What We Learned From ‘WrestleMania 31’: Notes on an Event That Could Be Remembered As One of the Best in WWE HistoryWWE
It’s often said that WrestleMania is the Super Bowl of pro wrestling, the end of the wrestling year. Just as much as ’Mania marks the close of one season, it’s the beginning of the next. And so at Sunday’s pay-per-view and on Monday’s Raw, we saw WWE lurch into its new season. The three top titles all changed hands — John Cena beat Rusev for the U.S. title, Daniel Bryan claimed the Intercontinental strap, and Seth Rollins walked out with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The direction of the story lines is up in the air, and that feels like a huge relief after months of plodding predetermination. But before we get into what comes next, let’s reflect on what we’ve learned — and what WWE has learned — in the past pro wrestling season.
WrestleMania 31 Is One for the Ages
It’ll take some time before we can get a real handle on how good Sunday’s show was, but the reactions were over the top. Sure, part of it has to do with how low expectations were, but WWE deserves credit for a beautifully executed card. I went in worried that both the tag match and battle royal were bumped to the preshow, fearing that the main card would be a WrestleMania 29–style marathon of big matches with no room to give fans a chance to catch their breath. And even internal indications led me to think that it was a large-scale set-up show for WrestleMania 32 — which would have been unlikely to produce a great stand-alone effort. Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong. After the show, Bill Simmons and I were trying to figure out if the show we’d just watched was top five or top three all time. (Yes, Grantland conversations are exactly like you imagine.) My enthusiasm is still high, but I’m reserving judgment for now, because the euphoria about the show was in large part dictated by the amazing ending. If WWE squanders that storytelling — by, say, putting the title on Reigns next week — then that will change our memories of WrestleMania 31. Regardless, 31 was a great show, so much better than anyone expected, and it’s one we’ll be talking about for years.
Brock Lesnar Is the Biggest Babyface in the Business
If it weren’t already clear by his SportsCenter turn and the massive approval he gets from WWE crowds despite (or because of) his brutality, his feud against the oft-reviled Roman Reigns solidified Lesnar as the unlikely hero of the modern wrestling world. He came back to us when we thought he was leaving, he punched Reigns’s face in, and he iced it by obliterating the insipid Raw announce crew, believably atomizing Michael Cole and presumably putting him out of action for the near future. When the best heel in WWE, Stephanie McMahon, came out and suspended him after his rampage, Lesnar smiled in wry disbelief — he also could hardly believe he was getting the Daniel Bryan treatment. It’s hard to hate a guy who goes out and does his job so well, no matter how wicked he tries to seem. (Which is why Rusev, despite his anti-American penchant, will be a babyface by this time next year.) When Lesnar comes back in a couple of months, he’ll be the biggest hero WWE has seen in ages, whether or not WWE knows it.
Daniel Bryan Has Real Value
Despite an 18-month span in which WWE’s commitment to Daniel Bryan seemed to be at odds with fans’ love for him, Bryan won the Intercontinental title at WrestleMania, signaling WWE’s recognition that even when he’s not in its main-event plans, Bryan matters to the company. And Bryan as IC champion right now is absolutely perfect. That belt has traditionally belonged to the company workhorse, while the heavyweight belt usually goes to a charisma act (see Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage), and that worker role fits Bryan to a tee. As great as his climb to the top was, his reality-based underdog shtick was getting stale, both in story line terms and in terms of fans hijacking every show with YES! chants. Fans were right to do so at first, because WWE often booked him so poorly. It’s easier to complain when your favorite wrestler is mired in some aimless feud than when he’s involved in an interesting angle.
Now, as IC champion, Bryan can have his own life away from the main-event scene. He can stop playing plucky overachiever and be the ring general we all know he is, and he can be WWE’s no. 2 champion until the time is right for him to return to the spotlight. People will always accuse WWE of burying him, but for my part I’d rather see a match like he had against Dolph Ziggler on Monday every week than a hammy promo about Triple H holding him down. We shouldn’t think of it as a demotion just because it’s a lesser title. Fans of other sports have preferences — some basketball fans like the college game and hate the NBA, and some boxing fans watch only heavyweights. Wrestling fans could do that too. Just think of the IC title scene as the Smark Division and enjoy the ride.
