At some point early in the evening, I tweeted that WrestleMania 34 was going to be incredibly predictable in terms of who the winners would be, but top-to-bottom good. The card was just too stacked for there to be any stinkers. Hell, it was too stacked for there to be more than a scant handful of average matches.
Boy, was I wrong.
None of the following is to say that Sunday’s WrestleMania was bad, precisely, because it wasn’t. But it was a strange show, garish even by the standards of WWE excess, and yet another overlong show which made the bad parts curdle.
It’s almost better to think of WrestleMania as two sequential shows. The first WrestleMania 34, which ran from the pre-show to Daniel Bryan’s return match as Shane McMahon’s tag team partner vs. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, was an above average to legitimately great spectacle. It was everything WWE does best: big, loud, colorful, dramatic, and peppered with good wrestling when whatever monstrous clockwork mechanism they have writing things got out of the way.
So let’s start here, with the best match of the night in Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka. No moment represented WWE’s commitment to the sports entertainment culture of “too much” more than Flair’s entrance. The lights went down and the strains of Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra”—her father Ric Flair’s famous theme song—boomed over the speakers. A sudden golden burst of light and smoke hit and there was Charlotte, sitting on a throne, flanked by four greased down Roman soldiers. She strutted down to the ring like she owned it, only to be followed by Asuka, who did her elbows akimbo walk looking like she’d been called forth from the archives of Blingee.
It ruled and their match ruled. They worked stiff as hell, one of the stiffest matches of the night, and told a story of two evenly matched opponents, neither of whom could get the better of the other. If pro wrestling is myth reassembled, these were your goddesses. The crowd knew it—you could hear them gasping and moaning in delight at every heavy move, every story tic—and the wrestlers knew it, too.
Of course, they weren’t evenly matched, and here’s where the first signal that things might get a little weird popped up. When Asuka tapped, it came a little too quickly, a touch too abruptly. And it was also the wrong choice. Not disastrously so, because Asuka’s relentless winning streak had slowly become a storytelling cage for her, but it was still wrong. For as much as WWE loves its history making moments, to have Asuka’s winning streak—which included a win at the first women’s Royal Rumble and a legendary run as NXT women’s champion—not end with a title win at WrestleMania was just slightly off-note.
This was rendered even more true when the theoretical big money opponent to end that chapter of Asuka’s story wound up being far, far better in the ring than anyone could rightly expect. Ronda Rousey did not look great in the build-up to WrestleMania. Her movements were stiff, her promos wooden, and she’s had this look of being overwhelmed at crowds which routinely equal or outstrip the UFC crowds she was used to.
Her debut match, as the nearly immobile Kurt Angle’s tag team partner, against the most overexposed power couple in history in Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, looked for all the world like a stinker. Angle can’t really go anymore, there were obvious doubts about Rousey, and both Triple H and McMahon have transitioned to go away heat over the years.
The first five minutes of the match looked like a disaster as Angle and Triple H slowly acted like they were hurting each other. They wrestled like what they were: men pushing 50 who, despite still being in better shape than most people could ever dream, are subject to the ways age makes your knees and back simply not work like they used to.
But once Rousey came fully into the match, magic happened. The whole thing was booked like a fever dream, and it worked. She beat up Triple H, pretty soundly. Stephanie McMahon blocked her submission moves better than anyone in UFC. And oh my God, there was Steph and H, each in a submission hold, reaching out to hold hands, as wrestling lovers do.
Above all, though, was Rousey’s work. And there should always be an asterisk on this, because Rousey sure has flirted with transphobia at least and equally surely she does find Sandy Hook trutherism “interesting." That makes it hard to root for her in any appreciable sense, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that she tore the ring up. She’s fast—and arguably a touch too fast, but pacing will come—strong, agile, and has a natural sense of when to kayfabe shit talk her opponents. The overbooking of the tag match just made her stand out more, and the crowd’s vocal yet polite welcoming chants of her name became the sort of deafening roar you don’t always get to hear by the time McMahon had tapped out to her.
