WrestleMania season is upon us, and frankly, that’s a big deal for any fan of professional wrestling for obvious reasons. It was a big deal before the sycophants in World Wrestling Entertainment got hold of it and slathered it in clunky metaphors. We’re not on a road, there aren’t detours along the highway, and none of that snarling pseudo traffic congestion has anything to do with why both I and you are likely here: solid wrestling. But “All the Stuff You Should Bother Yourself With Before We Really Break Out The Caviar” doesn’t sound nearly as pithy. I grant them that. So here we are in another late February, winding down the last of the winter days before things really get cooking in April. It’s sort of fitting that much of winter’s end is tied into the prognostications of an obese critter in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, because WWE’s wrestling product has been by and large an airing of Harold Ramis’s terrific Groundhog Day for me: a terrific, hellish carnival of poor wardrobe choices and fried food brought together by the specter of mass media for a solid five minutes of pomp and circumstance that is not nearly worth the price of the hotel room you had to book for it.
This is, naturally, not to say that there aren’t very solid reasons to be excited for WrestleMania season. WWE pulls out all the stops for obvious reasons, and this year has been no exception: from the premise of a slimmed-down Big Show facing an ex-NBA Hall of Famer to the news that the legendary Kurt Angle would be returning to accept his well-deserved HOF nomination (and likely more down the line), we’re well along the pipeline of energy that Titan Tower lays the groundwork for each and every year precisely one second after the Royal Rumble has ended. That’s the best news I can give you, really. WrestleMania has become a kind of smorgasbord of wrestling, where one’s free to pick and choose which of the heat lamped side dishes you’d most like to join together on your plain white dinner plate as you navigate the risky choices and safe bets of the aisle. And don’t worry, dear reader, I’m not one to judge: the Jell-O makes it onto my plate too. It’s a heck of a lot more fun when you don’t just stick to the safe bets.
Unfortunately, however, if the brand split was meant to galvanize the fan base and whip it into all-time best levels of excitement heading into this year’s seminal event, I’m not ready to call that close to a success. Despite an ever-increasingly stacked deck and festooned and bloated roster, Raw has frankly been pummeled by Smackdown thus far in the second round of this experiment. Call it what Goldberg did to Brock Lesnar at Royal Rumble. It was over before it started, and while it’s been a spectacle to watch, it sort of leaves you with this sad feeling afterwards that what you’ve just witnessed might truly be as good as it gets. That is the bittersweet side to nostalgia acts, and it’s both a blessing and a curse. While most of us have actively wondered what might have gone down had Brock and Bill had a far better effort in their first run together in Connecticut, time waits for no man or beast. Seeing it now neither does justice to the original or creates a new story unless it’s damn good competition. And no offense to either man, but it’s never been what they are about. Lesnar is an incredibly accomplished athlete at every level and has the look of a Universal monster. That said, no amount of metropolitan suplexing can take away from the fact that watching him in the ring is only as compelling as the story being told around him. He is the modern day Frankenstein monster, only at his peak when his doctor is behind him setting the stage and pulling the strings. Remove Paul Heyman from the equation and watch the bolts on his neck cease to fascinate.
As for Goldberg, that’s even harder. Fans of wrestling’s WCW vs. WWE era are well informed of both the outcome of that battle and the casualties amassed along the way. In a large way, I can’t blame Vince McMahon; were you given the chance to end your opponent through their own sloppiness, you’d probably relish in it too. But that’s the rub, actually. McMahon didn’t so much murder WCW in cold blood as he did calmly and steadily assist their suicide. While talent like Booker T would succeed in any promotion (and any era), WCW had so much corporate wrangling and boardroom bluffing going on that they didn’t know which end was up by the conclusion of the story. Vince surgically entered the air into Ted Turner’s IV and stood back to watch the corpse flail. He plucked those he wanted to work with from the scrap heap, and rekindled relationships with many of those in the enemy camp who were still loyal to their former employer. And as for those like Jeff Jarrett? Well, they got insulted AND canned. It was a fitting end in a business built on deception and public opinion. The only question left was how Vince would handle the people that had only been on WCW’s side of the fence during this time, particularly the big names: Sting, DDP, Goldberg.
