Sunday 22 March 2015

WWE WrestleMania 31 preview

Here we are again. Another WestleMania. The culmination of a year's worth of storylines being drawn to a close and produced with all the flash and sizzle WWE can muster. It will be the biggest and most financially successful wrestling event of the year for the world's most financially successful wrestling company. We know this. WrestleMania is firmly established as the one show where WWE pulls out all the stops, the one show it's guaranteed to make a spectacle.

So why doesn't it feel as special as it has in previous years? There's no definitive answer but the feeling is there. This year's entry in the 'Mania series feels like it's destined to become just another show before it's even taken place. Personally I think there are several reasons for this. The obvious place to start listing them is at the top, which means mentioning Roman Reigns. Which is unfair. Because I really don't think Reigns has been as bad as he could have been since his shove into the upper echelons came about at this year's Royal Rumble.

Okay, so his promos could have been better, he's been protected with clever booking, and he was pitted against Daniel Bryan at Fast Lane in an incredibly transparent effort to both curry favour with a certain fan demographic and show everyone that Reigns is better than Bryan. The only thing he had any real control over from that list is his effort in promos. He's far from great but he's improved since this time last year, and let's not forget that he is ultimately reading words given to him by someone else rather than expressing his own feelings and opinions. That he's been afforded good booking and got to beat Bryan is entirely out of his control but it's not like he should have turned either down. Who in their right mind would ask their employer to expose their weaknesses and refuse a lengthy pay-per-view match with one of wrestling's best workers?

Reigns being in the main event is a problem mostly because he's not Daniel Bryan. Practically everyone, including me, wanted to see Bryan versus Lesnar for the WWE championship. With a move back to the UFC looking likely for Lesnar that match doesn't seem as though it's meant to be. Reigns versus Lesnar is not a substitute for that match because Reigns is not the wrester Bryan is. But this isn't to say the match is guaranteed to be bad. It's not. In fact it's more likely to be good. Lesnar's no slouch when it comes to delivering gripping matches, Reigns is perfectly capable even though he's not the standout many wish he were, and it's going to headline the biggest show of the year. There's no way everyone involved won't do everything they can to make it the best match possible.

What's good about Reigns' participation in the main event (it's not all bad) is that he's someone new. WWE has been in need of fresh singles acts at the top of the card for years and they've been incredibly slack about building some up. Before they were coerced into doing something with Bryan last year the last guy they'd given the hallowed Big Push to was CM Punk in 2011. Before that it was Jeff Hardy in 2008 (and let's not forget that he was so appreciative that he's been slumming it in TNA since early 2010). Reigns is a much needed shot in the arm and indicates that WWE are finally set on filling their many gaps.

Probably the second biggest issue I have with WrestleMania 31 is the use of Daniel Bryan. That may initially sound like a direct contradiction to what I've just said but it's not. I'm not arguing that Bryan should be in the main event. He was there last year and had his moment. It would have been nice to see him face Lesnar but it wasn't the only thing that could have been done with him. There are other shows he can headline and the world title will still be there for him to win once 'Mania's done and dusted. In fact Bryan versus Reigns would be a very nice main event for this year's SummerSlam. Bryan not being the man to face Lesnar here isn't the issue. The issue is what he's been given to do instead.

Having Daniel Bryan be one of the men to challenge Bad News Barrett for the Intercontinental championship sends the message that he's not important. Whether he's liked by management or not this isn't a message they should be getting behind. D-Bry has been chosen by the people as a top guy, and at a time when top guys are light on the ground the company should not be choosey about who's in the main event. The man's popularity has already taken knocks this year, most obviously when he was eliminated early from the Royal Rumble and when he failed to defeat Reigns a month later at Fast Lane. This sort of counterproductive booking may keep Bryan "in his place" (not that Bryan seems like the kind who has an ego about how he's used) but it deprives people of something they clearly want: Daniel Bryan having a key role on WWE television. All this does is deincentivise viewers from watching the product and becoming emotionally invested.

