Monday, 30 March 2015

WWE WrestleMania 31 review

WrestleMania 31. The main event of the WWE pay-per-view calendar. It would be stretching things to say that the company has been diligently building all of its major storylines towards this for the last year but it's certainly the culmination of several months of work. Sting and Triple H's feud started in November. Miz and Mizdow have been together since around then. Orton got wiped out by The Authority, setting up his grudge match with Rollins, as long ago as October. There were clearly plans in pieces for this show a long time ago.

Of course, one of the key pieces was the WWE's new chosen one. The man chosen to lead the company into the future as one of the stars of the current generation of wrestlers. For the first time in quite a while someone was positioned to experience their first world title victory in the main event of the show. Someone was positioned to be anointed as the company's new lead star.

It just wasn't the man we were expecting.

Including the pre-show WrestleMania was six hours long. Six hours. That's a lot of WrestleMania. The first hour mostly consisted of hype videos for the show's matches and natter from the panel of Booker T, Corey Graves, Byron Saxton and host Renee Young. The highlight was a backstage meeting between Jamie Noble and Joey Mercury and The Stooges in which Noble searched for sugar and Brisco revaled he'd used it all getting coffee for Mr MackMan.

The pre-show's second hour, exclusive to the WWE Network even though the idea of a pre-show is to get some last minute buys (and, in this case, Network subscriptions), featured two matches. The first was a very good tag team title match which saw champions Cesaro and Tyson Kidd retain against, Los Matadores, the New Day combo of Big E and Kofi Kingston, and, technically, the Usos. I say technically because Jey took an early spill to the outside at the hands of Cesaro (to write him out of the match due to a pre-existing injury) which left Jimmy to fight alone.

What a pair. And the tag champs.
It was a well-constructed succession of spots, the ideal opener for a show like this as it gave people chance to cheer and cheer and cheer. Each team hit at least doubles move and there was a sequence where all the seconds fought one another, ending with Natalya taking a Rear View form Naomi. The match ended when everyone except Jimmy was involved in a double superple off the shoulders spot. Everyone but Jimmy was wiped out by it and he took the opportunity to splash Big E. Cesaro appeared from nowhere to lob Rikishi's lad out of the ring and steal the pin.

The second match was the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal. It was not such a roaring success. Curtis Axel, who'd managed to become genuinely popular in the weeks leading up to the show based on being a guy creative overlooks, found himself overlooked by creative and eliminate first. This was likely done to stop him overshadowing the match's designated stars. This left me feeling that WWE still has no idea how to embrace organic popularity. When Hidoe Itami was KO punched off the apron by Big Show I felt the same, although he at least got to get in some kicks and eliminate Bo Dallas before he went.

My feelings changed slightly when Cesaro got to eliminate Kane with a scoop slam, the same thing he'd done to Big Show to win the previous year's battle royal. He attempted the same thing with 'The Giant' but his back gave out and he was sent over the top rope by Show. This didn't bother me as much as the treatment of Itami and Axel. There was a logical sequence which led to 'The Swiss Superman's' elimination.

Ryback fired himself up and got tossed out by Big Show befoe the match came down to Miz, Mizdow and Show. Miz pleaded with Mizdow to work with him against Big Show so the match could come down to the two of them. Mizdow didn't allow himself to be fooled. He threw 'The Awesome One' over the top rope and took his chances with 'The World's Largest Athlete'. It didn't work out well for him. He managed to survive for a minute or two but the match eventually went to Show after he simply dunked Mizdow over the top rope.

"Pull my finger."
I don't have a problem with Big Show winning. There was nothing on the line besides a trophy that looks like it's made from chocolate and tinfoil. The creative team deserve credit for embracing the Miz and Mizdow rivalry and having it come to a head here. Although I can't help but feel the crowd would have gone wild had the match come down to Mizdow and Curtis Axel. The two underdog favourites getting to close out the match could have been really suspenseful. And the Miz and Mizdow split still could have worked.

