Just Business: WrestleMania 34 – The Performance Art Review

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WrestleMania 34


All that optimism in my last few columns, it turns out, was for nothing. I probably should have known. Despite a tremendous beginning, WrestleMania 34 soon enough followed in the footsteps of its immediate predecessors by reaching a vague halfway point and surrendering to all of WWE’s worst instincts – silly gimmickry, head-scratching creative output and aggravating results.

Nonetheless, WrestleMania 34 had its share of successes, and not all of them were immediately apparent nor occurred in the first couple of hours. It would be a shame for the deplorable way the evening ended to overshadow those, and I won’t let it. Once again, while WWE misplaced its belief in a part-time contingent, it was their full-time contemporary talent who busied themselves succeeding to the utmost, and upon whom I will focus.

My name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the Performance Art Review of WrestleMania 34.

The Lowly, Outclassed King

The feeling of disappointment in the WWE Championship Match between AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura has been palpable, almost from the moment it concluded in surprisingly definitive fashion. I felt disappointed myself, though couldn’t understand why; their methodically paced story watched like exactly the kind of match I usually go in for. My instincts, therefore, told me that it would be kind to re-watches.

I was proven correct.

Knowing the destination both performers were headed towards – the rather wonderful heel turn on the part of the King of Strong Style – adds an extra layer of subtext to their work that transforms it from a smartly compiled competitive match to a quite compelling piece of character work. Watching their title bout back makes Nakamura’s fall from grace feel nigh inevitable, in fact, and with credit being given where it’s due the commentary track does a great deal to flesh the challenger’s story out into something easily identifiable.

Tom Phillips uses the word ‘frustration’ to sum up the growing ferocity of both competitors and it seems to fit perfectly. Not only does the action get very personal very quickly – Nakamura pushing Styles away from a rope break, Styles slapping Nakamura for his usual mind games and more besides – but even the manner in which both men carry themselves feels like the result of a guarded and hostile mindset. Watch as Nakamura attempts some probing strikes; the malicious intent is readily apparent.

Presumably, that maliciousness that eventuates in Nakamura’s eventual sneering, sarcastic post-match assault stems from exactly what Phillips claims: frustration. What becomes clear when watching the match back is that Nakamura is simply outclassed at every turn by his championship competitor, putting paid to the presumptive arrogance with which Nakamura waltzed into WrestleMania from as far back as his declaratory choice at Royal Rumble 2018. Styles has an answer for everything Nakamura throws at him, with the challenger’s advantages feeling brief and increasingly desperate until his attempts to regain advantage look like nothing more than simple aspiring strikes. He watches as a man wrestling out of his depth when wrestling the Phenomenal One, who in turn demonstrates repeatedly, and quite literally to the last, that he has the more varied offence and the deeper counter-wrestling resources.

Steadily, Nakamura becomes increasingly unlike the Artist we’ve come to know as the frustration, maybe even embarrassment starts to grow. By the time Styles is able to target Nakamura’s leg, the heart of his arsenal, his offence starts to devolve into brutal and urgent simplicity, until his victory attempts are actively described by Corey Graves as the King of Strong Style trying to ‘steal’ Styles’ championship rather than win it; he is forced to revert to baiting the champion, and even ambushing the champion from behind with a reprehensible and unhesitating Kinshasa to the back of the head.

The unsportsmanlike conduct with which Nakamura then turned on Styles following his defeat revealed the extent of his true character: a man of thin skin, quick to embarrass and spiteful in his retaliation. His bow to Styles, in retrospect, feels like a moment of mockery, denying even in the face of concrete proof that Styles is the better man through dripping sarcasm; a trait that re-appeared on Smackdown Live (SDL) when he seemingly mocked the commentator’s observations of the WrestleMania match by contemptuously, jokingly claiming he must “have gotten too emotional.”

Styles vs. Nakamura might not be the match you expected, because Nakamura is not the man we thought we knew. He is a villain, full of egomania, lacking humility and fuelled, it seems, by a sense of entitlement. Knowing this now transforms WrestleMania 34’s WWE Championship Match from disappointment to compelling character-piece, and one worthy of the time it takes you to revisit it so as to trace the steps of Nakamura’s revelation: he’s a King in only his own mind.

Grand Slam Rollins

When Seth Rollins betrayed his brothers in The Shield, he did so in order to succeed faster than his brethren. Yet on the Road to WrestleMania 34, the full tragic extent of historical truth revealed itself: he was the only one of the three to not be a Grand Slam Champion. His betrayal was for nothing.

This revelation might not have been what fuelled his quest to become Grand Slam Rollins at WrestleMania, but it certainly added an extra layer of meaning to his pursuit of and eventual claim to victory in the rip-roaring Intercontinental Championship Triple Threat Match that kicked off last Sunday’s show.

Nor was Rollins the only man with specific motivation. The Miz, it seemed, was determined to earn an acknowledgement of talent from the WWE Universe and his locker room contemporaries, not only espousing on the go-home Monday Night Raw (MNR) his intent to win this tall challenge of a match the hard way but also sending the Miztourage immediately to the back before even walking to the ring during the big event itself.

Finn Bálor, meanwhile, levied himself with the responsibility of spreading a message of inclusion in a tremendous gesture of support for the LGBTQ community; a weighty responsibility nobody asked him to take up, but one he did so with apparent eagerness nonetheless.

