For the 31st time, Wrestlemania season is upon us and for wrestling fans that means the biggest show of the year is finally here. Scores are settled, new champions are crowned and the future of the business determined. The build up to the Showcase of the Immortals begins at the Royal Rumble in January. Dubbed ‘The Road to Wrestlemania’, the storylines are different every year but no build up in recent memory has been as troubled as Wrestlemania 31 thanks to the fanbase’s near universal rejection of Roman Reigns as the anointed one to be the new face of the company. But more on that in the write up for the main event.
Wrestlemania 31 will emanate from Levis Stadium in Santa Clara – a venue which holds around 70,000 fans. While the show isn’t a sell out, it’s not far off it and despite the lousy build up, the atmosphere and spectacle of Wrestlemania should still deliver a fun night.
There are plenty of draw cards for fans to tune in. It’s the in-ring debut of Sting, perhaps the biggest North American wrestling talent never to compete in the WWE until now. It’s the return of the Undertaker a whole year after he finally lost his Wrestlemania undefeated streak. The main event has a certain ‘car crash’ appeal for the morbidly curious. The fans will almost certainly reject Reigns as a babyface and boo him out of the arena. Neither Reigns nor Lesnar is notable for their ability to carry a match so the quality of the fight is definitely under question. Will the company continue its tone-deaf approach and press on with Reigns in his current direction? Will the match be any good? Lastly, whatever the outcome, will Seth Rollins make history and become the first man to cash in a Money In The Bank title shot at Wrestlemania?
On another note, this show might actually be the start of WWE departing from the Superbowl inspired naming convention of the annual event. If you look at the logo, you’ll see that there is no ’31’ in the branding. The same is true of the recently unveiled Wrestlemania 32 logo. The numerals have been replaced by symbols – a play button for this year, a star for next. It’s unclear how the company itself intends to differentiate each Wrestlemania if they’re ditching the numerals. Perhaps they’ll refer to the year it was the held, the venue or even the branding symbol (‘Wrestlemania Play’?). Whatever the case, it seems like a weird instance of change for changes sake.
Here’s my preview and predictions for the card itself.
Cesaro and Kidd (c) vs New Day vs Los Matadores vs The Usos
WWE Tag Team Championship
Pity the WWE and its woeful tag team division which is now the least interesting it has been in years. Not one but two of the teams in this fourway matchup are look-alike twins that have no discernible differences in personality. I have no idea why pro wrestling has an obsession with this type of team. Anyway, of the many many things that the WWE managed to screw up last year, one of the most lamentable was the lack of faith in pushing Cesaro as a major star. He has a fantastic look, can perform incredible feats of strength and had several moves that were hugely popular with the crowd. Infuriatingly, the only reason offered by Vince McMahon when he was pressed in an interview with Steve Austin as to why Cesaro was not used more prominently was that he was ‘too Swiss’.
After Cesaro won the inaugural Andre the Giant Battle Royal at last year’s Wrestlemania, he was given absolutely nothing to do and was squandered until December when he was paired up with Tyson Kidd. The team captured tag team gold two months later, a feat not particularly impressive given how dreary the division is currently.
All the other teams in the match are bland, boring and in the case of New Day, not over with the crowd in the slightest. There can be no doubt about who the winners could and should be.
Who Should Win: Cesaro and Kidd
Who Will Win: Cesaro and Kidd
The Second Annual Andre the Giant Jobber Battle Royal
The Miz, Curtis Axel, Ryback, Fandango, Adam Rose, Zack Ryder, Jack Swagger, Titus O’Neil, Darren Young, Big Show, Kane, Erick Rowan, Damien Mizdow, Sin Cara, Goldust, Heath Slater, Mark Henry, Konnor, Victor, Hideo Itami
The Andre the Giant Battle Royal trophy has very little prestige in the world of Sports Entertainment. This is the second time that the trophy is being contested and in neither match has the WWE seen fit to add it to the main televised broadcast. Instead, it is a web-streamed ‘extra’. Given that the first ever winner Cesaro was immediately demoted after he won the contest last year, its little wonder people see this as a pointless jobber trophy that exists largely to give the midcard WWE wrestlers a Wrestlemania paycheque.
