Was It Really That Bad? WWE WrestleMania 32
WrestleMania is supposed to be the biggest thing in all of pro wrestling. It’s Vince McMahon’s version of the Super Bowl, or so we’re all supposed to believe. To that end, WWE usually pulls all the stops to make sure that WrestleMania does indeed showcase the very best that the biggest wrestling company in the world has to offer.
There have been times over the past thirty-six years when WrestleMania failed to live up to expectations. There have been shows that undersold, shows that were good but ended on a sour note, and shows that were straight-up terrible.
Then there’s WrestleMania 32.
The 2016 edition of WrestleMania was something else. It was the first WrestleMania ever that ended with a stadium full of angry fans. This audience booed so loudly that not even the strongest of production magic could silence them. It got so bad that Triple H and Stephanie McMahon – the most villainous villains in the history of villainy, at least on this night – had to try and placate the crowd after the show went off the air. It was a whole new level of damage control.
I remember where I was on April 3rd, 2016. I wasn’t able to see the opening matches because WWE decided to make the show SIX HOURS LONG! After all, they had the fans’ money and it was on their network so they might as well do whatever the hell they wanted.
But I was still optimistic at the time and was looking forward to the show. So I drove like hell from an earlier appointment two cities over, and tried to outrun a goddamn snowstorm (because, Canada) just to see what WWE would put together.
And while I wasn’t as outright furious as those live in attendance when this show ended, I wasn’t happy at the end, either. But it wasn’t the result of the main event match result that got me. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This was the perfect storm of strange decisions that left so many fans, myself included, wondering what WWE’s decision-makers were thinking.
What was supposed to be the best show of the year for WWE ended up being the worst. And that isn’t just me saying so. WrestleMania 32 was voted the Worst Wrestling Show of the Year by both the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s readers and those of WrestleCrap, the latter bestowing upon it the infamous Gooker Award, an ‘honor’ shared by such amazing wrestling happenings like Katie Vick, David Arquette winning the WCW World Title, and the Hornswoggle/Chavo Guerrero feud.
Now, more than four years have passed since this show took place. So now we have the benefit of hindsight and a slightly less hostile live audience. Thus, today we look back at this (in)famous show from a more neutral, unbiased perspective and ask, ‘Was it REALLY that bad?’
WrestleMania 32 is one of the worst WrestleManias in history, if not the worst. It was a perfect storm of bad decisions that ended up angering fans just to placate one person (Vince McMahon). Nothing made sense from a creative, match-making decision. And on top of this, WWE decided to stretch the show out to such a degree that it left fans feeling drained and exhausted. It was a prime example of ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’.
There are two aspects of this show that contributed to the widespread venom fans spewed during the show and against it and WWE in the following months. The first was the actual length of the show. From the pre-show to Roman Reigns’ victory celebration, WrestleMania 32 lasted six hours in length. SIX HOURS! In that time, I can drive from Toronto to Buffalo and back through the ridiculous Canada/US border, do some shopping, and drive back. During rush hour.
And the reason WWE did this was obvious: because they could. They were no longer beholden to PPV providers and other networks that gave them time constraints. This show aired on the WWE Network exclusively. That gave WWE free reign to showcase as much as they wanted, which meant that nothing could be cut. All matches would go their full length, no wrestler would shorten their entrance, and every celebration would be as drawn-out as humanly possible.
And because fans couldn’t leave, they were stuck going through the full show, becoming less patient as it progressed. Of course, they would’ve been happier…if the show actually had match results that fans wanted to see.
That’s because WrestleMania has perhaps the most bizarre set of matches and match results in WrestleMania history. The matches proceeded as follow
Kalisto vs. Ryback
This was the first actual wrestling match and it was on the pre-show. It started over a full hour before the main card was supposed to start. Now, this wasn’t a bad match-up on paper; Ryback was a decent midcard monster and Kalisto was trying his best to be the new Rey Mysterio WWE hoped he’d become. But the match itself wasn’t anything special. And instead of creating a genuine and exciting David vs. Goliath match-up, the match was booked to have Kalisto pull off a turnbuckle pad in front of the referee, allowing Ryback to do his best Goldberg impression and hit it head-first, granting Kalisto the victory. It was a win on paper, but Kalisto didn’t actually beat Ryback. Ryback beat Ryback.
