WWE’s peak season is upon us, and that of course means pulling out all the stops for the premier event of each and every wrestling calendar year, WrestleMania. This year’s extravaganza got off to an ignominious start, from a rash of injuries to top talent (Seth Rollins, John Cena, Randy Orton) to the premature but necessary retirement of Daniel Bryan to the general malaise that has accompanied most of the company’s storylines from the past few months. Much of that uncertainty surrounds the company’s decision to move unquestionably forward with the introduction of Roman Reigns as their chief face. Secondarily, the rather hasty and odd choice of Triple H to be the heel standard-bearer for the event shows us all just how far things have fallen. Trips is more than capable of delivering a solid match, and his personal feud with Reigns has been at least watchable, but other than finding creative ways to work Reigns’s real nose injury into the mix, the top of the card looks as fraudulent and cooked up as the bleeding spot on Raw.
This is still WrestleMania, though, and Vince McMahon is fully aware of the shortage of solid talent on hand. He’s also aware of the need to get new eyeballs on the product, even with less reliance on traditional buyrates and more on Network subscribers. Hence the latest freebie offer. You can bet that any and all avenues will be explored to get things abuzz before the big day, from having The Rock participate in some unknown but surely entertaining fashion to the latest desperate grab of luring his son Shane back into the mix temporarily in order to build the marquee. On the surface, this decision checks plenty of the empty boxes we as a general public have been grousing about lately. Shane’s always been very over with the wrestling community, and I’ll confess he’s damned impressive for someone who’s an entrepreneur first, a character second, and a wrestler somewhere further down the list. Shane also has been successful in his forays outside the squared circle, something that I’d wager relatively few suspected when he suddenly departed Titan Tower years ago. This move has been so effective and so newsworthy precisely because Shane has been in communicado and off the reservation for seemingly ever. The reaction of him coming out to face his father was as loud as I remember it was the last time it happened, when Shane “bought” WCW out from under McMahon the elder on the most controversial episode of Monday Nitro ever. While the excitement wasn’t near the fever pitch it had during those halcyon days, it was far more than anything the company has mustered lately. Well played.
Booking Shane O Mac against the inimitable Undertaker was also the right move, as Undertaker’s spot on any WrestleMania card he deems himself healthy enough to participate in is assured, and he’s been around the business long enough to recognize how to pace this to make it work. As for doing it in Hell in a Cell, it guarantees the high spots we have to expect with Shane. I’m sure you’re already envisioning the lengths he’ll go to in order to entertain all of us. And we’re probably not even close. Regardless of how “good” this match is from a fundamental perspective, it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun and that’s what things should be about at this stage.
Logic, of course, is always a tougher sell. For those who understandably complained about the lack of build for this affair, or why the Undertaker would suddenly reappear to do whatever Vince asked against his son, you sort of got your answer. WWE has seemingly convinced themselves that everyone won’t agree on creative no matter what they do, so when they veer into logic to attempt to appease you know it’s going to be a bumpy ride. The simple reality is this is a match of convenience and nothing more, and no matter how many family photos are trampled or statues awarded, it won’t change things other than negligibly. The McMahons have always been impressive in their ability to do what they pay plenty of guys and gals to do, and could teach a master class on how to cut a promo at this point. Stephanie’s award speech was a thing of beauty, and I encourage you to check it out if you somehow have avoided it thus far. Despite my misgivings about the general state of affairs, the McMahons are entertaining when they scratch and claw, and mesmerizing when they do so against each other. So actual answers remain in short supply, and the winner of the contest gaining control of Raw a needless diversion from the true nature of the beast. Shane vs. Taker is Vince’s desperate attempt to turn this year’s WrestleMania into must-see-TV, and an even more desperate play to take heat off the Triple H vs. Roman Reigns title match that seems doomed to catcalls no matter how it plays out.
From the first perspective, the WWE should achieve their ends. From the latter, they’ve got just about no shot. And from the larger angle, it’s the latest in an endless series of forays to spice things up by providing a smorgasbord of big names to try to obscure the reality of the growing dissatisfaction with their product. Rock will be there, Austin will be there, you should watch. I can’t argue that there is a sort of perverse logic in that (both guys tend to be entertaining without even trying), but the longer it carries on the more long-term damage the WWE is causing their own product. While gentle nods to the next generation like the introduction of Sami Zayn this week have occurred, Shane’s triumphant resurgence demonstrates yet again that Vince and friends will gladly take several paces back to make that next step forward. The question of how overt this is to the average wrestling fan is by now almost a moot point. Everything is out in the open and discussed immediately. This is the Spoiler Era, after all. Even folks with very little knowledge of the “inner workings” of the biz will have heard that Shane’s return is a short term play. Where that takes the logic of the background of the match (and how much you care) are perhaps less important.
