On Tuesday at 6:45 p.m., WrestleMania season finally shifted into high gear. Hell, it might have been the most exhilarating wrestling moment in the last year. And it wasn’t a big match on Raw or a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble — it was WWE champion Brock Lesnar turning up on SportsCenter to announce he had re-signed with WWE. The wrestling world erupted in a “YES!” chant, and Daniel Bryan wasn’t even involved. It was all due to Lesnar and Michelle Beadle.
I have to take a moment here to acknowledge the majesty of that announcement. First of all, it happened at the same time Beadle was shown interviewing Roman Reigns and Lesnar’s mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, on SportsNation, which was airing on ESPN2. When Beadle appeared live on ESPN, it was like Rick Rude showing up on Raw and Nitro in the same night — I just hope SportsNation fans weren’t as shocked to find out their show is pretaped as WWF fans were in 1997. So Beadle — whom Bill Simmons dubbed the Adam Schefter of WWE — interviews Lesnar, who announces he’s giving up his cage fighting dreams (while acknowledging that he had been training for a return to UFC) and sticking with WWE (his existing contract was due to expire the day after WrestleMania). Then the camera returned to SportsCenter host Lindsay Czarniak, who brought in Jonathan Effing Coachman for expert commentary.
This was a top-10 moment in my wrestling fan life — ESPN taking pro wrestling seriously enough to use a former WWE performer the same way they’d pull Marcellus Wiley in from the hallway if some big NFL news broke. And Coach was pitch perfect, hitting the right balance of reverence and absurdity. When the announcement was made, fans went crazy, social media blew up, and wrestling news that didn’t involve a tragic death was on the ESPN crawl for maybe the first time ever. This was a huge win for WWE.
It was an even bigger win for wrestling fans. But the most compelling part for me was the confessional aspect of the interview. We knew Beadle was a WWE fan. We knew Simmons was, too, even before he did a match on the commentary desk at Monday’s Raw. Same goes for Jon Stewart, who made a guest spot on Raw earlier this month to kick Seth Rollins in the balls. We knew that Coachman had worked for WWE before his ESPN gig. We knew there were other ESPN voices like Robert Flores who are vocal wrestling fans. But on some level, I think we never expected ESPN’s support outside of Grantland to amount to more than an occasional tweet or stray one-liner. Tuesday evening was the happiest I’d been as a wrestling fan in forever. It was the first time in years that wrestling had been in the mainstream, but it wasn’t just about seeing WWE on SportsCenter. It was that Beadle and Coachman and Simmons got to be open about their fandom. It made it OK — cool, even — to be a wrestling fan.
It was a win for WWE and its fans, but not everybody got off so easy. The gambling sites that were taking WrestleMania bets got slammed. Suddenly, the fait accompli win for Reigns didn’t seem such a sure thing. Within moments of Lesnar’s announcement, Bovada pulled the match from its board (it’s back now, at even odds). PaddyPower, the other big wrestling betting site, moved Lesnar from a 3/1 long shot to even odds. The notion of betting on pro wrestling has always been something of a punch line, but in a world where you can put money down on The Bachelor finale, it’s not that crazy.
I’ve always laughed at the idea that wrestling fans would want to bet on WWE matches. It’s a sucker bet — there’s no way that being right will feel like winning. Wrestling fans love to predict the endings to matches, but more than anything, they really love to be wrong. They want to be surprised, and there’s no such thing as a surprise you can lay odds on.
But the odds are out there, and people are putting money down, and even JBL mentioned Paddy Power odds during Monday night’s commentary. Far be it from me to stand in the way of history. So welcome to Grantland’s WrestleMania 31 Gambling Spectacular! Let’s jump right in:1
Fatal 4-Way Match for the WWE Tag Team Championships
|Tyson Kidd & Cesaro||1/2|
|The New Day||5/1|
All odds are from Bovada.com.
The Cesaro-Kidd team has been one of the best acts in WWE for a while — not just in the ring, where they’re peerless, but also on the mic, where they’re surprisingly compelling. (I’m a sucker for synchronized clapping.) But in this match, WWE isn’t doing anything to help them. If they lose, I’ll be upset, and if they win, I won’t care. It’s what a year of tag-team monotony under the reign of the Usos will do to you. I’m sure the match will have a few cool spots, but nothing short of a New Day heel turn will really grab the fans’ attention. If WWE did that in the opening match, it would signal to the audience that anything can happen — but you can’t discount the idea that it will put the belts back on the Usos because it likes babyfaces to win on the preshow.
Bet: In a vacuum I’d lean toward Kiddaro retaining, but I’m taking the Usos for the odds.
