.  The biggest problem was the final two matches being crap.  But while it didn't feel like a WrestleMania (nor did Night 2), it was an easy-to-watch three-hour show.

Best Match: Rollins vs. Owens
Worst Match: Goldberg vs. Strowman
What I'd Change: Make Becky-Shayna the main event (and give Shayna the belt), make Taker-AJ a Buried Alive match without presenting it like a bad movie, give Zayn-Bryan a lot more time.
Most Disappointing Match: Sami Zayn vs. Daniel Bryan
Most Pleasant Surprise: That any of the matches worked without an audience
Overall Rating: 5/10

Now for Night 2....

Things kicked off with Rhea Ripley defending the NXT Title against Charlotte Flair.  They got twenty minutes to put together a really physical, intense match, and they made the best of it.  Ripley hit the Riptide two minutes in but Charlotte kicked out, and a little while later Charlotte took out Ripley's knee and worked it relentlessly.  Ripley sold the knee really well and settled into an underdog babyface role as a result.  She made the babyface comeback toward the end, hitting a top-rope dropkick and her reverse cloverleaf, but Charlotte escaped.  After some good nearfalls, Charlotte locked in the Figure Four and then bridged up, and Ripley tapped.  Just like with Asuka two years ago, WWE dropped the ball on having a hot new star defeat the Queen at WrestleMania.  I will never understand why Vince is the enemy of creating new stars.  Now was the time to push Ripley to the moon.  Nope, instead Charlotte won the belt, showed up on NXT television, didn't move the ratings, and dropped the title to Io Shirai about a month later, while Ripley's push took a full year to get back on track.  The booking here was actually offensive.  All that said, this was easily the match of the night, and for my money the best match of the weekend.  

They followed it up with a solid little match in Aleister Black vs. Bobby Lashley.  These guys only got seven minutes but the match was filled with action.  Early on Lashley hit an overhead throw on the floor, but Black made a comeback and after a failed first attempt, finally hit an Ibushi moonsault to the floor.  Lashley was about to go for the Dominator but Lana demanded a spear for some reason.  Lashley bounced off the ropes for a spear but ran into Black Mass for the pin.  As Black celebrated, Lashley shot Lana a dirty look for screwing up his match.  This was decent.  

The match I was dreading was next, as Otis faced Dolph Ziggler.  They had a basic TV match with pretty nondescript action, culminating in Otis going for the Caterpillar until Sonya Deville jumped up on the apron for a distraction.  When Otis went after her, Ziggler low blowed him.  Suddenly Mandy Rose ran out, slapped Sonya in the face, and low blowed Ziggler.  Otis hit the caterpillar elbow drop for the win (why this move would finish anyone I dunno).  Otis carried Mandy up the ramp and they kissed.  Thus ended Dolph Ziggler's first singles WrestleMania match.  Jesus.  This match was inoffensive but not particularly good. 

Now for the match that most everyone hated.  Edge vs. Randy Orton, Last Man Standing.  This bout got skewered in every review I read, and I can't argue with the logic, even if I liked the second half of it pretty well.  But it went 36 fucking minutes.  What asshead edited this match and couldn't find another 10-12 minutes to trim out of it (in particular the spot where Orton tried to hang Edge on the weightlifting machine, all too reminiscent of Chris Benoit - what the fuck were they thinking??)?  These guys brawled all over the performance center, through the gym, through the conference room, into the storage area, eventually finding themselves on top of an 18-wheeler container.  Edge hit a spear but both guys got up.  Orton hit an RKO but both guys got up again.  Orton went for a conchairto but Edge choked him out, and then, in tears, hit his own conchairto for the win.  This match should've just been a Falls Count Anywhere match and gone 18 minutes, and it would be approaching four stars.  They both worked hard but the ref counting stopped the match dead in its tracks every minute or so.  Stop booking LSM matches.  The format inherently ruins them.  These two apparently redeemed themselves at Backlash a couple months later with "The Greatest Wrestling Match Ever," but as of this point I haven't watched it so I can't say for sure.