If the match solely exists as a time killing card filler then you may as well give the nod to Big Show, the man who most closely resembles Andre the Giant in stature. If the WWE are actually serious about using this match as the launching pad for someone’s career, then the logical choice would be Damien Mizdow who the crowd are clearly ready to see turn on his partner The Miz.
This match is notable for giving us the Wrestlemania and American prime time debut of Japanese wrestling sensation Kenta who is rebranded in WWE as Hideo Itami. I’m thrilled for him as it was a long-time goal for Itami to wrestle at Wrestlemania. I’d love for them to get behind him in a big way and make him the surprise victor. I think he could draw a pretty big pop from the crowd by delivering his signature finishing move – the GTS – which CM Punk popularized in the company, on his way to eliminating his final opponent.
Who Should Win: Damien Mizdow or Hideo Itami
Who Will Win: Big Show
Rusev (c) vs John Cena
United States Title
This is such a time honoured wrestling feud that will warm the hearts of any old school wrestling fans who watched during the Eighties. John Cena versus Rusev is a bona fide battle between an evil monster heel from a foreign country who won the United States title in dastardly fashion. John Cena is the All American white meat babyface who has vowed to stand up for his country and restore its honour by bringing the belt home.
For a long time veteran like John Cena who has been in the main event of the company for over a decade, this is a perfectly serviceable way to use him. I think Rusev and Lana have done wonderfully with such a cheesy retro-chic gimmick and the crowd has been itching to see them finally get their come comeuppance for over a year. This is the time to make it happen.
What’s probably more interesting for Rusev is what they do with him after he is finally defeated for the first time. He has shown that he has the talent and promo skills to continue working high up the card after the current storyline has run its course. Whether the WWE see fit to give him that opportunity is another thing.
Another time honoured storyline in pro wrestling is turning the evil foreign wrestler into a ‘converted’ America-loving advocate once finally defeated. In the same vein as Nikolai Volkov in the early Nineties, maybe we’ll see Rusev turn face and discover the pleasures of baseball, hotdogs and apple pie.
Who Should Win: John Cena
Who Will Win: John Cena
Randy Orton vs Seth Rollins
2014 was a break out year for Seth Rollins, the man that most people feared would get cast aside when The Shield separated. Instead he has showcased what an absolutely well rounded talent he is, delivering great promos and even better matches on a regular basis. The WWE’s best main event in a long time was at the Royal Rumble when Rollins went up against Brock Lesnar and John Cena. It’s no surprise that this is a lot of people’s pick to be the match of the night.
Randy Orton also had a favourable 2014 when ‘RKO OUTTA NOWHERE’ became a popular Internet meme on Vine and thrust him back into the mainstream. Orton generally isn’t at his best as a babyface but I think there’s no problem here as the crowd is definitely embracing Rollins as a heel.
I’d like to see Rollins booked strong and go over in his first singles Wrestlemania match. He needs all the momentum he can get for a guy who should be the next World Champion in the near future.
Who Should Win: Seth Rollins
Who Will Win: Seth Rollins
Wade Barrett (c) vs Daniel Bryan vs Stardust vs Dolph Ziggler vs Dean Ambrose vs R-Truth vs Luke Harper
Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match
Poor Daniel Bryan couldn’t beat the curse of the Wrestlemania main event jinx that afflicts the winner of the decade milestone shows. Bret Hart won the WWE Title at Wrestlemania X and then was shunted into the midcard for Wrestlemania XI. Chris Benoit won the World Heavyweight Title at Wrestlemania XX and then curtain jerked the following year at Wrestlemania XXI. Last year, Daniel Bryan was the story at Wrestlemania XXX and won the main event in convincing fashion and soaked in the adulation of the fans. 12 months later, he has been ignominiously shoved into an unimportant multi-man ladder match for a belt that no one cares about.
