SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
WrestleMania is hyped as the Showcase of the Immortals, but ironically for the past two decades the event has been defined by The Dead Man. WrestleMania 33 did not feature a return of the Big Three of Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, or The Rock, and I believe that was a calculated decision on WWE’s part because they wanted the focus to be on the likely retirement of the Undertaker. I have been to 15 of the last 16 WrestleManias, and I have seen him participate in some of the greatest matches in wrestling history on the grand stage. It was an awe-inspiring scene seeing the old cowboy disappear into darkness one last time in front of a mammoth crowd.
Although WrestleMania 33 will be remembered for the final match of the Undertaker, it featured numerous memorable moments in a spectacular setting. There really is nothing like attending Mania live. I attended the event with Rich Twilling, former ProWrestling.net writer and OJ Entertainment, a UK fighter, and we had a fun time at the show. The staging, complete with a roller coaster near the entrance, was befitting of the slogan, the Ultimate Thrill Ride. The matches may not have been thrilling, but the overall event, complete with numerous fireworks displays and electrifying special effects kept the live audience reasonably engaged if not enthralled. Here is my review of WrestleMania, live from Orlando!
We did not arrive in time for the Pre-Show because we knew the main show would exceed five hours. If any of you were able to sit through the entire seven hours, you deserve some type of championship belt. Sadly, I got there in time for that awful New Day opening.
Shane McMahon vs. A.J. Styles
AJ Styles has been the best wrestler of the past year, and he should have been in a main event match. Instead, WWE used him to give the show an exciting opener against the First Family’s daredevil son Shane O’Mac. I am not a fan of Shane’s goofy persona and have always seen him as a glorified stuntman. Last year, I saw one of the most stunning sights I have ever seen when he stood atop the towering Cell structure and flew through a table. When we heard that a roller coaster was being built into the set, many of us imagined him doing some insane maneuver off the structure.
What took place was an entertaining but forgettable match with numerous displays of high-flying athleticism from both Shane and Styles. AJ, who came in as a heel, received one of the loudest ovations of the night. The fans were solidly behind him, but they also liked McMahon. Many felt there would be a backlash, but that did not take place. Shane’s shooting star press and fall through the table captured the crowd without risking his life. This was a worthy opener, but hopefully as a reward for wrestling the boss’s son, Styles takes his rightful place in the main event next year.
LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 7 out of 10. There was enough athleticism here to give the show a warm opener.
Kevin Owens vs. Chris Jericho: United States Championship
Around January, many envisioned that this match could be one of the main events. The second match of Mania is not a very distinctive placement on the card for one of the few long-term storyline payoff on the show. The audience was into the match, but interestingly with the huge outdoor stadium, it was difficult to take in the sound. I am not sure how it sounded on television, but the crowd was fairly hot for this one. It had the potential to be a show stealing match, but it was not designed to be. Most of you should sense a pattern that when Jericho is not wrestling Shawn Michaels, he really has not been the Highlight of the Night, one of his many monikers. It was a strong showing, but it also fit the tone of the night that featured numerous solid but not memorable encounters.
LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 6 out of 10. It was probably one of the better second matches in WrestleMania history if that means much.
Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks vs. Bayley vs. Nia Jax: Women’s Championship
The “build” to this match features some of the worst booking in the history of wrestling as outlined in my recent article. It had to overcome the atrocious storytelling with some sensational action in the ring. What took place was another solid but forgettable showdown. Notice the trend here? Unlike previous years, the fans did not line up out the doors to the bathroom so people were at least interested in seeing the women wrestle. The characters have all been cold so there was not a great deal of heat. Charlotte’s corkscrew moonsault was a beauty to behold and the highlight of the match. Having Bayley retain the belt was a wise move because there have been way too many title changes in the past few months. The booking is absolutely baffling because it makes no sense why she did not beat Charlotte for the championship at Mania and end her PPV streak to achieve her childhood dream on the big stage.
LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 4 out of 10. It was not a bathroom break, but it was hardly revolutionary.
