Posted on Sunday, April 1, 2012
by Paul in Wrestling
It’s spring again, and time for the biggest wrestling show of the year. This time, Wrestlemania is coming from Miami, where the weather has apparently been pretty dreadful of late. And it’s an open-air arena. But there’s a bloody great tent suspended over the ring, so unless the weather turns really atrocious, they should be okay. Could be a long night for the live crowd, though.
As we’ve come to expect, the show is built around the headlining matches, with the idea being that the casual audience will be attracted by the big names, but that decent matches on the undercard should bring them back for more. This is well and good in theory. It’s notable, though, that this year’s two biggest matches actually feature wrestlers who aren’t on the regular roster at all, and are essentially semi-retired – with the Raw and Smackdown champions down at the third and fourth slots on the card. It’s undoubtedly the case that the two top matches are bigger draws than anything the regular roster has to offer right now, but that in itself should be a cause of concern for the company. There’s a risk in bringing back the likes of the Rock, which is that you draw attention to the company’s failure to create stars of similar magnitude in the years since.
1. John Cena v. The Rock. The build to this match has been underway since last year’s show, when the Rock appeared as “guest host”. And rumour has it they’re looking at some sort of rematch in 2013 if it does well.
The theory is reasonable. Much as he may divide the crowd, appealing more to the kids who buy merchandise than to the older core audience, Cena is the biggest star of the current era and has been on top for years. The Rock was the biggest star of the previous generation, and hasn’t been in a singles match for years. He wrestled a tag match alongside Cena a few months back as part of the slow build; nobody really wanted to see this, and no particularly compelling story was put in place to support it. It did, however, at least confirm that Rock can still go. So in theory it’s a logical match.
Here’s the problem. Cena isn’t as popular as the Rock. He divides the crowd in a way that Rock never did in his prime, and tends to get a vociferously negative reaction from a substantial part of the fan base. And he’s not as big a star. Left to their own devices, audiences will overwhelmingly cheer the Rock against Cena. Particularly in Miami, which is Rock’s billed home town (he’s actually Californian, but he did go to Miami University on a football scholarship).
Now this is a bad thing, because come Monday morning, Rock won’t be there, and Cena has to resume his role as the top babyface in the company. So the company is desperate to get a split reaction here, and has been working very hard over the last few months to try and build Cena, to some extent at Rock’s expense. This is perfectly logical in the broader context but probably hasn’t done wonders for the match itself. If they actually get that split crowd – and they’ve had a degree of success with the crowd response – then all will be well. I think there’s a fair chance, though, that a Wrestlemania audience – who tend more heavily towards hardcore fans, the least Cena-friendly segment of the audience – will side overwhelmingly with Rock. If that happens, look for the commentators to go into industrial excuse-making mode, with incessant reminders of the partisan hometown crowd.
All that aside, I expect these two to have a good match. They’ve done a relatively restrained build without crazy storylines, simply pushing the idea that Cena needs to win to prove he’s Rock’s equal. The result probably depends on whether they’ve got a deal in place for the rumoured rematch in 2013. If not, Cena pretty much has to win, though it’s hard to imagine the crowd taking well to that. But if we’re coming back next year, the likely finish is Cena losing after some sort of outside interference, to justify the rematch, and to set up Cena’s next feud with whoever interferes. (It would have to be a major returning star for audiences to accept this as anything other than a cheat, but supposedly there’s talk of Batista or Brock Lesnar being there, either of whom would probably do.)
2. Hell in a Cell: Undertaker v Triple H. Another rematch from last year, another battle of the semi-retired. The Undertaker has never been defeated at Wrestlemania, which started off as mere coincidence (he very rarely lost in the early years of his career), but in recent years has been successfully positioned as a huge symbolic deal in its own right. The Undertaker is now 47 and rarely wrestles; until he returned for the build-up to this match, he hadn’t been seen since last year’s Wrestlemania show.
