BEATING A DEAD HORSE WHILE PUTTING DOWN ANOTHER
(The one where Vince triple-downed)
The year was 2016.
It was February, the biggest wrestling show of the year in the biggest and most extravagant stadium you could find in the USA loomed over the horizon. One-hundred thousand people were going to be at WrestleMania 32, whether the WWE had to fudge the number or not (they announced 101,763 as the final tally).
In the meantime was Roadblock, so called because of the championship match that headlined the show. The main-event saw WWE Champion Triple H defend his title against a beloved member of the Shield. The fans had the challenger’s back all the way, willing him to victory, wanting it, begging for it, demanding it all through the month. “Make the people happy, Vince,” all the people would say. “Put smiles on faces, Vince,” the fans would cry. “You say you’re a pretty good listener, well listen to this!” came the sound of the ticket-buyers, online bloggers, and casual spectators: “Dean Ambrose should main-event WrestleMania!”
Dean Ambrose was not booked to main-event WrestleMania.
Dean Ambrose was meant to be a stopgap (a more fitting title for the March PPV from a corporate perspective) until Triple H would wrestle the real challenger: Roman Reigns.
One year earlier, Roman Reigns had headlined WrestleMania 31 as the hot new handpicked heir-apparent to John Cena. He main-evented against Brock Lesnar and had the whole WWE fanbase up and loud…against him. The fans were so vocally opposed to Roman (due more to the booking than the man himself) Vince acquiesced to popular demand and salvaged his biggest show: Shieldmate Seth Rollins cashed-in his Money in the Bank contract to win the title. It made for one of the most magical WrestleMania finishes ever.
Everyone rejoiced because it seemed Vince had finally (better late than never) listened to reason and decided to push the superstar fans genuinely loved (to hate; Seth was a pretty dastardly heel in those days). Seth, fans felt, was the opposite of Roman Reigns. He had more years of experience, a flashier style, more of a pedigree as a solo competitor (having won the NXT title, carried the MITB case and competed in big matches with it), and most of all, he was not the guy being pushed by WWE.
I could write another thousand words about this weird cycle.
Basically it’s this: WWE is really bad at writing a compelling story for its top babyface. They usually book them too weak and make them chumps not champs or they book them too strong and make them boring supermen. The point is, when you’re the guy, they focus all their bad creative energy on you, leaving the rest of the roster to fend for themselves. This has the interesting side effect of letting the cream rise to the top; talent that can get themselves over do just that, and a guy like Seth---leading up to WrestleMania 31---had largely (not totally, of course) gotten himself over. Meanwhile WWE focused their efforts on making Roman Reigns a main-eventer and the fans balked at it, choosing instead to favor Seth and Dean over Roman. Seth winning at WrestleMania 31 seemed like a “here, this is for you” moment.
Though he held the belt for months following his victory, WWE put the focus on Seth as their top heel champion and he immediately began struggling. At the same time, Roman was pushed as the top babyface, continuing the fan’s angst against him. Fans would rather have seen Dean Ambrose as the top babyface; even though Dean flirted with a few title opportunities, he never rose up the card to the place where Roman was.
As the build to WrestleMania 32 approached, all signs pointed to WWE doing a do-over and giving Roman the coronation he had been denied the previous year. Nevermind the fact that he was only “denied” that because the fans (whom Vince claims to listen to) balked at his winning the title. Nothing had changed in that regard but I suppose “listening to fans” is more of a bone to throw on occasion than a precedent to follow on the regular.
Roman won the WWE championship at Survivor Series and the company entered the road to WrestleMania trying to build sympathy for their large, dominant, seemingly unbeatable champion. Naturally it didn’t work. Triple H won the title in the Royal Rumble (because of course he did) and with that, the main-event seemed set.
But then came that roadblock.