We went from slow and overlong to short and sweet, as Street Profits defended against Angel Garza and Austin Theory in a six-and-a-half minute sprint.  This was all fast-paced action with loads of big moves until Ford hit a frog splash on Theory for the pin.  This was fine.  

Next up was the Smackdown Women's 5-way match, which surprisingly got 19 minutes now that it was elimination rules.  The first elimination came six minutes in as everyone hit big moves on Tamina and pig-piled on top of her for the pin.  Next was Naomi, who tapped out to the Bank Statement.  Lacey Evans then played the babyface in peril against Bayley and Sasha, but came back to hit the Woman's Right on Sasha as Bayley sat back and allowed her to be pinned.  Lacey looked much better here than she has in the past, though still a bit green.  She hit a moonsault for a nearfall but Sasha ran in and hit a backstabber, and Bayley hit her new finisher to retain.  This eventually led to the long-awaited Bayley-Sasha feud.  Only took 'em two years to deliver.  This match was, again, fine. 

Alright, here's another match most people seemed to hate but I didn't.  I guess "match" isn't the right word.  This was essentially a dream sequence.  John Cena came out to wrestle but somehow ended up on the Firefly Fun House, where Bray Wyatt derided him for not putting him over six years ago and announced he'd be facing his toughest opponent yet, himself.  From there we got a series of surreal scenes, like a recreation of Cena's 2002 debut, a hilarious Saturday Night's Main Event spoof (I'm guessing this was based on a childhood fantasy of Cena's), a throwback to his Thuganomics character, a recreation of the WrestleMania 30 match, where this time Cena swung the chair Wyatt handed him, but Wyatt vanished.  Then we were on the set of WCW Nitro, where Cena did a Hollywood Hogan-style entrance (presumably as a nod to everyone who said he should turn heel a few years ago like Hogan did in 1996).  Cena attacked Wyatt again but Wyatt disappeared and the Fiend appeared behind him, put him in the Mandible Claw, and Wyatt counted his shoulders down for three.  They cut to a hilarious shot of Titus O'Neil (taking over as the host after Gronk won the 24/7 Title and ran off), his hand on his head with a stunned look on his face, and after a few seconds he just said "I don't know what I just saw...."  So yeah, like the Boneyard Match this was a movie sequence instead of a match, but unlike that, I actually found this really entertaining.  Stupid, yes.  Silly.  Nonsensical.  But where AJ-Taker attempted to pass itself off as some kind of serious, epic fight, this was pure camp, and reveled in it.  I'd liken this to Batman 1966, while the Boneyard Match was Batman v Superman.  Both movies are garbage, but at least the former knows it's garbage.  The latter thinks it's art.  

Now for what passed for a WrestleMania main event in 2020.  Brock Lesnar vs. Drew McIntyre.  I went into this hoping for a 10-12 minute slugfest where these guys just beat the shit out of each other.  Instead we got a carbon copy of the Goldberg match.  The champion hits four finishers but can't get the pin.  The challenger then hits four finishers and gets the pin.  That was it.  Four minutes of two moves.  How divorced from your audience do you have to be to think this is WrestleMania main event-worthy? What fucking lazy, psychology-free booking.  Like, if these guys can just hit their finishers over and over until they win, why don't they do this all the time?  This sucked, and considering Drew was now The Guy, it was a pretty shabby way to put him on top.  

So yeah, Night 2 was easily the lesser show.  Only one **** match (with the absolutely wrong result), a couple just-ok matches, one of which went twice as long as it should have, a main event that was worthless aside from elevating a new champion, and a goofy dream sequence.  Neither show was particularly good, but Night 1 was closer.

Best Match: Rhea Ripley vs. Charlotte Flair
Worst Match: Brock Lesnar vs. Drew McIntyre
What I'd Change: Already covered it - Rhea should've won, Edge-Orton should've gone 18 minutes, Brock-Drew should've gone a good 10.
Most Disappointing Match: The 4-minute main event
Most Pleasant Surprise: I guess the Bayley match
Overall Rating: 4.5/10

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