The Intercontinental championship ladder match opened the official WrestleMania show. It was preceded by a really good video that started out highlighting the importance of the championship before switching to focus on the legacy of ladder matches at WretleMania. This allowed it to cleverly gloss over how the IC title has been pretty much meaninglessness for the last fifteen years.

While the match didn't feature as many crazy bumps as I'd expected it still had plenty to choose from. A series of dives to the outside at the start of the match culminated with Ziggler getting back dropped over the top rope and Luke Harper diving onto everyone, before Dean Ambrose scaled a ladder to hit his cross body elbow. Stardust introduced a diamanté ladder, only for Barrett to kick a step off it and smack people with it. Harper did the Terry Funk ladder spot before dropping it and getting scissor kicked onto it by R-Truth. Barrett suplexed Stardust off the top of a ladder. Ambrose was Awesome bombed from the ring through a ladder by Harper. Barrett went on a Bullhammer rampage, pulling Ziggler off a ladder into the move, battering Stardust with it as he leapt off the top rope into the ring, and then smashing Truth off the ladder.

I didn't want this but I'm willing to give it a try.
Daniel Bryan nearly got the belt during this but was pulled off the ladder by Barrett. He avoided the Bullhammer and felled the defending champion with the running knee. Bryan scaled the ladder again only for Ziggler to sprint up and offer some last minute resistance at the top. They traded forearms and headbutts, D-Bry getting the last word when he knocked Ziggler to the mat with a head butt and reached up to pull down the title belt and win his first Intercontinenta championship. I'd been against Bryan winning but it went down well with the 'Mania crowd. They were happy to see Bryan triumph.

Orton v Rollins was match number two. Orton dominated the first several minutes, smacking Rollins about and no-selling buckle bomb before flooring 'The Future' with a clothesline. J&J interfered and were dropped off the apron with a double draping DDT. But that was enough of a distraction for Rollins to get in a suicide dive and take over the pace of the match. After a brief rest hold Orton comes back with clotheslines and turned a Curb Stomp attempt into a power slam.

'The Viper' hit a rough-looking T-bone suplex. Rollins escaped a draping DDT and got in an enziguri then an Asai moonsault to the outside. Back in the ring Orton got his draping DDT. Orton went for the RKO but Rollins countered into a schoolboy roll-up. Orty kicked out and then took an super kick but managed to stay on his feet to hit Rollins with an RKO.

Orton reacted to the kick out that followed with absolute shock. That seemed a bit much. Yes it normally wins him a match but people have kicked out of the move before, and this was WrestleMania, where we told that everyone goes that little bit further to make an impression. Anyway, he went for his back-up finish, the Deadly Punt™. Noble got in way and took an RKO. Mercury tried a cross body and took an RKO in mid-air. This allowed provided enough of a distraction for Rollins to recover and this time he hit Orton with a Curb Stomp.

An unspectacular photo from a really very good match.
Randy kicked out of that and Seth pulled him into position for the phoenix splash. Orton slipped out of the way as Rollins left the top rope. Rollins landed on his feet and rolled across the ring. Orton went for an RKO, got pushed off and stumbled to his knees. The match ended on a beuatifully performed exchange as Rollins went for the Curb Stomp and Orton slipped out from under him to catch him coming down with an RKO. The match could not have been better.

In a bold (or possibly stupid) move Sting and Triple H followed. They even went without the benefit of a pop song or a filler match. They did get the grand entrance treatment though. Sting came out to a Stomp-style group playing metal drums and wearing his face paint. Triple H had something themed around the Terminator. There was a headpiece themed around his tried and tested skull and crown motifs along with a red "laser" eye, four classic Terminator robots stood motionless on the stage, extras dressed up as less spectacular robots, a target-acquiring POV shot, and a cameo from Arnold Schwarzenegger in which he said "It's time to play the game!". It was weird but also nicely done. Triple H's cosplay fantasies are the closest thing to The Streak we have left at WrestleMania.

