Welcome back to another edition of WFNY on WWE. This week we look ahead to the granddaddy of them all, the Super Bowl of wrestling: WrestleMania. The 32nd edition of pro wrestling’s biggest night will come to you live from AT&T Stadium in Dallas. WWE has long had eyes on setting breaking its attendance record of 93,000, set in 1987 at WrestleMania 3 (a/k/a the one where Hulk Hogan body-slammed Andre the Giant). The bigger goal is breaking the indoor attendance record, set by the 2010 NBA All-Star Game, which was also held in AT&T Stadium. Whether or not the record is broken remains to be seen. More important right now: Will the show merit such a crowd? Let’s dig in.
Will: Let’s address something right away, and that’s that injuries have absolutely wrecked WWE over the past few months. Among the notable names that will not be performing at WrestleMania 32 — or at least aren’t expected to; this is wrestling, after all — are poster boy John Cena, former WWE champion Seth Rollins, the recently retired Daniel Bryan, Vine star Randy Orton, WCW legend Sting, former Divas champ Nikki Bella, and smark favorites favorites Cesaro, Tyson Kidd, Neville, and Luke Harper. David Shoemaker wrote about the ramifications of all the injuries this week for ESPN.
Call it the “Lost WrestleMania.” Set inside of “Jerry World,” with the potential to set the U.S. record for indoor attendance, WWE knew it had to put on the biggest show of the past 15 years, but bad luck, mostly in the form of injuries, have turned the roster into a baby-oiled MASH unit. WWE has tried to paint WrestleMania 32 as a megacard, but it seems as if the talent left off the match lineup could sell more tickets than the one currently on it. But such is the world of pro wrestling, in which the outcomes are predetermined but the physical toll is real. “Card subject to change” isn’t just a disclaimer — it’s a way of life.
Suffice it to say that we’re not getting the best possible card. It’s a bit like the Cavs losing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in last year’s NBA playoffs. WWE still has a bunch of talent — returns to the ring by Triple H and Shane McMahon, as well as AJ Styles’ WWE debut, have provided a shot in the arm — but the absences are glaring. In a perfect world, every match on the docket would have a strong foundational storyline, but as you will soon see, that’s not the case.
Still, it’s WrestleMania. It’s going to be a huge event. SportsCenter will be broadcasting from Arlington. There are a bunch of matches that are intriguing at the very least, and WWE always pulls a couple tricks. We know The Rock will be there in some capacity. It wouldn’t be a shock if Stone Cold Steve Austin showed up in his home state. There’s a lot to look forward to. But then again, I’m the optimist around these parts.
Derek: If I’m ever in a job interview and someone asks me what my biggest weakness is, I’m going to tell them I’m too honest. I can’t hang out with someone I don’t like and I can’t sell something I don’t believe in. Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I was better at politicking — if I could hide the death stare when I interact with asshole superiors or talk to customers about the benefits of magic beans. It’s probably hurt me before, and it’s about to again.
I’m not excited for WrestleMania. I’ll watch, but my enthusiasm is well below average. I really want to see two of the matches, I’m pretty excited for two more, and the rest might just put me to sleep. My money is on the post-Mania episode of Raw being the show to watch. If nothing else, we’ll get to see the end of that hideous Divas Championship belt. (The pink butterfly is going away!) Maybe Shane McMahon wins and there are some other interesting changes. Either way, it’s not a good sign that these are my silver linings. It’s not WWE’s fault, but I just can’t make myself care.
Now that I’ve made it clear how boring WrestleMania will be, let’s preview it! We’re going to start at the bottom of the card and work our way up, breaking matches into categories roughly commensurate with their levels of importance and/or intrigue. At least a couple of the early matches will be broadcast on the pre-show on USA (i.e. on cable TV), while the bulk of the action will only be available on the WWE Network.
Category 1: Jetsam & Flotsam
Kalisto (c) vs. Ryback
United States Championship
Derek: Kalisto is 5-foot-6 and 170 pounds. Ryback is 6-foot-3 and 291 pounds. Bless you, professional wrestling.
