WrestleMania has always been a little different.
From its inception, when it was the only annual pay-per-view in the World Wrestling Federation’s arsenal, celebrity involvement was a point of emphasis. From Liberace to Billy Martin to Muhammad Ali, the WWF packed the inaugural event with names intended to broaden the appeal of WrestleMania and reach outside pro wrestling’s core demographic.
That tradition carried on beyond 1985, of course—to the point where the WWF/WWE created a separate “wing” of its not-physically-real Hall of Fame just for celebrity involvement.
But this desire to attract casual fans, former fans, and non-fans has manifested itself in a different way in recent years: I’m referring to the upswing of using non-full-time wrestlers in high-profile matches.
Sure, there has always been some of that. Lawrence Taylor main-evented a WrestleMania, after all. And Floyd Mayweather squared off against Big Show back at WrestleMania XXIV.
There are a few other examples where part-timers or “retired” wrestlers (always a slippery concept in this business) came back for a one-night-only match. Generally, though, these were few and far-between.
Unlike every other PPV the WWE puts on during the course of the year, latter-day WrestleManias have been consistently anchored by matches involving wrestlers who are not on the full-time active roster. That trend seems to have reached its zenith this year. Three of the biggest singles matches on the WrestleMania 31 card involve part-timers: Undertaker (vs. Bray Wyatt), Brock Lesnar (vs. Roman Reigns), and Sting vs. Triple H.
Undertaker has more or less been a once-a-year wrestler for a while now. Per his unique contract, Lesnar appears a minimal number of times, sometimes disappearing for months. The latter match (not to be confused with a ladder match) involves a guy who hasn’t wrestled in a year against a guy who has never wrestled in WWE.
There’s no question that WWE now treats the WrestleMania card as qualitatively different, not just quantitatively different, from the rest of its calendar. It isn’t just a matter of WM being “bigger” than the others, or having a few added special attractions. What has happened for the last few years is a step further. The card is increasingly built around part-timers in an even more pronounced attempt to rope in fans who wouldn’t normally watch.
WrestleMania 27 had the Rock “hosting,” and the next two years had him in the main event. WrestleMania 30 was originally supposed to have Batista in the spotlight before the “‘Yes!’ Movement” forced WWE to reconsider. But WrestleMania 31 takes the role of part-timers even further.
That brings up a related point about this year’s show: Nearly every match involves an “old vs. new” component. Surprisingly, I think old will prevail more often than not against new.
With that in mind, let’s take an in-depth look at WrestleMania 31 – The most transitional WrestleMania of all-time!
Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal: I love that they’ve decided to do this every year (for now). It’s a great way to get everyone a payday at WrestleMania without having to bend over backwards to contrive a match that includes eight or ten participants. The AtGMBR is better—it allows 15 or 20 guys to collect a cut and it happens organically, to the extent anything in a choreographed sport can be organic. I was convinced that a returning Sheamus was going to win this thing, but then the WWE moved it to the pre-show. That means they’ll probably save his return for RAW the night after WrestleMania. If he’s in it, he’ll win it, but I don’t expect to see Sheamus on Sunday. I think the WWE will use the Battle Royal as a showcase for the NXT representative, Hideo “KENTA” Itami, but I don’t think they have the guts to let a guy casual fans have never heard of win this thing, pre-show or not. I think Sandow will be in it until the end, when a jealous Miz ruins his chance, which will finally make Sandow stand up for himself and set up that feud. That leaves Ryback. I’m sure the victory will lead to just as big a push for the Big Guy as Cesaro got in the wake of last year’s win! Winner: FEED ME MORE
Tyson Kidd and Cesaro (c) vs. Los Matadores vs. The New Day (Big E and Kofi Kingston) vs. The Usos—WWE Tag Team Championship: Speaking of the King of Swing . . . unless the plan is to gift fans with a delightful and much-desired New Day heel turn, I see no reason why Kidd and Cesaro won’t retain in this match, which will also appear on the pre-show. Winners: Kidd and Cesaro (retain titles)
Wade Barrett (c) vs. Daniel Bryan vs. Luke Harper vs. R-Truth vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Stardust vs. Dean Ambrose—Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match: I’m guessing this will either open the show to heat up the crowd, or be right in the middle, since it’s probably the easiest match to shorten if they’re running long. If his neck can take the burden of defending the title on most big shows, Bryan wins. Otherwise, Barrett retains. Bryan winning would be an obvious consolation prize for the crowd, but it might also foreshadow what’s to come in the main event (see below). Meanwhile, I still believe a heel Dean Ambrose will be a rich man’s version of Roddy Piper, which is saying a lot. Can we make that happen already? Winner: Daniel Bryan (new champion)
