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WrestleMania Recap: Did WWE Strike a Chord With Its Core Audience and Casual Fans?

WWE’s WrestleMania happened last night. This year’s event received more exhaustive mainstream coverage than maybe ever, but hopefully this recap diary can add some value in a saturated marketplace. Mike Cardillo checked out of his pro wrestling fanhood more than a decade ago, and Ryan Glasspiegel is helping him catch up. 

Mike Cardillo: Hey Ryan, thanks for dragging me into this … I think. I just watched the frickin’ Big Show win a Battle Royal trophy named for Andre the Giant. That was terrible. Nobody likes the Big Show. Nobody will ever like the Big Show. The only good feud he ever compiled came when the Big Bossman (RIP) trolled his fictional father’s funeral. Watching Kane schlep around the ring, without the mask, made me feel old, sad and depressed, which I’ll guess will be a running theme tonight.

Bear in mind, I haven’t watched wrestling since the end of the WWF Attitude era right around the time of the ill-fated Invasion angle following WCW’s demise. Although everything about Wrestlemania falls under the auspices of #youreawinnerandaloser, I appreciate and do not mock pro wrestling. My whole thought of writing anything about this came under the premise, some people only watch football during the Super Bowl. Wrestlemania is the Super Bowl of wrestling. The $9.99 I paid for the WWE Network better be worth it. More importantly will I like anything about this PPV and why should I care about this scripted reality programming?

Ryan: Yeah, my prediction is that they’ll win you over at the beginning with the ladder match for the Intercontinental title, which should be super high energy and end with a satisfying winner. There’ll be a lull for maybe 90-120 minutes, but then you’ll find yourself super into Sting-Triple H, Bray Wyatt vs. The Undertaker, and the main event with Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar. But, in addition to the great matches, we’ll be treated to an untold amount of synergetic promotions for WWE’s various social media tentacles, and the network that we’re already watching and paying for.

I agree, though, that the Battle Royal was uninspiring. Not only did Big Slow win, he eliminated the three wrestlers who the crowd would’ve most liked to see win — Cesaro, Damien Mizdow, and NXT’s Hideo Itami. In an aggravating way, this was successful booking on the part of WWE, because it just makes everyone hate Big Show more and that’s what they want out of heels. It’ll be interesting to see if, at the end, we’re all really happy or mega pissed off. There will be no in between, and the Battle Royal was an ominous first step.

Mike: Yes, that was very odd. Right after the show went live on PPV, the WWE aired a performance of “America the Beautiful” by Aloe Blacc. After that? They chose to show a segment where LL Cool J pitched the greatness of social media (barf) and connecting with the WWE in 140 characters.

Quickly explain Daniel Bryan. He’s one of those guys who connects with the crowd and gets the people going, so to speak, yes?

Ryan: Yep. Daniel Bryan is a big story in and of itself. He connects with the crowd probably more than anybody since Steve Austin and The Rock. He was proverbially held back by the powers that be for years, but the crowd got so behind him that last year they held the Royal Rumble (and Raw the next night) hostage, more or less forcing WWE to adjust their booking plans. At WrestleMania, he beat Triple H early in the night, and then won a triple threat match with Randy Orton and the muscly Rumble Victor Batista. But, he injured his neck that night and never got to defend his title.

Daniel Bryan returned at the Royal Rumble this past year, but is out of the heavyweight title picture. On one hand it’s infuriating because he’s by far the most compelling performer on their roster — even though this is scripted, wrestlers’ legacies are in large part determined by championship tenures. His not having the belt pisses off the audience and only makes them love him more, so he doesn’t really need to hold the title for us to think he’s the best. Therefore, he can elevate others on the mid-card, as we just saw in what was a tremendous ladder match that he wound up winning. It sucks that he’s not on the main event, but he’s not getting buried either. Did you enjoy that match?

 Mike: Yes. Although there were too many guys and two of them wrestled wearing jeans, the ladder match was in the words of Joey Styles, “Hiiiiigh Incident.” The crowd reaction after Bryan won was what wrestling is all about. Visceral reactions. Heat. Pops. Also, how is it that climbing a ladder during a ladder match suddenly becomes the most-difficult endeavor in human history?

Ryan: I dunno, it just is. It’s one of the unwritten rules of wrestling where you have to suspend disbelief and enjoy it within the confines of the genre. There are lots of nuances like that, and they just become second nature.

Meanwhile, holy shit at that ending of Orton vs Rollins. Most of the match was kind of ho-hum, and featured the two kicking out of each other’s finishers, as has now become customary at WrestleMania. That finisher, with Orton hitting the RKO out of the curb stomp, was incredible. Some of the athleticism on display in these matches can be insane.

This match ended with enough time for a 45-minute introduction to Sting – Triple H. How much do you think the upcoming Terminator movie paid for that product placement in the Triple H entrance? At least 20 bucks, I’d surmise.