The only thing worse than having Bryan in the ladder match would be having him win it. That would send the message that he was out of his league competing for the world title and that he's much happier larking about with the likes of Barrett and R-Truth over a second rate strap. Think Bryan holding the IC strap would add credibility to it? Think again. No matter how good a wrestler and how over Bryan may be the Intercontinental championship is a tarnished item. It will take more than slinging it on 'The People's Elixir' to make it mean anything. This would be an attempt at a quick fix when extended effort is what's required.

The lack of a Streak match is also bothering me. The Streak was something that was easy to invest in and helped make WrestleMania feel like a major event. I won't argue that Brock Lesnar wasn't a good choice to end it but it does feel odd that Undertaker is carrying on after he's suffered a loss on 'The Grandest Stage of Them All'. For the last several years 'The Dead Man' has been portrayed as being motivated by his annual defence of The Streak. Can Bray Wyatt becoming one of the many men to steal his urn really compare to the defence of a two decade long winning streak? In my mind no, it can't. I don't think the match will be bad, in fact I'm rather looking forward to it, but part of 'Taker's lustre has definitely gone along with his undefeated record.

The final thing on the list is the Triple H v Sting match. While I've never been the biggest fan of 'The Game' I have come to appreciate him more over the past few years as he's transitioned into his new role as an evil authority figure and part time wrestler. He's not the super-reliable hand he believes himself to be but he's more enjoyable than he was during his full time career. Meanwhile Sting does nothing for me. He didn't engage me during the final couple of years of WCW and he's been worse in TNA (although it wouldn't be unfair to claim that most things are worse in TNA). They're just two guys I have no real connection to and so I can't get excited for their match.

The requisite number of big names have been lined up for the show. The crowning moment for the new chosen one has been adequately set up. But there's been no flair to anything in the lead-in to this year's 'Showcase of the Immortals'. It almost feels like WWE are resting on their laurels a little. And it definitely feels as though they're not fully in tune with what their audience wants in 2015. WrestleMania should always feel like the company's crowning glory, a show dripping in relevance and it just doesn't this year. The substance is there but the style is missing.

The rest of the card is unremarkable. The main match not yet mentioned is Rusev versus Cena. Their match at Fast Lane was (slightly) better than I'd expected but that they had that match in the first place harms the appeal of this one. Cena v Rusev felt like a match that should have been saved for WrestleMania. I understand that by moving it forward to Fast lane 'The Super Athlete' was set up as the unstoppable machine and Cena as the underdog, which is sound logic for a rematch. But that's also made it look pretty clear who's going to win. While I'd love to see Cena fall to Rusev again, because he can afford to and it would do Rusev so much good, I just can't see it happening. Everything about the scenario points to Cena avenging his Fast Lane loss, building for the future be damned.

In defence of the Rusev v Cena rematch it has provided us with one of the most entertaining segments from this year's Road to WrestleMania; the contract signing segment from the March 16 RAW. Okay, it was mostly good because of how incredibly bad the guy playing Rusev's lawyer was but that was at least something. By contrast the build to Randy Orton and Seth Rollins' match has been abysmal. 'The Viper' returned, out of the blue, at Fast Lane and ran The Authority off from the ring. The next night he rejoined them. Then he spent a few weeks pretending he was allied with them while at the same time costing Rollins meaningless television matches before eventually revealing that he wasn't really back with The Authority at all and Sting showed up to help him ward the heels off.

It's been a series of underwhelming events. What's so frustrating is that at the beginning of the year Rollins v Orton felt like one of the easiest matches in the world to set up. Orton had become jealous of the young chosen one and allowed that anger to boil over into physicality. Forced to take sides, Authority bosses Triple H and Stephanie McMahon had gone with 'The Future', essentially showing Orty that he'd been right to worry. A vicious beatdown saw Orton written off TV, at a point when he was more interesting as a performer than he had been in years, and Rollins went on to headline pay-per-views and challenge for the WWE title in his absence.

