Monday, April 9, 2018

To Be Continued: WrestleMania 34 Review

Tune into Smackdown Tuesday to see more creative ways Nakamura can low-blow Styles!
Photo Credit:
In TH Style, of course. You can still watch this for free on WWE Network as a new subscriber, but at this point, maybe just peep RAW and Smackdown this week instead? I dunno.

  • Seth Rollins became the final member of The Shield to attain Grand Slam status as he captured the Intercontinental Championship after curb stomps on both Finn Bálor and The Miz.
  • Charlotte Flair ended Asuka's unbeaten streak and retained the Smackdown Women's Championship with the Figure Eight.
  • Jinder Mahal outlasted Randy Orton, Bobby Roode, and Rusev to win the United States Championship with a Khallas on Rusev.
  • Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle bested Stephanie McMahon and Triple H, as Rousey tapped McMahon out with a cross-armbreaker.
  • The Bludgeon Brothers won the Smackdown Tag Team Championships with an assisted avalanche sitout powerbomb on on Kofi Kingston.
  • Undertaker finally answered John Cena's badgering of him with a thorough ass-whipping, ending with a tombstone piledriver.
  • Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon defeated Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. Bryan submitted Zayn with the YES! Lock after a Solid Knee Plus.
  • Nia Jax smushed Alexa Bliss with an avalanche Samoan drop to win the RAW Women's Championship.
  • AJ Styles retained the WWE World Heavyweight Championship over Shinsuke Nakamura by countering Kinshasa into the Styles Clash. After the match, Nakamura gave Styles a low blow.
  • Braun Strowman chose Nicholas, a ten-year old child from the crowd, as his partner and defeated The Bar to win the RAW Tag Team Championships with a running powerslam on Cesaro.
  • Brock Lesnar put Roman Reigns down with six F5s to close WrestleMania still as Universal Champion.