Team Total Divas (Alicia Fox, Brie Bella, Eva Marie, Natalya and Paige) vs. Team B.A.D. and Blonde (Emma, Lana, Naomi, Summer Rae and Tamina)
[yes, this company really sucks at coming up with team names]
This was a standard, multi-woman match with nothing much happening. The ending was particularly lame with one woman hitting their finisher after another before Brie Bella tapped out Naomi.
The Usos vs. The Dudleyz
The Usos were in a bad place here. Despite portraying babyfaces, people were booing them more often than they were cheering. Not because the Usos were bad wrestlers (they never were) or because their pre-match Hak’a was so cringy that they would likely be murdered by actual Maoris if they ever visited New Zealand. Fans booed the Usos because they were guilty by association. WWE kept reminding everyone that the Usos were the cousins of Roman Reigns (more on him later), and so fans saw these smiling Samoans as being the tag team version of Reigns. It also didn’t help that the Dudleyz – arguably the best tag team in pro wrestling history – were the one real nostalgia act people liked and wanted to revisit the past by seeing the Dudleyz smash people through tables. But instead of giving fans what they wanted in the form of a Dudleyz demolition derby, the Usos won via simultaneous splashes through tables.
Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match: Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, The Miz, Sin Cara, Dolph Ziggler and Zack Ryder
This was pretty good as far as WrestleMania ladder matches go. There were many different people the fans cheered for to win in this match, the most obvious being Sami Zayn. He was an underdog hero at the time, having recently returned from injury. And the night before, on NXT TakeOver: Dallas, Zayn wrestled in a MOTYC against the debuting Shinsuke Nakamura. He lost but was still hailed as a hero. Logic would’ve dictated that he, a man with such popularity with the crowd, would parlay that into a win here. Instead, the most unexpected people of all won the title: Zack Ryder. It was a surprise, but an unexpected one and one that people legitimately liked. Ryder had been stuck in lower-card purgatory for years, languishing and being punished. Many people were convinced that WWE’s management punished him for ‘getting over’ without them having their hands all over that, turning him into a champion of overcoming adversity. So his win here was a genuine feel-good moment, especially as he explained how watching the Shawn Michaels/Razor Ramon ladder match from WrestleMania X inspired him.
AJ Styles vs. Chris Jericho
This match was wrestling match-making 101. It’s so simple a five-year old can grasp the concept. You have an aging veteran on the downside of his career (Jericho) that can still perform, but is not likely to be featured in any high-profile stories down the road. His opponent is a newcomer (Styles) who has been very popular with the fans thus far and is known worldwide for being one of the greatest wrestlers on the planet. This newcomer has adapted perfectly to WWE’s wrestling environment and can adapt to any situation. This makes the newcomer an ideal candidate to work lengthy feuds with other stars. Following that logic, the veteran should lose to elevate the status of the newcomer to sell the idea that the newcomer can beat other stars in the company. It seems that every person on the planet understood this logic, except one, and he’s the one that decided that the opposite result should happen.
The League of Nations (Alberto Del Rio, Rusev, Sheamus and Wade Barrett [not actually wrestling]) vs. The New Day
[It’s at this point that I started watching the show and had to watch everything up to this point on a re-run. Turns out, trying to outrun a snowstorm isn’t as easy as Hollywood makes it out to be.]
The New Day were the babyface tag team champions that everyone loved and the LoN were the villains that were thrown together because…FOREIGNERS! Two of them weren’t in WWE’s long-term plans (Barrett had been on a booking downward spiral for months prior to this and would leave WWE a month later and Del Rio would leave the company in August following broken promises of main-event booking by WWE). Rusev was still a midcarder and it would be another year before any of his gimmicks would gain any steam. And Sheamus would form a tag team with Cesaro in the coming months, but was still seen as something of a lower-midcarder on this night. Yet this ragtag collection of (supposedly-evil) foreigners defeated the tag team champions in a result that simply didn’t make sense per above.
Then the nostalgia train came in and ran everyone that was in this match over and then some. Three retired legends – Mick Foley, Shawn Michaels and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin – destroyed the LoN without any effort (despite being, you know, retired) and then Austin gave a Stunner to Woods, just because.
I should point out that, by this point, only an hour and twenty minutes had passed. There were still three and a half hours left in the program.