Naturally, this is getting the tried and true plucky underdog vs. giant monster d-bag treatment. This match will be on the pre-show in large part because it doesn’t really matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if WWE books this finish solely based on how many other faces go over. Whatever happens, they’ll probably just fight again next month.
Will: Ryback’s a heel now, which sorta works since fans don’t much care for him. He used to dress like a cartoon strongman, now he looks like an off-brand Goldberg. (Don’t be surprised if he catches some GOLLLLD-BERRRRG chants.) The build to this match hasn’t been great, but it should at least be a decent warmup for the rest of the show. Kalisto is always fun to watch and I expect him to retain the title, but maybe big bad Ryback will get a push. Either way, the biggest upside here lies in the low expectations.
The Total Divas (Brie Bella, Paige, Natalya, Alicia Fox, and Eva Marie) vs. B.A.D. and Blonde (Naomi, Tamina, Lana, Emma, and Summer Rae)
Derek: This match exists. Moving on.
Will: This thing is only happening, as far as I can tell, to promote the E! show Total Divas. The behind-the-scenes reality show has been something of a cable success, and it offers a means of getting eyes on WWE programming that wouldn’t be there otherwise. The match was thrown together without much in the way of tender love or care, with the teams hastily assembled while channeling some of WWE’s worst catfighting traditions, but again, maybe it’ll be better than expected. The Divas Championship match later in the night will be a much better example of the talent in WWE’s women’s division these days.
The Usos vs. The Dudley Boyz
Derek: The Dudley Boyz are fun, but the Usos are so stale you couldn’t cut them with a saw. It’s a shame this is the best the Dudleyz could get. It somehow seems like the Usos have been around longer than the Dudleyz. Nevertheless, kids love the Usos and unfortunately they’ll be around longer. I’ll be surprised if they don’t win.
Will: The conceit behind this match is super simple. The Usos are nice guys and the Dudleyz, after returning with a nice little face run, are bad guys again. There doesn’t seem to be much more to it than that. The most important question: Will somebody go through a table? Fingers crossed.
Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal
Derek: Cesaro won this two years ago. It got him … nowhere. Big Show won it last year. It got him … nowhere. I don’t have high hopes for whoever wins, and as such I’m not particularly interested in watching.
Will: Barrel of laughs today, I’ll tell you what. It’s certainly fair, though, to be underwhelmed by what is colloquially known as the ARMBAR (Andre Roussimoff Memorial BAttle Royal). Through two years, this match hasn’t gotten much traction. It’s a nice way to honor Andre, but at the same time…is it? It’s a forced gimmick, it isn’t taken that seriously — it was on the pre-show last year — and it’s basically a homeless shelter for all the wrestlers who weren’t worth a match of their own. That said, it’s like the Royal Rumble in that it offers the possibility to try out a bunch of different stuff. You never know when a couple guys might have chemistry, and something fun can always happen when 20 guys are in the ring (as of now, 16 of the entrants are known).
As for who’s going to win: No idea. The only entrants with much in the way of storyline between them are Goldust and R-Truth. The two have been together in a bunch of backstage promos in which one asks the other to be his tag team partner. It’s total comedy schtick, but it’s been pretty good. At first Truth was rebuffed by Goldust, now Goldust is being rebuffed by Truth, and one has to think that they’re going to team up at some point. So maybe they’ll be among the last men standing? Sure, let’s go with that.
Category 2: The Good Stuff
The New Day (Big E, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods) vs. The League of Nations (Sheamus, Alberto Del Rio, Rusev, and King Barrett)
Derek: It’s time to point out that none of the Wyatt Family are on the card. I say that because I’d rather have the Dudleyz take on one of these teams (or the Wyatts) and leave the Usos out entirely. Call me crazy, but I’m kind of intrigued by an oil-and-water feud between the Wyatts and the New Day.
Alas, New Day will face off against the League of Nations, which is pretty much a group for a bunch of guys for whom WWE has no plans. Allow me to weep yet again for the slow death of Bad News Barrett’s career.