General Observations:
  • In case you were wondering, the most badass person in the building didn't compete on the pre-show or the main card, but was crushing Bud tallboys in the cheap seats.
  • You'd think a dude whose entrance music proclaims he wants to BURN IT DOWN wouldn't associate with the Night King, the living embodiment of ice in Game of Thrones, but then again, I've never really associated WWE with keeping the integrity of its pop culture references in check. Besides, Seth Rollins did look pretty cool with the icy blue White Walker contact lenses in anyway.
  • I expected Finn Bálor to have a big entrance, and he did, but not production wise. Even if WWE is a hollow corporate entity that would sell out the LGBTQ+ community for a buck, I don't for one second doubt that Bálor doesn't mean it when he says his club is for everyone. He showed as much with the queer folks he had surrounding him as he entered.
  • Imagine having like third row seats to WrestleMania facing the hard camera and using that opportunity to stump for Hulk Hogan's return to WWE. Couldn't be me. Money is wasted on the worst possible people, I swear.
  • Of course, the most appropriate time to cut to John Cena downing $12 drafts in the crowd is right after a hot Bálor tope con hilo, but everyone should know by now Kevin Dunn embodies the aphorism "It's not what you know, but who you know" when it comes to long-term employment.
  • Having a triple threat with Rollins and Bálor means needing a lot of spots to happen with good or better timing, and Miz hit every single one of his highspot counters exactly when he needed to hit them, a far cry from the 2011 version of him who caught high flyers on dives like your uncle catches the football after six beers at the Labor Day family picnic.
  • The super slow motion on the Rollins frogsplash which showed starkly how much air he got on it, which is as good as one could hope for on a Dunn-produced replay. Sometimes, that crack staff gets it right.
  • You couldn't have asked for a more perfect opener to WrestleMania. It allayed all my fears about triple threat layout because it didn't have the requisite spots where one dude was laying around for a good long time. It was kinetic and energetic, and even though any one of the three guys could have won satisfactorily, they actually chose the most correct winner.
  • John Cena Crowd Shot Counter: 2, between matches. I think someone actually had tabs on him being escorted out to go to the bathroom on Twitter. I don't believe that this is the age of too much information, but shit like that makes me think twice.
  • Charlotte Flair's entrance having the neat callbacks — using her dad's cut of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and having the masked gladiators escort her in the same way she, Sasha Banks, and Alexa Bliss escorted Triple H years ago — elevated her stature going into the match, especially since being on Smackdown Live! does no favors for anyone's aura.
  • The one thing I want to know is if the live crowd could see all the 3D projection images during various entrances like Asuka's or if it was just a production thing for the streaming audience.
  • John Cena Crowd Shot Counter: 3, right during the beginning of this match. I think maybe if they were going to have Cena intrude on a match with his presence, it might've been good to have picked, I don't know, the Smackdown Tag Titles rather than one with an undefeated streak on the line? That's just me.
  • A lot of things impressed me about Flair/Asuka (see below), but their use of ropes as leverage points for offensive maneuvering was really fresh.
  • Look, I don't really care that they didn't hit the counter cleanly. Asuka countering the Flair moonsault into a triangle choke was extremely badass as a visual.
  • John Cena Crowd Shot Counter: 4, soon after the moonsault counter. I started to have a bad feeling about this at that point in time.
  • Commentary playing up how Flair has a "gymnastics background" made me sigh that that sort of thing is only really seen as a positive for women when I bet a male gymnast would fucking kill it in WWE.
  • "Charlotte was ready for Asuka" would've been a great moment had it maybe not come so early in Asuka's main roster tenure and if Cena hadn't trampled all over the moment by getting the NEWZ that Undertaker was in the building at the same time and ran out. Again, I don't really blame Cena. I blame the direction for putting this awkward puzzle together.
  • In case you wonder how fickle the crowd can be, Aiden English trampling all over GLORIOUS DOMINATION to announce Rusev Day was taken quite well. Bobby Roode's entrance was still pretty over all night, but it's like a drop of water that is the ocean of Rusev Day goodwill among WWE fans.
  • Jinder Mahal and Randy Orton got tossed from the ring early, reminding me how badly WWE punted by not making this match a singles showdown between Roode and Rusev.
  • I won't commend Randy Orton for much these days, but him jaw-jacking with a clearly pro-Rusev crowd, leaning into his hate, was at the very least self-aware.
  • On one hand, "inoffensive" was probably the ceiling for the US Championship match, so good job in hitting that. On the other, why should any match for WrestleMania have such a low bar to need to clear?
  • Of course, I got excited to see the return of Fashion Files only for it to be a Snickers ad. At least it was amusing, I guess.
  • Triple H's fetish for motorcycle culture always amused me because I wonder how many hours he and Stephanie McMahon have put on a hog. Maybe like two? Just for their WrestleMania entrances? I don't know. They both may legit be into bikes, but it just feels so fake and forced.
  • Commentary had the good sense to namedrop Ken Shamrock while introducing Ronda Rousey, but for crying out loud, he was there in New Orleans this weekend. I think I'd rather have seen him clapping for Rousey than Human Penis Dana White.
  • Speaking of which, White's attendance at Mania really did foreshadow the main event finish if you think about it. If you wanted to really swerve an audience, you'd build up the match to such a foregone conclusion that when it went the other way, you'd leave everyone scratching their heads, right? I wonder how much money Vince McMahon paid White to make the "BROCK LESNAR IS COMING BACK TO UFC" announcement.
  • Smilin' Drake Wuertz got the call-up from NXT to referee this match, furthering my desires to see him break out of the PMA-induced sleepwalk he's in and let his inner Drake Younger out to bash some fuckin' light tubes over peoples' skulls.
  • Corey Graves trying to catch Jonathan Coachman in a gotcha moment when he name-dropped LeBron James and Pat Riley in a comparison on the surface felt like another instance where the former sharply-witted a zinger over his partner in the booth, but given the context, I wonder if Graves really thought that Riley was a player and not a coach/executive? I mean, Triple H wasn't coaching McMahon, nor vice-versa. It felt so... strange.
  • Kurt Angle trying to reach out and tag Rousey for the first time was the most pathetic I'd ever seen him in the ring, which is saying something. I thought he mostly held his own during the match better than his prior two appearances, but man, I wish he'd just hang 'em up at this point.
  • Seeing Rousey's initial burst in the ring made me think she might just be okay at this wrestling thing. Of course, it doesn't make up for her vile social opinions, but hey, it's not like she's exclusive in that club. *sigh*
  • Look, I don't wanna give Triple H too much credit, but him sternly explaining the situation and giving Wuertz the ol' dad pat on the chest was perhaps the most unironically funny I've seen him in years.
  • Between his comments about what's coming next for Tommaso Ciampa in NXT that'll make you hate him even more (read, he's gonna wrestle Candice LeRae) and his actions dragging Rousey out of the ring and teasing a Pedigree on her in this match, it's a matter of time before WWE goes full-blown intergender. It's one thing to have men taking moves from women, but once the inverse happens too, that's the litmus test for the sponsors.
  • Rousey took the "Dolph Ziggler shoulder to the ringpost between the turnbuckles" bump everyone in WWE overuses, so I guess she's finally a full member of the roster now.
  • Stephanie McMahon, she who has wrestled once in the last decade, being a Brazilian jiu-jitsu savant enough to make Rousey try to armbar her THREE TIMES before she got it right was the most offensive thing to happen in a show where New Day would in the subsequent match come out to the ring with dwarves dressed up in pancake costumes. Yes, it was good storytelling in a vacuum, but I'm tired of fucking capital in WWE being presented as ubermensches when you have a whole roster of talented wrestlers who could be made special with not a lot of effort and not much more time with that effort exerted into similar features.
