Chances are this is the one time you probably might watch professional wrestling with someone, as WrestleMania equally draws in pro-wrestling devotees, lapsed fans and those affiliated with said fans but who otherwise have no connection to watching men and women in spandex pretend to grapple. This year's mega-event (The Super Bowl of Professional Wrestling / The World Series of Sports Entertainment) comes to you from Levi's Stadium in San Fra.. San Jo... Santa Clara, California - the house that Jim Harbaugh's $8.00 khakis built.
Here's a terse run down of the super card and its respective competitors, in case you need the primer or refresher course:
A match where a predetermined number of guys enter a ring simultaneously and whomever is the last man standing without being eliminated by being thrown over the top rope is the winner. Probably the most stereotypical pro-wrestling match. Running for its second consecutive year, the winner gets this Andre The Giant trophy that's about 1/3 the size of the actual deceased legend. In reality, the match is used to "elevate" someone's status in the wrestling world - making a minor character more of a major character, if you will. It’s like a score of guys you never heard of competing for a spot on the Eagles in their second preseason game.
Last year, the battle royal was used to "elevate" Swiss-born strongman wrestler Cesaro - although that summit lasted for about 10 seconds. WWE’s head honcho, Vince McMahon, said Cesaro couldn’t connect with fans because he was "too Swiss." More about that later. The favorite to win this is, not, in fact the 7' 450-pound world's largest athlete Big Show. To be honest, The Big Show doesn’t have a fantastic record at battle royals and Royal Rumbles. Look out for Damien Mizdow (aka Damien Sandow) to be left standing after the dust clears. Damien is a man who is playing the part of the abused "stunt double" of self-proclaimed Hollywood icon, former MTV reality show contestant and part-time USA Network guest star The Miz. It's expected Mizdow/Sandow will come out of his shell and avenge his mistreatment to the cheers of the crowd. This match joins the next match discussed on the “pre-show”, which is seen by many fans as a demotion in the presentation of the show. The rest of the field is made up of people who rarely see major WWE television time other than to enhance the storylines of other talent.
Tyson Kidd and Cesaro (c) (with Natalya) vs. The New Day (Big E and Kofi Kingston) (with Xavier Woods) vs. Los Matadores (Diego and Fernando) (with El Torito) vs. The Usos (Jimmy and Jey) (with Naomi)
Fatal 4-Way tag team match for the WWE Tag Team Championship
Imagine if they decided to play all of the NCAA Final Four games at the same time, on the same court. Double that and you have a fatal 4-way tag team match. There are some other unique rules to this type of combat that are usually explained within the first few moments of the match by the commentators.
The New Day: The first in future mentions of brainchilds of WWE creative supposed to play the babyfaces (good guys) but rejected by the fans to where lapsed or new fans would think they were heels (bad guys). “Here are some guys we have nothing to do with - let’s make them wear matching ring gear and dance around!” - someone on WWE Creative anachronistically thought. It’s sad, too, because all three in the group are talented guys that certainly don’t need to fill stereotypes to get over with audiences. Fans may not be booing them so much as the idea of them, which is commonplace in today’s demographically polarized WWE.
Los Matadores: “Here are some Puerto Rican guys we have nothing to do with - let’s make them Mexican matadors and give them a mini bull mascot” - etc etc, see above.
The Usos: Twin brothers Jimmy & Jey are pretty popular with kids and extremely talented individuals who have hit a plateau in their adventures. They’re not unlikeable but are way more popular with children than adults. They’re high flying wrestlers who come from a long, proud lineage of legendary wrestlers. They’re your common, stand by champions - when nobody else is getting over, put the titles on The Usos. The New England Patriots of this match.
Tyson Kidd & Cesaro: A pairing that the Internet fans have fallen in love with, two charismatic yet underutilized and misunderstood characters that have come together in an epic proportion and now are the WWE Tag Team Champions. Tyson Kidd is the overly-arrogant husband of the tandem’s valet, Natalia (daughter of WWE legend Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart) and Cesaro is the aforementioned guy who was “pushed” to the moon only to have his rocket fuel syphoned by Vince McMahon. Luckily, the hardcore and vocal fans are much more in the know about these dealings and have helped Cesaro get into a pretty comfortable place on the WWE roster. Cesaro & Kidd are an entertaining duo with a penchant for facts & cats. It’s a fact that these cats are leaving Northern California with the tag straps.