The WWE has a genuine star in Daniel Bryan who has a catchphrase with mainstream appeal and a level of support with the fans that looks visually stunning when they all chant ‘YES!’ and point skyward in unison. But for some reason the company is extremely reticent to get behind him and often job him out mercilessly at high profile events. He’s lost a match in 17 seconds at Wrestlemania. He’s been left out of Royal Rumble matches entirely or he’s been thrown out like a common jobber. But the WWE has learned the hard way each time not to underestimate his popularity. Every time the company has short changed Daniel Bryan the crowd have revolted and relentlessly booed the poor guy they deemed to have undeservedly taken his place. It stalled Sheamus’ career which has never truly recovered. It’s completely derailed Roman Reigns. And three years ago at Wrestlemania, people continued to chant Daniel Bryan’s name three matches later to show their support.
For whatever stupid, petty reason that no one can really identify, the company has a potential Stone Cold or Rock level babyface on their hands with Daniel Bryan and they don’t want to use him.
I’m going to guess that he wins this match but I’m not really fussed if he doesn’t. The Intercontinental title is far removed from the prestige it once had during the glory days when The Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon held the title. Inexplicably, the WWE have booked the current champ Wade Barrett to lose twenty three times since he won the title. Who the heck would want to be associated with that damn thing?
The sad thing is that I’ve written oodles of words bitching about the treatment of Daniel Bryan. I didn’t even get around to Dean Ambrose, a promising new talent who has the charisma of a young Steve Austin who is currently on an eight PPV losing streak. Or Dolph Ziggler, who probably could’ve been another permanent fixture in the main event if the WWE ever bothered to give him a chance. This match is pretty much the sum of all of WWE’s short-comings in the last twelve months. The match will be great but it means so little in the context of the talent and their careers. They deserve so much better.
Who Should Win: Wade Barrett
Who Will Win: Daniel Bryan
AJ Lee and Paige vs The Bella Twins
I think one of the most pleasant surprises to see develop in the wrestling community is an embracing of social equality. Although the Attitude Era is looked upon very fondly by wrestling fans, it was a time when the show was rife with sexism, misogyny, homophobia and racism. Wrestling companies are notorious for being behind the times culturally but to WWE’s credit, they now have an openly gay wrestler on their roster in Darren Young who hasn’t been saddled with a sexual deviant gimmick, an Islamic wrestler in the form of Sami Zayn who has Arabic written on his trunks but doesn’t wrestle as an ‘Evil Arab’ character and a diverse roster of men and women who play characters that aren’t embarrassingly behind the times or predicated on dubious stereotypes. This is huge progress by professional wrestling standards.
One area where the company is lagging behind and frustrating fans is the presentation of women’s wrestling. The Divas division has traditionally been treated like garbage. With a roster of more than ten female wrestlers you typically get one feud at a time, most of the characters are either ‘sexy babyface’ or ’emotionally unstable heel’ and the matches are given 3 minutes. An exception to this rule has been in the NXT developmental show where the women regularly work ten minute matches and periodically main event the shows.
The frustration for fans boiled over and a grassroots #GiveDivasAChance movement started up on social media and gathered such a groundswell of support that Vince McMahon formally acknowledged it and pleaded for patience, promising an improvement with the women’s division.
There are plenty of talented women currently in NXT who will likely break into the main event roster soon. Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Bayley and Becky Lynch should all become main roster performers in 2015. It would be fantastic if they came into an environment that allowed them to properly showcase their skills. We’ll have a good idea what their chances are based on the treatment given to this match. It features four wrestlers who are hugely popular in the company and is the culmination of a long standing feud. Will the WWE give them more than five minutes?
Who Should Win: AJ Lee and Paige
Who Will Win: AJ Lee and Paige
The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
The Undertaker, one of the most universally beloved wrestlers of all time, is in the twilight of his career. No one knows for sure how many matches he last left until retirement but given his once a year schedule and the shocking end to his Wrestlemania undefeated streak that spanned two decades, surely he only has a match or two left in the tank.