The Hardy Boyz vs. The Club vs. Sheamus & Cesaro vs. Enzo & Cass: Tag Team Ladder Match
Money in the Bank was one of the most exciting highlights of WrestleMania and the efforts to replace it with various incarnations of ladder battles has not quite recaptured that magic. Nobody was excited about the three teams booked to face off for the Tag Team titles because they were not names we associate with thrilling spots. As show time arrived, there was a buzz in the stadium that the Hardys would be the surprise additions to the bout. When New Day came out to make the announcements, there was almost a collective set of boos in fear that they would enter the match themselves. Once they made their announcement, however, the live crowd erupted to see the return of Matt and Jeff. The other eruption in the crowd was the chants that attempted to dim some of the blinding lights above the ring. “Turn the lights off,” and “we can’t see” chants echoed through the stadium.
I have never been a fan of the Hardy Boyz in any of their incarnations, but I knew that they would give the match a badly needed dose of athleticism. This was not one of the better ladder matches, but it featured some innovative spots. There were chants of “welcome back” and “Broken Matt” proving that most knew of their TNA history. Jeff’s spectacular Swanton Bomb off the ladder exploded the crowd. It was a smart move to give the brothers the belts, but hopefully they do something creative with the team instead of their previous bland personas. Their charisma, particularly Jeff’s, assure that they should be a hot act for at least the next few months. This was not a great match, but it was one of the high points of the night in the stadium.
LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 6 out of 10. This was a good ladder match that featured a memorable return of one of WWE’s legacy tag teams and one of the hottest reactions of the night.
John Cena & Nikki Bella vs. The Miz & Maryse
This match featured one of the most fascinating crowd reactions of the night. Miz received one of the biggest pops of the night and he appeared to love hamming it up in front of the approving audience. Every time he posed on the ropes, the stadium went crazy. There were numerous “Let’s Go Cena” and “Cena Sucks” chants through the contest. The finale was well-staged with Cena and Nikki doing the Five Knuckle Shuffle before performing their finishers, but the match itself was merely a pretense to the post-match theatrics.
It was hilarious as the crowd booed Cena as he proposed. What in the world was he talking about when he rambled about asking her to marry him when she was passed out? I found the segment cringe-inducing and awkward, but it might set up a money-drawing wedding angle. WWE should gain some mainstream publicity for this one, but it made for a lame skit. Expect some amazing unintentional comedy the next few months.
LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 4 out of 10. The match was okay, but the proposal came off as goofy, befitting the Cena character. It could not compare to the unforgettable segment between Randy Savage and Elizabeth that inspired actual audience emotion.
Seth Rollins vs. Triple H: Non-Sanctioned Match
This was one of the more interesting matches of the night. We were really looking forward to Triple H’s entrance as they seem to be getting grander and more outrageous each year. It did not disappoint, but it was not as over the top as recent years. The Game looked to be in the best shape of his life as his physique seemed to match the revolving statue of him on the entrance screen. Rollins lighting the entrance ramp on “fire” was a cool visual live.
Unfortunately the battle itself did not live up to the dramatic entrances. It suffered from being too lengthy and plodding. Triple H’s deliberate style sometimes works against a sympathetic face, but since Rollins comes off as a weasely persona, it did not fare well. The match should have been 15 minutes at most because the crowd was bored for most of the contest. In fact, other than the Hardy return, there was not much that had the audience excited for a lengthy time to this point. The final spot was a memorable one when Stephanie went through the table and appeared to be a dead body with how long she laid there still. That was symbolic in that much of the crowd was just as dead through the overlong match.
LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 5 out of 10. It was a decent match hurt by a n unenthusiastic crowd that had yet to see a great match long into the show. This show desperately missed a Shawn Michaels here. Around the same point in my last live show in this stadium was his legendary match against Ric Flair that had the fans in tears. If anybody was crying here, it was for different reasons. We were already calculating how much longer the show would go.
Bray Wyatt vs. Randy Orton: WWE Championship
I’m all for more in-ring action, but at this point the show was desperately missing one of those memorable segments we have enjoyed in previous years such as The Rock and Ronda Rousey from 31 and Hogan, Austin and Rock at 30. The crowd anticipated that Hogan might show up when New Day announced the attendance record so that was a major disappointment because he was in town for the opening of his new beach shop.
When Orton won the Royal Rumble, most fans were puzzled, but some felt there might be some interesting storytelling to keep us intrigued. I was not one of those that were optimistic. The Orton and Wyatt Family saga has been an abomination of bizarre character motivation and unintentional comedy. If one compliment can be given this contest, it is that the match fit the campy buildup.
