Monday, April 7, 2014

Gorilla Position: WrestleMania30: The Beard, The Beast, The Battles, and a Welcome to the Reality Era


Last night, the 30th WrestleMania took place in New Orleans' Superdome and for all the pressure that was on the event: the first of the newly launched WWENetwork, the 30th edition of the biggest wrestling card of the most recognizable wrestling company, and the weeks of hype and build, it actually more than lived up to expectations. Of course, there are a couple gripes here and there, but nothing is perfect. Even WM X-7, has a couple clunkers, and that's considered to be one of the most stacked cards in the history of the event. Overall though, there were surprises, squashes, and celebrations. And while maybe its place in history will be called into question later on, in the moment, the show was an excellent celebration of 30 years of WrestleMania moments.

I marked out hard for the opening segment. I don't even care that we barely saw Hogan the rest of the night, despite being the host of the event. All I needed was seeing Hogan walking out, flubbing his lines, glass shattering and Austin walking out, staring down Hogan, making fun of Hogan flubbing his lines, "If ya smell" echoing through the stadium, The Rock making fun of Hogan flubbing his lines, and then each of them saying their catchphrases (including Hogan making fun of himself for flubbing his lines), and then all three of them downing beers. That's the type of WrestleMania moment I live for, and one that made me extremely happy. Didn't need anything else.

Pre-Show: Jack Swagger and Cesaro, The Real Americans (with Zeb Colter) VS. Ryback and Curtis Axel VS. Los Matadores (with El Torito) VS. World Tag Team Champions Jimmy and Jey, The Usos in a Fatal 4-Way

I only take one of these teams seriously, and they're already champions, so....No story here.
I have a lot of problems with Fatal 4-Way matches, especially when they are tag teams. There's very little fluidity to them, and it's a lot of forced choreography with not a lot of payoff because no one team gets much of a showcase. 
This being the impetus of The Real Americans' break up was the only worthwhile part of this match for me, and it was a relief, because I then knew for sure they weren't going to insert both Triple H and Bryan into the finale somehow, because two Fatal 4-Ways on the card is pushing it just a bit.

Opening: Daniel Bryan VS. Triple H for a Contender Spot in the WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match

It's the Yes Movement meeting the King of Kings.
Triple H's entrance was fantastic. Stephanie McMahon at ringside was a great little touch (and she actually makes a wonderful manager. I'd like to see her manage a heel Diva team. Oh, but that means they'd actually have to care about the Divas). The response to Bryan was of course electric. 
The match itself was beautifully worked. The stand-off at the top of the match, with Triple H leaning away from Bryan, and Bryan in attack mode, likened back to Shawn Michaels and John Cena closing the show at WrestleMania 23. Hunter in the Michaels position, cocky alphadog, Bryan in the Cena position, but more believably so, the ruthless, relentless underdog. 
What impressed me most about this match is that Triple H actually worked a lot of submission holds. The commentary team is marginally better at selling things like this now. It was unexpected, but Hunter trying to get Bryan, a submission specialist, to submit would've been the ultimate insult. But then it made sense why Hunter lost. He's not a technical wrestler, he is a true-hearted brawler, and a ruthless one at that. But he built on all that heat he'd acquired and entered this match the superior. It was his hubris that got him, and allowed Bryan to wear him down and sneak the pin. Bryan selling the shoulder injury was pretty masterful too.
That said, I could've done with a few bigger sequences, but I'm sure they were saving up for the rest of the night.
Triple H gets a lot of shit, but he really is one of the best heels of the modern era. And he might've just had the Match of the Night, because that was some of his best work in years.

Six-Man Tag Match: United States Champion Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, The SHIELD VS. Road Dogg and Billy Gunn, the New Age Outlaws, and Corporate Kane

Quite literally old dogs versus new dogs.
I love New Age Outlaws, I love Kane. But they had no business being on this card. The Shield could've possibly carried them to an outstanding match, but they got less than 5 minutes. I guess what would WrestleMania be without a squash. There was no story or build to this match specifically, and we were validated in our not caring about this match when they let it be a squash.