AJ Lee and Paige vs. The Bella Twins (Brie and Nikki)
A little something for the ladies, and the guys, the divas portion of WWE shows has always been a prickly pear. Recently, a Twitter campaign urging WWE to give divas longer segments, in-ring time and more interesting characters has seemingly had somewhat to do with an uptick in this feud that is an I-76 traffic jam at best. How this feud got to its WrestleMania finale is an article all by itself as the twists and turns and canonical oversights have given us the biological Bella Twins versus the motley crew of AJ Lee & Paige. Normally, divas matches are commonly the “go to the bathroom/grab a beer/make a sandwich” match but this feud has been built up pretty damn well. You can see WWE is trying to give divas a chance - although the more talented divas seem to be in their developmental (“minor league”) division, NXT.
You’re going to hear idiots chant “CM Punk” during this match because AJ Lee is married to the erstwhile WWE superstar turned MMA fighter. AJ Lee has been putting on wrestling clinics for all genders to be proud of prior to her relationship with that guy, though. Paige is an Internet darling with an amazing wrestling background and unique (for WWE) look. The Bella Twins are an interesting pair because one (Nikki) has been improving their in-ring skills tremendously and the other (Brie) seems to be missing the mark on occasion.
Rusev (c) vs. John Cena
Singles match for the WWE United States Championship
“Why is the crowd booing John Cena versus a guy like Rusev whose hates America? John Cena is the only guy I know on this show! My 6/8/10/12 year old LOOOVES John Cena!”
The audience that can afford tickets to WrestleMania isn’t the same audience who can afford every single John Cena t-shirt available at KMart, tickets to the cheaper house show (non-televised WWE shows), every John Cena action figure. Remember that polarized demographic? It makes Democrats and Republicans look like Donnie and Marie. In one corner, you have a guy who those with disposable incomes feel has been force-fed to the audience and should’ve become a heel a long time ago. In another (less vocal at WrestleMania) corner, you have the reality that John Cena makes WWE more money than anyone like Hulk Hogan, The Rock or Steve Austin ever did. And when WWE got wise to Cena’s stale character and began building someone new, the fans rejected him, too (more on that for our main event).
Rusev is the 21st Century, slightly more politically correct version of your 80’s Soviet bad guys. Think Nikolai Volkoff portrayed by Ivan Drago with the added effect of a femme fatale manager and Fox News-style fearmongering. Dude comes off as a legit killer. And he’s been dissing America, which makes boy scout John Cena mad. But… Cena wins because kids and ‘Merica.
P.S. This match is for the second-tier-but-allegedly-going-to-be-elevated WWE US Title, which I, and most of the audience, will forget.
The Undertaker vs. Bray Wyatt
The phenomenal Undertaker and all of his spectacle is in the salad days of a glorious, legendary career. Although he’s not the oldest guy competing on the card, he’s definitely the worst for wear. Still, there’s an aura to the guy like there’s an aura to a legendary quarterback playing in his last season. And he basically only wrestles once a year.
Up until last year, the whole deal with The Undertaker was his undefeated streak at WrestleMania - something so outrageously built up and amazing that when Brock Lesnar ended it last year, it made mainstream sports news. This year, the Undertaker returns to answer the challenges of one Bray Wyatt.
Bray Wyatt is Max Cady combined with David Koresh and Charles Manson. His promos are chilling and he’s one of the few wrestlers that makes a crowd quiet - not out of boredom - but out of sheer awe of what he’ll say next, hanging on every syllable just like the crazed cult leader he portrays. WWE has been pushing him like a beast in the past few months in the build up to this match and this will surely be one that might have your kids hiding behind the couch like the Daleks are coming after them. These two thrilling personas will make must-see-TV even if the wrestling itself isn’t so good. Sometimes that’s what it’s all about. Look for the two opponents to attempt to outdo each other both in physical and mental feats and the Undertaker to walk out with the win as his career winds down, if not ends, on Sunday.
Bad News Barrett (c) vs. R-Truth vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Luke Harper vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Stardust vs. Daniel Bryan
Ladder match for the WWE Intercontinental Championship
Ladder matches are great, ladder matches are fun, ladder matches are violent - even in WWE’s PG, kid-friendly era. It’s like a battle royal but with the only elimination happening when somebody successfully grabs the title hanging in the rafters above the ring. Hence, the ladders. People are going to get thrown around like hot garbage in this match and we’re going to simultaneously cheer & cringe at some of the insanely athletic stunts the wrestlers will perform.
This match is kind of like the NIT of the show. There are guys in this match who deserve to be in the main event and they’re all fighting with second-tier guys for a title that’s supposed to be on the second-tier. Either Daniel Bryan or Dean Ambrose will probably come out the winner and look for this match to be one we’ll be talking about for a very, very long time.
Randy Orton vs. Seth Rollins
Randy Orton and Seth Rollins were minions for The Authority, the group of bad guys that represent WWE’s current evil boss incarnation and son-in-law of Vince McMahon, Triple H. Although they feuded before their alliance, they seemed to get along to go along in The Authority’s endless quest last year to ruin the career of Daniel Bryan. That relationship broke down as Seth Rollins was elevated in his status and Randy Orton became an antihero once more. In real life, Randy Orton is riding a wave of popularity due to the “RKO Vines” all over the Internet and Seth Rollins had a two week storyline with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart that crossed over genres and TV networks.