That time, he defeated Triple H, who is currently (in real life) the heir apparent to run the company and long since stopped being a full-time active wrestler, as he transitions into Vince McMahon’s managerial role. The year before, he defeated Triple H’s long-time partner Shawn Michaels in Michael’s retirement match. The idea here is that, having only just defeated Triple H last year, Undertaker wants a rematch in order to get a more decisive win. Michaels has been appointed as special guest referee. Will Michaels be biased? Usual special ref deal, in other words.
I don’t sense this having quite the same buzz as last year. In part, that’s inevitable with sequels, but I rather get the impression that audiences have twigged to the fact that Undertaker is nearing retirement and that this is something of a repeat. Basically, I think the company has fallen into the trap of taking the significance of the Undertaker’s streak for granted, and with neither wrestler a regular fixture on the show, there’s a slight feeling that it’s not as relevant as it once was. Also, I doubt anyone seriously believes that Undertaker’s winning streak is going to be ended by a wrestler who’s virtually retired and would gain nothing from the win; there’s just no point in Undertaker losing unless you have a future star who would be seriously elevated as a result. If they throw away the streak on this match, they’ve lost their minds. I just can’t imagine it happening – and that’s not good for drama. In that sense, Undertaker’s best opponent would be somebody further down the card. If he was facing CM Punk, I could just about imagine him losing. But to Triple H? Nah.
It’ll be a good match. But they’ll either have to tell a really interesting story with Shawn, or they’ll have to work incredibly hard to get everyone to suspend their disbelief and think the outcome might be in doubt.
3. WWE Title: CM Punk v Chris Jericho. And so we come to the Raw world title, and full-time wrestlers. (Jericho only wrestles intermittently, but when he does show up, it’s for months at a time, so he’s close enough.) Punk is the defending babyface champion, Jericho is the returning heel challenger who claims, on extraordinarily tenuous grounds, that Punk has stolen his act. Much in the way of personal mudslinging has ensued, with Jericho making remarkably brazen attacks on the personal problems of members of Punk’s immediate family. It’s a solid enough build.
On paper, this has a good chance of being the best technical wrestling match on the show. There’s also more mileage in this feud – oh, and next month’s pay-per-view is in Punk’s home town, so it’s a fairly safe bet that he’ll get a great reaction there. On that basis, my suspicion would be that Jericho wins the title to set up a rematch next month where Punk ends the feud. I have high expectations for this.
4. World Heavyweight Title: Daniel Bryan v Sheamus. Sheamus won the Royal Rumble back in January, and opted to challenge for the Smackdown title at Wrestlemania. Bryan has held the title since December, initially as a fluke babyface champion, and then turning heel over the following months. This has done wonders for his career. The WWE never seemed to know quite what to do with him as a babyface, typically unable to get its head around a smaller guy who didn’t look like everybody else on the roster, and positioning him as an underdog nerd. A long feud with heel commentator Michael Cole (which resulted in Bryan being perpetually buried on commentary during every match) didn’t help.
But as a heel, they know how to use him. He’s the self-righteous, disingenuous, smug champion who keeps retaining his title on technicalities, while nonetheless being allowed to have good matches along the way. He’s fended off enough challengers, admittedly through less than resounding victories, that he’s no longer being positioned as a fluke champion so much as a guy who takes short cuts. And now that he’s a fellow heel, he doesn’t have to put up with constant burial on commentary.
There’s not a tremendous amount to this feud beyond serviceable build-up – after all, it’s the fourth match on the card – which rather illustrates the way that the regular cast are being overshadowed by the returning stars on this show. But Bryan is one of the best wrestlers in the business, Sheamus is very good too, and these two ought to have a very good match. Bryan’s got a lot of momentum right now as a heel champion, and I don’t think Sheamus desperately needs the title right now, so if it were up to me, I’d have Bryan retain.
5. Intercontinental Title: Cody Rhodes v Big Show. This is the secondary title on Smackdown. Rhodes has held it since August, which is a good long run, and the company seems determined to try and push him as a future main eventer on the B-show – if only because the depth issues on that show leave them with little choice. He’s good, and they’ve wisely moved on from the gimmicky “irrationally believes he’s deformed” character he was playing last year. But I still think he needs a bit more momentum before he can truly be moved on to the next level.