Which is a lesson in booking which WWE always seems to forget, and never seemed to forget more on this night: Rousey looked like a superstar because they helped her look like one. Pro wrestling isn’t some zero sum game between atomic individuals, a Randian paradise made of flesh and steroids. That’s the lore. The reality is that you have to help each other in the ring, and the booking team has to help wrestlers look good so everyone can make money. This is especially true in the modern era, where the backstabbing which got you real prestige for kayfabe titles has dissipated.
Not too many people came out looking as good as Rousey. John Cena didn’t when he was squashed by The Undertaker, though the segment was stupidly fun and his story as an aging athlete who can’t hack it anymore despite his best efforts is compelling as hell. Certainly not Roman Reigns or Brock Lesnar, as WWE somehow blew both their stories for no discernible reason.
But perhaps nobody ended up looking worse than Shinsuke Nakamura. The knock has always been that he goes half-speed, at best, at the smaller shows, but he shows up at the big ones. WrestleMania is the biggest event in the world, and he didn’t show up.
The sorry state of Nakamura’s WWE career exists somewhere at the intersection of poor booking and the man himself, but it doesn’t change facts. His match with A.J. Styles perhaps never could’ve lived up to the outrageous hype it generated, but it didn’t even really try. They moved sluggishly, the match ended suddenly (a recurring theme for the night), and Nakamura seemed particularly off. It takes two to screw up a match most times, but we know Styles has had good matches with chaff like Jinder Mahal, so odds are it’s just that Nakamura is done as a top flight talent. He’s at two years in WWE/NXT and he’s had precisely one truly great match (his NXT match with Sami Zayn), and if he’s not switching on for WrestleMania, he sure isn’t for a B pay-per-view in a cold Buffalo stadium when he’s another year older.
Nakamura turned heel, but given the way a true heel turn needs to be given time in a WWE paradigm that doesn’t allow for even halfway decent or coherent television, he’ll need a lot of luck. This match probably kicks off a series, in which case past being prelude shouldn’t give much hope. Maybe Daniel Bryan gets thrown into the title mix, which does mean someone has to be the heel between the three beloved wrestlers. But mostly Nakamura feels like a spent force, with that fact being made definitive by the scope of WrestleMania’s back-half failure to really entertain.
That’s the damning fact of WrestleMania and it’s still bewildering: at the least, the show is big enough that it should create stars or cement the legacies of existing ones. Yet only Rousey really felt like a success, even in the brilliant first half of the show. WrestleMania turned on a dime from good to bad, which made the whole thing a middling exercise in the average.
There is a massive coda to this, however, which must be kept necessarily brief: It probably does not matter at all that WrestleMania was not great.
As I wrote last week, WrestleMania weekend has turned into a celebration of pro wrestling itself. WrestleMania didn’t have to be good for the weekend to be great, assuming everything else clicked. And it did, in amazing ways.
WrestleMania wasn’t even the best WWE produced show of the weekend; Saturday’s NXT Takeover was one of the best shows the company has ever produced, featuring precisely the sort of star-making WrestleMania lacked. It had one of the greatest ladder matches ever put on, two amazing title matches, and the culmination of the year-long feud between Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano in one of the best story-facing matches we’ve ever seen.
You could pick any number of shows between Thursday and Sunday and been satisfied with just one. Joey Janela’s Spring Break 2 was my favorite, but I’ve not seen everything and probably never will; there’s just so much. But even more, I was getting reports from friends who watched a dozen or more hours of pro wrestling in New Orleans and loved every minute. I saw photos trickling into Twitter and Instagram of fans running into their favorite wrestlers in the streets or in bars and having drinks or a chat (and definitely a photo). There were American indie stars, WWE stars, New Japan stars, old-timers, up and comers, and it looked like more fun and more meaningful than just WWE screwing up two hours of its big show.
Which is all to point out that WWE is usually better than it is worse, but that pro wrestling is also so much bigger than just WWE, despite how much oxygen the promotion takes up. What the world got was possibly the greatest four day stretch of pro wrestling in history. That may not be a great salve if you’re one of those only checking in on WrestleMania, but use the show and that twinge of disappointment as a pretense for seeking out some of those smaller shows surrounding the big event.