Second-Annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal
The odds are justifiably in Mizdow’s2 favor, since his story line with the Miz is the only one being played out on the road to WrestleMania (besides Curtis Axel’s). But the wild card is Sheamus, who seems set to make a triumphant return on Sunday night — we just don’t know where. I’ve heard he’ll be in the battle royal to blow up Mizdow’s triumphant spot; I’ve heard he’ll reignite his beef with Bryan as a last-minute entry to the Intercontinental ladder match. The only seemingly sure bet is that he’ll be leaving ’Mania a bad guy.
Point of order: Does he go back to being Damien Sandow the moment he turns on Miz, or do we wait for some kind of official memorandum?
Bet: If you can find a “Sheamus turns heel” prop bet, take it. Otherwise, put a few bucks on your favorite long shot. It’ll be a good way to settle arguments a year from now, when your buddy says, “There was never a wrestler named Adam Rose! Prove it!”
Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match
|Bad News Barrett||8/1|
This match may steal the show. It’s been stealing every episode of Raw and Smackdown for the last month, but where it lands on the card is anybody’s guess. Part of me thinks it will be scheduled early to get the crowd going, but there’s also the chance WWE will hold off till the end to prevent Bryan fans from hijacking hours of the show with YES! chants. Regardless, even the smarkiest fans should spend all of their chanting energy cheering during this match, which we could end up talking about for years if WWE gives it sufficient time. I think the oddsmakers have it about right, though I’d slot Ambrose below Ziggler and Barrett. (Ambrose is the wrestling equivalent of a public team — like the Yankees or Cowboys — a guy people will bet on because they like him even if it’s a bit irrational. And he doesn’t need a title to be effective.) This has been the most entertaining month of R-Truth’s career, but he still doesn’t have a chance; Stardust is desperate for a push, but I’m guessing it won’t come here; and Harper just never looked right with that white leather strap.
There have been rumors that Bryan and Cena will win their respective matches and bring prominence to the midcard belts, and I’m inclined to think that’s where we’re heading. Cena will anchor Raw and Bryan will anchor Smackdown, with Lesnar allowed to continue his itinerant reign with the main title if he retains it. Also, Ziggler cleanly pinned Bryan twice in the past week, so Bryan’s first feud will be lined up if he wins, and all the fans who’ve been clamoring for them to go one-on-one at ’Mania will be happy. (Unless Sheamus returns and steals that spot from Ziggler, in which case [sad trombone].)
Bet: Safe money’s on Bryan, both because it makes sense and because WWE needs to appease the Yes Movement if it’s going to keep the crowd under control during the main event.
United States Championship Match
|John Cena||-450 (2/9)|
Here’s what makes the most wrestling sense: Cena wins. Rusev is an evil foreigner and Cena is America Incarnate.3 Good guys win at WrestleMania. But … it feels like something else is in the works here. Cena has too much going in his favor, and we’ve seen that Cena is at his best when overcoming adversity. Also it’s probably nothing, but Rusev’s split from his manager, Lana, means there’s a red stiletto heel that’s going to drop at some point. Lana’s presence will be felt, either by helping Rusev or by ensuring he loses.
Loud, self-satisfied, and overexposed.
Bet: I think the odds should be on Cena, but if I had to put big money on one WrestleMania long shot, I like the Bulgarian bronco to win.
Divas Tag Team Match
|A.J. Lee & Paige||-300 (1/3)|
|The Bella Twins||+200 (2/1)|
As far as thrown-together multi-Diva WrestleMania matches go, this is a great one. The Bellas have legitimate beef with both Paige and A.J., who in turn have tension with each other — even before Monday, when they came to blows after A.J. accidentally cost Paige the Divas title. Not only do I care about all of these wrestlers — A.J. is a longtime favorite, Paige is the best Diva in a decade, and the Bellas have become the legitimate anchors of the division — but I also can’t predict how this match will end. If I were booking it, I’d have Brie Bella get some unresolved revenge on her sister, joining forces with A.J. and setting up Paige-Nikki vs. A.J.-Brie for the next pay-per-view. Then I’d orchestrate another swap to Paige-Brie vs. A.J.-Nikki and top it off with a four corners match for the Divas title when the drama and stakes reach a fever pitch. WWE could drag it out to SummerSlam if it wanted. But it won’t, so flip a coin if you want to make a bet.
Bet: The Bellas may be the best underdog bet on the card. Sure, Paige is joining Total Divas this season, but the Bellas are its longstanding public faces. I’ll be rooting for them to have a lengthy, entertaining match, but I don’t think I could find anybody to take odds on that one.