The Andre the Giant Memorial 30-Man Battle Royal

I'll tell ya what: Andre would've KILLED all these guys. ALL OF THEM.
Only Big Show and Sheamus got formal entrances, for some reason. Then the match started. I mean, Battle Royals mostly feel like just colossal wastes of time. There's nothing to watch for the first few minutes or so. I mean, this is why the Royal Rumble is never booked to have too many people in the ring at once. It's so they can dictate where our eyes go and what stories to follow. There's no story here. It's just chaos until the last minute or so, when it's narrowed down to maybe 8. And we got there pretty quick.
The open spots were filled with little fanfare, no surprises here. Cesaro, Big Show, Sheamus and Del Rio were the final four, and the latter two quickly eliminated themselves simultaneously, leaving the build-up's favorite Big Show, and Cesaro.
What's interesting at this point is that like I said, in the weeks leading up to this, Big Show was expected to win. And that meant, he most likely wasn't going to win. But when I saw him standing opposite Cesaro, I thought, wow, they're actually going to pin another accomplishment onto Show and not elevate a new guy. But instead, Cesaro, slammed Big Show out of the ring (a tribute to Andre spot) and won the first Royal. I hope they make this a yearly thing.

 John Cena VS. Bray Wyatt

Hustle. Loyalty. Respect. Declaration. Destruction. Decimation. 
Oh boy. OH BOY. Bryan going over Hunter, the Shield going over NAO and Kane, Cesaro winning the Royal against Big Show. I really thought that led all signs to point to a Wyatt victory.
The story in the ring was beautifully told by two guys at the top of their game. Cena, once he started taking the rivalry seriously, became a very compelling character. Wyatt, who to be honest had a rocky debut and has steadily proven himself as a talker and also as an in-ring performer, was legitimately getting into the head of The Champ. We had the Kane/Cena storyline of "Embrace the hate" but this time it felt like there was going to be payoff. It felt like Cena was going to lose it. It was a match between Batman and the Joker, and the Joker was screaming at the Bat to kill him, end it, otherwise they'd be locked into this battle where innocent people were killed in perpetuity. And so many times we saw Cena walk that line. We saw him come close. It was one of Cena's better performances in my opinion.
But what was the point of all this if it was Cena who would come out on top, once again conquering his demons, and overcoming the "odds?" The odds weren't stacked against him. It wasn't an impossible situation. But once again, Batman didn't kill the Joker when he had the chance.
Does it hurt the popularity and momentum of the Joker, of Wyatt, who has risen so meteroically in just a few months? Only time will tell. But as for me, the finish ruined the taste of this finely-worked match.

The Streak VS. The Beast Incarnate: Undertaker VS. Brock Lesnar

I know. I know. So many people are mad about this one. They're sad, they're hurt, they're confused, they're dumbfounded. In many ways, it seems questionable. It seems forced. It came out of nowhere.
But for a moment, let's think about that, and think about how brilliant that was.
I think in time, history will look more favorably at this match. Was it well-worked? No, quite arguably it was not. But the storytelling power of the two men was not to be denied. Undertaker, like JBL put it, was not fighting to win, he was fighting to not lose. And that is a big difference. He was fighting to stay alive. And Lesnar was able to be a slow, methodical beast, the young cub taking down the old lion. He wasn't facing Punk or someone small that could wear him down. Lesnar could work his pace. And Undertaker wasn't working against Punk or Michaels or someone he knew well. He'd gotten used to essentially beating up smaller guys. Throwing Lesnar at him now, in this moment, after the matches he's been through, it slowly starts to make sense, at least for me, how and why the Streak ended last night.
That was not the same Undertaker who walked into WM29 last year. That Undertaker looked to be healthy, rested, and ready. No one really expected Taker and Punk to have Match of the Night but they arguably did. But look at that match: it's mostly Punk. He gets a bit sloppy (that flying elbow to the table could've very well paralyzed him) but he's carrying the match. Taker is hitting all his big spots.
We all expected him to do the same this year. But the moment he stepped into that ring, he looked thinner, more tired, more battered. He couldn't get Lesnar all the way up for Last Ride. He never completed Old School. It seemed like forever for him to slap on Hell's Gate. Lesnar was a foot off the ground when Taker landed the Tombstone. From a storyline perspective, but also from a very real perspective, we are not watching the Undertaker in his prime anymore. He is well beyond it, and last night showed it. And that was the story they told.
Heyman at ringside added a lot to the match. The crowd was mostly dead. But that was because they didn't know what they were watching. They were watching the slow destruction of the Undertaker, of one of the most celebrated performers of WrestleMania history. They didn't realize what was happening, until Lesnar took the 3-count, and you saw the visible shock and awe on everyone's faces. Everyone on the hard camera was absolutely flabbergasted.
In time, no one will really remember the in-ring action. Who cares. Everyone will remember how strong Undertaker looked in the weeks leading up to it, and how everyone thought Lesnar looked too weak and didn't look like a threat to break the Streak. That's when you knew. The Streak had become predictable. At a moment when we thought Undertaker winning was a foregone conclusion, they took it away from us, and in an era where a legit surprise is impossible to pull off, they did it. I'd like to believe Heyman didn't even know Lesnar was going to win, his reaction was so genuine.
Stepping back, and taking everything into context, what you saw was an amazing story ending the only way it could. Undertaker stood up, receiving a standing ovation, he remained in character, walked up the ramp by himself, and disappeared one last time amid the smoke and haze. 21-1.