  • Seriously though, the dwarves in pancake costumes was some 1980s "bigotry is okay if it's fun" level Vince McMahon bullshit, and I'm sad that New Day went along with it (or even maybe thought the idea up themselves).
  • I think the only other thing I could say about the Smackdown Tag Title match was that I'm glad Erick Rowan spared the audience another contrived Tower of Doom spot? That match was utterly superfluous and perhaps it could have been the one where the DRAMA OF JOHN CENA SPRINTING TO THE BACK was presented.
  • Hey, speaking of John Cena, he's out to presumably face the Undertaker until the referee reappeared to tell him Taker wasn't there. But hey, it gave Elias a chance to get some Mania shine without having to wrestle in a match, I guess. In all seriousness, if it had been left at their interaction, it would still have been satisfying just because Elias playing in front of 78,000 strong is surreal enough.
  • I gotta wonder though. While I thought the Taker lightning magic stuff was decent because I like when wrestling skirts the absurd (I'm a Chikara fan, remember?) I wonder how many people could buy that and got really, really mad at the RAW Tag Team Championship match.
  • Honestly, Taker kicking the shit out of Cena was the only real way that angle should have ended. I mean, think about it. Cena went on television for weeks doing everything but saying Undertaker had no penis. Imagine being an adrenaline-and-testosterone-soaked meathead wrestler for a second and seeing those words flung at you. What would you have done? Engage in The Discourse™? Cena got what was coming to him, storyline-wise, that is.
  • It was also good to see Taker complete a Mania match and not leave the ring knocking on shoot-death's door for once.
  • Y'know, using the same graphics for Daniel Bryan's return vignette as they used for Vanguard-One's display screen during the Ultimate Deletion only raised so many eyebrows of fantasy bookers who wanted union between perhaps the two biggest, unlikeliest wrestling success stories of the last five years.
  • On one hand, trying to scare everyone by teasing stretcher spots for a wrestler who just got back from career-threatening injuries feels like a dick move. ON the other hand, I did kinda dig the symmetry between Bryan's last match at the SuperDome and this return one.
  • I watched Matt Riddle's Bloodsport this weekend, and aside from it being a unique and satisfying show, it featured Dan Severn engaging in a dad fight where he turned shades of red I didn't think were possible from the human body. Why am I bringing this up? Because I think Shane McMahon also watched Bloodsport and saw Severn's redness as some kind of challenge because hoo boy, he was a Crayola maroon crayon by the time that match was two minutes old.
  • Sami Zayn mocking McMahon's punches was perhaps the second best part of that match outside, of, well, seeing Daniel Bryan moving around the ring at full speed once again.
  • Zayn having to lean into McMahon's Coast-to-Coast attempt, something he hits with ease normally, was a microcosm for how much that whole story has gone from day one. I guess even in the end, you gotta play tight to the script.
  • Also, maybe don't compete in a high-energy contact sport/entertainment thing if you're two weeks removed from diverticulitis? I don't know, if that shit knocked Brock Lesnar from MMA, you might not wanna engage in highspot pro wrestling either.
  • For as low as some of the other points of Mania were, for those minutes where Bryan was going hard like he was in the past, nothing hurt and everything felt okay.
  • Between the match graphic and her entrance, WWE was really leaning into goddess/I'm above you imagery for Alexa Bliss. But I guess when you've got a match between an irresistible force and a quite movable object, you have to find ways to present the diminutive participant on a higher plane.
  • Nia Jax beating the Christ out of Mickie James to start the match was the smartest thing any wrestling babyface has ever done, so smart that I'm not sure it should have been allowed in wrestling canon.
  • You might have said that Jax should've murdered Bliss in 20 seconds and had some validity to your analysis. My whole thing is I'm not sure you do the Brock Lesnar over John Cena thing for anyone that you don't want to see as unbeatable in the near future. I don't think any division should have a Lesnar lording over it. Plus, it made sense for Bliss to have one last pass at manipulating Jax, albeit this time physically and not emotionally.
  • This scream exchange was perfect.
  • Between having Lzzy Hale play Ember Moon out at Takeover and Nita Strauss play Shinsuke Nakamura's theme, this weekend in WWE was a nice appreciation for women who can goddamn shred on the guitar. As one of those Dads who will talk your ear off about how the guitar is more important to a rock band than the vocalist, well, I was in my glory.
  • Hyping up a history that WWE doesn't own isn't new for the company, but it's still annoying seeing the commentary talk about the rich history between the two while actively trying to snuff out the place where it happened. It also contrasts between the blood rivalries they present borrowed from other places and the ones that are built in-house, like Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano.
  • Graves subtly knocked the Tokyo Dome by wondering if Nakamura could perform in front of a crowd that large, and I can only hope Dave Meltzer suffered a spontaneous brain bleed from hearing that.
  • I saw a lot of chatter online that this match didn't go as hard as people wanted it to, and while I do think Nakamura and AJ Styles left something on the table, what they did put out was fuckin' stiff-looking man. Some of those counters and strikes looked so hard that I almost felt them on my couch.
  • Second instance on the night when the super slow motion enhanced the action — Nakamura delivering a gutbuster to Styles and watching the ripples in Styles' ribs striate like an ocean wave breaking over the sandbar. It was about as graphic as you could get without breaking skin.
  • I feel like the Bob Backlund short-arm-scissors lift spot is overused nowadays. After seeing Styles use it and noting how everyone uses it now, not just Reigns, kinda makes it not as special a feat of strength. Then again, WWE isn't quite known for uniqueness.
  • Of COURSE Nakamura turned on Styles after the match. I almost half-expected him to have claimed it vengeance for World War II, given Road Dogg and PS Hayes might have that bullet in their creative chambers.
  • Honestly, Braun Strowman throwing The Bar's float off the stage was great, but would it have killed WWE to have paid an indie wrestler extra hazard pay to be in it when it went hurtling off the stage?
  • Strowman going into the crowd to find a partner almost made me think he was going to find like Rey Mysterio or someone just chilling there. He passed by No Way Jose and Trent Seven at least, but no NXT wrestler would have been as cool as the person he did pick...
  • ...look, the story all along was that Strowman didn't need anyone to win the tag titles, so why not pick a kid? WWE should be doing cool shit like that to appeal to its youth audience. Besides, the tag sequence with him was something that actually did put smiles on faces, well, at least my face.
  • I'm not the kind of person who likes to legislate how a crowd reacts as long as they're not doing premeditated shit like throwing beach balls, but for fuck's sake, CM Punk is not coming back. Stop chanting that miserable fucker's name.
  • Lesnar really didn't give a fuck in this match, did he? He nearly killed Roman Reigns on the belly-to-belly in the table and on a German suplex in the ring. Either that, or Reigns sandbagged him. Knowing how fickle Lesnar has been in the past and how seemingly professional Reigns conducts himself, I'm willing to say the onus was more on the Champ.
  • This match was basically nothing but German suplex, belly-to-belly suplex, F5, Superman punch, spear, ground punching, and that one knee counter Lesnar had to the spear. And it still went over 15 minutes. HOW?
  • I'm not so sure Reigns busted open hard way, or at least I wasn't when I thought he was going to win. Having Reigns soaked in his own blood holding the Universal Championship might have been the thing to break his malaise with the vocal portion of the crowd that hates him, but WWE inexplicably had Lesnar win.
  • Seriously, if WWE continues to push Reigns as THE guy and the ONLY guy, it's professional malfeasance. He should've gone over Lesnar in Santa Clara. He definitely double should've gone over him last night. But I'm beyond caring about Vince McMahon's psychotic booking anymore.