John Cena Has Real Value
It’s easy to make fun of John Cena. He’s Vince McMahon’s platonic ideal of a star wrestler, he’s a 37-year-old acting like a teenage wannabe rapper, and kids love him. But he’s probably the most important cog in the WWE machine this side of Vince. He’s the guy who makes your favorite wrestlers matter by standing next to them. On Sunday, he handed Rusev his first loss, and despite getting pinned, Rusev came out better for having feuded with Cena. Now the United States champion, Cena can bring legitimacy to WWE’s most forlorn title and keep himself separate from the main event without losing too much status. Cena’s match against Dean Ambrose on Monday was probably the most exciting U.S. title match we’ve seen in ages, even though Ambrose’s odds were roughly a-million-to-one after Cena came to the ring in a new shirt that featured the title belt.
While Bryan’s reign with the IC belt will serve to keep him close to the top, Cena’s run with the U.S. title will keep him just important enough to be out of the heavyweight title picture for the foreseeable future. And that’s a good thing. Even though it looks like Cena will never turn heel, I sense that we’re on the precipice of a smart fan reversal on Cena. They may never stop chanting “Cena sucks,” but they’re coming around on his importance to the overall product and even his in-ring ability. If Cena toils — and thrives — in this adjacent role for a while, elevating young stars and making U.S. title feuds relevant, he will have earned our undying love.
Nostalgia Is Great — and It’s a Sideshow
Triple H versus Sting was way, way more exciting than it had any right to be. Two athletes with a combined age of 101 shouldn’t be able to win a three-legged race, let alone have a compelling 20-minute wrestling match. But they shocked the world, albeit in a small, heavily produced way. When DX came out to help Trips, only to be foiled by the nWo, repping WCW on Sting’s behalf, it was the kind of absurdist pure bliss that only pro wrestling can achieve. Sure, some will complain that it focused too much on the past, and others will complain that Triple H won only as a metaphorical middle finger from Vince to his detractors. But it was wild fun, and it was in the middle of the show. It’s hard to complain about a match that doesn’t try to steal the main-event spotlight but still ends up being what people are talking about the next day. For once, WWE did nostalgia exactly right, by underpromising and overdelivering.
WWE’s Roster Is Loaded With Young Talent
The company doesn’t always tell stories that make us interested, but Sunday proved that its stable of wrestlers I care about is deep — even on a day like WrestleMania, when legends are in the spotlight. Consider just the main card: Bray Wyatt, Seth Rollins, Rusev, Paige, Dean Ambrose, Wade Barrett, Luke Harper, Stardust. I would happily watch all of them in any combination in any match. Just as long as they tell a good story.
Sheamus Should Always Be a Heel
There are guys who play better heroes and guys who play better villains. Dusty Rhodes was a pure babyface; Ric Flair was a pure heel. Hulk Hogan was born to be a hero — until his act grew so stale that he had no choice but to become the greatest heel of a generation. Ditto for Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels — they were the purest hero and villain, respectively, until postmodernity forced us to reconsider those roles. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin says he preferred playing heel — which was probably why he was less than heroic even as a top star.
In the Reality Era, the line between face and heel is more blurry — John Cena has managed to be top-level hero and villain simultaneously, and Paul Heyman is possibly the most beloved figure in WWE despite being an onscreen villain. But most wrestlers still have a natural role — heroes are the people fans like to cheer for; villains are the ones we like to see beat up the heroes before getting a fitting comeuppance. Sheamus belongs to the latter group. Unfortunately, he’d been miscast as a cartoonish fan favorite, an Irish Superman with bright orange spiked hair that seemed engineered to make a perfect child’s Halloween costume. On Monday, Sheamus finally returned from injury, and he finally went back to being a villain. (His new look — which is kid-appropriate only in Brooklyn’s most zealous hipster enclaves — iced the deal.) The crowd went wild, and in the blink of an eye Sheamus went from WWE’s second-least-interesting wrestler to one of the most intriguing. After a year of apathy and occasional boos, Sheamus got the biggest applause of his career by demolishing the two biggest babyfaces in the company, Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler. It couldn’t have happened to a meaner guy.
Divas Are Wrestlers Too
At the end of February, a social movement broke out in the form of the Twitter hashtag #GiveDivasAChance. It was a call to stop the embarrassingly brief women’s matches on Raw, which seemed like little more than excuses to plug the Total Divas reality show. It was one thing to roll your eyes at women’s wrestling when WWE was employing only former fitness models and Playboy Playmates who could hardly perform in the ring, but today’s women’s wrestling is thriving on the indie scene and WWE employs a number of fantastic female wrestlers — Natalya, Paige, Alicia Fox, Naomi, AJ Lee, even the Bellas.