Randy Orton vs. Seth Rollins
|Seth Rollins||-150 (2/3)|
|Randy Orton||+110 (11/10)|
It’s fitting that this is a pick-’em match, since the win hardly matters. On one hand, this feud could keep going, and even if it doesn’t, there are a million ways to end the match indecisively and still convey moral clarity. Orton could lose on some screwy technicality and then RKO Rollins and J&J Security; Orton could win because J&J mess up; or, most intriguing, Rollins could lose clean, settle his feud with Orton, and then cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase at the end of the show. Perhaps more importantly, though, the outcome doesn’t matter here because this is the only match on the card that has the potential to be a Steamboat-Savage-style classic. The Ladder Match will be amazing, but it’ll be too spot-heavy (and potentially brief); Cena-Rusev might be great, but it won’t be a five-star technical exhibition; and despite my high hopes for Triple H–Sting, we’ll be grading that on a curve.
And yet, setting a high bar for this match seems like an unnecessary burden. Orton is generally excellent against talented opponents, but he’s not quite a sure thing. We know Rollins can go, but this is a new stage for him as a singles wrestler. I hope these two put on the match of their lives, and I think it’s feasible this is the ’Mania match we’ll be talking about Monday. But will this be the match of the year? I wouldn’t put money on it.
Bet: I would put my money on Orton. He’s the babyface, he’s more aggrieved than Rollins, and he’s a long-tenured employee — WWE seems to reward those things. And Rollins can always get his heat back by cashing in the Money in the Bank briefcase. But it’s close, and I might put a few bucks on Rollins just for the fun of it.
Sting vs. Triple H
|Triple H||+400 (4/1)|
As much as I enjoyed hearing Sting finally explain his motivations Monday night,4 I couldn’t help but think that WWE got it exactly backward. It should have had Sting talk first, saving the fisticuffs for the ensuing weeks. Sting and Triple H have been around too long — they’re too insinuated into the business, and we need more than just story line to shake us loose from the feeling that their “feud” is nothing more than a performance by two seasoned professionals.
I mean, beyond what he told me last year.
Have Sting make a crack about Trips showing his ass for ratings, follow it with a “but I guess daddy Vince taught you guys a thing or two about whoring yourselves,” and then let Triple H go nuts and attack him. Have Triple H mention TNA by name just to run them down. Do something to make this feud seem a little bit real. There is one thing the Sting–Triple H buildup has done, though — it has somehow convinced me that Sting can have a good match. I mean, he scrambled out from under the ring in a few seconds and didn’t appear to be winded, so that’s something. And I have all the faith in the world in Triple H, real-life WWE executive, who surely understands the financial significance of Sting looking good. If this goes well, fans will leave with fantasies of Sting versus Rollins, Sting versus Bray Wyatt, and even Sting versus Undertaker at WrestleMania 32. If it goes poorly, fans will leave with sad recollections of Sting versus Ric Flair from 20 years ago.
Bet: Stay away. There’s no safe bet in a match where one guy magically controls the stadium lighting and the other has an evil corporation at his disposal.
The Undertaker vs. Bray Wyatt
|The Undertaker||-400 (1/4)|
|Bray Wyatt||+300 (3/1)|
In the modern WrestleMania tradition of big matches with only one guy to build the hype because the other one is a part-timer, Wyatt may have set a new bar. In previous feuds, he’s taken his Gothic, digressive ramblings to mind-numbing, repetitive lows, but his quest to lure Taker out of semi-retirement seems to have reinvigorated Wyatt (or whoever writes his monologues). And WWE’s decision to keep Taker off TV completely was a brilliant choice — it pushes people to sign up for the Network to see him, and it also builds suspense, making his every foray into the real world a modern bigfoot sighting, with fans trying to gauge his muscle definition from grainy photos. Initially, I thought Undertaker would win this match to make up for losing to Lesnar last year. Then I changed my mind, guessing that Wyatt would win clean to set up a rematch at WrestleMania 32. And now I’m expecting a non-finish, like Bray getting disqualified on purpose. That would fit his “new face of fear” moniker and leave both wrestlers looking strong. But will WWE have the gall to pull a non-finish in a match this big? Who knows. I do think Taker will be on the card a year from now, but whether Bray will be his opponent then is anybody’s guess. Never rule out the allure of a dream match with Sting to help sell seats.
