Thursday 1 January 2015

Gazing at WrestleMania 31 From Afar

Here we are. A new year with a new WrestleMania to look forward to. On Sunday March 29 the WWE crew will roll into Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California and put on their biggest show of the year. Will it also be their best? Well, we won’t know that until after the fact but if the last few years are anything to go by probably not. We’ll get a clearer idea of the show’s potential as the end of March creeps closer. For now I thought it would be interesting to see what WWE might do on ‘The Grandest Stage of Them All’ this year.

It seems reasonable to assume that a WWE world championship match will go on last. This may seem like a stupid thing to say but bear in mind that for quite some time there were two world titles floating about, with one often being relegated to the middle of the card or the opening match. Then there was the year Rock and Cena headlined the thing without a title being involved. Basically, the “tradition” of the WWE title match going on last doesn’t exist but this year it seems that WWE is gearing up to (finally) embrace a number of new main event names, with one of them being given the headline spot to topple the WWE champ and make a big ol’ impact.

The guy being toppled will either be John Cena or Brock Lesnar. They’re set to have the deciding match of their series at Royal Rumble and with the winner unlikely to lose the strap a month later at Fast Lane we can safely say they’ll be main eventing WrestleMania. It could really be either of them that leaves the Rumble as champ. Lesnar ended The Streak and has been built up as a the most dominant monster the promotion’s ever scene, which would seem to indicate that he’s there for a new name to beat because they’ll benefit from the bragging rights. Cena does not need to beat Lesnar to look better. He’s already the biggest name in WWE by a significant margin.

But we all know how they are with Cena. If anyone other than a rising star who needs that little something extra (like beating the man who’s dominated WWE for a year) is going to beat ‘The Pain’ you just know it will be John Cena. It would be a way of reminding us (like we need reminding) that Cena is ‘The Man’.

In fairness it wouldn’t be the absolute worst thing in the world to have Cena beat Lesnar, providing he went on to lose clean as a whistle to someone who’s not been with the company for more than five years in the WrestleMania main event. Because if Cena beat Lesnar he’d be the champion, the man who conquered ‘The Conqueror’ and he’d still be John Cena. He would have one of the most impressive accolade lists ever.

But while a Cena versus someone new match at ‘Mania wouldn’t be bad the Lesnar option is the preferable one. He is still the man who dealt Undertaker his historic first ‘Mania loss. The first guy to beat Lesnar since he accomplished that should be someone in need of a boost in order to make the most of the situation. And there are more fresh matches on offer for Lesnar than there are involving Cena. Top of the list is the match that I think would have headlined last year’s SummerSlam had it not been for injuries, and that’s Lesnar versus Daniel Bryan.

Does Bryan deserve two 'Mania main events in a row? Yes! Will he get them? Maybe!
Lesnar v Bryan is the most obvious match WWE could go with. There’s so much in its favour. Bryan is the most popular man in the company, and the most naturally likeable guy in the company. In theory this should mean people are willing to pay to see Bryan win the championship. And who better to beat a guy who’s probably going to leave WWE the next night than the most popular guy in the company?

Then there’s the fact that he’s coming back from what had been implied at several points to be a potentially career-ending neck injury. So that’s an obvious comeback and return to prominence story to go with, in addition to the David versus Goliath slant a match between the pair would take (a story which Lesnar has shown at several points he’s very good at making work). The well-known real life issues Bryan’s faced over the last year would be great material for Paul Heyman. It’s easy to imagine him declaring himself a fan of D-Bry and begging him not to get in the ring with Lesnar for the good of his own health. Not that I’d condone it but they could even get Brie Bella involved in the build up to try talking Bryan around.

Ultimately it would be the most popular man in the company against the most heavily pushed monster in the company. It’s one of the most successful concepts to ever be used in wrestling.