Vickie Guerrero's 14-Diva Invitational: One Fall to Determine the Divas' Champion

Poor girls. Poor, poor girls. They had to go on after the biggest surprise of the night, and the crowd just couldn't pick themselves out of their depression. Not that it mattered much anyway, they didn't miss much of anything. Even the minor worthy moments (the Bellas facing off in the middle) or AJ retaining don't make up for this mess.

Triple Threat Match: No. 1 Contender Batista VS. Opening Match Winner Daniel Bryan VS. WWE World Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton

Is it disturbing anyone else that they have yet to actually unify the belts into a single championship?
Bryan, even more injured than before, was the underdog of course going into this match, facing two titans and two epic specimens of the wrestling world. You can shit on Orton or Batista all you want, but Orton has played a fantastic minor role in the proceedings (Cole put it best, saying that even though he's champion, he's been an afterthought, and despite that, he's played his part as well as expected) and Batista is taking his naturally heel role in stride. He also put on a fantastic performance in this match.
Being injured, Bryan really didn't figure much into the Triple Threat. It was mostly carried by the action of Orton and Batista, neither of whom people believed could handle a marquee match against the other, or at least it wouldn't be very good. But most of the match was them, and I was compelled. When Bryan did get involved, it of course kicked it up into a higher gear, but all three were on top of their game.
The spot on the announce tables with the Batista Bomb into the RKO to Bryan was epic, and Orton legit hurt himself. It was fantastic. Triple H and Stephanie getting involved, and bringing back referee Scott Armstrong, was a great moment as well, plus the sledgehammer which was awesome. It was a real passing of the torch moment, that Hunter pulled out all this, and he couldn't stop Bryan. Plus, Orton didn't even figure into the decision, with Bryan tapping out Batista in the Yes! Lock. The ending will play into how everything shapes up the next few weeks.
And Bryan got not only his WrestleMania moment, but the moment we've been waiting for since Summerslam eight months ago. He is the champion now, and for the foreseeable future. How he does as champ, and how long he holds on to it is anyone's guess. But for now, we got it.
I thought it was a beautiful tribute to both WM 10 and 20: with Bryan competing in both opening and closing matches (like Bret Hart did before winning the championship at 10) and then Bryan winning in a Triple Threat that no one expected him to win (like Benoit did against Michaels and Triple H at 20).


So where does everyone go from here? 
With the Tag Team division losing Swagger and Cesaro, I can only hope something new happens to revitalize the champions who at the moment, have no legitimate contenders. Perhaps if The Shield break up, we'll see Rollins and Ambrose enter an extended rivalry with the champs. 
But I guess that depends on where the Shield heads post-WM. My fantasy booking is for the Shield to stay together and take on Evolution (Hunter, Batista, and Orton) at Extreme Rules, but that's pretty unlikely. If Reigns breaks away, then I expect some sort of triple threat at Extreme Rules between the Shield members.
Cesaro has some momentum going into his babyface push, but I don't know how they capitalize on it. Big E's a face as IC champion, so they might have to delay putting a belt on the guy. Maybe after the Shield split, Cesaro and Ambrose battle for the useless...I mean, U.S. belt? 
Lesnar probably won't be around to capitalize on ending the Streak. Maybe Heyman will be, and I'd love to see a storyline of people vying for Heyman's attention now that he's the guy that brought the guy to end the Streak. I expect some sort of fallout from it, in some form or another. I guess it depends on if Undertaker is truly retiring or not.
I'm hoping Wyatt's momentum isn't killed because of Cena, but I'm interested in where he heads now. Cena probably goes on to challenge Bryan at some point (maybe a rematch at Summerslam, with Bryan extending the same courtesy Cena promised to show him if he won the belts at TLC, which he did not). As for Wyatt, I'm not sure, but the Family seems to be staying together, so maybe they take on Evolution? (I know, I just really want Evolution back.) 
They didn't give a Total Divas girl the championship, so I really have no idea what's happening on that front.
As for Bryan, I think he has work cut out for him. I don't think the Authority is sated yet, so they'll challenge him every week, Orton gets his rematch at Extreme Rules, then Batista will step up to challenge after that somehow. Maybe Triple H's insistence on focusing on destroying Bryan is what necessitates Vince returning to TV, and Vince returns as a face, backing Bryan. And bringing in Sting? Who knows.

Enjoy RAW tonight, everyone!