Dean Ambrose, the “stopgap,” got a little too hot, fans got a little too behind him, and suddenly it seemed it was 2015 all over again. Triple H defeated Dean Ambrose in one of the better solo matches The Game would have this decade and after it ended, fans said “that should have been the WrestleMania main-event.” But then fans quickly amended that statement with “except Dean should have won.” That statement quickly morphed into “you know, they really ought to just have a rematch at Mania and give Dean his big coronation there!”
This was not the plan.
The month leading up to WrestleMania 32 should have made it plain that the fans had no interest in seeing Roman Reigns in yet another main-event. Roman was booed so badly the audio had to be dropped to basically nothing whenever his music hit. Dean, meanwhile, moved to a feud with Brock Lesnar; a nice consolation prize to be sure, but it only stoked the fires of resentment that he should be the one facing Triple H and Roman should be the one finishing his WrestleMania 31 beef with Brock.
The month leading up to WrestleMania 32 afforded WWE (read: Vince McMahon) plenty of time to see that the fans wanted a different direction. There was no need for a last-minute audible like what awarded the title to Seth a year prior. There was plenty of time for Dean to get slotted naturally into the main-event. There was still time for a change of plans.
There would be none.
Roman entered the main-event to a chorus boos and indifference, won the title and began a reign with the belt that would last a few months before a wellness violation put him on ice. In the meantime Dean Ambrose won the title (a day late and a dollar short) and Roman slid down to the mid-card title picture. The brand split happened but Roman remained a midcarder through the fall, while Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins carried the main-event scene.
At Survivor Series Goldberg pantsed Brock Lesnar in a buck twenty-six. It looked like the company was ready to move on from Roman for a good long while as they focused on a myriad of other potential main-event storylines. Sure, Roman had a Universal Title main-event in December but it was a December PPV; no one watches those, historically. He was the final man out in the Royal Rumble, but still he was out; eliminated by Randy Orton.
Whenever Roman worked the upper-midcard, the fans started to warm up to him. Whenever he’d have a brief run at the top, muscle memory would kick-in and he’d be public enemy number one. This was evident at the Royal Rumble; it’s a match where the winner gets to go to the “main-event” of WrestleMania; naturally two years of Roman doing just that had everyone in attendance feeling gun-shy. A back-and-forth with the Undertaker made Roman a hated man, even more so when he eliminated the Deadman.
A WrestleMania match between them seemed certain after that, and though fans were not thrilled with the idea, they were okay with it because it would mean someone else would main-event the biggest show. Fans also consoled themselves in their confidence that Undertaker would get the win. That only made sense, not only because it’s “Undertaker at WrestleMania, where he only had one crazy loss” but also because it was logical booking: Roman eliminated him at the Rumble so Taker should get the win at Mania.
So there were two presumptions going into the night and as the night approached fans settled into the belief that WrestleMania 33 would see Roman resting in peace somewhere around two-thirds of the way through the show.
And then Goldberg vs Brock happened about two-thirds of the way through the show and everyone began rolling their eyes. And as the women’s match that followed happened, and the Undertaker vs Roman Reigns hype video played, fans started to get antsy, thinking about the intended implications behind this, yet another, Roman Reigns main-event. “Surely not,” they mumbled. “Roman doesn’t need this…” they said. “Roman doesn’t deserve this,” they grumbled.
What followed was twenty-three minutes of Roman Reigns skunking The Undertaker.
It was very much like the Brock Lesnar match that Taker had at WrestleMania 30, except that felt earned and raw and real; this felt manufactured, and phony, and fake. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t sporting, it wasn’t entertaining . It was just sad. It was a broken down old wrestler who lost his magic years earlier and a young wrestler with all the upside the world, held back by a creative chief that had long since lost his talent in writing hot stories.
Two years earlier fans were hot. They were determined. They wanted to make their voice heard the way they had done for Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 30; now they wanted to make their voice heard against Roman Reigns. When Seth cashed-in, it seemed like Vince was listening.