I won’t make you suffer through the gory details of the failed Invasion angle. It would be like doing an autopsy on a jellyfish. In all three of the cases mentioned above, though, WWE got it wrong. Whether they chose to do so in order to satisfy Vince’s legendary vindictiveness is up for grabs, but my personal take is simply that he’s quite consistently and consciously failed to understand those concepts which he himself did not create. Goldberg is essentially getting now what he did not receive the first time around: the ability to look like a superhuman power, an idea that WCW quite effectively ran with in order to mask his shortcomings inside the squared circle. Goldberg has shown up, said a few words, and run roughshod over Lesnar since the beginning, and that’s as it should be. To branch out any more would risk disrupting what makes the angle work. That’s shrewd business, but unfortunately not lengthy. Once Goldberg’s business with Lesnar has been concluded, where can you go from there? While the world collectively waits for the answer that’s not coming, let’s bring it back to reality: the answer is absolutely, unequivocally nowhere. Goldberg as a champion serves merely as window dressing, the likely bartering chip that made him get off the motorcycle circuit and return to the world of fireworks and solid backstage doors. That’s why his potential victory over Kevin Owens at Fastlane disturbs me so deeply. It serves no purpose except to add another dimension to the hall of mirrors WWE has constructed around the Goldberg/Lesnar rematch. It reduces what should be a profound and meaningful title into a stage prop, a fake skull to be handled briefly and cast away before the final act.
As to Smackdown’s side of the ledger, the solid run of AJ Styles is no more and we’ve slipped through a phony John Cena title run done simply to get him another notch in his title history and entered the supposed era of Bray Wyatt. I say supposed because while I’d love to believe that WWE intends to take this creative character and launch him to new levels with his championship gold, their history shows it’s iffy at best. Wyatt’s originality and tremendous promo ability allows him to add to the luster of the belt rather than reduce it, but he must be given the chance to make it his own on his terms. The incredibly transparent angle of him battling Randy Orton lacks something because it’s far too obvious. As the lady continues to protest too much regarding how this match can’t possibly happen, we’re left to cover our ears and search vainly for the exit until it does. An Orton/Wyatt match will make for good storytelling, I have no doubt, but it lacks that extra something to set it apart. A member of the Wyatt Family turns on the prophet. We’ve seen this before at least seven times, and one involving a far better and more compelling athlete in current GM of the blue brand Daniel Bryan. It can’t have that special feeling if it’s last night reheated pizza, no matter how spellbinding Bray’s extended rants may be.
Generally, the two title matches are among the best reasons to be truly and tremendously excited for WrestleMania season. Given that both of them are already in jeopardy of not delivering the goods, perhaps we can dig into the presumed undercard for gold. If seeing Shaq wrestle is your jam, good for you. I’d rather gargle glass than watch a lumbering oaf perform basic moves to another lumbering oaf for ten minutes before exhaustion sets in. I’ve never understood the compelling reason to see a celebrated athlete “wrestle” anyway. It would be like watching an NHL playoff game and wishing Kofi Kingston could play right wing for a few shifts. It’s all just another self-absorbed attempt to place pro wrestling in the same entertainment pantheon as video games or stage plays. It’s why a company built on the small but vocal backs of pro wrestling fans wants to run a movie division. The success of The Rock has no doubt thrown gasoline onto what was already a small conflagration, but he’s unique. Sports entertainment most assuredly is entertainment, but that’s only part of what makes it special. And the larger the appeal to the masses, the smaller the allure to your core audience. That’s the conundrum facing the WWE brass each and every day. They are not alone in that regard, but in eliminating their main competition they have actually made the task harder. How do you continually freshen up a product that has no parallel, particularly in your own mind?
To be fair to the movement and structure within WWE, forays have been made of late to bring in outside talent to jazz things up and speak to some of the maddening inconsistencies with their product. There are those who feel this is the fingerprint of the next generation of the company’s leadership, but Vince has to sign off on everything at the end of the day, so even if that is the case we must recognize he is willing to attempt something different even if it’s anathema to his normal practices. This is only one part of the puzzle, though, and the central crux as to why this year’s WrestleMania season feels a touch underwhelming to me: all the indy talent in the world won’t save you if you don’t commit to using it. I’ve long since given up pretending that WWE is capable of truly presenting its product in a different way, but they haven’t even kept up appearances lately. The rise and success of their Network has allowed them, for better or worse, to forgo their past reliance on PPV numbers and let them concentrate on doing what they want without those pesky results hanging over their heads. They know we will continue to pay a more than reasonable (if not outright discount) price on their product regardless of its quality. And even when it’s not four-star, WWE’s broad roster, unmatched in scope and talent, means that we are assured several solid matches on every card they present. It’s not a bad deal, to be sure, but it does have the unforeseen negative of bringing down the big cards a notch. Simply put, what’s their motivation? Shinsuke Nakamura and Hideo Itami might blow our minds, but it won’t land WWE the prime real estate of ESPN or Entertainment Tonight.
