When we left our heroes in Part One, Dolph Ziggler had overcome a loss earlier in the evening (as well as months of an inexplicably middling push) to capture, at long last, the World Heavyweight Championship against an Alberto Del Rio depleted by a post-match Patriot
Act Lock, courtesy of one Jack Swagger.
Ziggler’s triumph (which, of course, may be a figment of my imagination) will set the stage for the most important moments of this year’s WrestleMania. The six participants in the top three matches on the card include two men who wrestled last year in an “End(?) of an Era” match, and two other men who are wrestling each other a second time after last year’s “Once(?) in a Lifetime” match. One of those three matches pits a man who gave a tearful, pseudo-retirement speech last year after losing to the very same opponent he now faces at WrestleMania in a, uh, retirement(?) match—an opponent who, after his victory, announced via Tout(?!?) that he was finished(?) with WWE and had “nothing left to prove.”
If there is one premise above all others upon which wrestling depends, it is the brevity of the collective attention span of its audience.
TRIPLE H vs. BROCK LESNAR – No holds barred / career-threatening match
The Stakes: Lesnar broke Vince McMahon’s hip a couple of months back. McMahon is HHH’s father-in-law, and, more importantly, a fellow executive officer in World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. Triple H, the Chief Operating Officer of the company now defends something more important than any mere title: The corporate honor of his employer! To say nothing of the interests of WWE’s myriad shareholders! Per the open-ended stipulation requirement negotiated by the crafty Paul Heyman, this is a “no holds barred” match. Oh, and, if HHH loses, he has to retire from wrestling, blah, blah, blah.
What Should Happen: This really all depends on how invested Brock Lesnar is in WWE. As I said yesterday, I don’t read dirt sheets. If Lesnar is coming back full-time for a while, or if he’s going to wrestle one more match after this and call it a life, I have no idea. I’m proceeding under the assumption he’ll stick around for at least six months.
With that in mind, and despite the involvement of Shawn Michaels, Lesnar should dominate Triple H.
Pardon the pun, but nobody has the pedigree that Brock Lesnar has. He is a legitimately tough, legitimately scary fighter who always seems one botched spot by his opponent away from actually beating the crap out someone. And sometimes he does that anyway. The main event against Cena at Extreme Rules last year combined some of the best elements of pro wrestling (scripted ebb and flow) and UFC (controlled brutality) in a way that was unlike anything we see in today’s WWE.
Lesnar going over in a glorified squash would add even more mystique to his already-singular, menacing character. Beating HHH badly when Hunter has so much on the line would make it all the more shocking and meaningful. It would also pave the way for Lesnar to be a major threat to the WWE Champion after WrestleMania, especially with Paul Heyman playing a larger role in WWE now than last spring. I’d love a full-fledged Lesnar / Cena feud after the two got a very abbreviated, rushed version in 2012. So, I say bring it on.
On another front, Triple H would receive the dramatic send-off that he teased last year. He gets the tearful, emotional farewell with his buddy HBK in front of an adoring WrestleMania crowd. In doing so, he shows that he really does do what’s best for business, making Brock look like the top contender for the WWE Title, and positioning him to be a guy who can get John Cena over big-time as a face. The alternative is having a guy who will wrestle one or two matches this year (himself) get a win over a potential major draw for the rest of 2013. And let’s also remember that this is pro wrestling. As I said at the top, people have short attention spans. No one will object in two years if Triple H wants to lace up the boots one more time.
What Will Happen: Probably none of that. Adding the retirement stipulation made it almost a given that HHH would win, especially with HBK there to superkick Heyman and/or Lesnar to a huge pop. Plus, HHH already lost to Lesnar once, and, well, we know how that usually goes (see below). They have a back-and-forth match, Lesnar looks awesome at points, HHH rallies, Heyman gets involved, Sweet Chin Music, Pedigree, 1-2-3. Triple H lives to fight another day. He may even beat Lesnar with a “broken” arm after Brock once again applies the Kimura Lock. Lesnar sadly disappears for three more months until they thrust him into another microwave feud for a high-profile
job match at Summerslam. That’s the most probable scenario. But I like mine better.
THE UNDERTAKER vs. C. M. PUNK
The Stakes: The Undertaker has never lost at WrestleMania, although his promo at last Monday’s RAW indicates that he’s not as concerned about winning as he is about simply pummeling Punk. Why, you ask? Because the Undertaker’s real-life friend and on-screen mentor, Paul Bearer, passed away a few weeks ago. C. M. Punk has repeatedly mocked Undertaker using Bearer’s death as fodder, going so far as to steal the urn that (fictionally and implicitly) contains Bearer’s ashes, attacking Undertaker with that urn, then unscrewing the lid of the urn and covering both The Undertaker and himself with the ashes inside the urn.
