Though 2016 on the whole was an amazing year for pro wrestling, WrestleMania typically acts as a finale to the year that preceded it. For that reason, it’s a shame that WrestleMania 32 had to close out the garbage fire year that was 2015.
You can’t put the full share of the blame on WWE and their booking team this time around, though, as most of their woes came from the unpredictable and unfortunate nature of injuries. Throughout 2015, the likes of Cesaro, Tyson Kidd, Randy Orton, King Barrett, Nikki Bella, and then-champions Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins all popped up on the injured list at one point or another, making it nigh-impossible for any company to book the ending to a year’s worth of booking when many of the major players are out of action.
That being said, the Road to WrestleMania 32 was a one full of incredible twists and turns, from the shocking debut of AJ Styles to the sudden rise of Dean Ambrose and the Divas — no — WOMEN’S Division. As a whole, WrestleMania 32 ended up being the exact opposite of WrestleMania 31: instead of being handed an easy story and jumbling it up, 2016’s Showcase of the Immortals managed to take one of the most cursed years in company history and produce months of exciting television.
But, alas, ’Mania 32 is the opposite of ’Mania 31 in every sense of the word, so while Santa Clara got an arguably top-3 WrestleMania despite the rocky build, Dallas was treated to one of the worst WrestleManias of all time after being promised the world.
Like last week, I’m not here to review the WrestleMania event itself, but rather rewind the clock and put you in the shoes of someone who was watching along on the WWE Network back on April 3, 2016.
And to be kind to WWE, I want to start with the stuff they didn’t ruin.
The Already Bad
It’s hard to ruin things that sucked going into it, so when I tell you that Team Total Divas vs Team BAD and Blonde happened on this show, I really don’t need to say anything else.
One build that finds itself in this spot, however, is this year’s version of the not-a-Money-in-the-Bank-ladder-match for the Intercontinental Championship. I do want to say that this match’s build wasn’t all that bad — anything that Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens did at this time was pure magic — but this match was one final shot from 2015’s injury curse.
Neville was kind of crushing it early on in his WWE run, and while he wasn’t SUPER pushed, he still had that great WWE Championship match with Seth Rollins and had a celebrity tag team match with Stardust, King Barrett, and Stephen Amell at SummerSlam.
His year was set to cap off with a big showing in the WrestleMania 32 ladder match, but due to an ankle injury suffered during a baseball slide of all moves, he got shelved and was forced to watch from the sidelines like Rollins and Bryan.
Neville’s spot in the storyline was given to Zack Ryder, and on TV, things played out pretty normally. Owens messed with championship hopefuls Zayn, Miz, and Dolph Ziggler by putting Ryder, Sin Cara, and Stardust in a triple-threat #1 contender’s match. Shenanigans ensued, a ladder match was made, and it was a typical undercard ’Mania build.
It’s just a shame the future PAC never got a real WrestleMania moment.
While 2015 was full of injuries, the year also wrought the Women’s Revolution. Though the WrestleMania pre-show was home to Eva Marie, Lana, and Brie Bella (and Paige, bless her soul), we also learned during the pre-show that the Divas Championship was being retired in favor of the new/returning WWE Women’s Championship.
Of course, because this happened on April 3rd, it wasn’t so much part of the “build” as it was a part of WrestleMania. The build itself was, much like the ladder match, pretty standard undercard ’Mania booking — but compared to the then-recent history of women’s wrestling in WWE, that was a godsend.
Charlotte had been the Divas Champion for a few months and beat Becky Lynch via Ric-smooch at Royal Rumble, only to be attacked by a returning Sasha Banks post-match. Lynch and Banks got a double pin against one another during a #1 contender’s match, and bada boom, bada bing, we’ve got a triple threat match. And, given their history in NXT, it was going to be a banger.