So now we’ve entered a world where largely outside-grown talent like AJ Styles and Samoa Joe have had their inaugural moment in the sun. They’ve pulled into harbor, shiny and gleaming, and awed the passers-by. They’ve had the customary champagne break over the bow, allowing the huddled masses to climb aboard, check out the staterooms, see the spit and polish. And now, after a quick trip around the wharf, they’re floating on an empty expanse, untethered and teetering, offering promise but no cruise. Acquiring the fleet is only the first part of the deal. You would think that WWE could pull indy names out of a hat and stage great matches, but that’s not their style. The pageantry is an equal, if not greater, part of their product. How else to explain a truly unique talent like Cesaro STILL struggling to break onto the main card? The situation is so ridiculous that Cesaro not breaking through the “glass ceiling” is the stuff of backstage scoffing and podcast pronouncements at this point. Which came first, the illusion or the reality? It really doesn’t matter. Cesaro will have to wait his turn because WWE doesn’t get him. We cheer him, they know he’s a great athlete, and so that irritation and rage becomes its own angle. It’s perfect for creative because they don’t actually have to do anything about it. One day, he’ll get his run. By that point, the liner will have decomposed into a garbage scow.
If you need further proof, look no further than the state of the cruiserweights. We can be certain the cruisers will have their moment on the bloated and puffy extravaganza that will be the WM card, but whether it’s even on the main show is debatable at best. The cruisers blossomed out of a natural movement started on the WWE’s Network, likely harkening back to the intrinsic appeal that the high-flying crew retains ever since the attitude era. It’s something different and exciting and fun, and that makes it both profitable and highly dangerous to the powers that be. It’s going to take a lot more than a purple paint job and some spiffy ring attire to truly present something different. It’s a grand vision, but it’s lip service that defaults to just that before long. The solid athletes of the cruiser division are forced to occupy the role of cannon fodder for the dinosaurs and comedy act to the stars, rolling out their silly facial hair and umbrellas to placate the desire of the fans to see something unique. You can add the regional champions and tournaments to this list: far be it from me to naysay something with the potential to be great, but track record matters. You can’t help but get the sneaking suspicion (or perhaps sinking feeling) that these global champs are simply setting themselves up for getting dumped out by the latest genetic jackhammer that Vince encounters at a fashion show or bouncer convention.
We used to talk about that “WrestleMania moment”: the defining space in time that allows a wrestler to transcend their previous struggles and turn the corner into laying the groundwork for an incomparable career. That moment still exists, of course, but it’s far more manufactured than it used to be. When your wrestling show boasts no hormones, organic fair trade, and gluten free, it might be time to snag a box of Yodels and hunker down. Call me old-fashioned, but I liked it a lot better when we got to decide those moments for ourselves, rather than having them loudly brayed at us through the media megaphone of the WWE before the ink is even dry. The importance of these slices of time is reduced, rather than magnified, when they are so easily and frequently acknowledged. And that’s what WrestleMania has become, really: a monster truck rally wrapped in a Hollywood fashion show, with a bit of wrestling thrown in. You might not get a couple hours of solid psychology and mat work, but Shane McMahon will launch himself out of a cannon, and that’s something, isn’t it?
There’s a ways to go before we reach the big day, and unquestionably to make decisions one way or another on a rumored or proposed card is to give in to that nagging desire to predict the future. But you’ll forgive me for going on record right now to say that the more they try to make this one feel bigger somehow, the more they actually accomplish the reverse. WrestleMania is supposed to feature something for everyone, and I get that. But in attempting to be the jack of all wrestling trades, they as the story goes have unfortunately become master of none. Plucking a few former glories off the scrap heap and dusting them off is well intentioned and a nod to wrestling’s rich history, but true pioneers blaze a new trail. WWE will be forced to contend with shrinking options and increased observation over the years to come, and eventually even the most stoic of their fans will have to come to that moment on the edge of the abyss where they agree that it’s time to restore the energy to pro wrestling’s biggest event of the year.
This year’s WrestleMania moment should be for the WWE’s fans, and there’s still plenty of time to do it. Show us that the company is far more than a sum of its parts. Allow the indy talent ferried in from all over wrestling’s broad globe to not just appear but dominate the big dance. Concentrate on the stars of tomorrow rather than the fading lights of yesteryear. Realize that in giving your solid roster freedom to change the game on your biggest stage, you run not just the risk of failure but the possibility of outshining the obvious and reaching a whole new level of success. It’s wrestling’s biggest time on the calendar. You’ll forgive me for saying that it feels quite small at the moment. Hope springs eternal.