Match of the Night: Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka — It's hard to explain sometimes how some matches just feel bigger, how some wrestlers just rise to the occasion a little bit more easily than others. The kicks pop just a little harder. The lock-ups seem just a little tenser. Assigning meaning or effort levels to a match just by watching it can feel reductive or trite, but sometimes, just watching two wrestlers go at it can give off the vibe that the match they're creating means just a little more to them than their peers on the same card. Asuka and Charlotte Flair exuded that intangible aura, even as they were tasked with going on second on a show where their match could very well have believably headlined. My joshi watching is woefully not up to snuff, so I can't reliably say that their match felt like something that could have happened at Big Egg Universe without coming off like a transparent fraud. However, it felt a lot more like Joshimania would have felt on a bigger, better-produced stage than even a regular singles pay-per-view women's match in WWE would have felt lately.

The match felt cinematic in its execution from jump, with Flair and Asuka wrenching at each other, breaking out taunts, even upping the game on the little spots that people take for granted, like Flair picking Asuka's heel as she ran the ropes on a fairly standard feeling out-process sequence. The escalation came at a climactic point with Flair going from the apron to the barricade on a rope-bump spot, and it hit a sweeping crescendo when Asuka suplexed her off the apron to the floor. The counter of the moonsault into a triangle choke was another nice touch, all things that helped frame Asuka as this formidable wrecking ball whose streak wasn't some pro wrestling hullabaloo but an accurate forecast for how her battles all end.

