Monday, April 8, 2024

WWE WrestleMania XL Review: Cody Finishes The Story

WWE WrestleMania XL (yay for the return of enumerations) is in the books and was overall a pretty unequivocal success.  In many ways it felt like the usual bloated WWE production but they also included indications that the company is actually evolving.  The biggest story coming out of it was of course The Story, Cody Rhodes' seemingly neverending quest for the title.  And while I still feel they should've pulled the trigger on his win last year, Cody was presented as a massive star poised to lead WWE into this new era.  

Amazingly Night 2 was the better night, for the first time since WWE expanded the show.  Night 1 was a solid piece of work, with a pair of ****+ matches and a main event that, while it went about twice as long as it should have, featured memorable moments and storytelling.  Both nights could've been trimmed down time-wise but the time management wasn't as bad as it had been under Vince at least.  Night 2 especially felt pretty concise and I was pleasantly surprised there was only a 25-minute gap between the end of the semi-main and the opening bell of the main event.  That's still way too much time but we're moving in the right direction at least.  

Night 1 kicked off with Rhea Ripley vs. Becky Lynch, which was a very back-and-forth bout and got a lot of time to breathe.  This was action-packed and the two were presented as very evenly matched.  Becky worked over Ripley's arm to weaken her for the armbar submission, but Ripley's power was on full display.  They had a memorable spot where Ripley had Becky up for an electric chair but Becky held on and pulled them both over the ropes.  Ripley landed on her feet though and dropped Becky to the floor.  They traded signature moves for nearfalls and ended up fighting on the turnbuckles, where Becky went for a Manhandle Slam but Ripley countered into a Riptide into the buckle, and then hit one in the ring for the win.  Very good opener.  ****

Next was the car wreck that was the six-way ladder match for both individual sets of Tag Team Titles.  Going into this I had no idea they'd be hanging the two sets of belts separately.  The first half of this match was pretty standard WWE ladder match fare, with tame spots, a big comedy bit with Miz and R-Truth, where Truth went out to the apron and asked Miz for a hot tag (the crowd went nuts for this), and Grayson Waller abruptly running up the ladder to capture the Smackdown belts.  The second half though actually ramped up the danger and we saw a few spots reminiscent of the early aughts TLC matches.  Johnny Gargano at one point hit Pete Dunne with a DDT off the apron through a table and Tomasso Ciampa hit an Air Raid Crash on Tyler Bate off a ten-footer.  Toward the end of the match the main ladder they were using had buckled, but the wrestlers didn't seem to notice, and Damian Priest and Miz battled on it precariously.  Priest then had to fold it up and throw it away, as Truth slid a fresh ladder in.  The finish was a little flat; Truth stopped Priest from climbing and tossed him out, then climbed up himself to get the RAW belts.  This was fine but nothing super memorable and six teams is way too many.  ***1/4

Another fast-paced bout followed, as Rey Mysterio and Andrade faced Dominik Mysterio and Santos Escobar.  This was a party match sprint, as both teams' entourages got involved, as well as two players from the Philadelphia Eagles, who ran in wearing Mysterio-style masks to even the odds before revealing their identities.  The most memorable spots here were Andrade putting Rey on his shoulders and doing a tandem dive to the floor, and Joaquin Wilde demonstrating his insane leaping ability with a dive to the outside.  Rey and Andrade won after Rey hit his splash on Santos.  This was fun but WWE's reliance on bells and whistles gets a little monotonous when it figures into three of seven bouts.  ***

The worst match of the night pitted Jey and Jimmy Uso against each other, in a heatless, mostly pedestrian slog.  The most memorable thing in this one was an exchange of superkicks that surely had the anti-Young Bucks crowd fuming about the overuse of the move, right?  RIGHT?  Oh it's only bad when Matt and Nick use it too much?  Got it.  Anyway the last couple minutes of this were ok; Jimmy hit a superkick and a splash for a two-count, but Jey came back with a spear and his own splash for the win.  Of the three legit brother vs. brother matches at WrestleMania, this was easily the worst.  **