The New Day have had some solid matches in the last year, so I haven’t completely lost hope. That’s the only reason I don’t consider this one in the “Jetsam and Flotsam” level. The best thing about WrestleMania is you know you’ll get maximum effort from everyone. That’s worth a tiny bit of excitement.
Will: I’m given pause by the fact that this match appears to be a 4-on-3. It’s not unprecedented for the sides to be uneven, but I can’t shake the feeling that someone will show up to even the sides for the New Day. As for who that might be, I have no idea. I like most everyone in this match, but have no real sense of how it’s going to go down. Whatever the case, I’ll be enjoying a nice bowl of Booty-O’s while watching.
Kevin Owens (c) vs. Sami Zayn vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Zack Ryder vs. Sin Cara vs. Stardust vs. The Miz
Ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship
Derek: I don’t really understand why this match needs to be a seven-man ladder match. Sure, guys like Zack Ryder and Stardust need something to do, but that’s what the Andre the Giant Battle Royal is for. Would anybody be disappointed if this was just Owens vs. Zayn one-on-one? They could even keep it as a ladder match.
I suppose I’m just cranky and splitting hairs. A huge ladder match on WrestleMania’s stage should have an “Oh shit!” moment or two. This match has Neville written all over it. Too bad he won’t be joining us.
I’ll be surprised if anyone other than Owens or Zayn wins. Let’s just hope the other guys put on a good show.
Will: Count me among those who are glad that we’re not diving into Owens-Zayn right away. There’s no need to rush it. Those guys have been working together for years, and they’ll be working together for years more. It would be great if it were just the two of them, but it could be even better down the road. Owens felt fully formed from the moment he stepped into a WWE ring, but I think Zayn would be well-served by a little more seasoning. This probably isn’t the best match that they could have booked, but it gives us a taste of Owens-Zayn, some reliable workers, and the near-guarantee of some insane ladder-related thing happening.
AJ Styles vs. Chris Jericho
Derek: I’ll forgive the nonsense that led us here (Jericho is mad because people chanted AJ’s name) because I think this could be a good or great match. I figured Styles would end up facing one of the recent NXT call-ups, but Jericho is fairly big name and it’ll mean something when Styles no doubt picks up the victory. I never watched Styles when he was wrestling in TNA or Japan, but his reputation was well-earned. He may not be the most exciting guy on the mic, but his matches are so much fun to watch. I have high hopes for Styles.
And let’s take a moment to appreciate super-heel Jericho. I appreciate his attempt to get all of Canada to turn on him. Does WWE have enough influence to get Bieber to accompany him to the ring? That just might do it.
Will: This will just be a great, great wrestling match. The storyline is kinda dumb, sure, but this is wrestling we’re talking about. A bruised ego can be the catalyst for months’ worth of feuding. Styles has taken to the WWE quite nicely since his auspicious debut at the Royal Rumble, which is hardly a given when coming over from another promotion. Vince’s company has its own style and idiosyncrasies, and that doesn’t always suit “foreign” talent.
Styles has worked, though. He’s done most of his talking in the ring rather than on the mic. He doesn’t have much of a character beyond “southern guy who likes wrestling,” but he doesn’t need one. Jericho’s jealousy has been the fuel to the fire, and these guys can make it burn hot.
Category 3: Main Events
Charlotte (c) vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch
Derek: This has the potential to be the best match on the card, but only if WWE allows it. If they treat it like a main event match and give them plenty of time, it should steal the show. Sasha Banks especially has had some of the best matches of the last two years. My fear is Vince will tell them to wrap it up in 10 minutes so Roman can have more time to yell and punch the ground.
If not, this will be must-see. Heel Charlotte has been incredible. Becky Lynch has managed to be a great babyface without being overly cheesy. Sasha has played both sides and finally gets to show what she can do on a big stage. I’m psyched for this one.
Will: This one is everything that the Total Divas invitational is not. All three came up from NXT at the same time, and all three are rooted in wrestling. What a concept! They aren’t models. They aren’t wannabe actresses. They’re wrestlers. This match will be the biggest stage any of them has ever been on, and they don’t take that lightly.