Were this any other form of athletic entertainment, perhaps it wouldn’t matter at all. If this was UFC or boxing, the story could sort of write itself. Two guys leaving it all out there and showing they can still go. We’ve heard it all before countless times, and it’s nearly always entertaining. With this being professional wrestling, though, there has to be a story equal to the match. When things work out really well, the match result wipes out any temporary concerns about the writing. That could certainly happen here, particularly with the track records of the principals involved. But it also means that three of the four folks participating in the two main events at WWE’s biggest show are once again part-time personnel. Logic dictates this is a land of diminishing returns, where age and injuries ensure that the end result will be disappointing eventually even when the effective misdirection is employed. But logic loses to the siren call of an easy fix. It can’t be a coincidence that two of the men involved in the day-to-day creative running of the company see fit to make themselves available for the two biggest matches, can it? If that move is because it’s the best way to get ratings, go for it, though it says more than a little about the sad state of affairs you find yourself in. If it’s because they’ve convinced themselves that that’s who we’re paying to see, that’s an even stinkier kettle of fish.
There’s little doubt that wrestling’s biggest card should be a billboard to all that wrestling is, and not all of that is two wrestlers battling it out in a test of physical skill to see who’s best. I’d have been getting a hotdog during George Hackenschmidt’s matches, no offense to the man. But some of it should be, both as a nod to the historical context and as a commitment to what a good portion of the fanbase wants to see. The spectacle and the technical should battle each other for your wrestling dollar, and when in sync, perfection ensues. It’s tough to manage but perfection isn’t meant to be achieved often. The NXT contests aired on WWE programming have usually placed equal stress on both, but the main roster hasn’t delivered in that way. It’s wrestling’s equivalent of having one’s cake and eating twelve slices. In addition, many of yesterday’s marquee names will be placed firmly on the promo side, due to movie contract commitments (The Rock) or common sense medical decision-making (Stone Cold). The biggest wrestling card of the year has to feature some actual WRESTLING, doesn’t it?
Shane’s return should be viewed for what it is, a savvy attempt by the McMahon Marketing Firm to get more excitement for their product. It is relatively unique in that Shane has indubitably been away from the business for some time and therefore it has the cachet of freshness and newness. The larger picture, however, is that the WWE has significantly stepped away from their responsibility to make truly new stars at their signature event. From the introduction of AJ Styles to the Bullet Club acquisitions, Stamford’s roster has never been broader, deeper, or more out-of-the-box. It remains to be seen how much of that will translate to WrestleMania itself, but the impromptu Roadblock event already indicates that some will be used more in the build up portion than the actual event itself. This is the simple puzzle that continues to plague WWE programming: How can a two or three hour show feel overstuffed and underdone when there are so many individuals not getting the opportunity to participate? While it made for great promo fodder for Shane to rile the crowd with nebulous promises of lots of new faces with a potential regime change, it’s more manipulation of the emotions of the WWE Universe. His presence speaks far louder than those empty words. Titan Tower is still less comfortable with what they have in the wings than with regurgitating a new version of things we’ve seen before. It’s sort of like when something on YouTube stops getting initial views and starts racking up repeats. It’s still impressive, but how many times do you need to watch the singing dog before it ceases to be entertaining?
Expectations should be tempered for the actual Shane/Taker encounter. Shane’s odd stunt work with the security team on Monday demonstrated his offense would be less than believable on the Deadman, so we’ll look forward for the couple sick high spots we’re sure to find and hope it ends well. At some point, however, there won’t be an ace to pull out of the hole. Vince and his braintrust will have to allow their next generation to carry the torch. That tagline really is best for business, and more importantly, it’s best for the business’s fan. The commitment to NXT and the branching out into other promotions have been promising flickers that things are changing for the world’s biggest wrestling company. As with all fire, though, time is of the essence and it’s got to become a roaring flame. The absence of John Cena would have made this the perfect year to truly demonstrate that commitment to the future, with the side achievement of creating some buzz by being so very different. Instead, we get parlor tricks while the real magic occurs elsewhere. It’s unfortunate, but not surprising. How ironic that the wrestling storylines which most promise change and alteration are the least likely to deliver either.