The other lead candidate for a match with ‘The Beast’ is Roman Reigns. For months I’ve been convinced that Reigns would be WWE’s choice for the spot. A number of things have made me start to doubt that. First and foremost the news that Bryan is healthy enough to compete in the Rumble. But there’s also the fact that Reigns has not set the world on fire since becoming a singles act last June. He’s had some good moments and he’s never been outright awful (although his promos since returning from hernia surgery have been shakier than those he was giving before he left) but that’s not the description of WWE’s next top guy. He has the look and the ability to wrestle an acceptable match but he lacks the confidence of a top guy.

Roman Reigns there, staring out Maggle Cole.
Not to say that Reigns should be written off. Just because these foibles have become apparent doesn’t mean WWE will change course. Reigns still has positives that every other rising star lacks, chief amongst them the all-important look. I also think the visual of Reigns felling Lesnar with a Superman punch is something that would appeal to decision makers. I think WWE would be willing to overlook Reigns’s shortcomings and protect him with clever booking for a while. Because when you have what reigns has WWE will go out of their way to back you.

In favour of both Reigns and Bryan is that they would work as opponents for Cena just as well as opponents for Lesnar. Which is something to consider if you think WWE may have the championship on Cena by WM31. With Bryan the appeal would be that they last met a year and a half ago in the main event of SummerSlam, with Bryan defeating Cena for the championship cleanly. It’s a particularly engaging rematch for a hardcore crowd (which ‘Mania always attracts because of its exorbitant prices) and would set Bryan up for a particularly strong babyface reaction because Cena’s always booed at WrestleMania.

That last point is probably the biggest reason WWE may consider a Reigns versus Cena title match at WM31. Opposite Cena Reigns would almost certainly receive cheers. That’s something he may have to go without against a lot of other top opponents because it’s so obvious WWE have selected him as one of their next big stars. Their record of star-making over the last several years has created an environment where people are inclined to boo guys WWE have selected for a push, usually regardless of any talent they may have, as a way of saying that they want that treatment to go to other members of the roster. If WWE were fairer with pushes across the board it probably wouldn’t be an issue.

Crowd reactions aside a Cena-Reigns bout would establish Reigns as ‘The Man’ were he to win clean. That’s true of anyone, of course, but nobody else has Reigns’s look and aura. It could be presented as the leader of a new generation (because, sadly, that’s a position Reigns seems terribly well-placed to slip into) versus the reigning god-king of the company. In terms of wins and losses, which do still matter on occasion in WWE, there would be no better way of giving Reigns his inaugural WWE world title win.

Which brings me to Seth Rollins. Because whatever title scenario is opted for Rollins will be looming over it. Cashing in his Money in the Bank title contract after the main event (or the next night on RAW) would allow WWE to enshrine Rollins as the new top heel act. He’d be cheered cashing in on Reigns and probably get a mixed reaction against Bryan but weeks of him bragging as Maggle Cole bleats about the injustice of the situation could turn people against him again. The important thing to note is that a Rollins cash-in, on Bryan, Reigns or anybody else, would set up a fresh new feud to carry the company for months.

The cash-in is coming.
This is, of course, assuming that they don’t go with Rollins cashing in at Royal Rumble. That’s something I’ve personally written off but it’s not impossible. The reason I don’t think they’d go with it is that it would detract from the whole passing of the torch thing they have set up with the shine from ending The Streak being tied to the WWE championship. I mean, yes, technically if Rollins cashed in on and defeated Cena or Lesnar at the Rumble and left the pay-per-view as the world champ he’d have gotten the shine from The Streak. The metaphorical torch would have completed its relay. But it’s such an important victory (or sequence of victories) that I can’t see it not culminating at WrestleMania with Cena or Lesnar involved. I also strongly doubt WWE would go through their peak period of the year with an untested heel champion, even though doing so would improve Rollins’ standing immensely.

