It’s that time of year: Springtime, when casual wrestling fans return to the fold for WrestleMania and its many surrounding events. Perhaps this is happening to you, whether of your own volition or because you are being dragged into it by a friend or family member. If you’re rusty, this year’s overstuffed WrestleMania card can be overwhelming; in fact, that’s true enough even if you’ve been watching WWE programming every single week. The card itself is absurdly long, with 15 matches announced as of this writing and reports going back almost a year that, including the two-hour “kickoff show,” the event could be eight hours long. That’s a full day’s work even for diehards, and a lot to digest if you’re not up to date. So let’s see if we can’t cut this feast up into some manageable courses.
Triple Threat Match, Winner Takes All: Raw Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey vs. SmackDown Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair vs. Becky Lynch
Last fall, Becky Lynch completely blew up in popularity after the promotion’s attempt at making her a villainous foil to Charlotte Flair backfired and turned her into an antihero. After she won SmackDown’s title from Flair, Lynch was set to battle Rousey in the now-annual, non-title champion vs. champion match at Survivor Series. That match didn’t go off, though, as Lynch had to bow out due to the facial injuries and concussion she sustained in an in-ring accident.
During her time away from the ring, Lynch repeatedly owned an ill-equipped Rousey on Twitter, which she continues to do at regular intervals. For once, WWE realized this was the hottest issue in the company and that Lynch was due for a real star turn, and so booked the first ever women’s match to headline WrestleMania, albeit with Charlotte, now a heel herself, also in the mix. The storyline adding Charlotte to the match felt shoehorned-in, but there had always been something of a three-way issue there. It also makes sense to have someone that WWE knows is in it for the long haul—and is a more polished wrestler—sharing the spotlight with Lynch and the long-term question mark that is Rousey.
The heated issue at the center of this feud cooled some over time, but a lot of the energy was rekindled on Monday’s Raw, which featured a hokey but still effective angle in which all three women were arrested and kept fighting despite having been put in handcuffs; the tussle was highlighted by Flair kneeing Rousey’s face off through an already broken car window. It’s enough to put some more heat on this as a main event, and while this is still A Very Big Deal in terms of wrestling’s not-great history with women, it should be a WrestleMania main event-worthy match in the ring, as well. The women’s division has been the best thing about WWE for a while now, and is generally more intense and violent than the men’s half of things. Lynch is dynamite, Flair is a polished pro, and Rousey is still a prodigious physical talent. This should be awesome.
WWE Championship: Daniel Bryan (c) vs. Kofi Kingston
This will be a weird one if you haven’t paid much attention in the last several months. Beloved champion Daniel Bryan still has the belt, but he’s now a pompous hippie heel with a personal logo that incorporates the recycling symbol and a vegan championship belt made of hemp, wood, and earth stones. This is all somehow real, and the storyline reason for the turn was that Bryan spent too much time in a hyperbaric chamber trying to heal his post-concussion syndrome.
It’s all deeply ridiculous and while the shtick may just be rooted in Vince McMahon poking fun at leftist politics, Bryan is so good that it unfolded into something more complex and equally crowd-pleasing. Kingston, previously best-known as one third of The New Day, arrives at the end of a startling and rapid rise. Mustafa Ali suffered a legitimate concussion in February, which took him out of the titular match for Bryan’s title at the Elimination Chamber event, and Kingston took his place as the sixth man in the match. The entire fanbase rallied around the long-time tag-team standout, and he won some huge reactions in some very typically Daniel Bryan roller coaster title matches.
Vince McMahon has been a big part of Kingston’s storyline, stepping back into as his evil boss character and doing everything he can to keep Kingston from getting his title shot; Big E, Kofi’s tag team partner, implied about as strongly as possible on Twitter that this was racially motivated. The subtext has been more interesting than the storyline onscreen, but it all works. Expect this to be the most purely good vs. evil bit of traditional pro wrestling storytelling on the show. If they get enough time to pull it off—and that’s not a given on this card—it will be Sunday night’s most dramatic moment.
