There will be differing opinions on the quality of WrestleMania 35, because that is how wrestling fans are, but there is one area of growing consensus that spans from Twitter to the tired masses trying to leave the godforsaken stadium parking lot well into Monday morning. Everyone, everyone, now believes that WWE’s biggest event has gotten too fucking long.
Sunday’s endless show had 16 matches stretching from the first bell at 5:20 p.m. through to the event going off the air with the new Raw and SmackDown Live women’s champion Becky Lynch at around 12:30 a.m. No matter how well-booked or entertaining a show, no wrestling fan (or any fan, for that matter) can or really should be expected to engage with more than seven straight hours of programming. A show of that length does a disservice to the biggest night in so-called “sports entertainment.” Even if it’s good, it’s just too much.
For context, a normal WWE live special, which were previously known as pay-per-views, has traditionally run for about four hours: a one-hour pre-show with a three-hour main show. Even minor events have now stretched close to five hours, but that’s due to a wider WWE roster and the promotion’s decision to make all shows both Raw- and SmackDown Live-branded. But even that is okay on balance. Even if one of those five hours winds up being pretty useless, which is almost always the case, having a hard deadline at least forces WWE to skip on filler matches.
And, to the company’s credit, WrestleMania 35 was light on the type of unremarkable matches that are obviously there to get everyone on the show for a paycheck. That’s not an insignificant consideration, as wrestlers only get a boosted cut of the profits if they appear on a show, and WrestleMania is the most coveted of paydays, due to the ludicrous amount of money it generates. The smartest thing WWE did on that front was introducing the men’s and women’s battle royals, which allow all the wrestlers not in showcase matches a spot on the card. There were also two four-way tag team matches that each scooped up eight wrestlers. None of this changes the fact that 16 matches is too damn much.
It’s easy, with hindsight but also just a cursory look at the WrestleMania card, to identify several showdowns that could have easily worked on a random episode of Raw or SmackDown Live and lightened the load on Sunday night. Randy Orton and AJ Styles built a great story, but the payoff was a pure wrestling match that didn’t really move the crowd, both because it followed Seth Rollins’ shock win over Brock Lesnar and because the ring lights were blinding the lower level. Samoa Joe and Rey Mysterio had a one-minute match that was shorter than the combined entrance times for both wrestlers; to be fair, Mysterio was nursing an injured ankle, but that’s just more reason to scrap the match. Roman Reigns’ big return to the ring was perfectly fine, and probably worth it for his pyro alone, but the match itself was nothing special. Same with Finn Bálor winning the Intercontinental Championship from Bobby Lashley, although Bálor did have a pretty sweet entrance as his alter ego, the Demon.
Cut those four matches, and you’ve got a sub-six hour show that’s full of bangers. That’s the biggest disappointment about WrestleMania 35: there is a fantastic show in there (though my colleague Dan McQuade disagrees), if you edit it down to what’s needed and lose the rest.
And the good stuff really was good. We got Miz and Shane McMahon’s blood feud ending with a terrifying suplex spot that will be on both men’s career highlight reel for years to come:
We got a fantastic SmackDown Live tag team title match, as well as a surprising (and extremely well-received) IIconics win for the women’s tag titles:
We got the aforementioned Seth Rollins victory in a match that was more compelling story than wrestling match. And we got the twin pillars of the last six months of WWE, Kofi Kingston and Becky Lynch, winning their respective titles to rapturous response.
It was a perfectly booked show, in other words, and as satisfying a “season finale”—that’s WWE’s preferred moniker for its biggest show—as anyone could have hoped for.
Of course, if you cut all those matches from the show, each of the wrestlers in them lose their WrestleMania paycheck. There’s an easy solution there, though: pay your fucking wrestlers. If WWE paid everyone a cut of the WrestleMania profits, they wouldn’t need to scramble to get as many people on the card as possible. That would incentivize, and could actually lead to, a more streamlined event. Perhaps more importantly to a medium that values crowd engagement over everything, it wouldn’t burn fans out by 10 p.m.
But if WWE refuses to do that, which it almost certainly will, then it should take a page from its Japanese counterpart. New Japan Pro Wrestling splits up most of its shows into two nights, which allows for two main events—in this year’s case, that certainly would have been Kofi Kingston’s victory on the first night, and Becky Lynch standing tall on the second—and two three-and-a-half-hour shows that would keep the crowd going strong for the duration.
There are logistical issues there, most of which come down to the difficulty of selling out a football stadium two nights in a row. Maybe you do the first one at a basketball arena on Saturday night, then. There’s also the risk of splitting crowd attendance; there were certainly a lot of people in my section at WrestleMania who were clearly there for the Kofi Kingston match and the Kofi Kingston match only.
But as WWE has gotten more comfortable with using the WWE Network, which allows them to shatter any conception of time slots as they wish, each WrestleMania has trended longer and longer. They’re almost always guaranteed to end beyond midnight, now, and with a two-hour pre-show and so many matches to care about on the card, no crowd could be fully engaged for the duration. It’s always the latter matches that pay the price, too. If the fans in attendance weren’t sufficiently exhausted after losing its mind for Kofi—his title win happened at 9:43 p.m., almost three hours before the end of the show—planting the 40-minute Triple H-Batista slog in hour five was a recipe for disaster.
The main event, which as you might have heard was the first-ever women’s main event at WrestleMania, was the hottest and most popular match on the card. This is as it should be, and yet it was clear both in the arena and on television that the venue was dead quiet for much of its 22-minute duration. That’s not the performers’ fault. Ronda Rousey let the other two competitors beat the crap out of her, and reportedly broke her hand in the process; Charlotte Flair worked her ass off to carry the match; Lynch hit every one of her babyface spots with the vigor befitting the most popular wrestler in the company.
It was, by every standard, a huge moment. But because of the late hour, the weird ending, and the general exhaustion of all that came before, Lynch’s big win was somewhat muted. A great many fans stayed in their seats to cheer The Man exultantly holding up two belts as pyro exploded, but about an equal number were running to the exits in the hope that they might get home before 3 a.m. It doesn’t have to be this way, and as long as WWE insists upon doing it like this it will be doing a real disservice to WrestleMania, even when it’s as full of good stuff as 35. That’s a problem WWE has to answer. Next year would be a good time to start.