It’s been 12 years since my favourite WrestleMania (XIX, in 2003), and 10 since I stopped taking any more than a passing interest in what was going on in WWE. The occasions when I have checked in, I found there’s been one constant during most of that time: John Cena as the hero champion, whose status has seemingly only begun to be dialled back following Summerslam‘s main event last year. With the conclusion of WrestleMania 31 last Sunday (the first I’ve watched live in 5 years), I wonder whether now might be the time to think about investing again.
Of course times have changed quite considerably in those 12 years, but this year’s event did at least have one thing in common with my favourite wrestling show: Brock Lesnar in the main title match, and while Roman Reigns is certainly no Kurt Angle, he showed on Sunday that he does at least have potential of rising to main event status. Though he had to work pretty hard to earn the respect of any fans, and that work is clearly not yet done – this company seems to be learning slowly that their audience can more easily pick up the scent of manufactured superstars after ten years of having Cena forcibly pushed down their throats.
Needless to say, having Reigns win would have been a mistake, not only for the company’s aim to please their customers but also for his own confidence and development. Nor did they want to keep the title on Lesnar any longer than they had to. In the end the answer was somewhat obvious, and with the benefit of hindsight (which of course turns us all into expert analysts), should have been as predictable as Daniel Bryan’s crowd-pleasing ‘yes’ chants to close the show last year. Keep the crowd guessing; surprise them and make them happy without making it look like you’re caving in to pressure. Had they went with Bryan again, that is what it would have felt like; and you wonder how they would have got out of the cycle of caving every time the crowd chanted ‘yes, yes, yes‘.
Hilarious though it would have been in the short term, for a casual fan like me, it was probably not practical when looking to the company’s future, and seeing Seth Rollins hold the title aloft to finish the show certainly felt like the signal for that: the future. Not, perhaps, in the way Vince McMahon would have initially wanted it – with his newly christened hero Reigns standing tall – but in a way that keeps most of the fans happy while still moving forward. Which, for as long as Cena was in the main event picture, frankly never looked like happening (sorry to keep harking back to him, but it really has been too long).
The match itself was booked as well as it could have been in the circumstances. It was very much a match of two halves, or of three thirds if you include the final twist. With news emerging of Lesnar signing a new contract only a few days before, it would have been crazy to let Reigns beat him cleanly – nor would Lesnar himself have settled for that, I think, bearing in mind the unsavoury way fans have reacted to Reigns’ premature main event push. The man to eventually beat Lesnar next must at least be one who he sees as worthy of it.
So the first half of the match consisted of Lesnar beating down Reigns in a similar fashion to how he squashed Cena at Summerslam – and I briefly wondered, with admitted glee, whether this was going to be the same situation. In the main event of WrestleMania… surely not? And it was not to be like that, as Reigns would take eight suplexes, three F-5’s and still refuse to be beaten. At which point, the suspicion grew that this was to be Reigns’ coronation after all; the new ‘immortal’ hero of the company, coming back and beating the ‘Beast’ against all the odds.
This is exactly what started happening next. Lesnar rushes at Reigns against the ring post; Reigns dodges and Lesnar is literally busted open. I wondered whether that was in the plan, because Lesnar seemed dazed and Paul Heyman, his ‘advocate’, did a great job of selling concern for his client. As he stumbles back in the ring, with Reigns in waiting, fans started holding their breath – they sensed what was coming and didn’t want to consider what the outcome might be.
Reigns mounts his comeback, eventually knocking Lesnar off his feet, and hitting him with multiple spears. Hearts in mouth moments ensue as Reigns comes close to fulfilling what some fans would have thinking was inevitable at this point. But further twists were to come; just as Reigns goes to hit the final blow, Lesnar catches him and gives another f-5; what really should have been, at this point, the end of the match. Lesnar would win, and many fans, while not entirely happy, would go home satisfied that the perceived plan to crown Reigns as champion had not come to fruition…
Seth Rollins, who had lost to Randy Orton earlier in the night, then came out and used his ‘money in the bank’ contract to make the match a triple threat. Even at this point, though, I was reluctant to think they were going to let him walk out champion. Especially when Lesnar recovered to catch Rollins in an f-5… only for Reigns to hit another spear. Lesnar is knocked out of the ring, and Rollins hits his own signature manoeuvre, the ‘curb stomp’, on Reigns… for the three count. What? A clean three count, on the man we all thought was going to walk out the new superhero of the company? One can’t say that part was expected, even if they had somehow predicted the rest of it. The show ends, not with Reigns as the first former member of The Shield to become world champion, but Rollins; a competitor much more popular with fans despite being a ‘heel’.
I thought this was a thoroughly entertaining main event, and quite simply, rather unexpectedly, the best match of the night. Without doubt that was mostly due to Lesnar and Rollins, but Reigns more than played his part, and helped make it a more entertaining experience than had Cena been in there again. This pushed the overall event from simply being ‘good’ to being close to ‘excellent’. Was it one of the best WrestleMania‘s overall? Maybe not (I’m in no position to say), but certainly among the best in those 12 years since my personal favourite. In fact the only part of the night I really didn’t like was (as you should know after reading this far) the Cena match, preceded by a ridiculously patriotic promo that doesn’t belong in this era of wrestling, nor is it applicable to the majority of the worldwide audience that would have been watching this event.
Still, to see Cena win a title at WrestleMania that wasn’t the main one, and to do so in the mid-card, signalled a huge stride forward to me. The overall event honestly felt like a fresh start; you had Bryan and Cena winning the mid-card titles, perhaps in attempts to appease their respective fans, while someone new won the world title for the first time. One would hope at this point that WWE sticks to their plans, but if John Cena has that world title by Summerslam again then I’ll unhappily eat my words.
For now, though, it seems the future is indeed here. And it looks like it could be more entertaining than the present has been.