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Revisiting the surprise hit that was 'WrestleMania 31'

Pro Wrestling

Revisiting the surprise hit that was ‘WrestleMania 31’

Despite a very lackluster build, ‘WrestleMania 31’ knocked it out of the park.

Though WrestleMania season is always an exciting time of the year just as a grand spectacle, the lead-up heading into 2015’s WrestleMania 31 wasn’t particularly “enthusing.” It certainly didn’t feel like we were about to witness one of the greatest WrestleMania events of all time.

Whereas WrestleMania XXX was phenomenal both on paper and in execution based largely off of the strength of its Daniel Bryan-centric main event story, WrestleMania 31 was poisoned the moment WWE decided not to put Bryan back into that show-closing spot. And, while previous fan-favorite Roman Reigns had the potential to avoid the raucous fan backlash he received heading into the main event against champion Brock Lesnar, their feud was full of hokey moments that only deepened fan resentment.

And yet, the main event was — much like the show itself — an all-time great.

Sting’s WWE in-ring debut, Undertaker’s post-Streak return, Orton vs. the Authority, Rusev’s undefeated streak, the rise of Mizdow, The Shield post-split. This WrestleMania had a lot going on, and — maybe because of its length — it leaves a lasting memory as one of the last ’Manias a person can watch and walk away from thinking, “That whole thing was a good time.”

I want to discuss this WrestleMania, but rather than recap the show (when you should straight-up just watch it yourself), I want to set the stage for it and explain why it’s such a surprise that this WrestleMania went off as well as it did.

The Good

Before we dive into the bad, though, I want to stick with the positive vibes and talk about how excellently Sting and Triple H’s rivalry was executed from the jump.

Survivor Series 2014 wasn’t an amazing show, but the main event of Team Cena vs Team Authority was a masterpiece. Cena’s team of himself, Ryback, Erick Rowan, Big Show, and Dolph Ziggler slowly fell apart when going up against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon’s team of Seth Rollins, Mark Henry, Corporate Kane, Luke Harper, and Rusev.

And, after Big Show (predictably in hindsight) betrayed Team Cena and laid out John Cena, Ziggler found himself down 1-3 against Rollins, Kane, and Harper.

I need you to understand this: Ziggler was the most over person in the world that night.

He took out Kane and Harper on his own, but Rollins and Triple H got the better of him. It was beginning to look dire for Ziggler when, suddenly, the lights went out. Crows cawed. Drums started up.

And at the top of the stage, appearing in WWE for the first time in his career, was The Vigilante — The Icon — Sting.

I don’t know what the internet fans knew, but this was a major surprise to me, and the crowd’s roar implied that they felt similar to me. Sting came down, knocked out referee Scott Armstrong (who was about to count the illegal pin on Ziggler after Triple H’s Pedigree), and hit Triple H with a Scorpion Death Drop.

That was all we needed. The WrestleMania match was set.

Of course, there were other shenanigans that needed to take place. The Authority was gone for the next month as per the rules of the Survivor Series match, but once Hunter was back, he was constantly talking about Sting. He challenged Sting to a fight at Fastlane, got the crap kicked out of him at the February event, and then accepted Sting’s silent challenge as he pointed to the WrestleMania sign with his bat.

It was sparse, but everything we got was top tier.

Another solid story was that of Randy Orton and Seth Rollins as Orton finally broke away from the Authority.

For context, Vine was still a thing in 2015, so the “RKO Out of Nowhere” meme was pretty popping. Orton as Triple H’s henchman made sense on a historical level, but because he and Rollins were guaranteed to butt heads personality-wise AND the crowd was behind his finisher now more than ever before, the decision was made to turn Orton face.

That’s really all there was to it. Orton spent a month hitting the RKO on J&J Security and trying to get Rollins up until ’Mania happened, and boy did he RKO Rollins that day. It’s a simple story, but one that worked.

The Okay

Bray Wyatt’s encounter with the Undertaker was also pretty simple, and it’s a type of feud we’d seen before with Kane and would see again years later with Cena: The Deadman was gone, but this WrestleMania hopeful wanted him to come back.

To be fair, a lot of people were incredibly excited by the prospect of a spooky-off between Wyatt and Taker, and WrestleMania was a great place to make that happen. But not only was the feud itself one-sided by necessity (as Undertaker wasn’t just going to show up pre-WrestleMania); it also felt like poor timing.

Undertaker’s streak had ended the previous year at WrestleMania XXX, and Bray Wyatt also kicked off his ’Mania career with a loss that same night. One man had to lose, and it was hard to believe Undertaker would return just to get dunked on again.

Some people would have preferred to see Undertaker vs Sting that year — and looking at Sting’s WWE career with the benefit of hindsight, there was no other time to do it — but even without that dream match being pushed to the side, this one was going to be interesting to witness.

The pre-show also fits into this “okay” category, though to a lesser extent. The very first match of the whole event was Cesaro & Kidd defending their tag titles against the New Day, the Usos, and Los Matadores. Cesaro & Kidd were solid in-ring but weren’t notable at this point, and both the New Day and the Usos had a lot of growing to do before they were the titans we know today.