So assuming he waits until WrestleMania, the night after or (unlikely as it seems) some indeterminate point after that to utilise his guaranteed title match Rollins will need an opponent for the big show itself. Randy Orton seems like the likeliest choice there. He was written off television back in October so that he could go and film Condemned 2: Desert Prey. Rollins, and to a lesser extent the rest of The Authority, were credited with his disappearance. The natural thing for ‘The Viper’ to do upon his return to television is target Rollins.

In addition to being a pretty good addition to the WrestleMania line-up it would give Rollins things to do as champion (assuming he wins the title when he cashes in). If Orty were booked to beat him at WrestleMania then he’d be able to argue for a title shot. Add in Rollins’ chief rival Dean Ambrose and the former champ, who would likely be either Daniel Bryan or Roman Reigns, and Rollins would have material to last him months. And that’s without even mentioning perennial contender John Cena or Brock Lesnar, who might end up staying with WWE.

Away from the WWE title and its associated matches are the rest of the part time performers. This includes ‘Mania regulars Undertaker and Triple H and former WCW stalwart Sting. I'm not mentioning The Rock because I can't see him wrestling. Undertaker’s appeal seems limited now that he’s lost his Streak. It had become such a major part of his character (not least because he’s only wrestled at WrestleMania for most of the last four years) that it’s tough to see what they’ll do without it. For a while an alleged dream match opposite Sting seemed to be the popular option amongst fans but ‘The Vigilante’s’ debut at Survivor Series, which saw him attack Triple H, makes it look like there are other plans. If Sting’s going to have a match at WrestleMania I prefer ‘The Game’ as an opponent for him: he’s more reliable than ‘Taker, if less exciting, and working opposite an authority figure (no pun intended) plays well with ‘The Stinger’s’ established character.

Bray Wyatt versus Undertaker is the best match for both guys.
But that would still leave us with Undertaker doing nothing, assuming he wrestles. Matches opposite Daniel Bryan or Dean Ambrose could be very good but the fact that they’re faces makes them unlikely choices. Bray Wyatt would be a better fit in terms of character and could probably get a strong match out of ‘The Dead Man’ himself. He’d by my choice for the annual ‘Taker showcase, even though it would probably result in him losing his second WrestleMania match, which certainly wouldn’t be ideal for a guy who has at least another ten years ahead of him in WWE.

Then there are the likes of Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose, who have nothing obvious lined up for WrestleMania at present. Either Reigns or Bryan will be on that list too, because they can’t both win the Rumble (unless WWE go all 1994 and have a double winner, which would be even more hated now than it was in the 90s). What’s interesting about that list of four is that three of them are the most clearly popular men in the company and the other, Reigns, is WWE’s choice for a top babyface role. It seems less than ideal that there’s no clear path to the biggest show of the year for such popular performers. It doesn’t necessarily harm a performer’s popularity if we know ahead of time what they’ll be doing on such a major event, and knowing where they’re heading might encourage people to tune into RA.

It seems safe to assume Dolph Ziggler will wrestle in an Intercontinental title match at ‘Mania. A Rumble win for ‘The Show Off’ has been a matter of fevered discussion lately thanks to a rumour (from an unnamed source, natch) surfacing about how he’d been talked about as a potential winner but it doesn’t fit with WWE’s recent booking of him over the last six months. He’s been setup as the number two guy, presumably because of his existing popularity. His numerous IC title wins (three in five months) makes me think the company wants him to make that championship mean something again so that it can be used as an enhancement tool in the future. Yes, I’ve written this before, but it’s never looked to be the case more than now.

As such I’d expect Ziggles to be defending or challenging for the gold come ‘Mania. There’s no obvious opponent for him. It could be Dean Ambrose in a babyface versus babyface match. It could be Cesaro after WWE finally realises people care about him. It could Seth Rollins if I’m wrong about his match with Orton (not that I think I am). It could even be Roman Reigns if someone in WWE has the good sense to suggest him playing heel for a while to get him an edge so that people want to cheer him. Right now we just can’t tell.