It was one of the strangest “main events” in history, although I took some perverse delight in seeing the Stephen King-style imagery of Orton immersed in numerous projections of disgusting bugs in the ring. It was utterly ridiculous, but probably one of the few memorable moments of the show and it did captivate the live crowd, albeit for the wrong reasons. Orton winning the belt drew a lukewarm reaction, although he is obviously still seen as a big star. You know the match is forgettable when the bugs steal the show from the Superstars.
LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 4 out of 10. I love unintentional comedy so that slightly made up for the dull action.
Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar: Universal Championship
Although it was a foregone conclusion that Lesnar would win the belt from Goldberg, most were curious about how the match would unfold. Could Goldberg perform a contest longer than one minute? Would Brock squash him? Could this go too long and become another embarrassment such as their WrestleMania 20 debacle?
Goldberg and Lesnar defied expectations with easily the most exciting match of the night. This may have been the greatest five-minute match I have ever seen. Both combatants went all out with intense warfare that sent a bored audience into loud cheers. This was the one match on the entire show that appeared to have the crowd enthralled and it was deserving of the applause. The speed with which Goldberg hit his first spear out of nowhere was awe-inspiring as was the monster Brock leapfrogging to avoid a later spear. We all were curious whether Pat Patterson laid out the match because it was perfect for what it needed to be.
LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 9 out of 10. The fact that this match was the one that had the crowd captivated also reminds us why WWE keeps bringing the stars of previous decades back to headline WrestleMania. They have a larger than life presence and star power that give their contests a big match aura that younger stars have failed miserably to generate. This was an instant classic.
Alexa Bliss vs. Becky Lynch vs. Naomi vs. Mickie James vs. Natalya vs. Carmella: Smackdown Women’s Championship
Two words. Bathroom break.
LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 1 out of 10. It was necessary to get up and stretch and give the crowd a break from a show that had already went far too long.
Undertaker vs. Roman Reigns
For any of you who had never experienced Undertaker’s entrance live, you truly missed out on something that inspired chills. There was an added layer of poignancy that this may be a legendary gunfighter in his last duel. Reigns was predictably booed, but WWE has the excuse that nearly anybody would be in the situation.
The match was too long, but you would need Savage vs. Steamboat in their prime to get the crowd excited this late into the night. Like Rollins vs. Triple H, the pacing was slow, but given Taker’s limitations, that was inevitable. Of course, the story was all about the end of the Dead Man’s career, and they did a good job creating some drama at the end. There were some parallels to the Flair vs. Michaels and Undertaker vs. HBK retirement matches in how the drama unfolded as the match closed. I enjoyed how Reigns played into his arrogant character by relentlessly beating down The Dead Man. The image of Undertaker challenging Roman to finish him will go into wrestling lore.
Despite the attempt to recreate the theatrics of the previous retirement classics, this match lacked the drama and gravitas of those previous contests. Part of the problem is that there is a disconnect between Reigns and the crowd and his position seems to be forced. Additionally, his sphere lacks the impact of Goldberg’s so it came off as a lame way to end the career of one of wrestling’s biggest legends. The crowd erupted in boos, and hopefully the WWE takes advantage of a potentially hot heel character over the next few months.
The post-match saw Reigns leave to jeers, but thankfully they made it all about Undertaker. The sight of him taking off his gloves and hat and leaving the ring was one for the ages. The atmosphere in the stadium during these final moments was one of respect and awe, which demonstrates how he had kept the character fresh to the very end. Seeing Taker leave down the ramp and literally disappear into the night was gripping drama and made up for a lackluster match. If this is the final image of The Dead Man, then he left in a legendary scene.
LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 7 out of 10.
Nearly all of this rating is because of the electrifying post-match scene. Thank you Undertaker for a lifetime of entertainment
OVERALL LIVE EXPERIENCE RATING: 6 out of 10.
There was only one great match, and that was less than five minutes out of a five hour-plus show. Despite the lack of strong in-ring action or segments, the overall stage presentation and a couple truly memorable moments in an incredible atmosphere made this a bumpy but ultimately satisfying last ride for the Undertaker and for fans.
NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: MAGIC, MEMORIES AND MANIA: The Women’s “Revolution,” the Worst Booked Division in Wrestling History
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