Monday, April 3, 2023

WWE WrestleMania 39 Review: Cody Rhodes = Lex Luger

Welp, WWE did it again.  And by that I mean two things.  The first "it" is, they presented one of the best WrestleMania shows of all time on Saturday, a lean seven-match lineup capped off by two stellar title bouts.  The second "it" is, they snatched a stupid and unnecessary defeat from the jaws of total victory by porking the ending of the Sunday night show.  And then at the post-show press conference they tried to rationalize it with a bunch of word salad.

It's really a shame this company can't be counted on to just deliver a layup, like ever.  They were handed an all-time great main event story that by all rights should've culminated in a triumphant title win for the returning hero.  Ya know, like they did in 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2014, and 2019?  There's a reason this story gets told a lot - it works.  Basically every single time.  Wrestling has always been about telling logical and usually predictable stories that build to a satisfying payoff.  Know what doesn't work?  Having the hero come up short and look like a cuckhold on the biggest stage of them all.  Who wants to cheer for a guy who can't deliver in the clutch?  Cody Rhodes had a chance to become the next John Cena and instead he left SoFi Stadium looking like the next Lex Luger.  

Triple H proceeded to twist himself into logic pretzels at the media scrum, saying stuff like "This is just a chapter, there's more to the story."  Where?  What more?  WrestleMania is never supposed to be "just a chapter," WrestleMania is supposed to be the climax.  Even if Cody gets another shot, which I'm sure he will, he's already failed once.  The luster's already gone.  Winning the title at SummerSlam or some other secondary PPV doesn't have the same impact as winning it at WrestleMania.  I think Hunter of all people knows this.  Hey, remember that time in 2002 when a top babyface returned from an injury seven months earlier, won the Royal Rumble, and beat the Undisputed Champion at WrestleMania to complete his hero's journey?  Yeah, his name was Triple H.  "RAW the next night continues the story."  You don't expect us to believe you consider having Cody show up on RAW cutting a tearful, mopey "I failed" promo more compelling than his showing up with the belts on his shoulders, giving an impassioned victory speech before a new challenger emerges.  I refuse to believe you believe that.  I also refuse to believe you had a compelling "next chapter" already in the works going into this weekend.  This is just another case of them punting the ball until they come up with something else.  WWE had a golden opportunity to have a new made man, and they once again ignored it, in the most unimaginative way possible.
Roman vs. Cody was on its way to being one of the best WrestleMania main events of all time too - an epic, drama-filled, 35-minute war that saw Solo Sikoa ejected for interference, The Usos run in after a ref bump, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn chase off the Usos, and Cody hit two consecutive CrossRhodes and set up for a third, only for Sikoa to show up again and thumb Cody in the throat, setting him up for a match-ending spear.  Soooo, basically the exact same finish as Clash at the Castle.  Like, identical.  Seriously guys?  This is what you came up with for the most important match of the year?  You had a truly special babyface challenger and you booked him like just another notch on Roman's ring post?  This is the type of fuck finishes WCW used to do all the time.  Hey remember how badly that Hogan vs. Sting match at Starrcade came off, despite Sting ultimately winning?  It ruined Sting as the top babyface, permanently.  That's what you did here.  Prior to the last thirty seconds this match was an easy ****1/2.  Because of that shit finish I'll give it ****1/4.

Ok now that's out of the way let's backtrack to Night 1.

Saturday's show was legitimately the best WrestleMania card since 2003, just a top-to-bottom good-to-great slate of matches in front of a super-hyped crowd, climaxing with back-to-back show stealers.