Mike: Fun fact: Vince McMahon has never received a check from Hollywood he didn’t cash immediately. Embrassing is the only word that comes to mind. Triple H rising from below the stage wearing a Skeletor mask? That’s supposed to be cool? Maybe for a kid who is six … maybe. To borrow Ty’s “Instant Historian” gimmick for a second, that whole segment is going to age about as well as the time Sting fought with Robocop.

What galls me is JBL took a shot at the last remaining WCW stalwart, Sting, saying it “wasn’t Starrcade” during his introduction. Yes, Vince loves to tapdance on Billionaire Ted’s grave — but that whole Terminator entrance is some Shockmaster level bullshit. Actually worse — the Shockmaster didn’t fall through the set to plug a movie. Yep, WWE decided to use Sting’s first-ever appearance in their ring as a chance to plug a Sci Fi would-be blockbuster starring the ghost of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hey it’s a business, I get it.

Ryan … did the actual match do anything for you? I love nostalgia as much as the next guy, obviously, but seeing DX vs. the NWO mostly felt depressing. As did looking at Sting’s bald spot and realizing, as the match wore on, he resembled Doink the Clown (RIP). What truly sucked about that match — and the PPV — is the announcing. Michael Cole makes you long for the days of Tony Schiavone.

This is not a compliment. Pretending like this match had anything to do with the Monday Night Wars is a stretch. The war is over. WCW is dead. Watching Scott Hall try his best to take a bump? I applaud his effort, but the WWE asking him to do it at this point? I wasn’t feeling this match at all, oddly.

Ryan: I’ll wholly admit it was cheesy, but the NWO – DX stuff made me smile.

However, it made no sense that the NWO would back Sting in that match. They famously feuded with him, and Hall and Nash are known to be BFFs with Triple H and Shawn Michaels in real life. Though the Monday night wars are long gone, to not bring them up constantly would alienate the WWE management who wield the storyline as an opportunity to gloat about being the victors. In any event, that aspect of the narrative at least made sense based on the buildup to the match.

Where I felt the interference angle fell short was the lack of Ric Flair (who emerged in the building right after the fucking match to congratulate Daniel Bryan!). Along with Sting, he was the WCW flagbearer, but is also Triple H’s real life close friend and mentor. Flair’s choosing a side — good or bad — would’ve made the ending much more satisfying from a storytelling perspective.

You’re a thousand percent right about Michael Cole, who by all indications is a tireless worker and a really good guy. But, he should not be calling WrestleMania while Jim Ross graces this planet. It’s tough to know how much of Cole’s lack of enjoyable broadcasting is his own fault when Vince McMahon is constantly yelling in his ear. But damn.

How did you feel about the Divas’ match?

Mike: I liked it. It played out like a good “old school” tag team match with a good rhythm and pacing. A classic kind of wrestling match with clear faces — AJ Lee and Paige — and clear heels — the Bella Twins. Lee’s finishing move is cool as hell.

Now she’s married to CM Punk, correct? Did Vince bury her because of that? How much does the backstage drama bleed into what we see in the current WWE?

Ryan: Yes, AJ Lee is married to CM Punk. Maybe that’s why she’s been buried a little, but they’re definitely aware that she’s their best Diva performer. So, it’s unclear the extent to which her burial is related to her marriage, or because they just bury the Diva division in general. That match was, what, half as long as the borderline distasteful monstrosity of an entrance with John Cena and a tank driving Rusev?

As we keep coming back to, the whole game with this era of wrestling is trying to sift through whether Vince McMahon is out of touch or deliberately trolling.

Neither’s ideal. Like, this Russia versus America angle, featuring a wrestler who isn’t actually Russian and a good guy that everyone actually hates, is fucking stupid and gives its audience no intellectual credit. Hopefully Cena’s predictable victory — Russia’s not beating America in WrestleMania, ever — ends the feud.

Mike: Yeah. Pro wresting often struggles with nuance. Everything about Cena vs. Rusev felt creatively bankrupt. If it accomplished anything, it made me want to watch Red Dawn again. Powers Booth! Wrestling is about suspending disbelief and going with the flow, but I can’t reconcile a dude who rides a tank into the ring carrying the Russian flag having a clear tattoo on his shoulder of the map of Bulgaria, filled in with its flag colors. I know, I know …

One thing I’ve noticed tonight, through the product placement (Mmmmm Mountain Dew) and non-stop shilling for the WWE Network (Only $9.99 per month! Have you ever wondered what it was like when your favorite Superstars went to Summer Camp?), is how much the WWE wants to self-aggrandize itself and basically turn everything into a mythology or legend-building moment. When you have a Network, you need the content and I’d guess someone is already working on the hour-long Top 10 moments of Wrestlemania 31 special. How important to the future of WWE is the WWE Network?