Thankfully, WWE seems to have gotten the message. At WrestleMania media day, Stephanie McMahon said, “I think that it’s time WWE listens to our fans and we give Divas a chance.” Sunday night, the Bellas took on AJ and Paige and the foursome put on a really good match — it wasn’t a 60-minute classic, but at least it wasn’t mud wrestling. It was an auspicious start to what could turn out to be a legendary era in the Divas division. With standouts like Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Bayley, and Becky Lynch thriving in NXT, it would behoove WWE to take advantage of the talent it has amassed. If not, the company might as well go back to hiring former Playmates.
Cruiserweights Are Wrestlers Too
One knock on WWE is that it has always preferred big wrestlers, while smaller guys like Bryan, Eddie Guerrero, and, hell, even Randy Savage had to claw their way to the top of the card. The greatest indignity, though, always went to the “cruiserweights,” the smaller performers who depended on high-flying moves. (Rey Mysterio is the only pure cruiserweight to have avoided the obscurity.) WWE occasionally has tried to jump-start a cruiserweight division, but that only serves to ghettoize wrestlers who belong with their beefier peers. This weekend was a big moment for undersize aerialists. Seth Rollins, who once might have projected as a Jeff Hardy–style championship footnote, is your new WWE champion. And on Monday, one of the biggest pops of the night went to Kalisto, one half of the Lucha Dragons, who made their main roster debut. (The other half is Sin Cara, one of the aforementioned failed cruiserweights.) What’s more, former NXT champ Adrian Neville made his debut and looked like a million bucks against the regular-size Curtis Axel. (Thankfully, rumors of Vince trying to package Neville into a Mighty Mouse gimmick or a spaceman persona were overstated — only a cape and some rockety wristbands hinted at some modest extraterrestrial influences.) Kalisto and Neville — as fellow diminutive performers like Bryan and AJ Lee have already proven — can have great value to WWE if given the right opportunities.
There’s More Than One Kind of Pro Wrestling
For years, WWE has suffered for its adherence to the “WWE style” — an in-ring approach that favors simplicity over faster, more modern styles and stiffer, rougher styles that have become popular in other promotions (and in other countries). This weekend, we saw an array of wrestling styles that would have made WrestleMania 1 blush. The 4-way tag match that opened the show echoed the sublime 4-way tag match at New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 9, Rollins brought his Ring of Honor repertoire into full bloom against Randy Orton, and Lesnar and Reigns basically worked a Japanese strong-style match in the main event. That doesn’t even mention the Lucha Dragons’ success on Raw, or how NXT is filled with wrestlers like Hideo Itami, Sami Zayn, and Kevin Owens, whose styles are a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from WWE. There are many paths to success, and it’s reassuring to see WWE finally acknowledge that this is more than just a story line mantra.
Fans Are Important, Part 1
Two years in a row, fans revolted against the rumored main event of WrestleMania. And two years in a row, WWE listened to its fans. For a company so often derided (justifiably) for being out of touch, WWE often manages to come through in the clutch. Wrestling isn’t subjective — it wouldn’t matter that Reigns was too green to be in the main event at ’Mania if 100 percent of fans were cheering for him, but the loud boos directed at Reigns before Sunday were a sign that his ascendance needed to be reconsidered. The tension between WWE’s creative direction and its fans’ desires will always be an intriguing subplot, and that tension is good for driving the narrative as long as WWE finds ways to square the circle at the end. That’s what happened at WrestleMania 31 — WWE managed to give the fans exactly what they wanted (and the last thing they suspected).
Fans Are Important, Part 2
WWE has always had celebrity fans, but despite a weird fixation with pop culture icons from the ’80s and ’90s, the company has been reluctant to harness the fandom of more recent high-profile supporters. In the past 10 days, however, WWE has used the ESPN connections of wrestling enthusiasts Michelle Beadle and Simmons, and on Sunday night, it pulled UFC champion Ronda Rousey out of her customary front-row seat to involve her in a feud between the Rock and the Authority. Rousey’s cheer was one of the loudest of the night, and her appearance worked so well because, unlike many previous celebrity guests, (1) she’s actually a WWE fan (unlike, say, Floyd Mayweather), and (2) she is an actual fighter who looks like she belongs in the ring with wrestlers (unlike, say, David Arquette). WWE has long been making decisions rooted in its desire to court new fans and broaden its base. The company took important steps toward achieving those goals in the past week, and it’s essentially because WWE used famous wrestling fans to hype the product.
The Undertaker Is Headlining WrestleMania 32
A year ago, Taker looked old. When Lesnar destroyed him at WrestleMania 30, Taker played a convincing corpse. This year, though, he looked the best he has in years while beating Wyatt — so good that it seems a forgone conclusion he’ll be on the WrestleMania 32 card in his home state of Texas. And after his performance Sunday, we should all be excited about that.