Austin Theory vs. John Cena was a very basic opener that gave Cena enough time to do his greatest hits but ultimately put over the cocky young US Champ.  Theory won after a low blow and his A-Town Down finish.  Nothing fancy about this but it was competently worked and the crowd ate it up.  **1/2

The unexpected hit of the night was the 4-way men's tag team showcase, with Brawn Strowman & Ricochet, Street Profits, Alpha Academy and The Viking Raiders all working hard and all getting a little time to shine.  This was a high-energy, crowd-pleasing clusterfuck with a cool finish.  Ricochet had wiped out a buncha guys on the outside with a shooting star press, then tried another one in the ring on Angelo Dawkins, but Dawkins got his knees up and held Ric in place for Montez Ford to hit a frog splash to Ric's back and get the win.  Very fun stuff.  ***1/2

The first great match of the night was next as Seth Rollins and Logan Paul had a battle of daredevils.  These guys got 16 minutes and delivered a highlight reel of big spots.  Rollins hit a sequence of suicide dives, Paul hit another buckshot lariat, Rollins hit a big powerbomb.  In the bout's most memorable moment, Logan Paul's Prime energy drink mascot got involved, revealing himself to be Paul's friend KSI.  The two set Rollins up on the announce table and Paul prepared to jump off the top rope, taking a selfie first.  But Paul didn't notice Seth pull KSI into the line of fire, and Paul crashed through his buddy instead.  Back in the ring Paul hit a Go To Sleep and went for a Van Terminator dropkick but Seth superkicked him midair and hit the curb stomp for the win.  Great match as expected.  ****

The six-woman tag was next and was a mix of good and not so good.  Everyone looked pretty great except for Lita, who was very sluggish here (minus her trademark moonsault which was fine).  Trish Stratus hadn't lost much of a step and her offense still looked crisp.  There was a fun spot where Trish did the Stratusphere hurricanrana to one of the Damage CTRL women on the outside, propelling her onto the pile of women on the floor.  Becky Lynch ultimately won the match with a second-rope Manhandle Slam on Bayley.  Solid match.  ***

Another strong bout was Rey Mysterio vs. Dominik Mysterio, the first father vs. son WrestleMania match in 22 years.  Rey looked great as always, the man who doesn't seem to age.  But the real story here was Dominik coming into his own as a compelling "little shit" heel character.  He did a lot of Eddie Guerrero stuff, including a frog splash and an attempted Three Amigos suplex.  Dom got into it with his mother and sister at ringside, throwing a drink in his sister's face and getting slapped by his mom.  Finn Balor and Damian Priest tried to interfere but were run off by the new LWO (why they've resurrected a short-lived WCW stable moniker is beyond me).  After hitting a 619 and frog splash, Dom tried to use a chain but guest commentator Bad Bunny grabbed it from him, allowing Rey to hit his own 619 and frog splash for the win.  I imagine at Backlash in Puerto Rico next month we'll see Rey and Bunny vs. Dom and Priest.  This was a very good match.  ***3/4

The final two bouts elevated this show to greatness and actually left me wanting more, something a WWE show hasn't done in many years.

Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley delivered what I consider the new yardstick for women's WrestleMania matches, going nearly 24 minutes and pulling out all the stops.  The match built to a masterful crescendo and included loads of nearfalls and big moves.  At one point Charlotte took a brutal-looking German suplex, flipping all the way over and just barely clearing the rotation (she scraped the bridge of her nose on the landing).  Charlotte kicked out of a Riptide, Ripley kicked out of Natural Selection and a spear.  Each woman escaped the other's submission move.  They ended up fighting on the top turnbuckle, where Ripley hit an avalanche Riptide to finally put away the 14-time champion.  Post-match Charlotte smiled proudly, having stolen the show.  This was fantastic.  ****1/2

After a pointless impromptu Miz vs. Pat McAfee match (which was mildly entertaining but placed way too late in the show), the main event began.  The Bloodline angle peaked at WrestleMania with lifelong friends Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn reuniting to take on the record-breaking Tag Team Champions Jimmy and Jey Uso, and they put on an epic tag match.  Like the previous bout, these guys hit all their big stuff and there were numerous dramatic nearfalls, including Zayn kicking out of the 1D finisher.  The defining moment of the match came at the end, when Sami pulled Jey to his feet in the corner and leveled him with three emphatic Helluva Kicks before covering for the win.  The crowd went apeshit.  The first tag team WrestleMania main event in 38 years was a smashing success and sent everyone home happy.  Sadly Night 2 wouldn't do the same.  ****1/2

