Brock Lesnar lost the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania — not to his opponent, Roman Reigns, but to Seth Rollins, a fellow villain. Rollins pilfered his way to the biggest title in pro wrestling by cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase after Lesnar and Reigns had beaten each other senseless. The next night on Raw, after being rebuffed for his contractually stipulated rematch, Lesnar went nuts, attacked the announce team, and was promptly suspended. It was a convenient way to shelve the biggest star in the company, who has a contractually limited number of dates he can work.
But during the run-up to WrestleMania — the sad saga of Reigns combined with the anticipation of rare appearances by Lesnar, Undertaker, Sting, and (in-ring, anyway) Triple H — it was perhaps too easy to ignore the uncertainty that loomed in the event’s aftermath. While watching ’Mania, I commented that the mid-card was stacked for the first time in recent memory. After Lesnar’s departure, the mid-card has become the main event.
Call it the Great Leveling. Yesterday’s rookies are the new stars, and the old headliners are hanging out in the mid-card. There are no metaphorical giants, just a bunch of role players looking for a chance to break out. This makes sense in the post-’Mania landscape, since that occasion has become a stage for one-off legends matches. WWE has to immediately regroup and begin a whole new season the day after the last one ended. You can see how story lines can get muddled. Lesnar was gone, but at least his departure was driven by plot. Taker, as usual, got no such explanation, and Sting’s exit was explained in a post-Raw interview on WWE Network in which he said little more than “good-bye for now.” Triple H returned to his corporate role, where he’ll remain for the foreseeable future. And, most significantly, two of the biggest stars in the company — John Cena and Daniel Bryan — have been pseudo-demoted to holders of the U.S. and Intercontinental titles, respectively. This is a good thing — they’re raising the value of those belts — but it also exempts them from the main event, at least for now. That hardly matters, though, because the mid-card is the main event now.
Suddenly, the future looks bright, but the present feels oddly empty.1 The guy who snuck his way into the big win at WrestleMania isn’t just a usurper anymore — he’s at the top of the WWE roster. Welcome to the Rollins Era. It can only get better from here.
It probably feels even more empty for the active-roster performers who have been mysteriously left off the Extreme Rules card: the Miz, Damien Sandow, the amazing Neville, Bray Wyatt, Ryback, and Bo Dallas.
The first post-’Mania PPV on the calendar is typically a stage for existing beefs to be retooled with greater urgency. Extreme Rules has held that spot since 2010, and its hard-core stipulations add a welcome intensity to the revenge stories WWE is selling. But this year’s Extreme Rules is different. There’s only one straight rematch, with the rest of the card being used to develop new feuds. With half the ’Mania roster in some form of exile, this programming quirk feels like a matter of necessity, but it’s also giving a new generation of wrestlers a chance to shine. The playing field is level. Now, what are they going to do with it? Let’s break down the event match by match.
Seth Rollins vs. Randy Orton — Steel Cage Match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Orton defeated Rollins at WrestleMania before Rollins returned with the MitB briefcase and won the title, so it was a given that Orton deserved a shot at Rollins’s belt, despite the way WWE teased Reigns and Ryback (both of whom make Orton look like the Rock by comparison) as potential alternate challengers. Rollins and Orton were each allowed to add one stipulation to the match — Orton picked the cage, and Rollins outlawed Orton’s Internet darling of a finishing move, the RKO.
A weird sidebar is that Rollins’s longtime finisher, the Curb Stomp, also appears to have been unofficially dropped by WWE — either because of the lingering concussion controversy or because it’s a little too graphic for the champion’s signature move. Anyway, Rollins debuted a modified DDT finisher on Monday, and for all we know he’ll whip the Curb Stomp back out on special occasions. But it’s strange that in a match where one guy’s finisher is banned via story line, the other guy’s finisher just fell into a memory hole.
In kayfabe terms, I guess you’d call that a draw, except that the steel cage will give Orton a leg up over Rollins. Not to mention that Rollins’s supposed Authority cohort, Kane (who has hinted at turning on the Authority lately), has been tapped to man the door to the cage. If Kane is out there, he’ll probably play a role in the outcome, and he’ll probably do something that gives Orton an advantage.
There are, however, two things you can always count on in pro wrestling: Anything outlawed in a match will be done surreptitiously, and anyone tasked with instilling order in a match will fail. So expect chaos and at least one big RKO. Orton is the only superstar of yore who has remained in the main-event scene since the Great Leveling, and that’s likely because his years slumming it on SmackDown kept him from reaching Cena’s level of overexposure. Despite his recent appointment as a top babyface, Orton seems primed to lose Sunday, if only because WWE needs to legitimize Rollins’s reign — and this whole new era of WWE.
John Cena vs. Rusev — Strap Match Extraordinaire
After Cena beat Rusev at ’Mania and ended the Bulgarian behemoth’s undefeated streak, Rusev upped the ante and started going after Cena with a chain. And not just any chain, mind you, but a Russian one. Lest you think this is an arbitrary designation, it is not. The two will meet at Extreme Rules in a Russian chain match — basically a dog collar match (itself a variation on a strap match). These tend to be brutal, even in the fake sport of pro wrestling. Greg “The Hammer” Valentine burst “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s eardrum in a dog collar match at Starrcade 1983. Gimmick or no, this looks plenty painful:
(Special props to Rusev for celebrating the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer by doing his best Chewbacca impression while locking Cena in the Accolade.)
The Cena-Rusev outcome is tough to call: Rusev needs the respect that comes with avenging his loss, but Cena already feels enthroned quite firmly as the U.S. champion, if for no other reason than the amount of merchandise WWE has already produced in relation to Cena’s run with the belt. And Cena’s stint as mid-card champ has been revelatory — he has issued a weekly open challenge to any opponent on Raw, and the resulting matches have become the most dependably great parts of the show. Despite my affection for Rusev, at the moment I wouldn’t trade Cena’s open challenge gimmick for anything — not Rusev, not even a CM Punk comeback. I can’t believe I’m about to write this, but I’m pulling for Cena.
Daniel Bryan vs. Wade Barrett — Singles Match for the Intercontinental Championship
This match has been thrown into flux by Bryan’s potential return to injured reserve. It would be a huge disappointment for Bryan, who won the World Heavyweight Championship at ’Mania 2014, only to spend the next nine months healing from a neck injury. If he has to sit out another extended period of time, it could be heartbreaking for fans. The circumstances of his rumored injury are unclear, but they’re dire enough that WWE didn’t bother putting a stipulation into this match.
Bryan just won the belt from Barrett in a seven-man ladder match at ’Mania, and he was being positioned as a counterpoint to Cena in elevating the secondary belts. If he is indeed hurt, that plan might have to be scrapped — and even though Intercontinental title scene also-rans like Barrett (and Dolph Ziggler, and everybody else in the ‘Mania ladder match)2 are awesome, that belt could sorely use the infusion of legitimacy Bryan could provide. If he gets a clean bill of health, expect Bryan to retain; otherwise, who knows?
Part of me expects WWE to get out of the match by having Barrett lay Bryan out backstage, then proceed with another match in-ring. But Bryan’s injury, whatever it is, isn’t going away like the Curb Stomp. JBL mentioned it on the air Monday, which suggests Bryan could be hurt badly enough to relinquish a title for the second year in a row — and that’s a gimmick nobody wants. Most importantly, the Great Leveling can succeed only if stars like Bryan and Cena can remain in the mid-card to infuse it with glamour and prestige.
Dolph Ziggler vs. Sheamus — a “Kiss Me Arse” Match
The night after WrestleMania, Sheamus made his long-awaited return as a villain, now with a Mohawk, braided ginger facial hair, and a newfound interest in Irish history. To put it simply, this is the Sheamus we’ve always needed. His beef with Ziggler has been simple and compelling, and despite the silly stipulation in this match, the sight of Sheamus slapping his haunches while taunting his opponent Monday night made it feel all worthwhile. I’m picking Sheamus here, since he’s just getting back into his groove and WWE management seems to think losses can’t harm Ziggler’s popularity.
Of course, I hedge with the standard Rule of Wrestling Predictions: This can always go either way. Sheamus losing, going nuts, and destroying Ziggler, only to insanely kiss Ziggler’s “arse” after landing a dozen Brogue Kicks would be a reasonable ending, too.
