At Wrestlemania 31 last night something truly incredible happened, something that was completely unexpected and delightful; Wrestlemania was not only good, but it was great. Like many of you reading this right now, I was not overly excited about this Wrestlemania. In fact, I penned a piece a few weeks back talking about how bungled the build to Wrestlemania had been this year. The match-ups were pretty interesting on paper but none of the television leading into it had really done much to make fans care about it.
The thing about wrestling is that we are all so invested in it that even if we were underwhelmed or disappointed heading into Wrestlemania we were all still going to watch anyway. There is a certain level of investment that goes into being a professional wrestling fan and a bit of shared delirium where we all seek those crazy highs that we’ve experienced in the past like junkies, never knowing if it will actually deliver. That’s the thing, though, when wrestling can deliver, it delivers like no other form of entertainment can.
I’ve been watching professional fighting for well over twenty years now, writing about it for over ten and making a living off of doing that for the past five years only to come to the realization that the excitement completely died for me. It didn’t matter who won and lost anymore because everything started to blur together. It was the same story ten times a night, once a week and very rarely did the fights deliver a payoff deserving of me getting excited. Once the visceral thrill of real fights wears off there isn’t much left, there isn’t a curtain to be peeled back and there are rarely perfect moments.
That’s the beauty of professional wrestling and of fiction in general; someone is pulling the strings, someone has a master plan and has to be fluid in the presentation and make adjustments to the story. Even if part of the story sucked, the story can still be redeemed and finish strong, the whole journey can be made worthwhile by being tied together with a bow. It reminds me of the tremendous video that director Max Landis put together called "Wrestling isn’t Wrestling" that went viral a few weeks ago; "Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of wrestling sucks, but when it’s good it’s fucking great."
Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns was exactly that; it was fucking great. Very rarely after a pro wrestling match is over do I find myself itching to watch it again directly after, but that was the case after Wrestlemania this year with Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns. The deck was stacked against Reigns. Many felt that he was not good enough or deserving enough to be given such a gift as the main event of the biggest show in wrestling history and to walk away with the greatest prize in professional wrestling. The story, from what we knew, was to be that Reigns walked into Wrestlemania a man possessed and would walk away as the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. This would set in motion Roman Reigns taking his place as the "new" John Cena for many years to come.
Many fans were unhappy, to say the least.
Regardless of your opinion of Reigns, it’s difficult to watch Brock vs. Roman and to not walk away with a profound respect for both men. It was the perfect match that addressed a lot of the certainties and the mounting uncertainties head on. Brock Lesnar is one of the most dominant professional wrestlers in years and had been booked to be exactly that. He decimated John Cena in a way that Cena had never been handled before, he walked away from a triple threat with Cena and Rollins still holding the belt and at last year’s Wrestlemania he ended the mythical undefeated streak held by the Undertaker.
This meant that Roman Reigns had to take a beating against Brock and that the beating had to be believable. Of course the WWE wants fans to buy into Reigns and not just have him serve as a pincushion for a part timer like Lesnar. Reigns is young, has a ton of potential and could easily be their next star like they wish, so Roman took his beating like a man and persevered through it. When Reigns made comebacks they were believable, they were him teeing off on Brock Lesnar and giving him right back what he was dishing out. It ended up being one of the stiffest WWE matches that I can remember in recent memory, culminating with Brock Lesnar walking away a bloody mess after the match.
Roman busted him open early on and just about every shot that was thrown was done so in a way that wasn’t goofy pro wrestling, it felt real. There was emotion involved in this match, with Reigns showing that he knew that he was outmatched and that maybe, yes, he wasn’t ready, but that he’d keep fighting. The near falls not only tapped into the overt story that was being told on television but to the story that was unfolding behind-the-scenes and leaking out bit-by-bit to fans who were willing to look for it.