The big six-woman tag was next, as Jade Cargill made her WrestleMania debut and was presented like a big star.  Unfortunately she barely spent any time in the ring.  At some point she's going to need to be able to sink or swim on her own.  I was hoping that with the talent involved here she'd be given enough leeway to prove that she's grown as a performer, but that still hasn't happened.  Bianca and Naomi mixed it up with Damage CTRL for the first seven minutes or so, until Jade finally got the hot tag and ran wild, very briefly.  Asuka accidentally sprayed mist in Kairi's face, Belair took Asuka out with a KOD, and Jade hit her finish on Dakota Kai for the win.  This was fine but Jade is still this era's Goldberg and the company isn't trusting her with any more than that yet.  **1/2

Things picked up big in the semi-main slot, and it was refreshing that neither show had a buffer match before the main event.  Wrestling cards SHOULD have two or three important matches in a row at the end so the intensity builds to a peak.  Gunther vs. Sami Zayn continued the renewed tradition of the Intercontinental Title match stealing the show, with a pretty basic but effective big man vs. little man story.  Sami's walk to the entrance ramp was done in a single shot, with Chad Gable telling him he wouldn't be accompanying Sami to ringside, because Sami didn't need him to.  Then Sami ran into Kevin Owens, who hugged him and told him to go win it.  This was a nice touch.  The match was dominated by Gunther but Sami kept getting up and fighting back.  Gunther kept beating Sami down and cutting off his comebacks, and then began taunting Sami's wife at ringside.  But after withstanding numerous powerbombs and top rope splashes, Sami fired up, hit a Helluva Kick, and then broke out El Generico's top turnbuckle brainbuster, followed by two more Helluva Kicks to win the title.  Damn good stuff, and one of the best matches of either night.  ****1/4

Night 1's main event was of course Roman Reigns and The Rock vs. Cody Rhodes and Seth Rollins, to determine the stipulations for Roman-Cody II.  As I said earlier, this match had some really good moments but was so artificially drawn out to seem "epic" that its absurd running time kinda overshadowed what was good about it.  Cut this down to 25 minutes and it's a pretty great tag team main event.  The four guys brawled in the crowd for a reeeeally long time, after The Rock instructed the referee that normal rules don't apply.  Rock's ability to order the referee to waive traditional rules rather undermines the whole point of this match though, doesn't it?  Like, if Cody and Seth had won, couldn't Dwayne have just told the ref on Night 2 that it was No DQ anyway?  This match picked up a lot in the final ten minutes, with a ton of nearfalls and a cool moment where Roman had Cody set up for a spear only for Seth to knock Cody out of the way and leave Roman to spear Dwayne.  They of course did the Roman barricade spot, which drives me up an absolute wall.  Stop. Doing. This. Spot. It. Sucks.  Rhodes made a comeback and hit Roman with two CrossRhodes, but before he could deliver a third, Rock whipped him with a weight belt.  Reigns hit Rhodes with a spear but Rock demanded the tag, and finished Cody with a Rock Bottom/People's Elbow.  Lose the meandering first half of this match and it's easily ****+.  As is, I'll be generous and give it ***3/4.

So Night 1 was a pretty good show, nowhere near as good as last year's Night 1, but we got two pretty excellent undercard bouts and a main event spectacle.  I've seen better and I've seen worse.

Best Match: Gunther vs. Sami Zayn
Worst Match: Jey vs. Jimmy
What I'd Change: Make that damn main event 25 minutes and help the Usos put together a match that isn't a near-stinker.
Most Disappointing Match: Jey vs. Jimmy
Most Pleasant Surprise: That Dwayne wasn't gassed.
Overall Rating: 8/10

Night 2's lineup was constructed in such a way that it actually kind of flew by for me, which hasn't happened with a WrestleMania show in over fifteen years.  The three longest matches were saved for the end, much the same way NJPW maps out their PPVs, and they were the three best matches on the card as well.  WWE still takes too long in between bouts but this definitely felt like an improvement over recent Vince-era shows in that regard.  