Seth Rollins vs. Randy Orton: The other best candidate to open the show, this should be a good, solid, athletic match. Possibly a show-stealer. I have high hopes for this one. As for the outcome, if Rollins wins (no doubt through chicanery), I think that drops the chances of a cash-in to almost zero. For the sake of keeping things interesting, I’d love to see Orton win. But Rollins is the favorite. If Rollins loses, though, that makes the heightened intrigue of the main event even more, uh, heightened. Winner: Seth Rollins
The Bella Twins vs. A. J. Lee and Paige: This has been built as something of a philosophical battle between “Divas” and “Anti-Divas.” As someone who absolutely, positively does NOT watch Total Divas, I have no possible insights into the fact that one or both of the Bellas may be ready to take a break from the business. I think this match is the first step in eventually getting the title off of Nikki, with A.J. and Paige feuding over it into the summer. Some of the comments Brie made on Smackdown about how she had forgiven her sister felt like a tip-off that we might be in for a redemptive betrayal by Brie of her evil sister Nikki, assuming they want to go the continuity route. Either way, I think the Anti-Divas prevail. Winners: A. J. Lee and Paige
Alexander Rusev (c) vs. John Cena—United States Championship: I’m unashamedly in the pro-Cena camp, but, even if I weren’t, I would have loved this build-up. Rusev has been getting 1980s-style heel heat for a year, dispatching patriotic opponent after patriotic opponent. Cena, banished from the WWE Title picture by a superhuman named Brock Lesnar, looks for American redemption here. Rusev has already beaten Cena once. All signs point to a Cena victory, and another piece of the puzzle falls into place. I actually think this match will exceed expectations. The only negative about this feud is that Lana, who has been such a key part of the storyline, disappeared (to go film a WWE movie) at a very inopportune moment. Otherwise, this has been terrific. The only thing that could possibly make it better is Cena getting an assist from Hulk Hogan, but that might be asking a bit much of the Hulkster (and my suspension of disbelief) at this point. Winner: Flag-wavin’ John Cena (new champion)
Sting vs. Triple H: There’s a lot they could do here. The obvious, paint-by-numbers way to go would be a straightforward (if booked-to-the-gills) match with Sting winning after weapons are used by both guys. But ol’ H has lost a lot at WrestleMania. A lot. That at least leaves me with a little bit of doubt about the outcome. HHH may convince the Old Man that he “needs” to win here. After all, this is the same Triple H who pinned C.M. Punk in the middle of Punk’s white-hot run, and pinned Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania despite being semi-retired. Those wins didn’t make a whole lot of sense, either. That said, THIS. IS. STING. To coin a phrase. If his first—and possibly only—match in WWE isn’t a win, I’ll immediately stop being such an apologist for WWE Creative. Winner: Sting
Bray Wyatt vs. The Undertaker: I would be shocked if the combined time allotted to entrances in this match and the Sting / HHH match doesn’t hit at least 15 minutes (I’m convinced Hunter may ride in on an animatronic dragon). But that’s ok! WrestleMania is nothing if not a showcase for the “bullshit” elements of the business that help make it so entertaining. Anyway, it’s strange to think that Wyatt could be 0-2 at WrestleMania after this one, but I think that’s exactly what happens. Undertaker’s retirement match could very well be in his home state at WrestleMania 32, and he’ll likely do the old-school thing and go out on his back. But a loss to Bray would mean three defeats in a row at ‘Mania to close ‘Taker’s career, and I can’t see that happening. The best part of this match will be the overwhelming theatrics. We could see fire, lightning, flaming rocking chairs, smoking urns, ominous holograms, you name it. But you know what might be even better? The Undertaker is facing a strange, supernatural-ish opponent this year, right? Instead of trying to beat Wyatt at his own game, what if he zags to counter Wyatt’s zig, coming out on a hog to “Rollin'” like it’s 2001? Let’s make that happen, legal department. Either way, Undertaker comes out on top. Winner: The American Badass
Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Roman Reigns: This match obviously got a lot more interesting with the news that Lesnar had signed a multi-year deal with WWE, and his contract wouldn’t be expiring tomorrow night at midnight. Prior to that game-changer, the conventional wisdom was that the possibly-not-“ready” Reigns was a lock to take the title off of a departing Lesnar, and, furthermore, the match would be lousy, and crowd would spend the the entirety of it booing.