The opening few minutes were all about making Sting look like a top guy. He overpowered Trips. Then he outwrestled him. He no-sold the knee buster and went for the Scorpion deathlock. Trips wriggled out of the ring, returning to get whipped back outside via Sting's immense power. Sting followed him out and went for a splash against the barricade. Triple H moved and threw him into the steel steps.

Paul versus Steve: The Epic Collision.
Back in the ring H3 muscled Sting up for a stalling suplex then worked Sting over with knees and powerful whips into the corner before slapping on a sleeper so that 'The Vigilante' could loudly call some spots. Sting fought back and applied the deathlock. Billy Gunn, Road and X Pac ran to the DX music. Sting made short work of them with chops. The he threw Tripper out of the ring onto them for good measure. That set up a nice human crash mat for Sting to leap off the top rope onto. It looked like 'The Stinger' was finally going to put 'The Game' but a distraction from Billy Gunn allowed Trips to get in a Pedigree.

Sting kicked out so Triple H grabbed his sledgehammer. Before he could use it he was distracted by the music of the nWo and Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Hulk Hogan swaggering down to the ring. Had he thought about it the so-called 'Cerebral Assassin' could have lamped Sting with the hammer and won the match before the nWo fellas had arrived at ringside. He was clearly awed by their shock tactics.

When they arrived the nWo dispatched DX and Sting recovered to hit a Scorpion Death Drop on Tripper. When Trips kicked out Sting put him in the deathlock. Triple H went for the sledgehammer that lay tantalisingly close. Luckily for Sting that bastion of fairness Hulk Hogan was on hand to grab it from the evil COO's clutches. That triggered a flurry of activity on the outside and DX and the nWo wiped each other. Trips sat in the hold as this went on, only managing to make it to the ropes after everything had simmered down and the camera was back on him. Funny that. It was almost like the match was staged.

Sting went to reapply the Scorpion deathlock but got lamped with Sweet Chin Music (outta nowhere!) by Shawn Michaels. Helmsley crawled into a cover and Sting kicked out. Billy handed Trips the sledgehammer. Hall handed Sting the bat. Sting dropped Triple H with a tap to the midsection then broke the hammer's staff in half. 'The Game' backed into a corner and got pummelled with fists and a Stinger Splash. 'The Vigilante' got greedy and went for a second, which gave Triple H the chance to grab hold of the top half of the sledgehammer and lamp him with it. That was enough to finally put 'The Stinger' down for three.

After the match Triple H pushed DX off and offered a handshake to Sting. Sting accepted. The entire match was far, far better than I'd expected it to be. Sting was protected, Triple H didn't try anything too fancy, and they made excellent use of run-ins. It's probably a bit odd that Sting was saved by the nWo, a group he experienced the biggest match of his career fighting against, but we can take that as the four having put aside their differences since WCW went under. Or you could go really wild and see it as acknowledgment that Sting really was with the nWo all along as they claimed in the nineties.

Backstage Maria Menounos interviewed new IC champ Daniel Bryan, asking how he felt about his win. He tried to answer and was interrupted by Pat Patterson, Roddy Piper, Ricky Stramboat, Ric Flair, and Bret Hart. They all but Bryan over (Flair got himself over too, naturally) and did a "Yes!" chant. Then Ron Simmons showed up and said "Damn!". I presume this was hilarious for those into that sort of thing.

Following a musical performance so uninspiring I can't even be bothered to look up who it was by Paige and AJ Lee teamed up to tangle with the Bellas. Paige was isolated by the twins for a while before finally managing to tag out to AJ. She worked over Nikki, Paige eliminated Brie, and then AJ made Nikki submit to the Black Widow. This was the most time I can remember Divas getting at 'Mania in years. They made the most of it and told a story in a good match.

After the audience had been given the chance to gape at the Hall of Famers it was time for Cena v Rusev II: The Russian Federation Strikes Back. Rusev entered on a tank. An actual, honest to goodness tank. There was other stuff going on with a Russian flag and troops and Lana but it was nowhere near as impressive as RUSEV RIDING A TANK. John Cena got a video of American symbolism intercut with Reagan jingoism. His actual entrance was the standard Cena entrance.

