In recent years, I have tried to pinpoint in my mind exactly when Wrestlemania became less a magical “better than Christmas” event to look forward to fervently each year, and more something to watch the build to suspiciously out of the corner of one eye, or perhaps something to wait out, like an air raid, or a natural disaster, before life eventually returns to normal. Like any of these historical questions, it’s difficult to definitively say when Wrestlemania became WWE’s personal Waterloo, but more and more, my mind goes to Wrestlemania XXIII at Ford Field, then a very recently constructed 65,000 capacity stadium. I can understand what the appeal was for WWE, in the sense that they were proud to feel confident enough to sell out a massive stadium again, and also in the romantic, spiritual connection to Wrestlemania III having taken place at the nearby Pontiac Silverdome, but looking back at that evening, a lot of the problems with the Showcase of the Immortals began in 2007, and the effects are still being felt to this day.
Wrestlemanias XVII to XXII – the creative peak of the brand – took place either in medium sized stadia (The Sky Dome, Safeco Field, The Astrodome) or in even smaller arenas (MSG, Staples Center, Allstate Arena) and therefore benefited from some incredible crowd reactions. The booking and show construction privileged the main, full time rosters, with any “special attraction” types (Vince’s matches with Shane, Hogan and Michaels, for instance) confined to an upper midcard spot that allowed them to be a change of pace rather than a hindrance. Nowadays, if I’m going to watch a Wrestlemania, it’s pretty likely to be one of those six, all of which I thoroughly enjoy, from the glorious peak of Attitude that was XVII to the embracing of the Ohio Class of 2002 at XXI and XXII. There were warning signs of what was to come, of course – the five hour run time of XX for instance – but it’s Wrestlemania XXIII I blame for much of what plagues the Super Bowl of Wrestling to this day.
First of all, there’s the size of the crowd itself, and the resulting lack of intimacy which has also been the case every time since. The enormity of the venue led to the absurd “Battle of the Billionaires” (which looks a whole lot worse now, for obvious reasons) being booked as a feature attraction, as well as the last minute desperation of booking Shawn Michaels as a replacement for Triple H in the main event up against John Cena. Looking at the rest of the card, there are some perennial Wrestlemania problems: the devaluing of female performers in a “Lumberjill Match”, the third annual Money In The Bank ladder match being used as a reject bin for midcarders with nothing to do, a pointless monster mash in Kane vs Khali, and the best match on the card in Undertaker vs Batista going on half way through the show. But it’s the weird paranoia about “needing to fill the stadium” that most stands out to me, with Trump and Vince chaperoned by Steve Austin in full ham mode acting as a metaphor for every dumb ‘Mania decision made since. At some point after the coronation of Cena and Batista, WWE got so paranoid about the size of venues they were holding Wrestlemania in that up and coming stars got less and less of a look in, and as older performers got closer to retirement, they began to take up slots as obligatory “name value” picks (though their performances through the year often did not justify their status, or worse, they weren’t around at all bar for the big dance). When you look at XXIII, only Kennedy and MVP of the new generation came out with any credit in the bank, something also mirrored by XXIV and XXV (CM Punk), XXVI (Sheamus) and XXVII (Cody Rhodes). This led to a “lost generation” of superstars who just never got their shot at the big stage. What is Dolph Ziggler’s biggest match at a Wrestlemania? How about Kofi Kingston? John Morrison? I couldn’t believe it when The Usos revealed in their worked shoot promo the other week that they had never wrestled on the main card of a Wrestlemania in eight years with the company. That is just outrageous. The Miz might have main evented a Wrestlemania, but no-one remembers anything about his performance, because the match was only there to set up Rock vs Cena a year later. The fact is that the obsession with part timers was, and is, actively harmful to the active roster who work their tails off all year, only to get continually passed over. It’s a vicious cycle that certain fans inexplicably defend by saying they don’t have the profile to enchant the casuals…but if they’re never booked in a prominent position at a Wrestlemania, how on earth will a casual fan ever discover their work?