Aside from the 10-woman tag, the rest of the pre-show was also full of rather “okay” builds. The Usos and the Dudley Boyz fought in a tables match (Attention Status: Gotten), and the lead-in featured a Dudley Boyz heel turn, so that was at least a hook.
And then there was Kalisto vs. Ryback for the United States Championship, a match that would happen a lot within this few-month window. They’d already had a fun match on SmackDown during November’s WWE Championship tournament, so there was some excitement there.
The Pretty Good
AJ Styles and Chris Jericho make it out of the “okay” category off the back of Y2AJ, the greatest tag team in history.
For real, though, AJ Styles’ WWE debut during the 2016 Royal Rumble made me and the Orlando crowd literally scream with excitement, so it’s safe to say he was coming in hot. Of course, there’s still the matter of doing something important with him after the fact, and WWE didn’t really plan that far ahead.
Enter Chris Jericho.
Jericho wasn’t quite at his “List of Jericho” self yet (in fact, he’d recently bombed hard with “Rooty Tootie” or whatever he tried to call the New Day), but he was still always exciting to have around. He and Styles formed an obviously doomed tag team that lasted just long enough to get a T-shirt and have a killer match against the New Day before Jericho “surprisingly” turned on Styles.
Again, it’s not groundbreaking, and it was arguably rushed, but it featured a living legend and one of the hottest wrestlers in the world, so it gets props for that.
Speaking of the New Day, they turned face during their feud! Kind of.
The New Day were amazing heels who threatened to fight children, but the problem with being charismatic is that the crowd won’t just boo you forever. With catchphrases, obvious merch opportunities, and a journey that took them from go-away-heat to crowds going nuts over them, it was time for WWE to pull the trigger on them being good guys.
And oh, what’s this? A stable with 3 non-injured men who DO still have go-away heat?
It’s almost like the League of Nations was made for Woods, Kingston, and Big E instead of Roman Reigns.
Shane McMahon’s Return
Ignore what he’s become for a second and instead remember the good old days. When Shane McMahon interrupted Vince and Stephanie’s self-congratulating “Vincent J. McMahon Legacy of Excellence Award” segment and appeared on WWE TV for the first time since 2009, you went nuts. We all did.
This storyline got messy; I’ll admit that. The words “McMahon lockbox” have become a meme online for a reason, and having this be the Undertaker’s feud two years after his streak ended was a bit of a weird call — especially since this storyline made ’Taker not only the bad guy, but also Vince’s lapdog.
But Shane’s return itself was just beautiful. While Styles’ debut was great for fans who liked TNA or knew what a “Bullet Club” was, Shane’s return was great for all fans within the WWE bubble, and it promised great things to come if Shane could somehow beat Undertaker and take charge of WWE as the babyface McMahon he’d always been.
And, also, he was going to jump off of Hell in a Cell. Obviously.
Dean Ambrose’s Odyssey
WWE learned the value of Dean Ambrose during 2015, even if they only used it as a way to get his Best Buddy Roman Reigns over.
The pair got the band back together during the summer of 2015, and both of them became more likeable through it. However, they’re both alphas, so when Seth Rollins went down with an injury and had to vacate the WWE Championship before Survivor Series, Reigns and Ambrose were destined to face off.
After dispatching of US Champion Alberto Del Rio and IC Champion Kevin Owens, the tournament finals saw Reigns defeat Ambrose to become WWE Champion for the first time. It was an unfortunate ending for us die-hard Ambrose fans, but his fortunes weren’t over yet.
The 2016 Royal Rumble saw Reigns put his WWE Championship on the line entering at #1, and though the match was ostensibly about Reigns, the fact that the final two saw Triple H throw Reigns out of the ring and stand-off with Ambrose showed that WWE knew how over the Lunatic was.
Ambrose was continuously thrown bones during this time, having a great showing in a triple threat match with Reigns and Brock Lesnar at Fastlane and an INCREDIBLE WWE Championship match with Triple H at the first-ever Roadblock. And when it became clear that his journey was leading him to a marquee WrestleMania match with Lesnar — built off the fact that Ambrose just wouldn’t stay down regardless of how tough you were — the fans ate it up.