Perhaps there is little wonder, then, that the match itself turned out to be one of the most fiercely competitive matches we’ve seen on pay-per-view for some time, each vying in the name of their adopted cause. Its blistering pace, seamless movement and high risk urgency surged off the screen as each man dialled up their usually excellent performances all the way to a grand WrestleMania 11. Theirs was a bespoke Triple Threat Match that avoided many of its genre cliches – there’s nobody grabbing a hand to prevent a tap out here, nor any dual table spot – while actively subverting others – turning an apparently inevitable Tower of Doom spot into a Bucklebomb / Superplex double-tap.

So too did they play heavily on both the history between characters and the personal missions each man had levied himself with. Rollins and Bálor more than once referred to their compelling, competitive past with each blocking well-known moves of the other and trying their hand at recapturing infamous moments of advantage – Rollins and his Bucklebomb to the barrier, Bálor and his pin fall counter to the superplex. Miz, meanwhile, wrestled exactly as he said he would. In a match rife with opportunistic counters, the defending champion’s advantages were only ever carved out of his wit, guile and adaptability. His was a performance victorious in defeat by virtue of his elevated effort.

Elevation was the name of the game. It seemed that Rollins hung suspended in the air indefinitely whenever he launched his body like a missile, be it for suicide dives or frog splashes or anything in between. Miz showed himself willing to fight fire with fire, managing to counter an incoming Rollins counter with a Skull Crushing Finale off the top rope. Even the eventual conclusion saw the ordinary elevated to another level, with a Blackout curb stomp to one man’s head into another man’s back.

In the end, all three men walked away a victor in their own right. The Miz proved he belonged. Bálor championed his chosen cause with Pride, even in defeat. And Rollins was able to attain the Grand Slam that ensured his betrayal of 2014 was not, ultimately, for nothing.

WrestleMania 34’s opening match was, simply put, a creative tour de force built out of the infectious passion of all three men involved that, on any other night, might have stolen the show before the show even got started.

Charlotte vs. Asuka: Something Special

Amazingly, the Intercontinental Championship Triple Threat Match was followed immediately by a match of equal, if not superior quality. It was a match I thoroughly enjoyed on the night, but have come to love upon revisiting it after the fact. It was a match I championed for some time to close the Show of Shows, and one that played out in a manner perfectly befitting of such an honour – the second time the still-reigning SDL Women’s Champions Charlotte can claim such an accomplishment. Most importantly of all, it was arguably the most organic blockbuster match to exclusively feature contemporary talent that WWE has staged in a long time, pitting Charlotte’s historic accomplishments against Asuka’s unheralded undefeated streak of two and a half years.

It’s no wonder that both women’s faces were a picture of defiant intensity as their introductions were made, the two competitors heaving with breath despite standing still.

If one word was to sum up their contest, it would be hard to find one more fitting than ‘defiance.’ Their mirroring displays of athleticism, repeated early victory attempts, their respective kicks, and takedowns and taunts all spoke to the relatively dormant volcano that was their feud. These were two women testing one another in every way they could, and rebuffing the other’s attempts at an advantage with ferocious defiance.

The action unfolds like a high speed chess match, both women walking a tightrope under the threat of even the mildest mistake being torn open and ripped apart with rabid zeal by their opponent. Desperation, then, is present in equal parts with the defiance on show. Every hold is clawed and scratched for in utterly humourless fashion. From an incredible triangle choke counter to Charlotte’s moonsault, to a Boston Crab counter to the choke, these women give inches only to have miles taken from them, all in the blink of an eye. The superplex to the outside, the Spanish Fly, the incredible spear and their protected finishers of decisive threat all demonstrate how the Queen’s hard-won confidence and Asuka’s infamous Bushido fighting spirit are of equal measure.

Ultimately, this means that some felt the match went too short, others that the conclusion was too sudden. I couldn’t disagree more. This is a thunderstorm of a match, wrestled like lightning between two elite competitors crashing together like thunder. The sudden victory speaks to the knife-edge of their equality, the short run time to the impactful nature of their game plans. It’s an exhausting effort for them both, and the overwhelming emotional responses both have once Charlotte emerges the surprise but not ill-fitting victor seals it all with a simple statement that means a great deal: this was something special.

The Women’s Evolution has come a long way. WrestleMania 35 might end up being the first to be closed out by WWE’s women’s roster, and if that’s the case we should make no mistake that it was WrestleMania 34’s Charlotte vs. Asuka SDL Women’s Championship Match that broke down that very last barrier.

Talk about elating. I couldn’t be prouder of them both as a fan. Something special, indeed.

In Closing

In the end, WrestleMania 34 continued to suffer the same general issue 32 and 33 did before it, in that it failed to get over that hump just after the halfway mark to maintain the interest of the audience and quality of the show. It may simply be an inescapable fact that five hours is just too long. Alas, it’s unlikely Vince McMahon’s WWE will ever come to admit that, especially in the Network age.

That being said, while the downsides of WrestleMania 34 feel like far greater downsides than any to have come before it in the last decade, the ratio of positive to negative felt weighed more toward the former than the latter, and that much at least is progress. While my self-imposed rule of not spending column inches covering part-timers of any kind prevents me from covering some of Sunday’s biggest matches, I thought, overall, it was more fun than disappointing. It’s just the disappointments were absolutely soul-destroying.

I’ll be back on Friday with the final instalment of the Greatest WrestleMania Match March Madness series I have been presenting in recent weeks that has come straight out of the LOP Columns Forum – you can visit that Forum, full of excellent wrestling writing of its own and free for anyone to sign up and have a go at a column themselves, by clicking here! But until then, please do share with me your thoughts on last Sunday’s event and how you have come to feel about it over the course of the last half a week in the comments below or over on social media!

Don’t forget to pick up your copy of my book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, from Amazon today! Simply click here!

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