Ambrose is even harder to predict things for. His current series with Bray Wyatt is unlikely to last much longer and nobody stands out as a natural next opponent. This makes me concerned that he’ll end up paired with someone like Sheamus, Mark Henry or Big Show. In other words, someone who always seems to get booked for WrestleMania despite nobody outside of company management actually wanting to watch them. The same goes for Reigns and Bryan. The silver lining to this is that Lesnar might also be free so we could get him facing Reigns, Bryan or Ambrose in a non-title affair.

The final major name to consider is Rusev. There’s really only one match that makes sense for him at WrestleMania: facing John Cena. He’s been protected and positioned as unstoppable for a year now. This has been done to turn him into a hated figure and it’s worked. He is one of the promotion’s most effective heel acts. Matches against Dean Ambrose or Roman Reigns could work but the best way to turn Rusev into a major name is to have him face and beat John Cena.

Can this man defeat John Cena?
Facing him would tell the world that Rusev’s as close to Cena’s level as he can be, because nobodies don’t face Cena at WrestleMania. Beating Cena would tell the world that Rusev really is the unstoppable beast we’ve been told he is for a year. If Lesnar ends up leaving WWE it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have someone lined up to replace him as the resident monster, and ‘The Bulgarian Brute’ is in the best position to do it.

Of course, what seems likelier if Cena v Rusev happens is that WWE will take the short term view and have Rusev lose to Cena. Probably via tap out to the No Pressure STF. That will halt Rusev’s progression but it won’t matter because they’ll have reminded everyone that John Cena is ‘The Man’ and doesn’t lose to dirty communists. The long term option is better: Rusev beating Cena at ‘Mania, and probably again at Extreme Rules, before ploughing through other top names like Randy Orton and Dean Ambrose so that his first loss to someone like Roman Reigns or Daniel Bryan actually means something and benefits someone.

Away from all of this talk of titles and part-timers and “dream” matches there will probably be room for a Divas match, a tag title match, and maybe a match between a couple of mid-card guys. If AJ Lee’s around I imagine she’ll be in the Divas match. It would be nice to see her against someone like Charlotte or Sasha Banks, but that seems massively unlikely. The best we can realistically hope for at this point is a four-way match involving AJ, Nikki Bella, Paige and Natalya.

The tag title match could feature The Ascension. They’ve just made their debut as main roster guys. Three months is a nice amount of time in which to build them up and get a rivalry going between them and current champions the Usos. Failing this WWE will probably just lob some random pairings together and hope for the best. Whatever they do I expect the tag titles to be defended on the pre-show.

The only mid-carders that have a chance of getting a meaningful match at WrestleMania right now are The Miz and Damien Sandow. They have a natural storyline waiting to happen whenever WWE decides to kick it off: Miz doesn’t like being overshadowed by his stunt double. People react to the pair and will want to see Mizdow give his overbearing boss a pasting. The tried and tested “accidental” elimination spot could be used at the Rumble to get things started, with the two splitting around mid-March to setup their ‘Mania collision. Although I think the Mizdow character offers WWE far more opportunities for an interesting elimination spot than the traditional “accident” routine.

If I had to predict a WrestleMania card right now I’d say we’ll see Lesnar and Bryan wrestling for the WWE championship, with Cena losing at Royal Rumble and then moving into a programme with Rusev. Randy Orton versus Seth Rollins strikes me as pretty much inevitable and Triple H versus Sting and Bray Wyatt versus The Undertaker both look pretty likely too. I’d expect Reigns, Ziggler and Ambrose to be in significant matches on the card too, though I’ve no idea who they’d be facing. Finally, a two match pre-show featuring a Miz versus Sandow battle and a tag title match seems reasonable to expect. I can’t imagine we’ll see the second annual Andre The Giant Battle Royal.

Now let’s wait for three months and see how much of this is right.

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