Basically, this match is blowing off a build up of almost two years and there isn’t a clear-cut winner to predict. Seth Rollins’ briefcase contains a title shot he can cash in at any time and many are expecting him to lose but ultimately win because he may be WWE Champion by the end of the night.
Sting vs. Triple H
Sting is the most well-known professional wrestler to never, ever wrestle a match for WWE. He spent 14 years plying his trade in other wrestling promotions until finally coming to WWE to film retrospectives and as a brand ambassador last year. Triple H is the leader of The Authority and his brand of “best for business” doesn’t sit well with those who fight for truth and justice. Enter the Crow-esque Sting character to do what he did to guys who tried to takeover WCW in the 90’s: end the reign of terror.
Sting is probably wrestling his one and only WWE match at age 55 and that might play a factor in this match. The build for this match has been amazing and it’s certainly a dream come true for many long-time wrestling fans. I just kind of wish that Sting had showed up in WWE 10 years ago. Still, the uniqueness of this match and the fact that Sting is wrestling for WWE, and at WrestleMania to boot, should make up for which may be a lackluster affair. Oh, and don’t forget the appearance of baseball bats and sledgehammers that is almost a lock. Sting comes out of his WWE career 1-0, leading us to a summer of wondering whether or not Triple H is the real Authority after all.
Brock Lesnar (c) (with Paul Heyman) vs. Roman Reigns
WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match
If you’re on the fence about dropping money for this event, let this main event sell you: for all the wrong reasons. In storylines, Brock Lesnar is the mercenary, monster, former UFC-fighting “legitimate” WWE Champion and Roman Reigns is the upstart rookie “guy who is finally gonna stop him”.
In real life, the presentation Roman Reigns is a Kafka-esque tale of puzzlement. Starting out as the muscle in a group called The Shield, he emerged as a breakout star even while still in the group due to pretty much having all the pieces one needs to be a top WWE guy. He’s got the look, he’s got the moves, he’s got the build, he’s got the wrestling in his blood. His promo (talking) skills were a little unpolished but hey, The Rock started out as a horrible talker, as well.
Roman Reigns was being set to take out John Cena as the top guy and that couldn’t make most wrestling fans tired of the Cena act happier. Then, Reigns got hurt and other guys had to step up and, boy, did they ever. Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler took the helm, temporarily became storyline mainstays, and their stock rose. Then, Roman Reigns came back from his injury and nobody wanted him any more.
Let’s put this in a different perspective: your team’s talented starting quarterback plateaus and then gets hurt. He’s replaced by a second and third string guy who more than exceeds expectations and puts your team in a place it hasn’t been in a while: a good place. Then, when it’s time to make that playoff push, the head coach & GM put your injured QB back in as #1 and everything goes to hell.
It’s not that Roman Reigns “sucks” or that he’s terribly untalented, it’s just that he’s been rejected by a good 80 percent of the audience. Hell, even little kids who like John Cena aren’t that big on Roman Reigns. And now he’s facing Brock Lesnar. In the main event. Of WrestleMania.
You know, former UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar, who is responsible for Floyd Mayweather levels of pay-per-view dollars for a real sport. You know, Brock Lesnar who announced he’s staying with WWE and did so on ESPN SportsCenter. The crowd will erupt for Lesnar like he’s the second coming of Hulk Hogan and will boo Roman Reigns out of the arena: even though WWE will try to tell you that Reigns is “good” and Lesnar is “bad.” These things don’t happen that often in wrestling - at least not out of spite from ticked-off wrestling fans - and, the last time it happened at a WrestleMania was 11 years ago. Coincidentally, Lesnar was on the receiving end of the boos back then because he was forgoing his WWE contract for a stint in the NFL. Yeah, that really worked out well for the guy.
All and all, WrestleMania 31 isn’t offering the magnitude of a card that WWE has been known to offer in the past. However, it comes off as one of those “man, I’m so sore that I missed that” events as WWE has been somehow producing gold from dirt as of late. If you’re a hardcore wrestling fan, I know you’re watching. If you’re a lapsed wrestling fan, we kind of need you back to make this stuff better. If you’re a new fan or just along for the ride with someone else, enjoy the current confusing state of pro-wrestling: the transition from Vince McMahon to Triple H in charge has been more entertaining than whatever the heck the Phillies are going to try and do this year.
By: Dan Aleksander
Follow him on Twitter: @HaveTilFive
Follow us on Twitter: @BroadStBeat