Charlotte has been super smarmy in adopting Flair family tricks. Becky has been training for nearly half of her life. Sasha is as charismatic as they come. After being shoehorned into awkward team-based battles for a while, each is now getting a chance to break out on her own. Luke Winkie wrote about it for Rolling Stone:
All three performers are totally capable of stealing the show. This match could legitimately change the course of women’s wrestling, and shift the futures of the next wave of women waiting in the wings [in NXT]: Bayley, Asuka, Alexa Bliss, etc. That’s not to say that this is a make-or-break opportunity, but it’s close. For months, those who followed this trio up through the NXT ranks have watched as they toiled in pointless factions and silly feuds. We’ve been holding out hope for ‘Mania, because we knew all of those memories could be vanquished with one great triple threat. We’re getting it on Sunday.
Shane McMahon vs. The Undertaker
Hell in a Cell match
Derek: If Shane wins, he gets control of Raw and Undertaker will never appear at WrestleMania again.
I don’t know how many people think this will be a particularly good match from a traditional standpoint, but it’ll be a lot of fun. The Rock’s match with Hollywood Hogan at WrestleMania X8 comes to mind. It wasn’t a great match, but it was still iconic because of the crowd and the staredown. This one could be iconic when Shane tries an elbow drop from the top of Jerry World’s scoreboard.
Everybody likes Taker, everybody likes Shane, and we’ll take what we can get. Here’s hoping Shane doesn’t manage to kill himself.
Will: This match has a greater chance of shenanigans than any other on the card. It has been presented as Shane vs. Vince with the Undertaker doing the latter’s bidding, but we’ve seen the McMahons make major, sudden turns before. Perhaps Shane and Vince will wind up on the same side in the name of wresting control of the company away from Triple H and Stephanie. Perhaps Shane and Stephanie will team up against their old man. Maybe a retired star like Stone Cold will show up — my god, the pop that will come if we hear that glass break — to help Shane go over. Maybe Taker will beat the hell out of Shane but take the loss for the good of the company.
There have been rumblings that this match will be the last of the night, which suggests an Undertaker defeat and about an hour’s worth of standing ovation. You wouldn’t necessarily think it given the combined age of these guys, but everything is on the table.
Dean Ambrose vs. Brock Lesnar
No Holds Barred Street Fight
Derek: To me, this is the true main event. Dean is the most entertaining (full-time, non-injured) guy on the roster. He has undeservedly been put in Roman’s shadow, even though Dean proved what he can do on the big stage against Triple H at Roadblock.
Even though he’s not in the main event, this is a great consolation prize. Dean gets to show off his insanity by openly challenging Brock, and there’s the added bonus of weapons. Throw in the fact that Brock will do whatever he wants with regards to bleeding or pushing random WWE employees, and this has all the makings of an all-time classic. Just look at this man:
He’s unstable. He’s a lunatic. If anyone can save WrestleMania, it’s him.
Will: You’ll enjoy this one if you’re excited by the possibility of a chainsaw being used in a wrestling match. That’s not a joke. An actual chainsaw may well be used in this match between Brock Lesnar, Beast, Conqueror, Half-Man Half-Rhinoceros; and Dean Ambrose, Dude from Cincinnati.
Over the past few weeks Ambrose’s character has tacked toward a modern-day Mick Foley (a/k/a Mankind, Cactus Jack, and Dude Love), a hardcore masochist who will never say die. Foley himself showed up to gift Dean the above-GIF’d barbed wire bat, and a week later hardcore legend Terry Funk (a/k/a Chainsaw Charlie) gave him a fully functional power tool. WWE has largely shied away from bloodshed for years, but this match could be a notable exception. When last we saw Dean, he was literally filling up a red wagon with weapons.