WWE Universal Championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Seth Rollins
Brock show up occasionally. Brock smash puny wrestlers. Seth Rollins win Royal Rumble. Rollins pick Brock fight WrestleMania. Brock turn purple, and Brock match much better with puny wrestler than big wrestler, but hope Seth win so Daniel Cormier punch Brock face in UFC Octagon.
No Holds Barred Match: Triple H vs. Batista (If Triple H loses, he retires)
After publicly expressing some (probably legitimate) frustrations about WWE not wanting to use him to promote Guardians of the Galaxy because they expected it to bomb, Batista came back and attacked Ric Flair at his birthday party to get Triple H’s attention. Then he challenged Triple H to this match in a segment imbued with a surprising amount of sexual tension. And...that’s about it?
Batista has been cool and awesome and inexplicably cut at least one promo in which he explicitly came off as the good guy, but there just isn’t that much here. The big question is whether this will be any good: Batista is 50, and theoretical ring general Triple H is only slightly younger, returning from a torn pectoral muscle, visibly slowing down, and already prone to overthinking his matches. The thing to hope for here is that they keep this one relatively short.
Falls Count Anywhere Match: Shane McMahon vs. The Miz
This one got off to a weird start, with Miz just kind of suddenly becoming a good guy as Shane started turning into a dick after inserting himself as Miz’s replacement in the finals of November’s World Cup tournament and then winning the damn thing. After that, something unexpected happened: One of the best long-term WWE storylines in recent memory. Even without a proper turn after spending most of his time in WWE as a delightfully loathsome heel, the Miz became a surprisingly great pro wrestling babyface, while new ally and tag team partner Shane perfectly rode the fence between good guy and increasingly jeerable fake friend.
The question was not whether Shane would turn on Miz, just not when. They won the SmackDown Tag Team Titles together and Shane didn’t turn after they lost the belts—and then he finally did when they lost the rematch in Miz’s home town of Cleveland, with Miz’s dad in the front row. It was the best work of Shane’s in-ring career and a great showcase for Miz, as well, to the point where he didn’t look out of place dispatching every member of Sanity in a wild brawl on this week’s SmackDown Live in spite of his past as a cowardly heel. This one should be a blast, especially if it’s allowed to be violent and kept relatively short.
Kurt Angle vs. Baron Corbin (Angle’s retirement match)
Corbin may seem an unremarkable opponent for Angle’s last match, but it makes sense for two reasons:
- There’s a backstory: Corbin, as Raw’s “Constable,” ousted Angle as General Manager.
- Corbin is just average enough to have a good match while not setting unrealistically high expectations for a great match from the distractingly broken down Angle.
It was nice to see Angle get a little bit of a last run in WWE, but it’s time for this to end. There are far worse ways to go out than with a nice win over his last storyline rival in front of 70,000 of the most hardcore fans on the planet.
There’s just too much. Roman Reigns has his first big singles match since beating leukemia for the second time, against Drew McIntyre, and that’s a heck of a hoss fight on paper between two of the sort of big, athletic dudes that populate Vince McMahon’s sweetest dreams. The Women’s Tag Team Titles are at stake in a four-way match featuring the return of Beth Phoenix as Natalya’s partner, and the SmackDown Tag Team Titles are up in their own crowded four-way. The Raw counterpart hasn’t even been announced yet.
Finn Bálor brings back his oddly Rastafarian-adjacent “demon” persona to try to win back the Intercontinental Championship from Bobby Lashley in a bout that the live crowd will surely eat up. Samoa Joe vs. Rey Mysterio and Randy Orton vs. A.J. Styles both have strong potential. The cruiserweight championship match between champion Buddy Murphy and Tony Nese should be a dazzling athletic match at a level above most of the card. The men and women’s battle royals should at least be a fun way to get everyone else on the card.
Plus...who knows? That’s all that’s official for now, but past experience suggests it would be foolhardy to assume this is all we’ll get on Sunday. There’s been a report of a secret John Cena match, the Raw tag titles still aren’t in play, and...actually, yeah, this is too much. But that’s WrestleMania, both as a concept and a fact. Anything less than too much would feel like a letdown.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.