Bet: Put your money on Taker, but just because you’ll win with a Wyatt DQ. If I could bet on a straight DQ ending, I’d take that. Speaking of which, here are other prop bets I’d put money on:
We will know who Undertaker is fighting at Wrestlemania 32 by the end of the night: 1/2
Bray Wyatt will have a surprising new outfit: 7/2
Harper and Rowan return to the fold for one night only: 20/1
Undertaker will be played by Brian Lee: 100/1
WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match
|Roman Reigns||-120 (5/6)|
|Brock Lesnar||-120 (5/6)|
This match was expected to be a dud. Who cares if Lesnar has given us one of the most bizarre and compelling championship reigns in a decade? Who cares that Roman Reigns is the sport’s next superstar? Fans far and wide resented the premise of this match. Lesnar was rumored to be jumping ship back to UFC, and there’s nothing that peeves wrestling fans more than an ingrate quitter. You don’t have to look further than Lesnar’s previous farewell match against Goldberg at WrestleMania 20 to see how angry a crowd can get while watching a match between two guys who aren’t sticking around for the after-party. Of course, the flip side of crowds hating the quitter is them loving the returning star. Every time the Rock reappears, fans go nuts, even if they know he’s just passing through to drop a couple of elbows.
Well, except when he comes out in support of Reigns, as he did at the Royal Rumble, when the two got booed out of the stadium. The problem meta fans have with Reigns is that his success was predetermined by the WWE front office. This is the great dichotomy of pro wrestling: When something great happens in real sports, people say, “It couldn’t have been any better if it were scripted.” But in wrestling, any evidence of predetermined storytelling is taken as a shortcoming. Any obvious projection of the forthcoming plotline, any hewing to rumors of backstage plans, any ending that is obvious — they’re all causes for outrage.
Listen, rebelling against Reigns is completely reasonable. He’s way too green to be in the position WWE has given him, and there are others — Bryan chief among them — who would be a better fit. (I’m guessing that putting Orton in this spot wouldn’t make many of the aggrieved fans much happier, though.) And it’s justifiable to be mad that WWE is creating a new John Cena right before our eyes, and to try to influence a better outcome with boos. But the problem is that it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: John Cena worked because of his “haters.” The “Ce-na sucks” chant made John Cena. And the fans who used to complain about Cena are now doing the same with Reigns. By turning on Reigns, smart fans have inadvertently created one of the most compelling characters in pro wrestling: Instead of Bryan striving against backstage politics, Reigns is fighting against smart fan preconceptions. If he succeeds despite all the hell the Internet has given him, he’ll be the big star WWE wants him to be. If he fails, he’ll be the biggest heel in wrestling. Our derision has made Reigns more significant than WWE could have made him on its own.
Reigns might even be the heel in this Lesnar feud. I used to like to point out that clamoring for a Cena heel turn was a waste of time because he was already wrestling’s biggest heel. Reigns’s ascent to the top of the babyface heap may have been bumpy, but in some circles he’s already as big a heel as Cena ever was. And it feels like WWE knows this — Heyman’s pro-Lesnar monologues have been skewing laudatory rather than heelish; Lesnar’s appearance on SportsCenter was the least villainous he’s been in ages; and Reigns went off on fans in a Rolling Stone interview, saying, “When I’m talkin’, shut the hell up and let me talk.” Unsurprisingly, fans railed against Reigns’s lack of humility and proclaimed they liked him less than ever before, if that were possible.
Reigns was backed up by old Shieldmate Dean Ambrose, who was interviewed in Sporting News: “Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are going to fight at the MGM Grand finally. Which side is the crowd going to be on? Who are the people going to be behind? Who cares? You’re not even thinking about it. You just want to see the product. Nobody’s considering who the fans are going to be behind in [Lesnar-Reigns]. Nobody cares. So to me, as long as they’re into it and making noise, cheer for whoever you want.”
This makes a disturbing amount of sense. But it doesn’t tell us who’s coming out on top at WrestleMania. I think the best thing for WWE and Reigns would be for him to have the match of his life and lose. I think it would be best for Lesnar to hang on to the belt. But there are so many unannounced possibilities in this match that are nearly impossible to predict. Will WWE stick to its guns and make Reigns the company’s new Superman? Will WWE execute a formal double-turn, making Lesnar a hero and aligning Reigns with the dastardly Heyman? Will the Rock show up to help his cousin Reigns (and to set up a WrestleMania 32 match against Lesnar)? Will Rollins cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase? Is all of this a series of misdirections so Vince McMahon can make massive bets on the outcome of the match to recoup his losses from WWE’s recent stock market woes?
Monday night, during the go-home show before WrestleMania, the broadcast ended with Lesnar and Reigns playing tug-of-war with the belt. It was a silly final scene in the last big show before the biggest night of the year, but it was also fitting. Nobody knows how this drama will end, and that may be the best part of Lesnar re-signing.
We won’t know till Sunday. Or even after that, if wrestling fans get their way. The longer WWE can drag out the uncertainty, the better.
Bet: Enjoy the ride. That’s honestly not a line I would have written before Tuesday. Wrestling fans can feel good about themselves — and about WrestleMania 31. I guess sometimes the underdog does win.