All WWE needed to do was have Orton make a dramatic comeback in which he almost but not quite got his hands on Rollins then have him get closer each week as WrestleMania edged nearer. It would have been simple to do, would have gotten over the cowardly aspect of Rollins character, and would have made use of the large entourage, casting them as perfect RKO-fodder. By the time they arrived at WrestleMania people would have been desperate to see Rollins finally take his beating.

As things stand the two can still have a good match. Rollins is one of the best in the company. Provided he's in a mood to try so is Orton. The potential is there for a great finishing spot that sees Orton nip to his feet and blast Rollins with an RKO as he goes for the Phoenix splash. There's a chance Rollins will win the match because he's been kept pretty strong by the writing team but I'm leaning more towards an Orton win. Not only does that add one more to the good guy tally on the company's top show but it also gives Orton a victory over a man with the Money in the Bank briefcase. Should Rollins cash-in, which is not impossible, Orton would be established as an immediate challenger.

Finally there are the designated filler matches: the tag title match, the Andre battle royal and the token Divas match. The tag title match will see Cesaro and Tyson Kidd defend against the Usos, Los Matadores, and The New Day. It will take place on the pre-show, as is now apparently traditional for the doubles hardware. Although they're technically the only heels in the match I suspect the Brass Ring lads will be the most popular duo with the live crowd, which would make a successful defence logical (always good to start a show with a crowd-pleasing result). This match will almost certainly get enough time to be an enjoyable experience. Considering the rest of the show it could even end up as the match of the night.

The Divas match will break from tradition by not being for the championship. Instead champion Nikki Bella will team with her sister Brie to face AJ Lee and Paige. The lead-up to this match has arguably been some of the best work the writing team have done over the last month, which is more a reflection on how poor the standard of writing is than anything else. Instead of drawing on the history between AJ and Paige (Paige debuted the night after last year's 'Mania and defeated AJ in her debut match) the feud has centred around the Bellas being stereotypical mean girls and Lee and Paige becoming bessie mates to teach them a lesson. It's been lazy and only seems like a good idea for a match when you consider that they're the four most heavily featured women in WWE and they've been involved with one another in a variety of forms for months. AJ and Paige will probably win with one of them pinning Nikki to create a reason for a championship match.

The only thing I really have to say about the battle royal is that I'm surprised to see it back. When last year's was described as the "first annual" Andre memorial battle royal I took it to mean that it would be the first and last, because that's generally how things work in WWE. It's nice to be wrong on this. The match could really go to anybody because there's not actually anything on the line. That said it is a nice opportunity to start a push and it would be nice to think this will be capitalised on by those in charge. Looking at the list of entrants Ryback, Miz and Midow seem the most likely people to win. Mizdow could eliminate Miz early and win for a well-deserved WrestleMania Moment™. 'The Awesome One' could eliminate Mizdow via shady tactics at the last second, cruelly snatching a win away from him. Ryback's Ryback. He seems over with the right people and he's been protected recently. I'm going to go with Mizdow winning. Whatever happens I expect the next pay-per-view will see a Miz versus Mizdow singles match.

The only other guy I'd consider as a battle royal winner is Sheamus. We've been (cruelly) teased about his comeback for a month or two now. It would make all the sense in the world for him to return and win the battle royal. But I think it's likelier he'll be a surprise addition to the Intercontinental championship ladder match. His chances of winning that seem depressingly good. Rumours persist that we're in store for yet another Sheamus v Bryan series (they're good together but I don't like their seemingly annual rivalries) and it's all too easy to see the starting point being Shaymo yanking D-Bry off a ladder and grabbing the gold for himself. I'd be happy with Ziggler or Barrett leaving as the champion, because they're the guys I think a strong mid-card should revolve around, or Ambrose, because I think he could convince people the title means something to him, but Sheamus seems likelier.