Brock Lesnar vs. Dean Ambrose
Most people (OK, everyone, including Ambrose himself) view this match as an enormous disappointment. It was hard to buy Ambrose as a serious threat to Lesnar, no matter how many chairs, barbed-wire baseball bats, and chainsaws Ambrose brought to the match. Lesnar was and is a monstrous beast that looked like he could’ve destroyed Lesnar with his pinky finger. And he more or less proved that by beating the ever-loving shit out of Ambrose for thirteen minutes. Ambrose barely got any offense in, and the one big move he did land barely looked like it hurt Lesnar at all. Not at all the exciting, star-making performance everyone expected.
WWE Women’s Championship match: Charlotte vs. Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks
This was WWE’s attempt at kicking the ‘Women’s Revolution’ into a higher gear. Charlotte discarded the gaudy, toy-like Divas Championship at the start of the match, leading these three to fight for the new WOMEN’s Championship (less toy-like, but an improvement all the same). And while Charlotte was the one that came to the match looking all regal and pompous, she wasn’t the star here. That was Sasha. She came to the ring in the most badass entrance of anyone on the show. She arrived in her own Lincoln Navigator as her FIRST COUSIN AND WWE HALL OF FAMER SNOOP DOGG played her down to the ring. Theatrics aside, she was white hot as a wrestler on this night. People salivated at the prospect of this woman being champion. She was cool, she could wrestle, she could talk, and she could sell both her merchandise and her opponents’ moves effortlessly. It was the perfect opportunity for her to score a big win, have a long feud with Charlotte without hurting Charlotte by beating Lynch, and making an already-disgruntled fan base a bit happier. But instead of that star-making and logically-sound decision happening, the match ended with Charlotte tapping Lynch out while Ric Flair prevented Sasha from entering the ring.
Hell in a Cell match: The Undertaker vs. Shane McMahon
Hang on I’m going to need some help getting through this one. *downs an entire bottle of red wine*.
This match had the dumbest story behind it, and existed for two reasons. First, John Cena was injured and thus could not wrestle ‘Taker in the dream match everyone wanted to see. Second, Shane likes to jump off things and look like a dumbass in the process. No one – absolutely no-one – thought Shane could hang with the Undertaker, much less in ‘Taker’s specialty match, HIAC. And all of this was happening so that Shane could take control of RAW. It seemed like a pretty small reward for having to basically fight the devil in his yard, but I guess Shane thought it was worth it. Because he spent thirty minutes in the cell with ‘Taker (without bringing in anyone to help him, which would’ve made the story and the match a million times more exciting) and still had the wherewithal to climb to the top of the cell to jump off it onto Taker…and miss.
Also, from the time the video package for this match aired to the next one, an entire hour had passed.
André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal
Aside from a surprise Shaq appearance, nothing happened here. Baron Corbin won. Yay.
There was an overly-long celebration featuring the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, followed by The Rock appearing with a flamethrower. He then lights the big 100,000 sign to show the (alleged) number of attendants in the stadium while also wasting fifteen minutes moving his eyebrows up and down. But as if there wasn’t enough need to stretch this show further, Rock’s celebration was interrupted by the Wyatt Family, all of whom had been mysteriously left off the card, despite being one of the hottest acts on the roster. The three of them (Wyatt, Rowan and Strowman) then proceeded to get their asses kicked by Rock (a retired wrestler and now full-fledged movie star) and a surprise John Cena (who was still on the injured list), followed an impromptu match in which Rocky beats Rowan in six seconds. There’s clearly some symbolism in there and it isn’t that hard to decipher when you think about it.
With about fifty minutes left, we finally get to the main event, and it’s…
WWE World Heavyweight Championship: Triple H vs. Roman Reigns
Honestly, this match was actually a battle of two egos. First, Triple H’s in that he still believed that, like his buddy Shawn, he could carry anyone to a great match. And second, there was Vince McMahon’s, in that he believed that he knew better than the audience in what they wanted and what was best for business. And Vince thought Roman Reigns would be a great champion that the fans would cheer for, especially after his daughter Stephanie, in her most shrill voice ever, opened the match with a really bad Max-Max-style promo insulting the fans. Their response to this, and to the main event match itself, was to chant for Shinsuke Nakamura. A man that wasn’t even on the main roster, much less on this show. Anyway, after thirty minutes that went by at a snail’s pace, Reigns Speared Stephanie (not in that way, you perverts) then Speared Triple H (also not in that way) and left WrestleMania as champion. As the now-exhausted crowd showered him with boos just like at the 2015 Royal Rumble, which I covered here.
