A scant four weeks ago, I was convinced that WrestleMania XXX was in big trouble.
It looked for all the world that the WWE had an almost insurmountable task ahead of it creatively. Specifically, it appeared as though the main event featured a match that literally almost no one wanted to see. Heel WWE World Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton, despite his customarily good work, appeared to be keeping the belts warm for someone else.
Batista was supposed to be that guy, returning after several years away from the ring (and coincidentally with a major role in Guardians of the Galaxy coming out this summer!!!) to win the Royal Rumble in January.
The fly in the ointment was Daniel Bryan.
Bryan’s persistent popularity, coupled with the fact that he wasn’t even entered in the Rumble, instantly turned Batista heel. Under different circumstances, Batista would have been cheered as so many others have—as a favorite from the past returning to shake things up at the top of the card. Instead, the backlash over Bryan transformed him into BOOTISTA.
It looked for a month as if WWE would treat us to a disastrous main event. This particular disaster would be especially damaging, as WrestleMania XXX will be the first pay-per-view to stream live on the WWE Network.
Facing a “Great American Bash ’91” scenario, WWE did what it does best: It changed creative direction on the fly.
Now, the card looks much different.
What would have been a contender for weakest ‘Mania card in the last decade-plus is now darn compelling. Before I get to the primary attraction, here’s a complete rundown of every scheduled match.
The Usos (c) vs. Los Matadores vs. The Real Americans vs. Rybaxel—WWE Tag Team Championship: Speaking of the creative direction from four weeks ago, it looked fairly certain that we were either going to get a Shield triple threat match or a Real American vs. Real American match at WrestleMania. Instead, both groups remain intact (for now) and are increasingly face-ish.
Here, the Usos have had a well-deserved run as tag champs. But the Real Americans deserve a run of their own just as much, if not more. The only thing that will keep Zeb Colter’s charges from collecting the titles will be if the previously-teased split finally happens as a result of this match (due mainly to Cesaro’s ascendancy over the past few months). In that case, the Usos retain. But it would be a real shame if the Real Americans broke up without ever holding the titles. Winner: The Real Americans (new champions)
The Shield vs. Kane and the New Age Outlaws: There’s a similar dynamic in place in this match. A Shield split was a near-lock a month or so ago. That creative direction had been building for some time, dating back to The Shield’s run-ins with . . . that guy . . . oh, you know . . . the one with the tattoos? He’s from Chicago. It’s on the tip of my tongue.
Anyway, can’t think of his name right now, but he beat them in a 3-on-1 handicap match(!!!) during the “dissension” build. Throw in the WWE’s desire to make Roman Reigns a breakout star, and a Shield triple threat was a safe bet in February. We still may get that match, but it’s been put on hold so that the Shield can clash with more of HHH’s buddies. Sidebar—I love the WWE’s commitment to selling its primary storyline with supporting points in other storylines.
Here’s the deal: It would be silly to do two team break-ups at the same show. I expect this to be a showcase for the Shield, as well it should be. That’s especially true if the Real Americans have broken up already at that point in the show. However, if the goal is to return to the path of getting an Ambrose vs. Reigns vs. Rollins match, then The Shield may lose. And, remember, let’s not put it past certain creative forces to make the “let’s give the Outlaws one final WrestleMania moment” argument. Still, if The Shield doesn’t dominate, here, there better be a very good reason. Winners: The Corporate Gentlemen
Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal: The only thing about which I’m fairly certain is that the trophy will be used as a weapon after the match.
I make no apologies for the fact that I like this concept. I’ll happily praise WWE whenever they can create a legitimate reason for having a “let’s get everyone a payday” match at ‘Mania. Honoring Andre the Giant is as good an excuse as any.
Most of the participants I’d like to see win (The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, Damien Sandow) have no chance. I think the Big Show is a solid candidate, but ultimately a red herring. Ditto Alberto Del Rio. Sheamus (also a “Friend of H”) is another possibility, but it would be a waste for someone who has already won the Royal Rumble, King of the Ring, and been a multi-time world champion to win here.
I think the most probable outcome is using the Battle Royal as a springboard for someone new-ish. WWE isn’t afraid to do that at WrestleMania. Big E could be that guy, but so could Titus O’Neal. Big E losing clean to Del Rio on television was interesting. We’ll find out what it means on Sunday: Either Big E takes the Battle Royal, or, if not, his push has definitively cooled.
