It’s difficult to comprehend that we still have another two weeks yet to go before we reach WrestleMania Weekend, considering that it feels like something of a lifetime since the build to this year’s Showcase of Immortals began. It was a build that started off optimistically – the victories of Becky Lynch and Seth Rollins were positively lauded back in January, and rightly so, while the distinct absence of rumours surrounding the regular gamut of part-time performers tempted many (myself included) into believing this might finally have been the year that the contemporary full-time roster took centre stage.
I guess managing to get to March before those bad habits set in is progress, at the very least.
The closer we’ve gotten to the big event, the more the usual rot has set in; and, unfortunately, impossibly, it seems to be getting worse than it ever has been. It was only a few days ago I looked up the WrestleMania card on Wikipedia following the events of Monday Night Raw (MNR) and Smackdown Live (SDL), tweeting it out and commenting that it not only looked poor, it looked actively embarrassing. Never have the part-time offenders looked more crowbarred into the card against the natural flow of the product.
The tide of negativity that has resulted since last week’s episode of MNR especially has been more than understandable, and one I have been a part of myself. It’s difficult not to feel contemptuous of a company that sees fit to not only put a Kurt Angle who can barely move onto the card, but does so opposite the least inspiring opponent they could find; all the while, forcing upon Angle the disservice of having to ‘pick’ Baron Corbin as his opponent too. For many, our own SirSam included, it was the straw that broke their back that was already straining under the weight of an unwelcome Shane McMahon appearance, a demeaning Battle Royal role for Braun Strowman and, of course, a re-run of a fourteen year old main event.
It’s easy to forget, then, that there remains the germ of a very strong show buried underneath all of WWE’s best efforts to derail their gem before it’s even got going. At a time when even the most die hard WWE loyalists are beginning to feel the pinch of the company’s aimless fiddling, it’s worth bearing in mind that this year’s WrestleMania is set to feature three main event matches spotlighting some of the most prominent names of the current generation, and not one of them is Roman Reigns. That in itself breaks a toxic cycle – toxic not because of a lack of talent on the part of Reigns, but toxic because of the narrow vision of the previous ‘Mania main event status quo and its refusal to create more than one modern day mega-star.
It is true that the MNR Women’s Championship Match has been built to with a storyline that has become overly convoluted, horribly over-produced and, at times, noticeably incoherent. Let’s not forget, though, that this could prove a genuinely historic moment, the women closing out the ‘Show of Shows’ for the first time ever. That’s not just a paper achievement either, nor just another convenient means by which to once again package and sell ‘good intentions’ as a consumer product. In the event Becky Lynch is able to emerge with the championship, it might just be an opportunity to irreversibly shift the paradigm upon which WWE has functioned since the dawn of its existence: that its top star is male. It’s a tall order, but quite possibly a strong start.
It is true that the beats of the storyline between Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar has left a well of character development and continuity entirely untapped, instead treading overly familiar ground about part-timers and a business being held hostage. Let’s not forget, though, that this isn’t just another Reigns re-run, or another Lesnar vs. Monster match, and that any comparable efforts – many of which were listed by Rollins himself just a couple of weeks ago on MNR – have all been met with glowing fan reception. People thoroughly enjoyed Lesnar’s bouts opposite Styles and Bryan and Bálor, and with the greatest of respect to all three of those world class, all-time greats, none of them had their match with Lesnar at the height of their red hot form, as Rollins is set to.
And it is true that the Daniel Bryan / Kofi Kingston match many are clamouring to receive is not yet official, and looking rather familiar to some thanks to WWE’s unimaginative efforts to force a Yes Movement style appeal onto what is an inherently different story. Let’s not forget, though, that this is a prime example of the company changing plans at the last opportunity to roll instead with a storyline that unexpectedly captured the hearts and minds of WWE’s fans across the globe. So too has there been more than one intimation that the company may just, for once, explicitly live up to its inherent potential as an art form and deliver a piece of powerful social commentary about the racial injustices still sadly inherent in the Western world. If it does so, what started off as an affectionate, nostalgically driven underdog story becomes something else entirely; something, I would venture to say, is long overdue for an entire demographic of WWE’s audience.
It goes almost without saying, but I shall say it anyway in acknowledgement of the truth: no, we shouldn’t have to sift through the bad to reach something good, nor accept that the something good is only debatably so at its best. Accepting that as the status quo is a sad state of affairs, rendering the need for more critical voices among the fans with the platform to deliver their opinion to a wider audience more important than ever.
WrestleMania already has nine official matches on its card, and it’s reasonable to assume the championships not currently set to be defended will come to be so. That is, after all, WWE’s way. On top of those nine matches, then, we can still expect defences of the Intercontinental Championship, the MNR Tag Team Championships, the SDL Tag Team Championships, the SDL Women’s Championship and the Women’s Tag Team Championships to be added. We can also throw in the more than likely contest to be wrestled between Drew McIntyre and Roman Reigns too, as well as the, as of last year, traditional Women’s Battle Royal. Suddenly, we’re at fifteen matches – not too far off the rumoured number of seventeen being thrown around the IWC just the other week.