Night 1 felt like Hunter's style of big-show booking.  Night 2 felt like Vince's and I would not at all be surprised if that were the case.  Fucker can't keep his rapey hands out of the broth, even when WWE is thriving under someone else's creative leadership.  To paraphrase a line from Jerry Lawler, Vince's ego is so out of control when he goes to a funeral he's upset because he's not the corpse.  Between the main event finish, the almost equally baffling Cell result, the train wreck segment involving Shane McMahon, and the 35-minute gap between the final two bouts (I'm not exaggerating, it was THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES from the end of Edge-Finn to the opening bell of the main event.  Inexcusable.), Night 2 often felt like the shit-show WrestleManias of the recent Vince era.  WrestleMania 34 springs to mind, as a show that was set up really well but hurt by Vince's dumbass booking choices.  Fortunately it included four strong matches.

Sunday opened with a five-minute Brock Lesnar-Omos match, which was exactly what it needed to be.  The crowd was very enthusiastic about this and it felt like the Hulk Hogan vs. Huge Guy house show matches of old.  Omos tossed Brock around for a few minutes, Brock made a comeback which included a great-looking German suplex, went for an F5, couldn't lift him, countered a Tree Chokeslam, and hit an F5 for the win.  You'll never see a better Brock-Omos match than this.  **1/4

The weakest scheduled match of either night was the women's 4-way tag showcase.  Liv Morgan and Raquel Rodriguez vs. Natalya and Shotzi vs. Chelsea Green and Sonya Deville vs. Ronda Rousey and Shayna Baszler wasn't much of a showcase really.  Ronda was still too injured to do anything, only popping in at the end, and somehow Shayna messed up her ankle and couldn't stand, having taken off one of her boots.  But they got to win anyway despite everyone else doing the heavy lifting.  Liv and Raquel looked pretty good here, Chelsea Green did not.  After eight minutes of rather messy action Ronda tapped out Shotzi with her armbar.  This was the one true miss of the 13 matches.  *1/2

Boy did things pick up in the third match though.  Gunther, Sheamus and Drew McIntyre beat the ever-loving piss out of each other for sixteen glorious minutes and had the crowd on its feet.  Even the announcers were allowed to show some rare spontaneous personality during this one, with Michael Cole actually using the phrase "fight forever."  The chops in this match were some of the loudest I've ever heard.  Structurally it was the usual WWE triple threat where one guy gets taken out of the match while the other two duke it out, but it worked great here.  One of the best nearfalls was Drew setting up Sheamus for the Claymore but Sheamus cutting him off with a Brogue kick.  Sheamus appeared to have the match won but Gunther splashed him from the top rope, then powerbombed Sheamus onto Drew, powerbombed Drew separately, and pinned Drew to retain.  For the first time since 1994 the Intercontinental Title match stole the show at WrestleMania.  I figured Sheamus was winning here but since Gunther retained he needs to break the Honky Tonk Man's longevity record.  Keep that title on him for as long as he wants it.  ****1/2

The RAW Women's Title was next as Asuka challenged Bianca Belair.  They had a very good match that seemed a little messy in spots, like they weren't always on the same page.  But they worked through it well.  Asuka had several near-submission spots, while Bianca showed off her power and athleticism, hitting a deadlift superplex, a sick powerbomb on the floor, and a blockbuster.  Asuka at one point used Bianca's braid to yank her into a Codebreaker for a nearfall.  Near the end of the match Asuka tried to spray mist in Bianca's face but Bianca ducked and went for the KOD.  Asuka countered into a flying armbar but Bianca then countered that and slowly but surely lifted Asuka into a KOD to retain.  Asuka is now 0-4 at WrestleMania, which is bullshit.  Very good match but not on the same level as the Night 1 women's match.  ****