With that philosophy in mind, this might be a shot in the dark (especially since he hasn’t been announced as an official participant), but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that WWE does utilize this match as a launching pad for the Winner: Alexander Rusev
Vicki Guerrero Divas Championship Invitational: “Let’s get everyone a payday (Part 2).” I’m unclear on how this 14-Diva, one-fall match will actually work. So, I’ll keep this short. A.J. Lee continues to be one of the better characters they have on the entire roster, but she now has one major “flaw.” Namely, she isn’t on Total Divas. That’s meant less of an emphasis on A.J. in recent months.
The WWE has increasingly fallen in love with Total Divas because of cross-platform promotion and synergy and a lot more corporate buzzwordery. While A.J. beating the odds to retain makes the most sense, the Total Divas effect may cause WWE to put the championship around the waist of someone who’s on the show (Natalya, if they’re smart), especially with A.J. having been champion for about ten months.
Still, with this thing probably turning into a mess due to the rules (whatever the rules wind up being), having A.J.’s title reign end here would be a little misguided. The WWE should want whoever finally defeats A.J. to get the spotlight in a one-on-one match. At least I would hope so. That event should be treated as a big deal. Winner: A.J. Lee (retains championship)
The Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar: Unlike the last five WrestleManias or so, there’s very little suspense about whether the Undertaker will win. Shawn Michaels seemed like a threat. No one would have put it past HHH to be the first to break the streak. That guy from last year . . . sheesh, this is embarrassing . . . anyhow, he also had a fighting chance and a superb build-up.
They were all underdogs, of course, but not nearly as much as Lesnar is now. That seems nuts, given Brock’s legit credentials, but I thought the build for this match was surprisingly weak. For the first time in a while (the Mark Henry match, maybe?), the Undertaker seemed almost like an afterthought at WrestleMania. Driving that point home was the dominance ‘Taker displayed. Until this past Monday, Undertaker had dominated Lesnar every time the two crossed paths during the hyping of this match. That’s the exact wrong way to create suspense under the circumstances.
Undertaker will win for sure. Now, Undertaker is very old-school when it comes to his sensibilities, and he may very well go out a loser in his final match at WrestleMania. In fact, he may be the only person in the entire company who isn’t squeamish about the idea of him going out with a loss. But the guy he puts over will be someone like Bray Wyatt or Roman Reigns or Dean Ambrose. That is, someone who has a decade or more to give to the business as a top-level talent.
In other words, Undertaker won’t waste the huge “rub” that will come with ending the Streak on a part-timer, no matter how awesome and scary this particular part-timer may be.
Which brings me to the real story. The intrigue of the “match-inside-the-match.”
The Undertaker—spoiler alert—isn’t actually an undead phenom with supernatural powers. He’s a banged-up guy pushing 50 who wrestles once or twice per year. Lesnar is a legitimately dangerous fighter. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
Rather than watching this one with anticipation about whether this will finally be the night the Streak ends, I’ll be watching nervously—quietly praying that the Undertaker is still ambulatory at the conclusion of the match.
This may be compelling for an unorthodox reason, but it’s compelling nonetheless. Winner: The Undertaker
John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt: I think this one is fairly straightforward. Cena has been banged-up for a while. I’ve lost track of the number of injuries from which he’s returned ahead of schedule. Wyatt is getting a major push—don’t forget he went over Bryan cleanly at the Rumble.
Either Cena barely gets by Wyatt (and those chances go way up if Hulk Hogan actually is in his corner), or Wyatt goes over on Cena with a minor assist from the Family. Whichever way this goes, Wyatt will be made to look (even) great(er), and, more to the point, Cena will get a major post-match beat-down that leads to some more time off.
From a certain perspective, it would make a lot of sense to have Wyatt win. I would guess most people think Wyatt is winning this match. But, because there’s been so much “legacy” talk, and, finally, because Hulk Hogan might get involved on his behalf, I’m going to say Cena gets the ONE, TWO, THREE. Winner: John Cena, BROTHER!
Because of the way their stories intertwine, I’ll do these final two matches together.
Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H
Randy Orton (c) vs. Batista vs. [HHH / Bryan winner]—WWE World Heavyweight Championship: I said at the top that no one can change creatively on the fly like WWE can. Consider that what looked like a dud of a main event one short month ago now has four possible outcomes, three of which are downright fascinating, and the fourth of which has potential. That’s an impressive feat.
Here are those four outcomes.
Bryan beats HHH, wins the title: The obvious crowd-pleaser. After a slow burn of two years, and the last eight or nine months in particular, Daniel Bryan would vanquish his nemesis and claim the WWE Title in the same night. Confetti in the ring. Flashbulbs. Pyro. Chants for days.