That rumour came attached with the note that we might very well be looking at the longest WrestleMania ever this year; a daunting prospect, to be sure, and one threatening to further heighten the biggest problem the event has come to face since 2016’s unexpectedly gargantuan ‘Mania 32: exhaustion bred by duration. That problem threatens to undermine the show for a fourth year running, smothering that germ of a very strong show discussed at the top of this piece before it come flourish.
Even now, though, all hope is not lost. It is worth remembering that 1990’s WrestleMania VI featured fourteen matches on its card and didn’t even clock in at four hours, making it shorter than any WrestleMania has been in decades. Summerslam last year demonstrated that WWE does know how to be able to produce overly long pay-per-views that can, nonetheless, remain entertaining, so long as it affords the greatest length to the material fans want to see and contain the material fans don’t want to see to squash matches and glorified segments. Further, the more positive recurrent trend of WrestleManias since 2016 in Dallas has been a first two to two and a half hours of good to very good quality, with the real hump coming at around the three hour mark. If the company can marry these lessons together, I’m confident – even though my first preference will always be to scrap this bloated formula altogether – that WWE has in it an excellent WrestleMania of this post-modern formula.
It strikes me that the primary key to success in this regard is simple: at every level, matches in general should be kept shorter. There’s no reason that they can’t be.
For example, the Triple Threat Match for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 22 presents a terrific version of the genre in short-form, focussing on explosiveness and intensity over journeymanship, lasting less then ten minutes. Considering the tone the MNR Women’s Championship chase has taken on in recent weeks, there’s no reason why a similarly hostile sub-ten minute affair can’t be compiled and still hit its mark.
Finn Bálor gave Brock Lesnar what was, for me, the Beast’s most compelling story this side of the infamous CM Punk clash at Summerslam 2013, and it didn’t even last nine minutes. The precedent is there for Lesnar to put together a riveting performance against a smaller opponent with a shorter run-time then, and there is even more precedent demonstrating that Rollins can maximise his minutes to put together overachieving matches whenever required. This is, after all, the man that managed to get dramatic title defences out of the likes of Mojo Rawley not twelve months ago.
Other matches, such as the pending Daniel Bryan vs. Kofi Kingston encounter set to take place over the WWE Championship, are matches that clearly suit a longer duration; but, even then, they needn’t stretch out to a full half hour. Lest we forget, Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat wrote the dictionary for the ‘WWE style’ in less than half of that, after all. The same can be said for some of the more welcome additions to this year’s undercard. AJ Styles vs. Randy Orton and Roman Reigns vs. Drew McIntyre are both tantalising on paper, but could easily and unnecessarily be allowed to overplay with twenty-plus minute durations if the show is planned out while the powers-that-be are in a certain mood. It’s not that these matches would appal with longer run-times, or even be worst off for it, but that they would unbalance the grander equation of the show itself, expanding it out and exhausting the audience before WrestleMania has a chance to get to the matches that people have been excited to see since January. It just simply is not needed.
What is absolutely needed, however, is to keep the less interesting parts of the show considerably shorter, regardless of any other trend. Rumours continue to circulate that WWE may reconsider Angle’s last opponent. Whether they do or don’t, an air-punching / spirit-crushing squash match (delete as appropriate depending on the outcome) would provide a memorable and affecting finale for the Olympic Hero’s career. A desperate effort to awkwardly recapture his youth would not. The same, too, for WrestleMania 35’s big re-run – already gifting itself a No Holds Barred stipulation proves those involved are fully aware of the need for shortcuts in this contest between retiree and semi-retiree, one of whom hasn’t wrestled in almost half a decade. Even the Shane McMahon / Miz affair feels like a match that would benefit from being shorter and punchier.
Earlier WrestleManias – III and VI both spring to mind primarily – are awash with prominent members of the roster in short matches that benefit from having a foundation of well developed character and well developed story. The aforementioned feature bouts on this year’s card all strike me as better suiting that Golden Age formula than they ever will the post-Streak formula of being twenty to thirty minutes ‘just because.’
The point that I am ultimately driving at is that the negativity felt towards this year’s WrestleMania currently doing the rounds is perfectly understandable, born from a recognition that WWE is a promotion with crippling issues that it desperately needs to address for the sake of its creative quality. But those issues are crippling because of their cumulative weight. All WWE need do is address one or two of them, to resolve one or two of them, and I’m confident that the germ of a great show that currently sits buried beneath the bloat and nonsense would be able to begin blossoming into meeting its potential. It strikes me that something as simple as better balancing the time-shares across the show and not getting carried away because of the freedom offered by the Network is the first and, quite possibly, biggest step in that process.
WrestleManias of single digits offer the precedent. Summerslam 2018 offers the formula. The first two and a half hours of WrestleManias of recent years demonstrate the potential. With naturally popular challengers in this year’s top three title matches, history knocking at the door and an undercard that, yes, features some embarrassing bouts but, also, is set to feature more than one call-back to the story-driven grudge match rooted in character development, WrestleMania 35 could yet be what we always thought it could be after all.
What YOU feel is the current state of play for WrestleMania 35, and how do YOU thinl WWE can get from the card as it looks on paper to a great show in practice? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!