Things have changed. Much like the 1986 film Clue, the best board-game-turned-movie of all time, there are three possible endings to WrestleMania 31:
1: “Plan A” – Reigns and Brock have an even, physical match. Brock looks unstoppable early, but Reigns somehow finds a way to beat the Beast Incarnate in the end. Confetti pours down, and the show goes off the air with Reigns fulfilling his destiny as the next top guy in WWE. Perhaps later, it’s revealed that Brock’s “new contract” was just a ruse (or at least an exaggeration) to temper fan backlash, and he won’t be around much after all.
2: “The Betrayal” – Paul Heyman changes allegiances and either helps Reigns take the title, or helps Rollins when he cashes in. The latter scenario seems more likely, as I think flipping Reigns now would go against the long-term plans of the WWE. Lesnar would obviously turn face as a result. Both Heyman’s talk about how he respects Reigns’ family as well as the temporary alliance he formed with Rollins a few months back seem to point to this direction being a possibility. And, no, nerds, I think a Shield reunion isn’t happening—mostly because those guys need to be on their own at this point. Keep an eye on that Orton / Rollins match. If Orton wins, a Rollins cash-in becomes a much more distinct possibility. If not, Heyman could still align with Reigns against a now-face Lesnar.
3: “The Monster” – What if Lesnar just straight-up beats Reigns like he did John Cena? Not necessarily as one-sided, but still a convincing, complete victory. And what if Rollins cashes in and he gets crushed? Whether the second piece happens or not, Lesnar re-signing makes a long-term WWE commitment to Brock as champion a real possibility. That interview he did with ESPN was not heelish in the least.
So, which of these scenarios is most likely?
A month ago, like everyone, I would have wagered heavily on the first possibility. Even with the sudden fan resentment of Reigns since January, I thought all that backlash might do would be to accelerate a cash-in by Rollins and have Reigns chase him for a few months to get his face heat back. But I didn’t doubt that Reigns would go over against Lesnar.
Then Paul Heyman cut a promo the week after Brock walked out in which he dropped a throwaway line about Lesnar spending the summer unifying the WWE and UFC titles. It suddenly hit me that that wildly impractical scenario was far more intriguing and compelling than six months of Reigns on top. I knew then that WWE was doing everything it could to sign Lesnar, and that Brock winning was actually a possibility.
I think the odds are still against it, but I also think that the best decision creatively would either be for Brock to lose the title Sunday night after a turn, or for Brock to keep the championship and remain a monster heel with the incomparable Heyman at his side.
Lesnar is the best commodity the WWE has right now. True, working such a limited schedule can be problematic for a company that puts on two weekly television shows. But Heyman’s presence helps mitigate that shortcoming.
The real problem with Brock’s reign is that it came at a time when the WWE decided to unify its two world titles. That creates an inherent difficulty for the writers and creative team, because the company couldn’t even so much as have a world title match on most PPV.
But I think they’ve figured out a solution to this problem—a solution that foreshadows an unlikely Lesnar victory: Elevate the other singles titles.
That’s why I think Cena takes the U. S. Title and Bryan takes the Intercontinental title. All of a sudden, both second-tier championships would be held by main-event-level attractions. Specifically, the most successful performer of the past decade-plus, and the most over guy in the company, respectively—both of whom are faces.
If you have Cena and Bryan (if his neck can take it) holding those championships, you can build PPV cards around titles held by top-level guys again. You can also elevate younger talent and NXT newcomers, because it’s much more plausible within the conventions of sports entertainment that someone who hasn’t been on the roster long could challenge for one of those championships.
That’s the best possible outcome for WWE. Big stars elevating mid-level titles and the young challengers for each, and the biggest attraction currently in the sport, Brock Lesnar, remaining a dominant, scary, monster heel world champion for Reigns to chase.
Mostly, this WrestleMania will be aimed at setting up 32. That’s not to say it won’t be a fun few hours, but most of it will lay groundwork to next year’s card at Jerryworld—particularly if Reigns takes the title and gets a trial run as the top guy.
Want to know something about transitional WrestleManias, though?
It’s actually OK for the bad guy to win.
Winner: Brock Lesnar (retains championship)