But once again, Flair showed the sort of moxie that belies her family name, making her conquering of said streak feel valid, like something that was the satisfying conclusion no one knew they wanted until they got it. Whether it be shouting "IS THAT ALL YOU GOT?" in the midst of an Empress of Tomorrow onslaught or countering into a diving spear that went into the Figure Eight despite her inability to post on her left shoulder due to injury, she took the mantel of conquering hero and owned it throughout. All of those elements came together to make a match that overdelivered on whatever the lukewarm build promised, but that met and possibly exceeded what people, myself included especially, thought it could be when it was first announced. It was a WrestleMania classic if I ever saw one.

Overall Thoughts: WrestleMania started out feeling like WrestleMania, at least the idealized version of what WWE constantly keeps telling its viewers of what it is. The Intercontinental Championship triple threat had three gaudy entrances, a great layout, big spots, three hungry workers working the crowd into a frenzy, and a memorable finish with a fan-favorite taking home gold. Then the second match happened, and it felt like it belonged on WrestleMania. Again, the entrances were over-the-top, the stakes were sky-high, and the wrestlers went into overdrive to present a contest that felt deserving of the culminatory wrestling card of the year. The decision felt a bit odd in retrospect. It's one thing to end Asuka's streak in one match or have her, the first women's Royal Rumble match winner, fail in her attempt to win the title, but both? Hey, if that was the worst decision on the show, then it was a good night.

The problem was that decisions even more terrible, more short-sighted, more destructive kept following, opening the floodgates for questions and critiques that might signify WWE doesn't know what it wants its flagship show to be. Between allowing Road Dogg and Michael PS Hayes to fuck the Jinder Mahal in a feature role chicken again, letting Stephanie McMahon show better defense of Ronda Rousey's MMA-inspired offense than real MMA fighters have, putting on a weekly free-TV level Smackdown Tag Title match, turning Shinsuke Nakamura heel in a match that felt muted instead of one of the co-main events, or once again cutting Roman Reigns off at the knees to placate the push of one of the most tired acts in modern WWE history, the vibe went from WrestleMania to Great Balls of Fire or worse as the night wore on. WWE has homogenized its product so much that nothing really makes much of a dent unless it's a huge return or debut anyway. It's only shocks to the system that really get people going because everything else just feels like it's the same grind.