Big Show is the company’s resident giant (well, the resident giant who can actually wrestle), he’s been world champion several times, and the IC title would be a bit of a step down for him. This match makes perfect sense if the idea is to feed Rhodes a major opponent on a major show, and have him retain. It’s difficult to see any logic in a different outcome. An underdog heel taking on a monstrous babyface is a difficult dynamic to make work unless the heel already has a ton of credibility, but we’ll see how they do. Worked smartly, it could be a decent mid card match.
6. Team Teddy (Santino Marella, Great Khali, R-Truth, Kofi Kingston, Zack Ryder & Booker T) v. Team Johnny (David Otunga, Mark Henry, the Miz, Dolph Ziggler, Jack Swagger & Drew McIntyre). A very strange piece of booking, this. This is meant to be the culmination of a feud between Raw’s heel general manager John Laurinitis, and Smackdown’s babyface general manager Teddy Long. Each picks a six-man team, and whoever wins gets to be the GM of both shows. Which means we’re either going to end up with both shows being run semi-sensibly for a change, or we get the tiresome heel GM schtick on both shows. My bet would be the latter.
Logically, that ought to be a major storyline – but in fact, this match is being used as a dumping ground for midcarders, and thanks to a spate of injuries, they’ve had to dredge the roster a bit even to fill out the twelve. The team captains – Santino Marella and David Otunga – are both established sidekicks to the GMs, but they’re also both comedy figures who are portrayed as largely ineffective in the ring (though Marella occasionally gets his moment in the sun). Zack Ryder is similarly a cult undercard babyface at best. Khali is a former monster heel of limited mobility, who’s settled into a role as a novelty giant. Henry and Miz have at least main-evented recently, though both are currently out of favour; Miz was added at the last moment, probably to make up the numbers, after an extended storyline teasing that he wouldn’t get to be on the show at all. Kingston, R-Truth, Ziggler and Swagger have been mired in the mid card for years.
And Drew McIntyre’s sudden, last-minute insertion into this match can only be attributed to desperation; while he’s a perfectly solid wrestler, his character has been on a losing streak for months, so that no rational team captain would touch him with a bargepole. But frankly, there just aren’t any other mid card heel wrestlers free to take the slot (you’re looking at the likes of Heath Slater, whose win-loss ratios aren’t much better than Drew’s).
I expect a bit of a mess from this. Heels likely win.
7. Randy Orton v Kane. The obligatory pairing up of two main event wrestlers with nothing else to do. It’ll get them on the card, it’ll be a respectable length, and Orton will probably win. Next!
8. Kelly Kelly & Maria Menounos v. Beth Phoenix & Eve. Menounos is an American TV presenter, and this match is the obligatory celebrity guest match designed to get a bit of mainstream publicity. Unusually, Menounos seems to be an actual fan of sorts. She’s wrestled twice on TV in earlier months, and to general surprise, she was pretty acceptable – certainly by the undemanding standards of the WWE’s women’s division, which has never exactly been noted for recruiting on technical merit.
Quite what they’ll be able to do with Menounos in this match is another matter, as she reportedly currently has two broken ribs and a fractured foot. This has not deterred her from proceeding with her appearance on tonight’s show, nor from soldiering on in the current season of Dancing With the Stars, although you really have to wonder about the wisdom of either decision. Expect this to be kept short and Menounos’ involvement to be kept to the absolute minimum consistent with justifying her presence. As the babyface celebrity guest, she’s bound to win.
9. WWE Tag Team Titles: Primo & Epico v. The Usos v. Justin Gabriel & Tyson Kidd. This is the free match on the preview show, basically a way of getting these guys on the show. The tag team division remains moribund and the company really needs to find some opponents for heel champions Primo and Epico to feud with. They’ve got a perfectly good act but you can’t wrestle yourself. I assume they’ll retain here; the Usos have an unusual elaborate entrance but never win, and Gabriel/Kidd aren’t even an established team (though they’d be very good, so if they win, I won’t be too upset).
Worth getting? Yeah, on balance. Most of these matches, particularly the longer ones, are likely to be good. Rock/Cena should be an interesting spectacle if nothing else, and both world title matches look strong.