Flag-related taunts set to become wrestling's next craze.
They had another surprisingly energetic, enjoyable match. The match they gave us at Fast Lane had raised my expectations for the quality of this match. They again surpassed them. Cena pulled out his top rope leg drop, multiple AAs and the STF. Rusev busted out his regular assortment of big lad moves and  athletic kicks. He was on top of his game with his selling, ring placement, and facial expressions, perfectly getting across his increasing desperation with wild eyes and an uncharacteristic trip to the top rope.

Not to be outdone with new material Cena hit a springboard Ace crusher. Then he powered to his feet and almost casually become the first man to break out of the Accolade. Lana tried a distraction from the apron and got knocked off by Rusev. Cena then scooped him up and hit him with an AA. Just like that Cena won. It felt like Rusev should've been able to withstand more with a year-long winning streak to his name. Going down to the second AA of the night seemed very anti-climactic.

Then the stalling kicked in. You see, WWE likes to present certain wrestlers in certain ways. One such wrestler is Undertaker. He always enters to darkness because he's a spooky character and darkness is spooky. At this point it was about quarter to seven. They needed to kill time so that it was as dark as possible for 'The Dead Man's' entrance. They also needed to give the crowd time to cool down and hit the toilets before the final two matches of the card.

The expert panel and the commentary split the task of recapping the show up until that point. Then Triple H (now wearing a suit) and Stephanie  were introduced. They announced that a new attendance record of 76,976 had been set for the stadium. Steph put herself and Tripper over as the reason for this and WWE's success in general. Trips took over and said they owned everyone there and everyone watching. I thought this was leading to an appearance from Vince McMahon but instead we got The Rock. He goaded Triple H into taking his jacket off before Steph stepped in and told Rock her family had made his family then gave him a slap. She teased The Rock about ot being able to hit her because she's a woman and ordered him to the back.

Luckily Rock avoided inappropriate talk of pies.
Rock left the ring but he didn't go to the back. Instead he went over to Ronda Rousey (sporting a memetastic "It's over 9000!" T-shirt) in the front row and brought her into the ring. Steph said she and Ronda were pals. When Ronda didn't exactly go along with this Steph demanded she leave. Rock and Tripe H ended up getting into it, with Ronda giving Triple H a hip toss and then grabbing Steph. She released her and the heels hobbled backstage as Rock's music played and he declared the sequence the greatest WrestleMania moment of the night. It was good but this self-aggrandizement put me off it a bit.

With all the time that could be killed killed it was time for Undertaker versus Bray Wyatt. 'The New Face of Fear' entered first, accompanied by a gang of scarecrows, some of whom he brought to life as he walked past. This could not compare with Rusev's tank entrance. Nor, for that matter, could Undertaker's entrance. There was still plenty of light in the sky and, for the first time in a few years, there were no special props on the stage. It was just 'Taker, his jacket and hat, and the funereal music. Very much a back to basics approach.

The match was fine but not the special attraction I think many expected. The crowd didn't seemed as invested in Undertaker as they have been at recent WrestleManias and I suspect this was because of the lack of The Streak. Not having that to fight for and defend makes 'The Phenom' a bit pointless, drifting character. The Streak was tied strongly to his legacy. Without it there's very little point in him sticking around unless he's going to have a stronger presence on TV across the year, which he's obviously not.

Who'd have guessed Sting v Triple H would be more enjoyable
than Wyatt v Undertaker?
They did most, but not all, of the spots that could have been asked of them. Wyatt did his flying forearm and threw out a handful of Sister Abigails. 'Taker gave us Old School, choke slams, and Tombstone piledrivers but omitted the Hell's Gate and the Last Ride. It seemed peculiar. When a guy who only wrestles once a year has this many recognisable moves to call on you expect him to pul them all out, especially in what was possibly his penultimate match. Wyatt survived one Tombstone but fell to a second just after the fifteen minute mark.

That just left the main event: Roman Reigns challenging Brock Lesnar for the WWE world heavyweight championship.