The fact that all three members of the Intercontinental Championship match got special entrances while no one in the Universal Championship match did was emblematic of that decline. Sure, other competitors got special entrances in between, whether the usual suspects like Triple H and Stephanie McMahon or reputedly-underappreciated wrestlers who have been treated as "geeks" in the recent past like The Bar. But why wouldn't AJ Styles have a gaudy entrance? Or Nia Jax? Ronda Rousey? I get the idea of using restraint so as not to wear out the special entrance, but conversely, WrestleMania is the only time of the year where you go all out with the pomp and the pageantry. I understand not giving the pre-show wrestlers that kind of shine. Maybe, maybe selectively denying big entrances to entities that hadn't quite established themselves in a way that warranted embellishment, which at this point is probably on the Bludgeon Brothers, was in order. But I mean how the hell do you have no special entrances for the main event? It's surreal.

The thing is the booking in so many of those matches corroborated with the lack of pop in presentation. How many of those decisions reeked of transitional episode of television or interstitial pay-per-view? I understand wanting to set up a longer story between Styles and Nakamura, for example, but shouldn't Mania be the place where the resolution happens, not the opening act? It's a habit of WWE booking that is infuriating, and it ignores the fact that the best Manias, both piecemeal matches and events on the whole, were couched in stories that had endings rather than ones that were used as fodder to start feuds that go into the spring dry season. Things like Batista's rise to the World Heavyweight Championship, Daniel Bryan's ascension at Mania XXX, Bret Hart's year-long chase of Yokozuna between IX and X, the MegaPowers' final collision all were culminations.

It shouldn't be surprising that the things that worked on the show were culminations. The points where Mania felt like Mania the most — the ending of Asuka's streak, Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon vanquishing Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens for good, Ronda Rousey getting her pound of McMahon flesh — felt like endings of stories, or at least milestones within a larger epic. I doubt Asuka is done with Flair, but Flair's victory can be the Empire Strikes Back to the next chapter's Return of the Jedi. However, each came with its own baggage that signified various fatal flaws within the WWE superstructure. The only stories that matter usually involve McMahons. The Asuka thing magnifies the hangup that creative has in telling the predictable but satisfying story, especially when it comes to the Royal Rumble winner. All those things in a vacuum might not matter, but when the rest of the show sags the way it did, then those flaws get magnified.

One could make the argument that WrestleMania isn't what fans expect it to be, or that consumers have way too high of expectations for the event, both of which ring exceedingly hollow. The former isn't necessarily just fan perception, but it's what WWE sells this event as every year. It's the culmination of its creative calendar. It's the biggest event of the year, a place for epic battles, satisfying resolutions, incredible moments. It's not an invention of rabid outsider fans; it has evidence from WWE supporting it. You can't expect the company to trot out video package after video package detailing the mythic happenings and then serve up three-quarters of a card that is basically telling you "Tune in during Backlash for the resolution!" The latter criticism gives content producers too much absolution for not fulfilling on promises that are made, implicitly or explicitly, in a capitalist environment. You can't create this tentpole event and underdeliver, and when you're a company that likes to boast how good you treat your fans, you can't end your two top male Championship matches the way that they ended.

All Mania goes to show is that Vince McMahon has lost the plot on what his marquee event should be. Instead of a tight, season finale atmosphere where fans have to painstakingly choose which moment they thought was most memorable, he decided to try and outsmart everyone else trying to follow along and promise that he'll have your money next week instead of tonight. Wrestling struggles with its identity so much because of this propensity for promoters, not just McMahon, but especially McMahon always trying to delay gratification to wring a few extra shekels out of the audience and not knowing where to stop despite the fact that they've got multiple examples of said gratification as precedent. It's why moments like the Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth reunification stand out; they're diamonds in a sea of carbon slurry. It's just a shame that so much of Mania's history, including most of this year's, has to feel like part of the raging black sea.