The show opened with Seth Rollins vs. Drew McIntyre for the World Title, with CM Punk on commentary.  Punk's contributions here were a bit awkward at times, particularly when he first spoke and asked Michael Cole "Aren't you gonna welcome me back?" to which Cole replied "Yeah one minute, we'll do a proper introduction."  Like, didn't anyone brief Phil on how that was going to go?  Anyway, Punk was there to piss on Drew McIntyre's fun and came off as more of a heel than Drew did.  The match was laid out a bit like a Brock Lesnar match, with Drew hitting the Claymore right out of the gate for a nearfall, and both guys went for big moves all match.  Drew hit a couple brutal looking overhead suplexes on the outside, but Seth countered a Future Shock DDT attempt into a Pedigree on the floor.  After the first few minutes Seth took a legit kick to the eye which seemed to temporarily blind him in that one eye.  That was more than a little scary.  Seth hit a stomp on the table but Drew surprised him with another Claymore in the ring, followed by yet another for the win.  For a match done in the style of a Lesnar bout, this was way better than the vast majority of Brock's matches.  Drew climbed up on the announce table and taunted Punk with the championship, until Punk snapped and swept Drew's leg out, knocking him down.  Punk then attacked him with his arm brace, and Damian Priest's music hit.  Priest ran down, bashed Drew with the Money in the Bank briefcase, and successfully cashed in to become the new World Champion.  This was kinda dumb and boy am I tired of the MITB stip.  It's been 19 years of this shit.  But otherwise another fine opening contest.  ****

The second match was the worst of either night, as The Pride faced The Final Testament in a dull street fight with Bubba Ray Dudley as the guest referee (It all makes sense now why Ray is so far up WWE's ass on his podcast - "Kenny Omega could learn from Randy Orton how to do things 'the right way.'"  Sit down, Ray.).  The first few minutes lacked any real urgency for me, as Authors of Pain dominated everyone with chairs.  The crowd really only came alive when Bubba put on his Dudley glasses and started helping the babyfaces do his old schtick, like the WHASSSUP and "Get the tables" bit.  They set up Karrion Kross on a table, which collapsed and broke on its own, and thus had to set up a second table, before Montez Ford crushed Kross with a top rope splash for the win.  This stunk.  *

Fortunately that was the only bad match on the card, as AJ Styles and LA Knight had a decent outing.  AJ is definitely far from the master he was in 2017, and LA Knight is very limited, but they both worked hard to make this alright.  AJ hit most of his greatest hits, almost getting a submission with the Calf Crusher, attempting a springboard 450 (Knight got his knees up), hitting a Pele Kick.  Knight made a comeback at the end, stopping a Phenomenal Forearm attempt and hitting BFT for the win.  ***1/4

The last three matches comprised one of the best final three-bout stretches in 'Mania history (granted, historically they usually put a throwaway match before the main event), starting with Logan Paul vs. Randy Orton vs. Kevin Owens.  This was a lot of fun, with RKO and KO teaming up to beat Logan up, teasing dissension, agreeing to continue teaming up, and finally coming to blows themselves.  Paul once again showed his natural wrestling ability and agility, hitting all sorts of big moves, including a senton/splash combination that flattened both opponents, and a Buckshot Lariat on both guys.  Owens at one point went for his top rope fisherman suplex, but Paul's foot slipped, forcing Owens to adjust into more of a powerslam, which was scary.  Paul broke out his brass knux and got a nearfall on Orton with them.  Orton countered a second punch with an RKO and gave the knux to the referee.  Paul's energy drink mascot saved him from an Orton punt and revealed himself to be fellow YouTuber IShowSpeed.  Orton hit IShowSpeed with an RKO on the announce table, taking him out of the match.  Owens hit Logan with a pop-up powerbomb and hit a Stunner on Orton, but Orton RKO'd Owens, only for Paul to toss Orton from the ring and hit a frog splash for the win.  Very fun triple threat.  ****