One year earlier fans were frustrated. They were tired. They thought Vince and them had come to an understanding: “You push who we want, when you don’t we boo until you do. We want Ambrose.” Instead Vince said no. He stuck to his guns. He doubled-down on his guy. Roman came, Roman saw, Roman conquered.
Now, there was no more battle to fight. The fans shouted here and there. A chant broke out on occasion. But for most of the twenty-three minutes it was…dejection. It was defeat. Instead of bowing as he’d done two years before, instead of stubbornly pushing back as he’d done one year before, this year Vince went on the offensive. He didn’t just feature Roman Reigns, he put him back in the main-event, in a non-title match against the Undertaker, and had him beat the Deadman. And not just beat him, but (you’ll forgive the pun) bury him and, seemingly at the time, end his career.
And that’s the story of this WrestleMania’s main-event: It’s about a billionaire owner who likes to say the fans are the authority but really the shots are his and he will call them as he wishes. The more you push back, the more you’re just compressing the spring, delaying the moment when it will snap. Don’t like Roman? Well you’re going to get Roman, one way or another, eventually or perpetually, you’re going to get him, even if he has to sacrifice the Undertaker to make it happen.
Where does this WrestleMania rank among the show’s thirty-two previous main-events?
It places ahead of LT vs Bam Bam because at least both competitors were wrestlers. It places ahead of Bret vs Yokozuna I (featuring Hulk Hogan’s black eye) because at least you didn’t walk away feeling scammed and robbed. Other than that the match had no compelling in-ring story, no likeable protagonist, no relatable hateable antagonist, no memorable moments, no big spots, no thrilling conclusion, no satisfying finish. It had nothing positive about it at all. I’m tempted to rate it dead last because it did something no piece of entertainment should ever do: It made me want to stop being “entertained” by it.
So there you have it. I place this match at number 31 out of 33. Where do you place it? Leave a comment below and tell us what you think.
See you next time and catch you in the comment sections!
The completed list, now updated to include the above match:
- Ranking Mania main events #1: Steve Austin vs. The Rock II
- Ranking Mania main events #2: Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker
- Ranking Mania main events #3: Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant
- Ranking Mania main events #4: Daniel Bryan vs. Randy Orton vs. Batista
- Ranking Mania main events #5: Hulk Hogan vs. Macho Man Randy Savage
- Ranking Mania main events #6: Chris Benoit vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H
- Ranking Mania main events #7: Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior
- Ranking Mania main events #8: Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns
- Ranking Mania main events #9: Brock Lesnar vs. Kurt Angle
- Ranking Mania main events #10: Triple H vs. John Cena
- Ranking Mania main events #11: Steve Austin vs. The Rock
- Ranking Mania main events #12: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart
- Ranking Mania main events #13: John Cena vs. The Rock
- Ranking Mania main events #14: Shawn Michaels vs. John Cena
- Ranking Mania main events #15: Undertaker vs. Edge
- Ranking Mania main events #16: Steve Austin vs. Shawn Michaels
- Ranking Mania main events #17: Batista vs. Triple H
- Ranking Mania main events #18: Mick Foley vs. The Rock vs. Triple H vs. Big Show
- Ranking Mania main events #19: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna II
- Ranking Mania main events #20: John Cena vs. The Rock II
- Ranking Mania main events #21: Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase
- Ranking Mania main events #22: Hogan & Mr. T vs. Piper & Orndorff
- Ranking Mania main events #23: Triple H vs. Chris Jericho
- Ranking Mania main events #24: Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy
- Ranking Mania main events #25: Triple H vs. Randy Orton
- Ranking Mania main events #26: Triple H vs. Roman Reigns
- Ranking Mania main events #27: Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice
- Ranking Mania main events #28: John Cena vs. The Miz
- Ranking Mania main events #29: Undertaker vs. Sycho Sid
- Ranking Mania main events #30: Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter
- Ranking Mania main events #31: Roman Reigns vs. Undertaker
- Ranking Mania main events #32: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna
- Ranking Mania main events #33: Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow