Selling Reigns: Predicting the Matchups on the ‘WrestleMania’ CardWWE
The WWE propaganda machine would have you believe that WrestleMania is the “grandest stage of them all,” and really there’s no reason to disagree — WWE is pro wrestling, and the biggest stage is whatever it says it is. It decided that WrestleMania I changed the way the pro wrestling biz worked and that WrestleMania III changed the world, and the company’s constant reiteration of those facts made them so. History belongs to the victors and all that.
I don’t mean to slight WWE or to diminish WrestleMania. Rather, I’d like to remind wrestling fans that we’ve already bought in. We’re already there, cheering and booing as guys fake-punch each other. We’ve already accepted WrestleMania as the most important day of the year. Why else would we care who’s getting jobbed out of a headlining spot? So is it that much of a stretch to buy into WrestleMania 31 next month, to buy into the story lines that WWE is feeding us? I mean, sure, things could be better. But what we’re getting could be pretty great — even if smart-fan favorite Daniel Bryan won’t be anywhere near the main event.
How do we even know what we’re getting? Well, Fastlane is in the can, and since that event did little more than set up matches for WrestleMania — and much of what was left was ironed out on Monday’s Raw — it’s easy enough to skip the Fastlane recap and begin previewing ’Mania.
Right? Except, well, nothing’s ever that easy in the wrestling world. In the past 24 hours, we’ve seen Bryan’s ’Mania placement thrown into question and the main-event picture thrown into total disarray. We know most of the matches, and we know the stories behind them — the plots, the subplots, the meta story lines. But just like the matches themselves, the makeup of the card will be a subject of intrigue as we get closer to the big day. In the meantime, let’s look at what we know now and see where the story lines take us.
Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Plot: Reigns, the fast-rising superstar — former Shield member, “cousin” of the Rock, and Khal Drogo look-alike — earned the title shot by winning the Royal Rumble. Then Reigns successfully defended his title shot against Bryan in the main event at Sunday’s Fastlane.
Subplot: Is the Roman Empire ready to conquer the world? Is Mr. Reigns ready to become the face of WWE? He had a great match against Bryan at Fastlane, but his résumé remains thin; fans will be scrutinizing the main event at ’Mania, ready to pounce on any perceived shortcoming by Reigns. Since he got booed out of the arena at the Rumble, WWE has been conducting a character reboot and a campaign to improve his in-ring reputation. The past month has gone a long way toward validating WWE’s hopes for Reigns — but that improvement has made it more apparent than ever that Reigns’s success depends heavily on WWE’s writing and public relations machines. It’s not hard to imagine that WWE could revert to the painful storytelling it subjected fans to six weeks ago. Or that, once Reigns is entrenched atop the company, WWE could embark on the tedious course of Cena-style Reigns hero worship.
Meta-plot: This match is about the future of WWE in more ways than one. Reigns has the backing of the front office and the opportunity to grab the company by the, er, reins. More importantly, Lesnar, the superhuman Band-Aid whom WWE called into championship duty last year to imbue real-world legitimacy upon its top title, has signaled that he’s interested in returning to the UFC, so WrestleMania could be his swan song. More recent rumors imply that Lesnar has concussion concerns that would prohibit a UFC return, and that he’s open to continuing with WWE — so that’s good news. Then, on Monday, he was expected to appear on Raw, but Lesnar had some sort of backstage dispute that led to him either walking out or being held off the show. The latest — entirely unverified — rumors suggest Lesnar walked out because Reigns failed a drug test. Even assuming this isn’t true, that pushes the meta–story line into even greater relief: This is an untrustworthy outsider versus a charismatic company man. Students of wrestling history know who’s going to win that one.
WWE will frame it in Jack and the Beanstalk terms — an unstoppable monster versus a plucky up-and-comer — but really this match is between an unreliable giant and a dreamy-eyed bag of magical beans. It’s almost impossible to predict if those beans will turn into anything. And regardless of Lesnar’s contract status, the outcome here feels even more predetermined than that of a fairy tale. At least WWE has Paul Heyman — Lesnar’s “advocate” — to provide the narrative muscle for this feud in the run-up to WrestleMania. If anyone can sell the magic beans, it’s him.
Plot Twist: Seth Rollins still has the Money in the Bank briefcase, and there’s speculation he’ll cash in at the end of ’Mania. (To be fair, there’s speculation he’ll cash in at every major event.) This would serve two purposes: to put a twist on a predictable ending, and to jump-start the first feud of the Reigns era. I’d much rather see an aggrieved Reigns chasing Rollins than a triumphant Reigns parading around the ring on Raw the night after WrestleMania.
Triple H vs. Sting
Plot: Sting appeared in WWE for the first time at Survivor Series, helping Team Cena topple the Authority. The Authority has since regained power, and since then, COO Triple H has been obsessed with the disrespect that Sting showed him. He challenged the WCW icon to a face-off at Fastlane, and Sting obliged; a Triple H lecture about respect and wrestling history led to fisticuffs. Sting got the better end, and while holding his legendary baseball bat at Triple H’s neck, Sting pointed at the WrestleMania logo hanging from the rafters — the international symbol for “Hey, pal, let’s say we have us a match?”
Subplot: This will be pitched as the face of WCW versus the face of WWE, and that’s not far off. You could make the case for Ric Flair or the nWo over Sting, but he’s become more closely associated with WCW thanks to his longevity and his undying allegiance to that company. Likewise, Triple H was not the star of the Monday Night Wars era by a long shot, but his fortitude — working atop the company during its lean years, staying while others left for Hollywood, helming the company backstage — allows him to defend WWE’s honor.
What’s more, it allows him to play the heel character that he’s so good at by saying those things out loud and seeming like an ego-inflated asshole to every fan. Triple H will say that the one thing Sting has never proven is that he can hang in WWE, and even though that’s true, it takes a heel like Trips to point it out. Even though Sting is an outsider, all he has to do is let Trips talk and the fans will go bananas.
Meta-plot: WrestleMania is the time of year for legends to dust off the mothballs and let us indulge in intergenerational fantasy booking. The tricky part is preserving the in-ring quality while delivering those dream fights. Sting versus the Undertaker was the most talked-about fantasy match of the last decade, but after Sting’s mediocre run in TNA and Taker’s uneven showing at ’Mania last year, pairing the two would have risked not just underwhelming the fans but also staging one of the biggest clusterfucks in WrestleMania history. This may not have the same marquee value, but Triple H was the other name Sting kept dropping when he finally signed up with WWE, and it’s a better solution. Triple H is old, but he’s in great shape and he had one of the best matches of his career last year versus Bryan. If anybody can get a good match out of Sting, it’s Hunter.
Plot Twist: This feud evolves into a larger contest for control of the future of the wrestling business, and Sting usurps Triple H as Raw’s onscreen power broker. If Sting’s up for hanging around, I could imagine worse ways to break up the Authority’s monotony.
Bray Wyatt vs. the Undertaker
Plot: Over the past several weeks, Bray Wyatt — former cult leader and current cult-leader-esque force of nature — has been cutting promos aimed at some vague person of interest. This is nothing new for Wyatt, whose rivalries seem to materialize from his addled imagination like a hologram appearing in a cage. But these promos had a tinge of the supernatural. Immortality was a key talking point, and fans immediately started wondering if a match against the Undertaker was in the offing. At Fastlane, Taker’s music played, an army of druids brought a coffin to the ring, and … Wyatt emerged, directly challenging the Undertaker into duty at WrestleMania. Taker has yet to agree to a match, but it’s safe to assume he’ll be there.
Subplot: Despite rumors of the Undertaker’s injuries in his match against Lesnar last year, along with some disheartening photos of an out-of-costume Mark Calaway popping up on social media over the past year, Taker seems to be back in shape (and back in the hair dye) and ready to go at ’Mania. This is the perfect match for him — passing the torch to the new generation’s mystical antihero. But will his body hold up to the punishment? (And, for your sub-subplot: Will he feel good enough after this match to sign on for a last match at next year’s WrestleMania, which will be held in his home state of Texas, at AT&T Stadium?)
Meta-plot: Word on the street is that WWE plans to keep Taker off TV entirely and let him be a “surprise” at ’Mania. This is a great idea considering the rumors of his demise and that, in the end, his appearance won’t really be a question. The actual question is whether Wyatt — whose speaking skills are unrivaled but whose promos have a tendency to devolve into metaphysical Hee-Hawing — has the chops to ferry this angle all the way to the big show. Whether fans are hyped to see this will help determine if Wyatt is ready to take over for the Undertaker, regardless of who wins the match.
Plot Twist: This match could go either way, but the biggest surprise of all would be if it leads to a drawn-out feud, starting this year and ending at ’Mania 2016. Now that would be amazing.
John Cena vs. Rusev for the WWE United States Championship
Plot: At the Royal Rumble, Cena was being interviewed backstage when Rusev interrupted and the two got into it. They had a match at Fastlane, which Rusev won by cheating for the first time in his career — he hit Cena with a low blow and then made Cena pass out in his finisher, the Accolade. It was the first time Cena had lost via submission in more than a decade. On Monday night, Cena called out Rusev, said he expected more from him even though he’s a gross Russian symp, and Cena challenged him to a rematch at WrestleMania. Rusev declined, but it’s safe to assume he’ll reconsider.
Subplot: Cena’s new annual WrestleMania tradition seems to be going toe-to-toe with WWE’s young, burgeoning heel of the moment. And just like last year’s feud with Wyatt, Cena will probably win and people will probably complain.
Meta-plot: Winning is almost beside the point. The real questions are whether Rusev can hold his own against Cena and prove that he’s more than just a jingoistic special feature — that he belongs in the main event — and whether WWE has any desire to make Rusev more than that in the near future. Rusev’s gimmick has been fine during his ascent, but having a Russian-flag-waving brute as your WWE champion? That’s so … pro wrestling, you know?
Plot Twist: Lana intervenes to help Rusev win, and Rusev rejects her help. This costs him the match and sets the stage for a split between the two, and in the process builds the increasingly popular Rusev into a full-on fan favorite.
A Divas Match
Plot: There will presumably be a match for the Divas Championship at WrestleMania. Or, failing that, a match with Divas involved — probably in great number. As for specifics, champ Nikki Bella will be involved. After that? Who knows.
Subplot: How much time can announcers spend plugging an E! reality show during a title match at the biggest wrestling event of the year?!? Just kidding, we all know the answer: All of the time.
Meta-plot: Last week on Raw, the hashtag #GiveDivasAChance started trending in reaction to the short shrift they’ve been getting on WWE television, especially compared to the women of NXT (and the indies), who are often the highlight of the show. Will WWE — a company notoriously conscious of social media criticism — respond in any meaningful way, or will it continue to position the Divas division as a commercial for Total Divas?
Plot Twist: Recent rumors suggest that former NXT women’s champ — and daughter of Ric Flair — Charlotte will be in whatever Divas match ends up happening at WrestleMania. This is a very good thing. She’s a borderline superhuman athlete and her presence will force the other Divas to up their games. Except, obviously, if WWE never gives Divas a chance.
Randy Orton vs. Seth Rollins
Plot: Randy Orton used to be the Authority’s chosen champion, but when Triple H enlisted Seth Rollins, Orton’s place in the spotlight was jeopardized. Eventually, the tension between the two came to a boil, culminating in Rollins Curb Stomping Orton onto the announce table, putting him out of action for several months. He returned at Fastlane, seemingly ready to exact revenge, but instead has acted the bigger man, laying off Rollins and rejoining the Authority at Stephanie McMahon’s urging. Don’t worry, though — just like love, vengeance always finds a way. They’ll end up fighting at WrestleMania.
Subplot: Is this match the unofficial no. 1 contender match? Rollins has the Money in the Bank briefcase, and rumors are rampant that he’ll figure into the end of the main event — especially if the ending feels too predetermined. If he wins and puts Orton in the rearview, it could be straight on to main-eventing with Reigns for Rollins. But if Orton wins, he keeps himself in the title picture, challenging Rollins and, conceivably, Reigns as they segue into roles as foundational stars of the company.
Meta-plot: Can Orton really be a babyface? Sure, the crowd was excited to see him return, and nobody’s ever going to ignore the power of a big comeback and an RKO (one of wrestling’s most thrilling moves). But character-wise, Orton has rarely held fans’ attention for more than a couple of months. It’s one thing to do that as a heel — Orton harnessed his inherent dislikability into an epic heel persona last year — but it’s harder to occupy fans’ interest as a hero. WWE has done a great job playing with shades of gray in the last month between Bryan and Reigns, but we’ve yet to see it commit to such subtlety over an extended period. And it will have to do that for Orton if it wants him to succeed over the next several years — and not end up another pointless Authority member like Kane or Big Show.
Plot Twist: Orton staying with the Authority and, you know, ending up in a tag-team match against Bryan and Sheamus — that would be a swerve. More realistically, though, the shocking move would be for Orton to win and reclaim his role atop the Authority, shoving Rollins into the babyface side of the spectrum.
Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus
Plot: This is the most tenuous match on my imaginary card. Bryan-Sheamus has been rumored for so long that it’s almost an in-joke among wrestling fans. Rumor sheets will probably have these two paired up heading into every WrestleMania for the next decade. Bryan and Sheamus have a history: They opened WrestleMania 27, they had the infamous 18-second match at WrestleMania 28, and they were rumored to be paired up again last year before the Yes! Movement propelled Bryan into the main event. It’s a safe bet that Bryan-Sheamus will end up happening, and we know these two guys can have a top-flight match together — we just don’t know how. My guess is it’ll involve a surprise Sheamus appearance and Bryan getting kicked in the face.
Subplot: Will WrestleMania finally give us the long-awaited heel turn for Sheamus, who’s been stuck in a rut as a cartoon Irish superhero for what feels like a decade? One can only hope.
Meta-plot: On Sunday, Bryan and Reigns had a match we’ll be talking about all year. And on Monday, Bryan came out and did his best to make the fans accept Reigns as a worthy star, congratulating him and wishing him well on his march to ’Mania. Fans seemed to accept Bryan’s urging — and they should have, after Reigns’s performance on Sunday. But it remains to be seen whether they’ll still be pro-Reigns once Bryan has moved on to a new story line. And more than anything, it’s unclear whether fans will tolerate Bryan being this far down the card instead of in the main event.
Plot Twist: Judging by this week’s Smackdown — SPOILER ALERT! — Bryan may be inserted into the following match. If that’s true, Sheamus might follow, but I’d put my money on him entering — and winning — the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal.
Bad News Barrett vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. R-Truth: Four-Way Match for the Intercontinental Title
Plot: Barrett and Ambrose battled for the belt at Fastlane. Barrett won by disqualification after the unstable Ambrose wouldn’t stop attacking him in the corner. Despite his loss, Ambrose left with the belt. On Smackdown the previous Thursday, R-Truth beat Barrett in a non-title match; on Monday’s Raw, Ziggler pinned Barrett — each time after Ambrose appeared with Barrett’s stolen title. Now all four have a claim on the title (or a title match), and they’ll probably go at it, four-corners style, at WrestleMania.
Subplot: This match can serve any number of functions. It could elevate Ambrose with a decisive win on a night when the new generation of stars will be on full, neon display. It could entrench Barrett at the top of the mid-card, allowing Ambrose to meander back into the semi-main event. Or, it could give Ziggler the moment to shine he deserves after owning both Survivor Series and Royal Rumble over the past three months. But the biggest question is if WWE will give this match time to serve any function at all besides a trip to the concession stand. Bringing Bryan into the match could certainly do the trick.
Meta-plot: R-Truth has been toiling in functional obscurity for months (years, really) and likely got this call-up when WWE realized there weren’t any other black wrestlers on the main card. After the New Day flopped, Mark Henry’s never-ending injury hiatus, and WWE’s borderline inability to develop black wrestlers into stars, will Truth’s inclusion be anything more than tokenism?
Plot Twist: Bryan is entered, and the night ends with Cena and Bryan as your mid-card champions. Not a bad way to make all the belts matter for the first time in … well, ever.
Tyson Kidd & Cesaro vs. the Usos for the WWE Tag Team Championships
Plot: Cesaro and Kidd won the belts from the Usos at Fastlane. Before that, Kidd and his wife, Natalya, went on a double date with Jimmy Uso and his wife, Naomi, which ended about as poorly as you would expect a pro wrestling segment shot in a restaurant to end. On Raw, the Usos won their contractually stipulated rematch — but by disqualification, leaving Cesaro and Kidd in possession of the Big Pennies.
Subplot: Will this feud feel big enough for WrestleMania, or will WWE shoehorn in other teams like the Ascension or Miz and Mizdow to enhance the match (and give the other teams a brief moment of shine)?
Meta-plot: It’s a tired question at this point, but it’s still legitimate: Whither the tag-team division? The Usos are fine but stale, the Ascension — the best that WWE’s developmental system had to offer — debuted with a thud, and the only real reactions seem to come from living legends (Goldust, the New Age Outlaws) returning for a throwback run. Kidd and Cesaro have been a minor revelation — a mismatched set except for the two hugely important things they have in common: incredible skills and incredible passion for the sport. But it’s hard to imagine them holding up the division. The best tag-team story lines aren’t built on feuds between teams; they’re built on feuds between team members (see: Miz and Mizdow). And seeing as how we know that the Usos are never splitting up, can the division survive another year of amiable twin tyranny?
Plot Twist: The Usos regain the titles. Just kidding.
Stardust vs. Goldust
Plot: The Rhodes brothers — Cody and Dustin, a.k.a. Goldust — teamed up in 2013 and almost fell apart before Cody reinvented himself as Stardust, a somehow weirder version of Dustin’s otherworldly oddity. But after a tough loss to the Usos, the Dusts fell apart, and despite the attempted intervention of their dad, the legendary Dusty Rhodes, Stardust continues to spiral into maniacal madness while Goldust tries to beat some sense into his partner.
Subplot: After being rumored for the past couple of years, will these two finally get the WrestleMania match they’ve dreamed about — or will they get tossed into the Battle Royal and forgotten once again?
Meta-plot: With Goldust’s re-retirement looming and Cody in the midst of this umpteenth repackaging since he debuted with WWE, can the youngest Rhodes emerge from this feud with enough momentum to propel him to the top of the roster — which is to say, is Cody’s ceiling that of Dusty or that of Dustin?
Plot Twist: Papa Dusty comes to the ring in face paint and a body suit to help Stardust win the match.
The Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal
Plot: Thirty men who are not otherwise occupied on WrestleMania night will compete for a big trophy and a chance at superstardom.
Subplot: We don’t know who exactly will be in this match yet (outside of the Miz and former buddies Ryback and Curtis Axel), but it’s a safe bet that any feuds that don’t end up getting a chance to play out in their own match — Miz vs. Mizdow, Ryback and Rowan vs. Big Show and Kane, Big Show vs. Kane, etc. — will end up here.
Meta-plot: After Cesaro won last year and almost immediately tumbled down the roster into insignificance, is there anything WWE can do to make this match feel important?
Plot Twist: Curtis Axel wins by eliminating his old buddy Ryback, and the sublime, ironic push he’s been getting over the past month will actually amount to something.
Of course, none of this may turn out the way I’ve predicted. The backstage rumors about Bryan and Reigns and Lesnar are in some ways the most intriguing pre-’Mania story lines. But that’s the thing with plot twists and with WrestleMania and with pro wrestling in general: Imagining is sometimes the best part. We can imagine what we want. We can cheer for our version of things and boo the other stuff. But when we buy into the night, when we give ourselves over to the event, the twists no longer matter. If they don’t happen, hell, it could still be fun. And even if things don’t play out the way we hope, there’s always next year.
This piece has been updated to correct the name of the Divas champ; it’s Nikki Bella, not Brie Bella.