In other words, it was perhaps the greatest segment in the history of RAW.
That leads me to . . .
Sidebar #3: Can we talk about C. M. Punk for a second? I’ve already discussed my respect for his work in general, but I don’t think a lot of people appreciate his range as a performer within this very special genre we call “sports entertainment.” Consider that, in the span of just a year or so, he’s gone from being the #1 face in the company to being the #1 heel in the company and is more over now than he was a year ago as WWE Champion. Even more impressively, he’s gone from a “tells-it-like-it-is” character heavily based in shoot-y reality to an over-the-top, ruthless villain character who takes a pure, old-school heel concept and adapts it for a modern audience with brilliant results.
His work during this feud has been my favorite heel performance since at least this angle, and last Monday’s RAW segment to close the show may have even elevated this to a new level entirely. Booking Punk to take on Undertaker this year was a major stroke of good luck in a perverse way. Although it was probably always going to be Punk who faced Undertaker this year, it is impossible to imagine any of the other possibilities (Sheamus, Randy Orton, Big Show, etc) being able to pull off what Punk has over the last few weeks following the sudden death of Paul Bearer.
What Should Happen: Well, I mean, Undertaker has to win. As I said, C. M. Punk’s heel work has been an A++, but that merely means that the audience should be willing to shell out money to see him get his ass kicked at the big PPV. Mission accomplished, and then some, but Undertaker has to win. What’s amazing about this match (and, again, a testament to Punk) is how “The Streak” is secondary. It’s practically an afterthought. As great as Edge, HBK, and HHH are, an obsession over ending The Streak was the primary thrust of all those feuds leading up to WrestleMania. While Undertaker’s record has certainly been mentioned more than once, the issue between Punk and Undertaker is, at bottom, a very personal matter—not some fill-in-the-blank, annual ritual. This should be a very tight, back-and-forth match along the lines of what we’ve seen the last four years, except the storytelling should revolve around Undertaker being able to control and focus his rage, rather than getting himself disqualified or making emotional mistakes that give openings to the cool, calm, collected (and smug) C. M. Punk. Eventually, Heyman gets a chokeslam to go along with the superkick from earlier, and Undertaker goes to 21-0.
What Will Happen: Some version of the above. I do think it was interesting that they hinted on RAW at the possibility of Undertaker losing the match (implicitly by DQ) but still getting his revenge. I think it was good storytelling to tease that, and I’m sure it will be used in the narrative on Sunday, but even those who would be happy seeing the end of The Streak would agree that having it happen by disqualification or count-out would be pretty lame. Undertaker wins, celebration with the urn, giant “21-0” graphic on the stage display, lightning, fireworks, etc. Maybe they’ll even let ol’ Kane come out to celebrate as well. You know—since Bearer was his father and all.
Sidebar #4: One last point I feel compelled to bring up—maybe a tiny bit reluctantly. It’s a point that speaks to the specific beauty of professional wrestling.
I want to preface this by saying that I believe there is a 99.9% chance that William Moody, a/k/a Paul Bearer, is, in fact, deceased. But there’s that other 0.1% . . . and that’s something that only exists in professional wrestling.
When the Redskins announced that Sean Taylor had tragically passed away, at no point, even in the back of my mind, did I think, “Hmmm . . . but what if . . . ?” On the flipside, when John Ritter suddenly died after a heart attack during the run of Eight Simple Rules, I wasn’t thinking “this could be something the writers have cooked up to surprise fans of the show down the road.”
And that, friends, is part of what makes professional wrestling so special.
Special because—and I’m not ashamed to admit this—if Paul Bearer somehow showed up during this match—perhaps popping out of a casket, but I’m just brainstorming—I would in no way be disgusted, offended, or outraged. I would not criticize the WWE for “bad taste,” nor would I vow never to watch the product again.
Rather, I would leap up from my sofa, literally applauding as I watched one of the greatest moments in the history of WrestleMania—nay, in the history of professional wrestling!
That would be worth the $55 by itself.
Sidebar #5: I’ll pause briefly, here, to point out that several important performers aren’t on the card as yet. Most notably, this includes the excellent United States Champion Antonio Caesaro, who has recently and unfortunately incorporated some light yodeling into his gimmick. Also absent is Divas Champion Kaitlyn. I mention this because the WWE often works in what I like to call a “palate-cleanser” at some point late in the show to break up the main events. I wouldn’t be shocked to see an unannounced match or two. The most likely would be a pre-show “let’s get everyone a payday” battle royale. However, since they already have Miz and Barrett in the pre-show, perhaps they won’t tack on any extra matches.