Roman Reigns vs. Big Show — Last Man Standing Match
I’m 1,500 words into this column and I’m just now getting to Roman Reigns. That’s saying something. To be fair, Reigns held his own in a number of huge spots — his match with Bryan at Fastlane was great and his slugfest against Lesnar at ’Mania was epic. But Reigns’s loss to Lesnar did more for his reputation than any of his previous triumphs. The biggest knock on Reigns was that WWE was pushing him too quickly, so now that it seems to be keeping him away from the title for a few months and giving him time to reestablish credibility, it feels like a breathtaking moment of self-awareness. But instead of building Reigns up by matching him with opponents who can challenge him to improve in the ring, WWE seems to be trying to reboot the same Cena Jr. shtick that made crowds turn on Reigns in the first place. And more than that, they’re “retooling “ him by rerunning the exact same Big Show angle it used last year. Unless this feud leads to a Loser Leaves Town match, I can’t imagine it meaning much to fans.
Nikki Bella vs. Naomi — Divas Championship Match
The good news is that WWE turned Naomi heel by having her attack Paige after Paige won a battle royal for the no. 1 contender slot. This suggests WWE is actually booking long-term story lines for the Divas division. The bad news is that WWE appears to be turning the Bella twins babyface for no reason, and that Nikki and Naomi are two talented wrestlers with no discernible ring chemistry. I’m calling this for Naomi to solidify the Bella turn and set up a return to Naomi’s feud with Paige.
Cesaro and Tyson Kidd vs. the New Day — Tag Team Championship Match
Finally, WWE seems to have figured out that New Day — the troika of Kofi Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods that started as a modern black power outfit and morphed into a kid-friendly gospel trio — were better as villains. Sometimes the answer is as simple as giving fans a chance to vent — once crowds started chanting “New Day Sucks,” the trio began smacking the ring in a three-beat rhythm to further rile the audience. It’s unclear how that will play against Cesaro and Kidd, the nominally heel champions, at Extreme Rules, especially since WWE has demoted their match to the pre-show. This is a tag title match, but more importantly it’s a bout to determine who’s the most criminally underused WWE talent. By that calculus, the real winner is whoever loses.
Dean Ambrose vs. Luke Harper — Chicago Street Fight
If there’s one thing wrong with WWE’s attempt to build the mid-card, it’s the way that leveling the field has made it hard to differentiate between the stakes in each match. This feud is a perfect example. There’s nothing wrong with Ambrose-Harper — I’m looking forward to it more than just about any other match on the card. On any other PPV we’d all be calling it the potential show-stealer. But here, it’s just another hard-core match in a card full of them, and moreover it’s just another blood feud in a mushy sea of rivalries.
Even in this moment when everybody has a chance at the proverbial brass ring, I can’t figure out why Ambrose is toiling in relative obscurity while his former Shield brethren are headlining WrestleMania. Or, for that matter, why the excellent Harper is stuck there with Ambrose. WWE has given them airtime, but it remains uncertain where Ambrose and Harper belong in the company hierarchy. If WWE had positioned Ambrose as an anti-Authority figure and returned Harper to his role as an Authority stooge, we could have had this same match with greater stakes and the confidence that WWE has solid plans for the wrestlers’ careers. As it stands, these two will put each other through a beautiful hell on Sunday, and we’ll be left wondering whether it means anything.
We’re in a weird wrestling moment if the PPV match I’m most excited about is the one that also bums me out the most. But that seems like a symptom of the Rollins Era — without Cena versus Orton headlining for the hundredth time, there’s less to complain about, and the less there is to complain about, the less we reach for potential outcomes to get excited about. It’s the mid-card-ization of WWE — every story line is just good enough, but that uniformity makes it hard for any feud to break through. WWE has done a good job making Raw a very watchable three hours over the past month, but it has accomplished this by creating a wrestling world that suddenly feels short on superstars. It’s the world many fans have been begging for, and now we’re not sure if we want it.
It’s fun for us jaded fans to complain about Cena or Triple H or Orton, but what make legends like them really valuable are the decades of feuds and story lines and real-life history they can work from. Fans griping about Cena’s monotony or Triple H exploiting his marriage to Stephanie McMahon adds depth to WWE’s story lines. Without that, the product feels kind of like … wrestling. We’ve come to expect more. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the Rollins Era and want to see where it leads. There’ll be some really excellent ring action at Extreme Rules. Let’s also hope there’s some stuff that makes us angry. If so, the future is bright.