One of the most intriguing story threads going into this month’s WrestleMania 32 was the beef between Shane McMahon and The Undertaker. On a card filled with thrilling up-and-comers and workhorses it may seem strange that a match between a 51 year old part timer and an executive non-wrestler had top billing, but the excitement wasn’t based on the expected quality of the match, it was the implications of the storyline: If Shane won, he’d gain control of Monday Night Raw (and, as it was explained, de facto control of WWE by virtue of controlling its crown jewel), and The Undertaker could never again compete at WrestleMania.
After a largely plodding match (that, granted, featured the most jaw-dropping spot in recent memory—Shane jumping off the top of the Hell in a Cell structure onto a table below), Shane came up short in his quest to change WWE for the better.
So what happened? Well, Shane has had control of Raw for the past two weeks, and the pervading rumor is that Undertaker is hanging up his boots.
To quote the great Stone Cold Steve Austin: What?!
This seemed to be the theme for Mania this year: while most of the matches were good and some of them great, nearly every outcome was head-scratching at best and irrelevant at worst:
- White-hot newcomer AJ Styles lost cleanly to near-20 year WWE veteran Chris Jericho, a man fans are conditioned at this point to see as someone who puts others over.
- Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte put on easily the best match of the night, only for the same tired conclusion we see every week as Ric Flair successfully interfered on his daughter’s behalf.
- Zack Ryder won the Intercontinental Championship out of nowhere in a feel-good moment only to lose it 24 hours later on Raw, and it seems that he’s a non-factor in the title scene going forward.
- Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar had easily the most disappointing match on the card, as a street fight with limitless potential ended up being little more than a garden variety Lesnar showcase squash. A match that seemed tailor made to be Dean Ambrose’s coming out party reminiscent of Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13 wasn’t so much as mentioned the next night.
And, of course, the aforementioned Shane McMahon vs. Undertaker bout. Conventional wisdom was that they couldn’t possibly have brought back Shane and pieced together such a contrived backstory of lockboxes and family wills only for it not to matter a day after Mania. And they didn’t…sort of. Shane did lose, but the next night his father Vince had an “aww, what the hell” change of heart and let his son run the show anyway. This one-time event was extended this week, as Shane was at the helm once again due to “overwhelming social media support.” Don’t let anyone tell you Vince doesn’t listen to the internet.
About the only match that did have a logical outcome that helped propel future storylines was the main event WWE World Heavyweight Championship match between Roman Reigns and Triple H. Unfortunately, fans have been quite vocal about the fact that it wasn’t a story they wanted told. But, whether it was well received or not (it wasn’t), Roman Reigns toppled the Authority on the Grandest Stage of Them All to overcome the odds.
The ostensible end of the three year long Authority reign over WWE’s programming seems like it would be a big deal, but Triple H and Stephanie were barely mentioned on Raw the next night, by Roman, the commentary team or anybody else. Something about their characters’ interest in the outcome of their match and Shane’s seemed very off—Hunter and Stephanie rule Raw with an iron fist, but seemed wholly unconcerned about their brother (in-law)’s opportunity to usurp them, never mind his constant jabs at how poorly they’ve been running the place. And then, after Roman Reigns speared Stephanie McMahon and dethroned the King of Kings, both are gone without so much of a peep out of them or any member of their family.
Maybe that was the point: WrestleMania is often referred to as the season finale for WWE (let’s just ignore the episode sometime in September that they arbitrarily label the “season premiere”), so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that almost every storyline seems to be moving in a vastly different direction just one day removed. But the destination is only part of the story; the most important part, especially for a show that never ends, is the journey. Storylines were closed out and new ones began, but it was done in just about the most unsatisfying way imaginable.
Or maybe WWE has had a change in philosophy when it comes to what WrestleMania is for. The event grows every year, from one three hour PPV to a five hour main show and a two hour preshow, and that’s not even counting the Hall of Fame ceremony, NXT TakeOver, and the various Axxess events. Throw in all the independent promotions running shows in the area and live shows from the likes of Jim Ross and Mick Foley, and WrestleMania has turned into a weeklong celebration of all things pro rasslin.
WrestleMania was once the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup. The end of the road for competitors; the golden prize. Now it’s more like the All-Star Game. There are championship matches, of course, but it’s become a time to celebrate WWE with legends, celebrities, and future stars alike getting in on the festivities.
It’s hard to be too down on WWE recently as the past two episodes of Raw have been superb, but to fully enjoy them requires a leap from the audience. Forget everything that happened in the previous three months, and let’s just start from here. It’s an interesting reversal from years past—in 2014 and 2015, WrestleMania was the thundering crescendo after months-long builds, but after the event Raw went back to business as usual, killing the buzz fans had coming out of exciting editions of WrestleMania. This year, WrestleMania was almost wholly inconsequential, but we seem to be watching an entirely different show in the weeks since, as Raw has been more entertaining and coherent than it’s been in months—how we ended up getting there be damned. We have a babyface authority figure after years of dealing with The Authority (and various heel general managers before them), fresh faces like AJ Styles and Sami Zayn are getting top billing, and even some long-awaited debuts have reinvigorated the fanbase.
After two all-time great WrestleManias back in 30 and 31, WrestleMania 32 may well go down as one of the most curious cases of the Super Bowl of sports entertainment. After all, if a WrestleMania takes place, and its outcomes have absolutely no bearing on the product going forward, did it actually happen?
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