Now for the aforementioned trash segment that was The Miz vs. Shane.  As they did on Night 1, Miz and Snoop Dogg announced the attendance and then started bickering, and Snoop Dogg called out Miz's surprise opponent for the night, which was, yes, the 53-year-old businessman Shane McMahon.  The bell rang, Shane hit a flurry of terrible-looking punches, whipped Miz into the ropes, did a leapfrog, and came down badly on his ankle, dropping him to the mat.  Play stupid games, win stupid prizes, Shane.  Miz stalled until the ref could figure out what was going on, but then Snoop ad libbed a knockout punch, at which point the ref called repeatedly for him to do a People's Elbow.  Like, REPEATEDLY.  Snoop then hit the worst-looking People's Elbow of all time and pinned Miz.  Hey remember in 2010-11 when Mike Mizanin was the hottest heel in the company and was on the verge of becoming its newest breakout star?  Good times.  

After those ten minutes of my life I'll never get back, we were treated to a 2023 Hell in a Cell match, which is to say a match contested inside the most brutal of structures, wherein blood is not allowed to be shown on camera and the brutality has to instead take the form of kendo sticks, chairs, tables and ladders (some of which were painted to match Finn's facepaint).  So in other words, EVERY no-disqualification WWE match.  Edge and Finn Balor worked hard and tried to introduce some innovation but it was clear they were handcuffed here.  Edge at one point threw a ladder at Finn's head, opening a six-inch gash that leaked all over the place and resulted in the match being paused.  Because in a Hell in a Cell match you have to make sure no one gets hurt, right?  This stopped the bout dead in its tracks but the two were able to get it going again.  Finn had the memorable spot of the match when he set Edge up on a table and climbed to a platform halfway up the Cell wall, and went for the Coup de Grace.  Edge moved and Finn crashed through the table.  Edge hit a spear but Finn kicked out, but then Edge did a con-chair-to for the win.  I can't fathom why you'd book the 50-year-old Edge to win here when he'd just beaten Finn in a tag match last month, and he's said more than once his career is winding down.  Finn has once again hit WWE's glass ceiling and I have my suspicions that Vince made the call to have Edge win.  This was good but not great.  ***1/2

And from there we had to wait 35 (I say again, THIRTY-FIVE) minutes for the main event to start.  And when it was over basically no one was happy.  Well done, WWE.

After Night 1 ended I was readying myself for the possibility that WrestleMania 39 might actually eclipse 19 as my all-time favorite one.  The first show was so strong and there were four potential classics on tap for Night 2, that they legitimately had a new milestone within reach.  And they still managed to fuck it up in the end.  

Night 1
Best Match: Charlotte Flair vs. Rhea Ripley
Worst Match: Austin Theory vs. John Cena
What I'd Change: Trim the breaks in between matches so this show ends at 11:30 eastern.
Most Disappointing Match: Nothing
Most Pleasant Surprise: The 4-way tag was much better than expected
Overall Rating: 9.5/10

Night 2
Best Match: Gunther vs. Sheamus vs. Drew McIntyre
Worst Match: Women's 4-way
What I'd Change: Cut that Miz-Shane segment, trim that 35-minute gap down to ten, and for fuck's sake give us the logical ending we all wanted to see.  Timing is everything, strike while the iron is hot, all that shit.  You're never getting that kind of momentum back with this Cody story.  Whenever he does win the title it won't feel as special as it would've on this show.  You can rationalize it all you want, but this is how it is.  You sacrificed a sure thing just to get Roman to some meaningless 1000-day mark which no one will care about once it's over.
Most Disappointing Match: The main event, which went from a Match of the Year contender to just another good match with a crap finish.
Most Pleasant Surprise: That Brock-Omos was watchable.
Overall Rating: 8/10 - Change the ending and this goes up to a 9.

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