HHH beats Bryan, wins the title: I loooooooves me some narrative integrity. Let’s face it, folks—HHH being a superb corporate heel and HHH being right are in no way mutually-exclusive. Most of what HHH says, even in character, is accurate (Hi, Fandango!). Three months into Daniel Bryan’s title reign, what will those crowds be chanting? Is Bryan really a good fit to be the Face of the WWE(tm)? HHH just wants to do what’s best for business. And, putting himself in the main event of WrestleMania and walking out with the belts would be the ultimate heel move and a confirmation of every nasty, anti-HHH messageboard or blog post ever written by snarky, smark-y Internet wrestling fans. And let’s not forget that Batista has been reminding everyone that HHH has never beaten him. Don’t underestimate HHH’s “need” to “get his win back.” This outcome would take major balls, but a part of me would both love and respect HHH squashing Bryan and then leaving as the World Champion.
Batista wins the title: Batista coming to terms with the fact that he’s a heel was a huge step creatively for this overall story. His character “fits” now, and Batista has been doing a terrific job with it of late. His performance at the WrestleMania press conference was pretty spectacular. Him doing what he’s said from day one he’s going to do—winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship—would be as unpopular as HHH winning, if not moreso. Creatively, though, it would arguably provide more fertile ground for the next few months. A resumption of the full-on heel persona Batista had just before he left WWE the first time would not be unwelcome. He’s almost there now, but a title around his waist would cement it. #DEALWITHIT
Orton retains the title: This is the only outcome that would require a little more work creatively. Orton has been stuck in a difficult spot throughout this storyline, because he’s changed from heel to de facto face (or a tweener, anyway) to an afterthought, which isn’t really fair to him. Therein lies the problem: Unlike the other three participants in this two-match set, Orton is the only one who doesn’t have a clearly-defined role—through no fault of his own, I might add. A successful Orton title defense would certainly be unexpected. I’ll say that much.
So, Who Wins? Dramatic storytelling “foreplay” is a wonderful thing. Underused in this on-demand, instant-gratification, online-driven culture in which we now live, a slow build-up makes the conclusion all the more satisfying. For a long time, I believed that WWE had missed the boat on Daniel Bryan. Despite the crowd response and his in-ring work, he was seen as too risky to permit a lengthy championship reign.
I came to that conclusion after his series of matches vs. Orton last fall each ended without him as a definitive winner. And, then, that feud ended. Bryan moved on to the Wyatt Family and others. That was the point when I began to think that maybe the WWE really was going to let Bryan fall by the wayside.
But some switch flipped on the way to WrestleMania.
The thing about the slow burn is that it does have a expiration date. The reason I think Bryan wins is that even dedicated audiences get fatigued. Once it becomes clear that the outcome they want really won’t happen, they’ll ultimately get discouraged and move on to someone else.
In other words, it’s now or never.
This thing has been festering for two years. The Summerslam storyline (which I loved) was the beginning of the last act of this little play. If Bryan beats HHH and then wins the title (perhaps with a “surprise” assist from that one guy who doesn’t drink!), WWE has a chance to see just what Bryan can do in that role. If he doesn’t win, then this is it: Winning the title at Extreme Rules or Payback and holding it for a month would be anticlimactic. Even WWE fans probably would’t wait another year for Daniel Bryan to get his Wrestlemania moment.
Therefore, at some point early in the card, Bryan and HHH will square off in a good, solid, 15-to-20-minute match that Bryan ultimately wins despite some distractions. In the main event, which the always-helpful announce team reminded us will be no-DQ (CHEKHOV’S GUN ALERT), I’m sure there will be a few surprises and a lot of twists and turns over a half-hour or so before Bryan finally pins Orton.
That outcome does a number of things:
1. Bryan would punish HHH, his tormentor these last nine or so months.
2. Bryan would finally get a definitive win over Orton that “sticks,” ending their long-standing issue.
3. Batista can claim he got screwed, especially if Orton is the one who gets pinned, thereby continuing his heel run and establishing a feud between him and Bryan (or between him and HHH).
4. Bray Wyatt, who, as previously mentioned, beat Bryan in January, can now stake a claim to a title shot. That’s especially true if he beats Cena at ‘Mania.
With all of that in mind, it’s difficult to justify not having Bryan go over. Put another way, if they’re going to do it, now is the time to pull the trigger. As I said: now or never.
I think the answer is “now.”
Everyone goes home happy, chanting “YES!” all the way.
Winner: Daniel Bryan (x2) (new champion)
But I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that there’s a part of me that would find it hilarious to see HHH do to Bryan what the Ultimate Warrior did to HHH at Wrestlemania XII.
Enjoy the show, DUDE!