Next Sunday is WrestleMania, which is shaping up to be the big, garish monstrosity it usually is. Brock Lesnar is fighting Roman Reigns, again, while A.J. Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura are taking their past rivalry stateside in proper main stage fashion. Ronda Rousey will make her match debut against the Lingering Farts, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. Asuka will beat Charlotte, Braun Strowman will inexplicably be in the midcard, and John Cena will finally get his match with The Undertaker in a bout nobody really asked for.
It’s going to be fine, misgivings here and there aside. But what may be the biggest deal for the mass of wrestling fans descending on New Orleans will be all the wrestling not sponsored by WWE.
If you only plug into pro wrestling on WrestleMania weekend, a curious thing has happened just off-camera. The weekend has become a sort of pan-wrestling circus. You can, if you’re so inclined, watch pro wrestling somewhere, no matter where WWE sets up for its biggest show of the year, from Friday to Sunday. You can catch classic 80s and 90s stars doing all their biggest spots at half speed for pops. There’s lucha and puroresu, muscleheads and acrobats.
But importantly, it’s all away from the distilled heroin spectacle of WrestleMania. WrestleMania weekend is now a convention or a weekend concert. A pro wrestling Moogfest. WrestleMania is the pretense—even the most tepid of WWE viewers can find a reason to get excited about the prospect of a live WrestleMania—but the practical effect is a lot of people watching a lot of wrestling so wrestlers can make money.
@epitasis, a Twitter user with a sardonic sense of humor about pro wrestling and a worthy follow because of it, has been compiling as comprehensive a list of non-WWE events as you’re likely to find. It’s pretty staggering.
A staggering 20 non-WWE events run between Thursday and Saturday, 21 if we throw in NXT Takeover (which has a possible best-ever vibe to it). And these aren’t small events, meant to cash in on the gravity of WrestleMania with a few cheap, no impact shows.
Ring of Honor is putting on a serious clash of its wrestlers vs. New Japan’s. That’s an ongoing motif with the talent exchange between the two companies, but the promotion’s Supercard of Honor is headlined by Kenny Omega vs. Cody Rhodes. The rivalry between the two has elevated to blood feud status and, as the core of the best psychodrama storyline in pro wrestling (the slow collapse of Bullet Club), it is a must watch.
Ring of Honor never, ever comes out on top of NJPW in these things, which dampens the enthusiasm for the rest of the card a bit. Even with that, it’s hard not to be excited about matches like Hangman Page vs. Kota Ibushi or Jay Lethal/Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. the Briscoes.
The crown jewel of the weekend’s indie proceedings might be the brainchild of a throwback wrestler named Joey Janela. It all started last year, when Janela, a veteran worker with a penchant for hardcore wrestling, decided he was going to book a show around his dream match: himself vs. Marty Jannetty.
What followed was Joey Janela’s Spring Break, an event which was pitch perfect for the modern pro wrestling scene. It was archly aware of itself while simultaneously remaining absolutely respectful of pro wrestling’s modes of storytelling. Janela, himself, seems to occupy two eras at once. He’s a throwback to the days of trucker bods and beer—he did an extensive, entertaining interview with ESPN last year where he revealed he’s a pack of smokes- and a 30-pack-of-beer-a-day kind of guy—but also aware that wrestling should be a little absurd.
This year’s vintage has Janela versus Japanese legend and former politician The Great Sasuke. The wonder of it is just how cool and slightly off-kilter it is that the match is happening. It’s another Janela dream match, meant to let us live vicariously through the pizza guy who’s wrestling legends.
As further proof of concept of just how plugged into the wrestling superfan’s brain Janela is, jobber to the stars James Ellsworth is wrestling legitimately terrifying Matt Riddle, a former MMA fighter who’s making a strong transition to pro wrestling. The video package they cut, in which Ellsworth delivers a heartfelt monologue about hard work and enthusiasm in front of a wall of action figures, only for Riddle to sneeringly dismiss him as a chinless nobody, is a perfect blend of old and new sensibilities. Because it’s the story of the underdog, the guy we should like, versus a violent, sneering, dead-eyed badass like Riddle, but it’s also absurd and kind of funny. The video is so slickly produced, Ellsworth’s self-worth channeled from and to the wrestling memorabilia around him, and Riddle so rightly condescending that you can’t believe it’s real.
Maybe you don’t like that stuff. Fine. There’s Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport, a combo of pro wrestling and MMA (put on by GCW, who also sponsor Joey Janela’s Spring Break). Maybe you like hardcore wrestling; CZW will be there. Impact Wrestling. SHIMMER. It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that, whatever your tastes, there’s something there for you.
Vince McMahon always wanted WrestleMania to be a cultural event, hence the celebrities and pomp. It was never going to be the Super Bowl or Emmy Awards. Pro wrestling is too weird, too crude and violent. But it is a cultural event now, the excuse to party and watch live wrestling for four straight days every year. McMahon got his wish, just not in the way he expected.