NXT Is Officially the Coolest Thing in WWE
On Friday night, a crowd of 5,000 jammed into San Jose State University’s Event Center Arena to see a show by WWE’s minor league. Five thousand fans chanted with the coordination and passion of a ’90s ECW crowd. (And lest you think the crowd was just made up of hard-core fans, the front row included legendary announcer Jim Ross and indie superstar Samoa Joe, who’s rumored to be signing with WWE soon.) It was one of the most oddly reaffirming scenes of my wrestling fandom — a sign that the future is bright and that it’s developing under WWE’s direction. At WrestleMania, Rollins became the first former NXT champ to be crowned WWE World Heavyweight champion (Paige has held the women’s title in both promotions), and the pay-per-view bout sheet was littered with other former NXT standouts. The debuts of Neville and Kalisto on Monday garnered a couple of “NXT!” chants, too — a direct callback to when “E-C-Dub!” chants were deployed as a form of protest at WWE events. WWE has succeeded, perhaps inadvertently, in creating its own counterculture, and it’s a thing of beauty.
These Guys Are Officially Over
Cesaro, Tyson Kidd, Damien Mizdow, and Dolph Ziggler are beloved by fans. This comes as little surprise to those who’ve followed these wrestlers in recent years, but it’s worth restating. To get the crowd responses they’ve received in early-card matches (and for Mizdow and Ziggler, while losing) is further evidence that some of WWE’s most promising stars are just waiting for a chance to shine. After seeing a card as ostensibly bloated as WrestleMania 31 exceed all expectations, I’m not terribly concerned about what kind of push WWE decides to give performers like Cesaro. I just want WWE to give them time to shine. Not feuding for the top title doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being misused, but ignoring them — as has been the case in the recent past — would be a sin. Let’s hope WWE heard Sunday’s crowd loud and clear.
CM Punk Is Really Gone
A little over a year ago, CM Punk left WWE. Fans were so upset that chanting his name became a way to express one’s disapproval with the current WWE product. Just four months ago, Punk appeared on Colt Cabana’s podcast to explain his exit, and that became the center of the wrestling world for weeks, with fans decrying WWE’s treatment of arguably its biggest star — and the chants were resuscitated. But on Sunday and Monday — the two biggest gatherings of pro-Punk fans — there was nary a “CM Punk” chant to be heard. (Even during the Divas match, which featured Punk’s wife, AJ Lee — which has been a persistent opportunity for Punk chants.) The absence was almost eerie. Sure, fans have come to terms with Punk’s departure, but that wasn’t the point of the chants in the first place. Maybe fans have just grown tired of chanting for somebody who’s happy to be done with wrestling. Either way, it seems that the Punk Era is finally over. Until he makes his inevitable comeback, of course.
Daytime Outdoor PPVs Are Cool
I’m a mark for old WCCW wrestling, so I have a special place in my heart for big, daytime outdoor shows like Parade of Champions and SuperClash. WrestleMania 31 felt like one of those old shows, and it was one of my favorite parts of the event. I loved how the steady descent into twilight mirrored the increasing urgency of the card, how the crowd’s energy felt more palpable than usual, and how it was just something different. We have indoor wrestling 52 weeks a year, plus pay-per-view events. It’s cool when WrestleMania feels like something bigger — like a real Parade of Champions.
WWE Stock Value Is a Meaningless Measure
The day after the best WrestleMania in recent memory, WWE’s stock price took a plunge. It had less to do with the card than with the announcement that WWE Network has a lower-than-expected 1.3 million subscribers. It’s unclear exactly what investors were hoping for, but what’s evident is that they will always be fickle, and basing creative direction on the whims of the market is a terrible idea. On Monday of all days, let’s hope WWE saw this — the hype it was getting wasn’t reflected in the stock price. But if WWE keeps pushing the product in the right direction, stock valuation will follow.
Kayfabe Is Back, at Least for a Moment
In the postmodern era of wrestling, it’s hard to take story lines seriously. The only really affecting moments of the last several years have been shined-up retellings of real-life drama — Punk’s walkout and the Bryan saga. Internet rumors make suspension of disbelief harder than ever for fans to achieve. But as Jensen Karp pointed out at Rolling Stone, in the main event at WrestleMania, storytelling took the front seat and uncertainty ruled supreme. Vince’s supposed Reigns fixation didn’t prevail, nor did the pop-culture prominence of Lesnar after his appearance on SportsCenter. Instead, Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase and left ’Mania as the new champ. Both obvious outcomes were rejected, and for a moment nobody was complaining about Reigns’s ascent or Lesnar’s announcement. When the storytelling is great, it’s easy to lose yourself in the fake stuff.