Wrestling’s fetishisation of its past has been the most destructive force of the past decade and a half, actively holding back its future, when ironically, the industry was always healthiest when the active, full time roster was tearing it up, with the odd special appearance and a smattering of celebrities to add some background colour (Alice Cooper in Jake The Snake’s corner, fine. Snooki wrestling in a mixed tag match, not fine, you get the picture). We have already seen the class of 2008 wasted, and now the NXT generation is at risk too. When will it end? When Triple H finally decides that he needs to be in a suit full time, when Chris Jericho’s many interests finally take him away from the squared circle for good, will they just be replaced by Orton and Cena instead? Because I guarantee there is nothing that makes me feel sicker than the thought of those two showing up once a year to stink up the joint for the next ten years. Hilariously, you just never know who WWE will bring in at the expense of its full time wrestlers. Wrestlemania XXXII in Jerruh World? Why not bring back Shane McMahon to wrestle The Undertaker? Goldberg and Lesnar are in a video game together? Why not have them feud and culminate it in a pointless six minute brawl at Wrestlemania XXXIII? GOLDBERG! To this day I can’t believe they did that. Kevin Owens could have gone into KO Mania 2 as the Universal Champion, but instead they stuck him in the midcard. Good one. Roman Reigns seemingly retiring The Undertaker last year I could actually get behind, not because of the godawful match quality, but because at least we’d be seeing no more of 96 year old Marc Callaway. Except no! John Cena spends weeks on end bleating about having nothing to do at Wrestlemania and the pay off is…he challenges The Undertaker by making a joke about Michelle McCool’s Instagram. Good grief. And wrestling fans actually ENABLE this crap by getting excited about it and making all these half-baked justifications “Cena will be ultra motivated!” “Taker won’t want to go out like he did last year!” when anyone who has watched any wrestling in the past year knows that Cena has been phoning in every last performance, and that ‘Taker, as great as he once was, is a physical wreck who should be enjoying his retirement, not taking up a spot at Wrestlemania.
Not only has Wrestlemania mortgaged its future against its past, not only has the booking of enormo-domes with no atmosphere encouraged this wrong brained policy, but the ever increasing run times have made even getting through the show a chore, with the nadir thus far being Wrestlemania XXXII in Dallas, a seven and a half hour act of hubris, complete with a grotesque overrun due to The Rock’s appearance taking up a huge expanse of time. Because why not have Dwayne Johnson light his own name on fire and then bury The Wyatts beyond any hope of revival? A wrestling show should, quite simply, never, ever be that long. Then there’s the weird obsession with getting the entire roster a payday, even while denying them proper spots due to part timers being in all of them. It quite honestly beggars belief that WWE need to create two battle royals to get the leftover members of the Smackdown and Raw rosters on the card. The tag titles will probably end up in four corner matches, the US Title and Intercontinental Title matches are heading towards multiman scenarios, and what this means is that we are denied the classic midcard feuds we both need and deserve. Imagine if, instead of Ricky Steamboat vs Randy Savage at Wrestlemania III, we’d have got Steamboat, Savage, Butch Reed and Koko B Ware in a fatal fourway? Granted, those didn’t exist back then, but you take my point. The Wrestlemania brand was built on classic encounters between rivals, and we simply don’t get enough of them anymore because there just isn’t the space once you factor in the Machine Gun Kelly concert, or the guy from Deadliest Catch eating crab legs with Hornswoggle, and all the “epic” matches featuring part timers. Even Wrestlemania XXX, which is largely beloved for its rare night long execution of a magnificent long running storyline, begins with a half hour segment where The Rock, Steve Austin and Hulk Hogan slap each other on the back for being the Mount Rushmore of WWE. At the time I thought it was pretty cool, now I just find it a bit cringeworthy. Just imagine that show with a twenty minute Shield classic six man instead…
I’ve been angry about the direction of Wrestlemania for a long time now. I was angry when Triple H and The Undertaker took up about two hours of stage time at consecutive editions of the Show of Shows to feed their own egos. I was angry when the signing of Brock Lesnar made him a constant centrepiece of every ‘Mania season with very little return on the investment. I was angry when John Cena decided to make himself the guy to showcase up and comers but ended up ruining their careers. I was angry when the wrong people won Royal Rumbles. I’ve been angry about it, so angry that I often pretended not to care about it. I’ve said on here and on the radio that Wrestlemania isn’t for us hardcore fans anymore, so it’s ok. It’s not ok. The argument that a modern day edition of the Granddaddy of ‘Em All has to feature the most familiar names in order to fill a stadium is nonsense. It’s the Wrestlemania BRAND that fills the stadium, and if you put some great young talent on the card, guess what…they’ll be your replacements for your Rocks, your Austins, your Cenas, your Batistas, because people will see them on that stage, filling that stage, and that’s how you make stars. In any case, I’ve read in a few places this week that, with the end of the pay-per-view model, Wrestlemania only breaks even anyway! So what’s to lose? Push your young stars. Give them what they deserve.
Wrestlemania is, to my mind, an absolute shell. It’s nothing but a grotesque white elephant, the emperor’s new clothes, a symbol of Vince McMahon’s towering ego and inability to adapt his product to the modern age. It represents everything that’s wrong with WWE and we need to stop enabling its worst excesses. Asuka vs Charlotte, Nakamura vs Styles, these are the types of matches we can get behind, the sort of booking which can prove that the part timers, the musical performances, the crazy expensive stage sets are not what Wrestlemania is really about. They’re a crutch that needs to be thrown away.
This is Maverick, requesting flyby.