Sadly, one thing I do know will interrupt the proceedings at some juncture will be an inexplicable performance by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. After last year’s debacle in which we got a Brodus Clay sketch combining with lengthy, musical entrances to take up a solid twenty-plus-minute chunk of non-wrestling, I had hoped we could avoid this. Alas, it seems not meant to be, as the most likely break in the action will be in the form of a Diddy performance.
Oh, well. It’s a five-hour show counting the pre-show. Gotta pee sometime, I guess.
Still, I’d rather watch Cesaro beat someone up.
THE ROCK (C) vs. JOHN CENA – WWE Championship
The Stakes: Rock beat Cena last year after Cena promised fans he would beat The Rock. Cena claimed the loss to The Rock sent him into a tailspin, but, really, Cena had already lost a bunch of high-profile matches prior to jobbing to The Rock (for example, losing in the main event of the previous WrestleMania). This year, The Rock carries the WWE Title and defends it against Royal Rumble winner John Cena. The lead-up to the match has been a little less focused than last year’s feud, despite the fact that the 2011-12 version lasted for an entire year. This is a feud about pride and legacies. Or something.
What Should Happen: Believe it or not, despite my lengthy internet ramblings on pro wrestling, and my frequent snark both on- and off-line, I actually like John Cena. The “We Hate Cena” crowd will engage in all kinds of mental gymnastics to contrive reasons why Cena shouldn’t win this match, but every reason (short of The Rock improbably deciding to eschew acting in favor of a full-time WWE schedule) says the opposite. Cena is the face of the company. Cena is a workhorse, and his opponent will be gone very soon. Cena, due to his age and physical condition, still has several prime years left. Cena’s acting career runs little risk of dragging him away from WWE like Duane’s did (there’s that snark I mentioned!). Cena lost last year, and two in a row to a part-timer would cement the notion that this generation of the product is inferior to its predecessor.
For all of these reasons—and more—Cena should regain sole possesion of the WWE Title for the first time since July, 2011.
The match should unfold as a companion piece to last year’s good-but-not-great main event. And, yes, Cena should go over clean in the end, much to the chagrin of the crowd, I’m sure. The two could do the “respect thing” at the conclusion of the night to close the show. Or, they can wait and do that on RAW. Whichever. But that mythical torch Rock referenced on Monday should be passed at this point.
What Will Happen: I actually thought Cena out-performed Rock last year, which is understandable, considering that it was The Rock’s first singles match in a decade. This year, I think The Rock will be more comfortable and have more chemistry with Cena. The Rock is pretty creative, and I think he and Cena will put together a very entertaining match that will pleasantly surprise some people.
I’m confident Cena will win, just as I was confident he would win the Royal Rumble.
But there’s one element that is unclear to me.
People have been clamoring, if not begging, for the WWE to turn Cena heel. He hasn’t done it, being held up as the company’s standard-bearer for anything in the public sphere. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that. Having one throwback, super-hero-esque, goody-goody face is fine by me. Not everyone should try to be Stone Cold Steve Austin or C. M. Punk. There is room for Damien Sandow, Chris Jericho, Dolph Ziggler, John Cena, and even Brodus Clay. It takes all kinds.
However . . .
If you are going to do it, why not do it now?
They’ll be in New Jersey, in front of a massive crowd that will be mostly pro-Rock. Cena will be in a situation where using heel tactics out of frustration will make sense within the storyline. A heel turn would also quiet (for now) the anti-Cena critics who would take issue with him winning the title at all, as it would provide a new and intriguing direction for the character. You also get to end the show with an indelible, shocking image—that of a newly-ruthless John Cena.
That said, I’m still not in favor of it. First, because I think Cena vs. Lesnar is the way to go for Summerslam, but also because I remember how annoying—in an unproductive way—the heel John Cena was. In case you can’t remember (and don’t know how to use youtube), imagine a less-entertaining version of “The Genius” Lanny Poffo, minus the cap and gown, only with every poem eventually addressing some aspect of his opponent’s genitals. Come to think of it, that was also the face John Cena for about two years after he turned.
It was as tedious as it sounds.
All kidding aside, at least they know how to “do” face Cena. I’m worried that the 2013 version of (non-“rapping”) heel Cena might be problematic.
So, I think they just have another face vs. face match, it goes well, Cena wins semi-cleanly, and The Rock rides off into the sunset Monday night to do G. I. Joe 3 or Fast & Furious 7.
Final Thoughts: I think this has the potential to be the best card in four or five years. All three matches listed above, plus the World Title match (especially the very real possibility of a MITB cash-in), the Shield match, the tag team titles match, and even Jericho / Fangango and Ryback / Henry, in their own way, have appeal. I thought the last two shows, while fine, weren’t among the very best editions of WrestleMania. I think this one has a great chance to be.
We find out in three short days.