Ryan: It’s vitally important, because they ceded a massive existing revenue stream for a theoretical one. For me, the WWE Network is more than worth the 10 bucks each month though. While I never used to order the PPVs, I now watch each one of them. Also, NXT (their D-League) is fantastic. I don’t have a ton of time to invest in their week-to-week storylines, but their specials are incredible, and have a really energetic and intimate feel. The WCW, ECW, and WWF archives are likewise fantastic, and they keep adding more. (Disclosure: I’m a small WWE shareholder.) One wishes they’d be more subtle in promoting the network, but that and their cable TV contract are gonna be the lifeblood of the company’s earnings going forward.

That segment with The Rock, Ronda Rousey, Triple H, and Stephanie McMahon was a huge deal. Rousey appearing in the ring is actually something Jim Ross forecasted in our conversation a few months back. Dana White and Vince McMahon cooperating on a talent like that opens up a whole new world. A match between Rousey and Steph at WrestleMania next year would be a huge draw.

Also, wow, that Undertaker match was a huge pleasant surprise. He looked better than he had in years. Did it do anything for you?

Mike: In truth, I’ve never marked out for the Undertaker. Did they ever explain why he stopped riding the Harley to ringside? The horror type characters don’t resonate with me, it veers way too cartoon-y. I’d rather watch old Cactus Jack ECW promos for some unhinged wrestling stuff vs. some dude who looked like he watched the True Detective credits to come up with his gimmick.

Since I mentioned ECW, it’s weird seeing Paul E. Dangerously, err, Heyman doing stuff with Brock Lesnar. I’m a sucker for the wrestler who lets his manager do all the talking. Is Lesnar a big deal, when he re-signed with WWE instead of UFC it appeared to be significant? What do you get out of rooting for Lesnar? Just seems like a big lug without much of a personality. [UPDATE: I wrote that before he dropped 287 suplexes on Reigns during the main event. I can quickly see his appeal as a performer.] Since we’ve talked about it, this seems like a very important phase for the WWE — mostly because of the Network. Who is the guy they’re hitching their star to? Or is it more the WWE brand and history? Roman Reigns? Also gives off a “meh” vibe.

Ryan: Lesnar’s very important because he’s a believably unbeatable behemoth, and the leverage that carries has enabled him to negotiate a contract where he won’t be overexposed, which is an issue with the rest of the roster. Paul Heyman is a virtuoso on the microphone as his manager, though it might be nearing the time for the pair to split and give Lesnar the opportunity to showcase his improved chops.

Roman Reigns was one of those giants that Vince pushed too early, but he’s actually gotten a lot better, and fast since the crowd turned on him at the Royal Rumble. The match with Brock Lesnar, with Seth Rollins cashing in the money in the bank suitcase at the end, was perfect booking. It split the baby in a way that enabled Lesnar to lose the belt without getting pinned, and for the belt to be a consistent part of WWE programming whereas it had previously been a special attraction along with Lesnar.

Despite not having a frame of reference, did you enjoy the evening?

MIKE: Depends how you define “enjoy” … for one night, yeah, it was entertaining enough. I think I ended up with four non-manual retweets on Twitter, which is the most-gratifying thing that can happen to a human being nowadays. WrestleMania is traditionally a little too bloated and you have to go with the flow. It’s a party event, first and foremost. Since I watched it alone and my only company was social media, it was hard to say if I liked what I saw or was revolted by it or just liked making easy jokes, twisting nostalgia in the process. Who knows?

Ultimately, am I going to extend my WWE Network membership beyond this month? Probably not. I don’t really have time, nor want, WWE in my life. Actually let me amend that, I don’t need Michael Cole or Bradshaw in my life. Plus, there are too many storylines and my suspension of disbelief isn’t what it once was years ago. Seth Rollins winning the title via Money in the Bank didn’t do anything for me. He was just some dude with long hair. I’m not curious to see where he takes the belt from tonight, truthfully.

If anything, I’ll keep my subscription a couple days for the old stuff, since that’s what gets me to mark out like a total nerd. Then again, the set-ups and the storylines and pacing of wrestling never changes, as we saw numerous times tonight. Guys like Hogan, Triple H and the Rock will probably be around until actual Terminators show up and wipe out mankind.

Did wrestling fans who didn’t stop watching back in 2002 get their money’s worth tonight, Ryan?

Ryan: Absolutely. Though, as I’m rereading my comments, there were plenty of times I was dissatisfied with the show (battle royal, Cena always wins, etc.), it was a fantastic show from the Rock and Rousey segment on. The Rollins wrinkle at the end was interesting to me. On a long arc, I think it leads to a David and Goliath match against Lesnar at SummerSlam, and in the short run either a continuance of his feud with Randy Orton (who beat him clean earlier in the night) or Roman Reigns. Either would be fine, presuming Rollins holds the belt for a little while.

Vince McMahon’s fingerprints on the project can be infuriating throughout the year, and alternate between brilliance and stupidity within minutes of each of other, but the man is batting about .900 at sending his fans home happy from WrestleMania.