As for the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royale, the crowd was incredibly behind The Miz and Damien Sandow’s stunt double shtick, and “Damien Mizdow” in particular was the 2015 equivalent to 2011 or 2012’s Zack Ryder. Which, of course, means he was promptly mishandled and punished for getting over.

The one bone he was given was a spotlight at the end of the ’Dre, and this is a point where I do actually have to talk about the show itself. Mizdow finally turned face and threw The Miz over the top rope, and while the easy lay-up would be to have this be the match’s ending, this was just the penultimate swerve. Instead, the finish saw Big Show throw Mizdow out of the ring to win his kayfabe dad’s memorial trophy.

The crowd went mild.

The Pretty Bad

While it’s not THE bad thing, I want to start with the lesser of two evils.

So, again, Dolph Ziggler was on fire that November, so of COURSE he got kayfabe fired in January and had a ton of his momentum sapped away because he was paired with ROWAN AND RYBACK. At ’Mania, Ziggler and the rest of the actual fan favorites all ended up in the yearly not-a-Money-in-the-Bank-ladder-match, with this year’s prize being the Intercontinental Championship.

Now, this looks all right in a vacuum. Ziggler, Luke Harper, Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose, Stardust, Bad News Barrett, and R-Truth can all go in the ring, and they were vying for the work-rate belt in WrestleMania’s opening ladder match. But the story was, to put it nicely, dumb as hell.

Ziggler’s big winnings from the Survivor Series win came in the form of an Intercontinental Championship ladder match against Harper, which he won. However, when the Authority regained power in January, the first thing they did was screw Ziggler out of the title and get it into Barrett’s hands.

Okay, this makes sense. Ziggler and Barrett are going to have beef, and Harper is still in the Authority’s favor. They all should be in the title mix.

But then, the next few months were spent having everyone just steal the physical Intercontinental Championship and claim they won it. The vengeful Ziggler, the aloof R-Truth, the creepy Stardust, the tOtAlLy WaCkY Dean Ambrose. Everybody got their grubby mitts on the white belt, and the shenanigans resulted in Barrett only getting his belt back if he could retrieve it from the top of the ladder. It’s fun, but it didn’t make the belt feel prestigious, even if everyone wanted it.

The last competitor in that match was Daniel Bryan, whose larger WrestleMania story far eclipsed the ladder match’s lapse in storytelling judgment.

Daniel Bryan came back from injury toward the end of 2014 and announced that he was going to enter the Royal Rumble match and main event WrestleMania. The fans cheered so loud that they barely heard the also-returning Roman Reigns cut the same promo at TLC 2014. Only one man could be right, and much to the crowd’s dismay, Reigns walked away as the victor. It was so controversial that even The Rock, who came out after the Rumble to support his cousin, got booed out of the arena.

Now, things weren’t terrible at first. The next night, a snowstorm blocked fan and wrestler access to the arena Raw was being aired from (likely a protest from noted smark God Himself), so instead of facing more searing hatred from the fans, Reigns took part in some intimate interview segments with Michael Cole, Paul Heyman, and WWE Champion Brock Lesnar.

And for one night, it looked like Reigns would be all right as top guy.

Then the fans came back next week and figuratively burned the Raw arena to the ground.

Everyone was hating on Reigns, even when he tried to be cool and hip and say, “What if Daniel Bryan and I Pokémon Go to Fastlane?” That incident almost made things worse, as Bryan was speared to death, gave Reigns a half-hearted show of respect, and stepped aside so Reigns and Lesnar could play tug of war with the WWE Championship.

Plus, with rumors abundant that Lesnar was leaving WWE for a return to the UFC, we were getting shades of Lesnar and Goldberg at WrestleMania XX all over again. No matter who won, no one would be happy.

Or so we thought.

Conclusion, and Thoughts for the Hardcore Fan

If you just watched TV, Reigns was booed because he wasn’t Daniel Bryan on a night where he had to be. But there was also a bit of subtext underneath that: if you were “in the know,” you booed Roman Reigns because CM Punk willed it.

I was recently asked when I made the switch from being a casual fan to being the “smark” I am today, and while I can’t pinpoint it exactly, I do remember becoming aware of Punk’s huge appearance on the Art of Wrestling podcast where he referenced “making Roman look strong.”

Even before the Rumble, hardcore fans were turning against Reigns, and while he was still my favorite Shield member right after the split, the boos were already becoming part of his entrance well before he won the wrong match in the wrong city.

WrestleMania 31 was my first ’Mania as an “internet fan,” and while that did mean the main event was tarnished, it did help other matches.

Reading Bleacher Report interviews where Bryan and Cena talked about raising the stock of the midcard titles maybe spoiled those matches, but it eased the pain of Bryan’s spot and Rusev’s loss. And while I wasn’t happy going into the main event, the match itself still went hard, and it only improved when we all saw Rollins dash out to screw over Reigns.

WrestleMania 31 was a show that all types of fans could get lost in. Bryan’s headbutts, the big RKO, the tank, the Heist of the Century. It’s a show that pushed back my growing cynicism and still withstands it to this day.

Maybe it can do the same for you.

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