For the second time the penultimate match stole the show for me, as IYO Sky and Bayley had a pretty excellent 14-minute battle.  Sky targeted Bayley's leg, which often kept Bayley from following up on her comebacks.  Sky's offense was a mix of big high impact moves and submission attempts, including a Samoa Joe-esque transition from a crossface into an STF to prevent a rope break.  Bayley escaped and hit her Bayley-to-belly suplex for a nearfall.  Sky hit a pair of moonsaults but couldn't get the win.  Bayley went for her Roseplant, which Sky escaped, but Bayley clotheslined her and finished her with a second Roseplant attempt, winning her first singles title since 2019.  This was among the best matches of either show.  ****1/4

Finally it was time for the rematch we all waited a year for.  While most fans are probably of the opinion this match had more heat than the first Roman-Cody bout, my excitement level was lower than last year.  I still think Cody should've won the title at 'Mania 39, and the booking clusterfuck of Cody giving up his title shot to The Rock, demanding it back, and Rock turning on him didn't help.  That said, this was roughly on par with last year's main event.  I think all but the last minute of the first match was superior to this one, but this one was also really good and had the right ending, albeit after an overbooked all-star mess of run-ins.  Despite this being a Bloodline Rules match (just another fancy word for No Holds Barred), Cody and Roman wrestled a mostly traditional match for the first 20-plus minutes.  They did use some kendo sticks (I'm calling for a moratorium on these stupid things; there's no logical reason for them to be under the ring), but when Cody tried to introduce a table to the match, Roman took it away and slid it back under.  The two guys stole each other finishers for nearfalls, then Jimmy Uso interfered, only to be run off by Jey, who speared him off the stage through a pair of tables.  Cody hit the two CrossRhodes and went for a third, when Solo Sikoa showed up again with a thumb to the throat, like last year.  Solo pulled Roman on top of Cody, but Cody kicked out.  Solo held Cody up for a Roman spear, but Cody kicked out again.  John Cena's music hit, and he ran down to avenge Solo's attack on him last year.  Cena hit Solo with an AA on the announce table to take him out.  The Rock came down next, the two old adversaries had a staredown, and Rock took Cena out with a Rock Bottom.  Then a really confusing moment happened as The Shield's music hit, but no one came out.  Suddenly Seth Rollins appeared in the ring wearing his old flak vest, but the camera missed it until Roman knocked him out with a Superman punch.  Then the lights went out, the Undertaker's music hit, and he materialized in the ring, stared down The Rock, chokeslammed him, and vanished again.  Ok, I get Jimmy helping Roman, I get Jey taking out Jimmy, I get Solo helping Roman, I get Cena going after Solo, I get Rock going after Cena, I get Rollins trying to help.  Why was Taker there?  Clearly this was planned to be Steve Austin, who has a long WrestleMania history with The Rock.  But Taker's appearance made no sense.  Anyway, Roman picked up a chair and rather than finish Cody, decided to whack Seth in the back with it, as payback for Seth's treachery ten years ago.  This allowed Cody to recover and hit three consecutive CrossRhodes to win the match and the title.  Fucking finally.  So yeah, the climax was absurdly overbooked, and on a pair of shows with too many bells and whistles as it was, this should've been toned down.  But most of this match was quite good and the result was very much satisfying.  Like a Snickers bar.  I'll take my royalty check now.  Anyway a bunch of babyfaces came down and hoisted Cody on their shoulders, a la Bret Hart thirty years ago.  Cody invited Bruce Pritchard and Triple H to the ring to thank them for bringing him back, then hugged basically everyone at ringside as the show went off the air.  The Story is now finished.  On to a new one.  ****1/4

So yeah, really good second night of WrestleMania 40 and I'll be interested to see where they take Cody's title reign.  Of course a full-time guy being the Universal Champion now negates the need for that consolation belt.  I'd say of the last two 'Mania weekends, WM39 Night 1 was the best show, but Night 2 this year ranks second.

Best Match: IYO Sky vs. Bayley
Worst Match: The Pride vs. The Final Testament
What I'd Change: That Philly Street Fight should've just been left off the show.  Give Nakamura or Ricochet a match instead.
Most Disappointing Match: I actually expected the Street Fight to be entertaining but I was mistaken.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The US Title match exceeded expectations
Overall Rating: 9/10

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