Many, MANY people left this show feeling that they had been spited. They felt the creative decisions didn’t benefit anyone, and that the only person happy with them was Vince. And soon afterwards, a narrative started circulating that these decisions were intentional. Vince had made these backwards creative decisions (allegedly) because he was tired of fan reaction forcing him to make changes he didn’t want to make. The previous two WrestleManias had forced his hand big time. WrestleMania XXX ended with Daniel Bryan holding both belts, but that was never the original plan. It took months of outright fan hostility for him to change the main event of the show. And he did so begrudgingly. The same was the following year. That was supposed to be Reigns’ big coronation, but fans were rejecting and booing Reigns en masse then as well. It took Rollins’s surprise cash-in to prevent WrestleMania 31 from ending as an utter disaster.
To make sure Vince got his way, he booked the results so that pretty much anyone that the fans would really invest in would lose. Almost every match winner showed this. The Usos beat the Dudleyz, despite virtually everyone wanting the opposite to happen. The veteran Jericho beat Styles while Styles was still on the rise (and also still had the perception of being an outsider and not a ‘WWE creation’). The villainous League beat the New Day. Lesnar beat Ambrose. Charlotte, the least-popular of the three women in that match, entered and left as champion while stinking of sweat and nepotism. Baron Corbin won the battle royal, which is supposed to serve as a launching pad of sorts to elevate newer stars. The two established stars in Rock and Cena demolished The Wyatts with ease. And Vince’s handpicked top guy beat Triple H, who was being cheered up until the very moment the match ended because many people still loved him for his work on NXT.
There was a stadium full of people that were being disappointed in each match and they had to sit through each with no end in sight. And while Vince and company might’ve been fairly comfortable in their chairs at gorilla, the same couldn’t be said for fans live in attendance. Being stuck in the same spot for six hours without really being able to leave isn’t entertainment; it’s torture. Not only physically from not being able to use the washroom without risking missing something important, but also mentally. No matter what era of pro wrestling you watch or have lived through, you cannot expect a large group of people to sit through something that long without them getting restless and antsy (with the exception of Big Egg Tokyo Universe). And even watching at home in the most comfortable arrangement possible or when with friends, sooner or later people will stop paying close attention and will start asking ‘when will this end?’ That is not a reaction you want for any show you put on as a promoter, much less your most important show of the year.
But the biggest problem with this show was that once it was over, absolutely nothing mattered. All the critical results that happened were completely negated or rendered irrelevant not long afterwards. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the key match-ups:
AJ Styles lost his biggest match to date against Chris Jericho. On the following night, he became #1 contender to Roman Reigns’ title, fought Reigns for the title on two straight PPVs, and by September 2016, became WWE Champion. Meanwhile, Chris Jericho lost to Styles on that same following night (rendering the result of WrestleMania 32 pointless), ended up having a less-than-thrilling Asylum Match with Dean Ambrose, and created the List of Jericho (which was better than it had any right to be, but wasn’t worth beating Styles at ‘Mania).
Zack Ryder had his big WrestleMania moment, but lost the Intercontinental Championship to The Miz on the following night. In doing so, he was immediately sent back down to the pits of the lower card from whence he had come; proving that having a genuine emotional connection to a wrestler is for idiots. Because WWE doesn’t want its fans to be happy for anyone unless the management machine has a direct role in creating that happiness.
Dean Ambrose got utterly destroyed by Lesnar on the biggest stage of the year. He became WWE Champion two months later while Lesnar went on to cave Randy Orton’s forehead in with his elbow and then lose to Bill Goldberg (who hadn’t wrestled a match in twelve years) in less than two minutes.
The New Day defeated the League of Nations for the tag team titles on the following RAW (because apparently those titles aren’t worthy of being defended at WrestleMania). Then the LoN kicked Barrett out of the group and the stable would disband by the end of the month.
Baron Corbin won a big ass trophy yet did nothing afterward. He would eventually get his title shot…on the last show of the year in a triple threat match.