Brock Lesnar was going to have to lose if he chose to leave the company to head for the UFC, which made the match feel like a foregone conclusion for many months. The lack of appearances from Lesnar and him even walking out on an appearance only seemed to edify that belief that Lesnar was on the way out. It felt like a natural story to have Seth Rollins run down to the ring with his briefcase after Reigns stood victorious, but the Money in the Bank deus ex machina being used on such a big show as Wrestlemania somehow felt cheap or that it would invalidate months of build.
All of the backstage drama is part of what makes wrestling appealing on a broader level to fans who are more invested. Many of us eagerly await Wednesday afternoons when Meltzer drops the latest Wrestling Observer Newsletter on his site and consume content like podcasts, articles and everything else in between. It’s a part of the fiction that brings it to a new level and also what makes it so difficult for angles and matches to deliver on the level that we’d all like them to. So when Brock Lesnar announced that he had signed a new deal with the WWE and that his career in the UFC was done all of a sudden things felt a bit less certain. "The plan," of late, that was being circulated was that Daniel Bryan and John Cena win the midcard titles and use them to headline house show tours while the WWE World Heavyweight title remained on the shelf thanks to Lesnar’s lax schedule.
So yeah, while I had predicted a Seth Rollins cash-in on Reigns a long time ago, there was still an air of uncertainty going into the match, which on top of the sheer brutality and how well it was laid out only helped to make the match that much more exciting. As the match wore on the thought of Reigns pinning Lesnar felt less and less absurd or like a slap in the face and more and more like it might even be palatable. Who cares if he isn’t "ready," if he’s willing to take that kind of beating, willing to put on that kind of a match, who am I to say that he sucks? He’s still learning, but why not give the guy a chance?
I still wasn’t completely won over on the cause of Roman Reigns, but it’s just a testament to the quality of that match and the work from all of those involved to how Reigns winning went from offensive to acceptable. When Seth Rollins’s music hit it was one of those amazing moments that only professional wrestling can provide. The history between Rollins and Reigns is immense and while Rollins turned on Reigns and Ambrose to elevate his own stock he still hasn’t been able to really best Reigns yet, in fact, Reigns has usually gotten the better of him.
The idea of Rollins spoiling Reigns’s "Wrestlemania moment" and being able to do so in a way that embarrassed Brock Lesnar was just insanity. There was also this doubt because, well, Brock Lesnar is Brock Lesnar and could have easily stuffed Rollins with an F-5. In fact, he almost did until Reigns speared Lesnar and sent him out of the ring. That led directly to the finish of Rollins hitting the Curb Stomp on Reigns and stealing the title and the Wrestlemania spotlight.
Wrestlemania has this tradition of "clean finishes" and for these big, exciting, career-defining moments. Sure, there have been cases like Rock/Austin where Austin turned on the fans to took a helping hand from former arch-rival Vince McMahon, but by-and-large Wrestlemania has been drilled into our heads as the worthy champion, the man who had to climb the mountain, standing tall in the center of the ring, title hoisted over his head and confetti flying from the ceiling.
Instead the image that we were met with was Seth Rollins standing at the top of the ramp, whipping the title around his head while the man who was destined to have his Wrestlemania moment laid on the mat in disbelief and the beast who had run roughshod over the company for the past year was laying on the outside fuming over the injustice.
This is why I watch wrestling. These are moments where sure, I could stop and over-analyze everything, make accurate predictions and break down the minutiae, but instead I get lost in the moment and can forget about everything else. These are the moments where I can just enjoy the ride. It’s these rare, amazing moments that make being a fan of professional wrestling all worth while and it’s the power of fiction at its finest. It’s the reason why I’ve dedicated myself to fiction and to telling compelling stories; because reality is fine and can be exciting in its own right, but will always lack the magic of well-executed fiction.
Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns from Wrestlemania 31 was well-executed fiction and I loved every minute of it.
Dave Walsh is a novelist and combat sports writer best known for his work with the sport of professional kickboxing. His second novel, Terminus Cycle, is available now.