Reigns' entrance was heavy on boos. Lesnar got a thunderous initial pop and extended cheers once he was in the ring. He also received a personal ring introduction from his advocate, Paul Heyman. I liked that. It was a good use of Heyman on a show that didn't really have any other opportunity for him to talk.

Within thirty seconds of the match starting Lesnar had hit Reigns with a German suplex and an F5. He didn't go for a cover. Instead he started with the throws and suplexes. Reigns made sporadic attempts to fight back, clotheslining and pie-facing the champion as well as chuckling, to show us that he can take a beating, but he was quickly shut down each time.

The scene before the match.
After a while Reigns was punched off the apron down to the ringside mats. He got a brief moment of hope as he headed back into the ring, kneeing Lesnar in the face as he tried to grab him. 'The Pain' shrugged that off and sent Reigns off the apron back down to the mats with a lariat. When he returned to the ring he was given more suplexes, Heyman counting along with each one. The eighth was a particularly impressive belly-to-belly from the apron, over the top rope, back into the ring. 

'The Conqueror' hit an F5 and went for the first cover of the match. Reigns kicked out. Lesnar punched away at Reigns. Reigns laughed, earning himself two more German suplexes and a third F5. Reigns kicked out again, technically breaking WWE's unwritten rule that people don't kick out of more than three finishers in a match.

Lesnar tried to shove Reigns into a ring post outside the ring but Reigns managed to reverse the attempt. Lesnar would roll back into the ring bleeding heavily. Reigns hit him with a Superman punch but the champ stayed on his feet. A second Superman punch sent 'The Beast', briefly, down to a knee. Reigns went for the move a third time but Lesnar sidestepped it and went for a German suplex. Reigns fought out and blasted Lesnar with a third Superman punch and two spears. Lesnar managed to kick out. Reigns went for another Superman punch but Lesnar caught him in mid-air and F5ed him.

With both men down Seth Rollins sprinted out to the ring and cashed in his Money in the Bank contract, sending the crowd crazy (in a positive way, obvs). The match was restarted as a triple threat and Rollins immediately booted 'The Big Dog' out of the ring and Curb Stomped Lesnar. He went for the move a second time but Lesnar snatched him up into position for the F5. Reigns thrust himself back into the action with a spear. Lesnar rolled out of the ring. Rollins hit Reigns with a Curb Stomp and pinned him to become the new WWE world heavyweight champion.

The scene  after the match.
The main event was superb. Reigns stood up to a vicious beating from Lesnar and kept coming back for more. Lesnar delivered the suplexes and F5s he's adored for. The finish was designed to accomplish several things and did so. Lesnar was kept strong by not being pinned. Reigns was presented as the wronged victim who had his moment stolen away by someone else's selfishness. Rollins was presented as an opportunistic chancer who selected the perfect moment, making a name for himself at the expense of someone who'd earned their way to the top. Which, in kayfabe terms, Reigns had with his Rumble victory and win over Daniel Bryan at Fast Lane.

WrestleMania 31 was a far better show than I'd thought. I hadn't really expected much from many of the matches. Too many of them seemed like odd choices for a big show. But there wasn't a bad match on the card. The main event was everything I wanted it to be.

What's nice is that it feels like WWE has a plan coming out of this show. I don't like Bryan and Cena having the mid-card titles but it's clearly been done for a purpose. The world title picture has Rollins on top with Lesnar, Reigns and Orton in a position to argue they deserve a championship match against him. On the night the show was a surprising success. I think it will prove to have been a success in the long term too.


Results summary:
Cesaro and Tyson Kidd retain the tag team championship
Big Show won the Andre Battle Royal, last eliminating Damien Mizdow
Daniel Bryan won the Intercontinental championship in a ladder match
Randy Orton defeated Seth Rollins
Triple H defeated Sting
AJ Lee and Paige defeated the Bellas
John Cena defeated Rusev to win the United States championship
Undertaker defeated Bray Wyatt
Seth Rollins defeated Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar to win the WWE championship

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