Lesnar has long been painted as the most unstoppable force in pro wrestling. He’s far and away the most physically imposing human in WWE. The crowd reacts differently when he shows up. It’s an awesome sight. He’s the one who ended the Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania. He’s the one who was an actual NCAA and UFC champion, and those real-life credentials are essential to his pro wrasslin’ legend. He’s the one who literally ripped a door off a car and hurled it into the crowd. That dude ain’t ordinary.
For a while Ambrose looked to be a new incarnation of Stone Cold Steve Austin, a tough-guy everyman who has little use for anyone in a suit. He’s done Austin-y things like spar with the Authority, steal a hot dog cart, and commandeer an ambulance. But there’s always been an earnest silliness to Ambrose, a compulsion to mix a joke in when possible. He goaded Triple H into giving him a title shot a few weeks back, suffering a horrendous beatdown for his troubles. It was a You want a match? You got it! sort of thing. After being given his match, lying face-down on the mat, Ambrose dragged himself to a microphone. The COO was nearly backstage when Ambrose got the last word.
“Hunter,” he breathily deadpanned. “Thanks.”
Dean’s as over as anyone in the company. It’d be a shock if he wins Sunday, but going down swinging — like Stone Cold refusing to tap out to Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13 — could do just as much to make him a superstar.
Triple H (c) vs. Roman Reigns
WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Derek: Allow me to sum up this feud.
Triple H: “Roman Reigns is a loser, just like all of you fans out there!”
Roman Reigns: “No I’m not! I’m going to beat you up! BELLIEEEEEEEEEEEEEVE THAT.”
Riveting, no? In my mind, this isn’t a main event match at all. But the title is involved so it has to be by default. Make no mistake, this match and the buildup to it have been practically coma-inducing. I can think of only one scenario in which it won’t be garbage. The Rock comes out to help Roman, but Roman hits the Rock and finally, at long last, turns heel. I don’t care who wins as long as Roman is a heel when it’s over. If that doesn’t happen or these two don’t put on a surprise five-star match, I can’t imagine I’ll be speaking positively of it on Monday.
Will: You’ll enjoy this one if you like it when big companies misjudge things. On Monday’s go-home Raw, Roman Reigns was heartily booed by a Brooklyn crowd that spoke for a great many “smart” fans everywhere. A lot of people really, really do not want to see Roman Reigns win WWE’s biggest belt in the main event at wrestling’s biggest show.
For the most part, Roman himself winning isn’t the problem. The problem is that everyone has known this was the plan for months — even years — and rejected it out of hand. Reigns was tagged early on as the next John Cena, a handsome face on a sculpted body that WWE could slap on billboards and trot out to press events, and that irked people. A lot. The WWE braintrust throws a loose sketch of the next year’s WrestleMania as soon as the current one concludes, and that’s fine. It pencils in some possibilities and presents some baseline stories to work with. But a lot can happen in a wrestling year, in which case a lot should change.
The plan for Reigns hasn’t changed despite audiences’ vocal pleas to the contrary. He’s a perfectly fine wrestler in the ring, but he just doesn’t have it otherwise. The charisma factor isn’t there. He’s related to The Rock but is nothing like him as a performer. Some of that is due to how he’s been booked. One week he’ll be a silent badass, emerging to give a beatdown and disappearing without saying a word. The next week he’ll be all smirks and chuckles, a blown-up version of a 14-year-old who knows he won’t get suspended because his parents are big donors. He succeeds occasionally and seems to be beloved by kids, but he isn’t over like he’s supposed to be.
Roman seems like a decent guy, but I’ll be rooting for him to lose Sunday. I don’t love the idea of keeping the belt on Triple H — it’s a bit like the boss winning employee of the month — but I really don’t love the idea of Roman receiving a boo shower like he did at the 2014 Royal Rumble. The crowd will be five times bigger this time. It would be terribly embarrassing. Let him lose, let him re-invent himself, and see if he can’t connect with the crowd more organically.
That said, he’s probably going over. The good thing about WrestleMania is that, unlike the Super Bowl, we don’t have to wait for months for the next game. The WWE year will start anew on Monday night. And just like all the other suckers out there, I’ll be watching.