This will be his first match and appearance on WWE since his defeat at Wrestlemania last year to Brock Lesnar. Who knows what shape he will be in?
Bray Wyatt has been hampered by a lot of wayward booking in the last twelve months but a win would Taker would be a career defining moment and definitely make him a serious player once more.
Will WWE pull the trigger? Are we really ready to say farewell to the Dead Man? I’d personally like to see Taker put Bray over in this one and then have one final match next year before riding off into the sunset.
Who Should Win: Bray Wyatt
Who Will Win: The Undertaker
Sting vs Triple H
Hulk Hogan often spoke about the art of wrestling being not how many moves you have but how you do them. That philosophy will certainly apply to this match between Sting and Triple whose combined age is 101 years old. This is a match that would be expected to run for thirty minutes and they’ll need all the smoke and mirrors they can get it to make it work. I expect elaborate ring entrances, stare downs, run-ins, ref bumps, weapons and every other trick in the book to mask the fact that these are two guys well passed their prime wrestling a main event match.
To be honest, it has been given a ‘dream match’ billing but I think the dream extends only as far as seeing Sting in the WWE. Back in the Monday Night Wars I don’t think anyone was actually excited about this particular pairing. It was Sting vs The Undertaker that we wanted.
I think Sting winning this is a given but the most notable thing will be whether the victory is decisive or not. It’s pretty crazy to think that the current ‘Authority’ storyline has been running for over two years. It’s beyond stale at this point and hopefully Sting’s victory will finally put it to bed.
Who Should Win: Sting
Who Will Win: Sting
Brock Lesnar (c) vs Roman Reigns
WWE World Heavyweight Championship
And here it is. The Wrestlemania main event with the worst build up in modern history. Imagine if in 1998, the WWF decided to go with Test instead of Stone Cold Steve Austin to challenge for the title and that gives you an inkling of how much the company has wilfully ignored one wrestler’s connection with the fans and in-ring ability over the height and long hair of another.
Roman Reigns is certainly not a bad performer by any means but this is absolutely a case of pushing someone well before they were ready. The fans cheered and got behind Reigns for the majority of his two year long monster push. He laid waste to opponents at last year’s Royal Rumble, eliminating a record twelve opponents. He was awarded the Superstar of the Year title. He was consistently booked as one of the best and baddest. But it all went awry at this year’s Royal Rumble when he was pushed at the expense of Daniel Bryan and won the Rumble match after about twenty minutes of lying around on the mat. To make matters worse, the company immediately tried to pander to the crowd by associating Reigns with The Rock and drawing on their family connection but that just made it worse. Trust the WWE to be the only company in the world that doesn’t understand that nepotism is a bad thing.
The WWE needs to think long and hard about whether to put Reigns over in this match. You can only have the man who claimed The Undertaker’s Wrestlemania streak and comprehensively defeated John Cena put someone over once. And if they waste that rub on a guy who flat out isn’t over with the fans, it’ll be a criminally wasted opportunity.
The outcome of this match -Reign’s winning the title – seemed set in stone as Lesnar’s contract was due to expire and a return to the UFC seemed on the cards. But then Lesnar suddenly, unexpectedly, and very publicly, signed a new three year deal with WWE.
Personally, I’m not sure what they should do here. Ideally they wouldn’t have booked themselves into this position in the first place. It’s a dead certainty that the crowd will be behind Lesnar and not Reigns. I know the company defends John Cena’s mixed reaction by saying ‘love him or hate him, you have to respect John Cena’ but do they really want a second long term babyface champion that at least half of the crowd hates?
I really hope they embrace the reality of their situation and try to make the best of it. Do a double turn. Reigns isn’t over. Lesnar is. Have Heyman turn on Lesnar. Or just run with the match as planned and then let Rollins cash in at the end. After so many recent Wrestlemanias ending with John Cena celebrating in front of a crowd booing him mercilessly, it would be a real shame to go down that path again but with Reigns instead.
Who Should Win: Brock Lesnar
Who Will Win: Roman Reigns