Lesnar vs Ambrose was going to be a hardcore match, and the weeks of Raw beforehand showed hardcore legends like Mick Foley and Terry Funk giving Ambrose their barbed wire bat and chainsaw, respectively. We were promised a massacre, and the fans were ready for it.
Reigns vs Triple H
And then there’s the controversial main event, the match that sort of robbed Ambrose from the moment that WWE had unwittingly built for him. But, despite the fans still not accepting Reigns as their guy, this build still sort of worked.
Only the fans saw it as Triple H being the hero.
You know things have been bungled when Triple H, leader of the Authority, is getting support from the crowd, but that’s the world we lived in. Hunter bashing trash cans over Reigns’ bloody head and doing the DX crotch chop was cool as hell, and because Reigns was our heel, the storyline kind of just clicked, if in the wrong way.
Now, Reigns did have great moments here. After the League of Nations screwed him out of a title at TLC, Reigns did batter all of them and Triple H with a chair, gaining him some cool points even if it did make biased fans believe he was even more of a heel then. And, in his title vs. career match against Sheamus on Raw, Reigns hitting Vince with a Superman Punch before beating Sheamus for the belt was exhilarating as well.
If Reigns could get half the match out of Triple H that Ambrose did at Roadblock, we were in for a great match. All it had to do was not be a nearly 30-minute slog at the end of a 7-hour show.
Conclusion, and Thoughts on Long WrestleManias
If you look at WrestleMania 32 match-by-match, it’s not the worst show ever. The Women’s Championship triple threat delivered as promised, Baron Corbin had a semi-impactful debut in a goofy match that also featured Shaq and Tatanka, and Zack Ryder’s big championship win in the opening match was nice (and totally wasn’t back-tracked the very next night).
But when you miss with the marquee matches, you miss big. And for all intents and purposes, WrestleMania 32’s marquee matches were catastrophic misses.
Reigns and Triple H was doomed from the start, and even if it played out as a modern day epic akin to Flair vs Steamboat in Chicago, it still would have ended with the sound of boos, and that’s assuming the crowd didn’t just up and leave like they did in real life.
But Ambrose vs. Lesnar was a hard pill to swallow, and it’s honestly a disappointment that I and many others still haven’t gotten over. No bloodshed (which isn’t atypical of WWE), hardly any weaponry, absolutely unbalanced offense. The match was Lesnar at his worst, as he just suplexed Ambrose for what felt like 80 years, no sold Ambrose’s attempt at using a chainsaw, and kicked out of the previously unbeatable Dirty Deeds. Even the most hardcore of fans could see Ambrose’s loss coming from a mile away, but this brutally and this boringly? Especially in the context of Lesnar’s amazing matches throughout 2015 and early 2016, like the triple threat with Rollins and Cena or the Hell in a Cell match with Undertaker?
This match symbolized everything wrong with WWE’s booking at the time, and I’m not even sure how necessary the “at the time” qualifier is. While WrestleMania 31 was a celebration of all the things that made WrestleMania great, WrestleMania 32 was a sign of WWE’s future and the antiquated beliefs they were taking with them.
The insistence of a singular, unpopular top guy marred this show’s closing, but even if that wasn’t there, WrestleMania was no longer the 3-5 hours of excellence it used to be. It took a lot out of fans, and the last thing they were thinking about afterwards was Ryder’s heartwarming moment or Charlotte as Women’s Champion.
Too much happened and a lot of it was bad. Styles lost. Reigns won. Ambrose and Lesnar disappointed on the grandest scale. And even if there have been enjoyable WrestleManias after this, they all come with the caveat of “it was too long, but…”
And because that started here, it’s hard to forgive any of WrestleMania 32’s other sins.
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