All of which brings me back around to three of the event's top matches. Wyatt versus Undertaker, despite not being for The Streak should be good as long as 'The Phenom' can avoid a repeat of last year's early concussion. The ring entrances alone should be something special. I'm fairly confident Undertaker will go over. A victory would help to revitalise him for next year's WrestleMania, which will seemingly host his retirement. He'll look stronger coming off a win than coming off a loss.

Although there's also something in the idea of 'The Eater of Worlds' winning. That would put Undertaker in the position of having lost two matches back-to-back going into his final appearance, which would in turn allow WWE to play the "Can he still get it done?" card for the retirement match. If that's against Cena (as there's a strong chance it will be) it could be a very good story, Undertaker desperate to win and prove that he still has the old magic before he takes his final bow and Cena wanting to prove he could have taken The Streak had he had the chance. But having protagonists show weakness is not something this company does well or often.

I've little more to offer on the subject of Sting versus Triple H. Sting should enter to his WCW music. He won't. The bout should last less than six minutes. It won't. Sting should dominate Triple H before Triple H cheats to gain an unfair advantage, leading to a mighty Sting comeback a few minutes later, culminating with a Scorpion Death Drop for the win. This... might happen. But it probably won't. I am at least confident 'The Vigilante' will win, because that's the logical conclusion to the story they seem to be trying to tell. The longer this match goes the less interested I'll be.

Finally there's the main event. The thing that would sway my prediction is something I can't know until after the fact: whether or not Brock Lesnar has signed a deal to stay in wrestling. I think if he opts to stay Vince and co will be more than happy to keep the title strapped around his waist, possibly all the way until WrestleMania 32. That would give 'The Pain' another year of dominance before dropping the title. Daniel Bryan's popularity could finally be embraced and he could win the 2016 Rumble before dethroning Lesnar in a modern day dream match. Or the loss this year could send Reigns over the edge, turning him into a madman who feels he's had his birthright stolen from him and setting him on a path of destruction that sees him go over everybody before finally earning a rematch with Lesnar.

Lesnar sticking around is not the only way the Reigns scenario could come about. Even if Lesnar's off to UFC Reigns could lose to him before a Rollins' MITB cash-in. That would allow Rollins to brag about doing what golden boy Reigns couldn't while allowing Reigns to engage in his longer term storyline of unleashing fury.

Something I find surprisingly easy to rule out is Reigns simply winning. I can imagine Lesnar retaining and sticking around. I can imagine Reigns failing, both with and without a Rollins cash-in on Lesnar following. I can imagine Reigns winning and then having Rollins cash in the contract on him. But I can't imagine Reigns defeating Lesnar and then enjoying a lengthy run as the WWE world heavyweight champion. This is a company that loves to throw adversity at its top babyfaces, because the theory is that overcoming it will make fans love them (something which cheerfully overlooks the fact that babyfaces need to be loved beforehand for this to work). Reigns beating Lesnar and making it out of both WrestleMania and the following evening's RAW as the champion just strikes me as unlikely.

In this regard the main event is already a success. It's not an easy match to predict a winner for. With Lesnar's contractual status, Reigns' mixed reactions and Rollins' briefcase there are too many factors to say with any confidence that any one sequence of events will take place. So I'll predict the one I like the sound of the best: Brock Lesnar will retain the WWE heavyweight championship.


Predictions summary:
Brock Lesnar to defeat Roman Reigns
Undertaker to defeat Bray Wyatt
John Cena to defeat Rusev
Sting to defeat Triple H
Randy Orton to defeat Seth Rollins
Sheamus to win the Intercontinental championship ladder match
Paige and AJ Lee to defeat Nikki Bella and Brie Bella
Damien Mizdow to win the Andre The Giant memorial battle royal
Cesaro and Tyson Kidd to retain the tag team championship

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