Then we have the Shane-Taker feud. This was a stupid idea from the beginning. Shane was adamant that he could run RAW better than Vince and Stephanie and vowed to beat the Undertaker to prove it. He also threatened to reveal the contents of some lockbox if he didn’t get his way, and eventually, the match was made. No storyline explanation was ever given as to why the Undertaker agreed to this, given he had no reason to fight a non-wrestler in Shane. Nor was the whole lockbox thing ever followed up on, despite being hyped up as a very big deal.
And worst of all, despite losing the match, which had very clear and indisputable ramifications, Vince just gave Shane control of RAW, citing ‘overwhelming support of the WWE Universe on social media. Translation: “I (Vince) changed my mind. Here’s a random swerve to make you people happy for all of five seconds.”
As for Roman Reigns, he held the world title for 77 days before being legitimately suspended for 30 days for violating WWE’s Wellness Policy. And upon his return, he was still put into high-profile matches and rivalries in which fans would cheer his opponent – regardless of who they were – over him. In doing so, this turned Braun Strowman into a fan favorite while the hatred for Reigns would continue unabated for another two years until he announced that he had to leave to go fight leukemia.
But the match results weren’t the only problem with this show. WrestleMania 32 highlighted a major problem that no one in the company seems to be willing to fix: the overemphasis of nostalgia at the expense of young stars.
Anytime WWE brings back older stars and has them beat existing stars, it does two things. One, it gets the crowd to cheer for a few minutes. And two, it highlights how great the WWE superstars used to be. When Austin, HBK and Foley came out, it popped the crowd, sure. But this wasn’t WrestleMania XXX where three of the biggest names in wrestling history cut a promo and shared beers like old buddies. This was three stars of yesteryear (one of whom hadn’t wrestled a match since 2003) beating up several regulars on the roster. While it did make the audience cheer, it also emphasized how the LoN were completely insignificant compared to the stars of the past. It reinforces the idea that no one is or ever will be a big star or bigger than those of the past and the fans shouldn’t care about them. Because the company clearly doesn’t; if they did, they wouldn’t risk damaging their current roster just for five seconds of cheers.
Imagine if, at WrestleMania X-Seven, after winning their TLC match, Edge, Christian and Rhyno got completely manhandled by Hulk Hogan, The Iron Sheik and Bob Backlund. It would surprise the crowd, for sure. But it would also make it next to impossible for anyone to take any of those three men seriously or want to buy tickets to see them ever again.
But that wasn’t the only instance of this happening. When the Rock and John Cena manhandled the Wyatt Family, it proved that point some more. A former wrestler and a gradual part-timer beat up The Wyatt Family without any trouble. Why? To get a quick pop, of course. This was despite the fact that the Wyatt was still one of the most popular acts on the roster and was a young and rising star. Yet for the third straight WrestleMania, he either lost a big match or was made to look like a chump. And this was a guy that many people pegged their hopes on as being the next UNDERTAKER. Why would anyone care about this guy when he keeps getting beaten up so easily?
The show was proof that nothing in WWE matters, especially wins and losses. They went all in with the notion of the ‘hard reset’ after WrestleMania, meaning that things more or less start anew on the following night. But this isn’t a WWE video game with a clearly-programmed start and end in the career mode. This is reality, with things moving forward continuously. Yet WWE doesn’t seem to grasp that concept, especially with how the results from the biggest show of the year flow over onto the next night’s show (or in this case, don’t flow over at all).
This show demonstrated that there is no concept of a continuous narrative that progresses seamlessly from match to match, show to show. The people in this company think that they can just change directions on a whim and people will go along with their changes and narrative transformations, logic and emotion be damned. That’s why this show sucked so much. Not because fans didn’t get the wins they wanted. It was because there was no point in investing one’s emotions into the matches. There was no reason to care since whatever happened wouldn’t be followed up on the next night, and if by some miracle it was, then it would be negated or changed. Because it’s easier to treat your audience like a bunch of braindead morons that’ll accept whatever low-quality drivel you give them instead of trying harder to create a story that makes sense and gives fans something for them to really sink their teeth into.
Over four full years have passed and WrestleMania 32 still remains one of the worst WrestleManias of all time. Yes, it had some decent wrestling throughout the show. But that was juxtaposed by a gargantuan length that no one wanted and booking decisions that just didn’t make sense. If one fan doesn’t like a match result, that’s not a big deal. But if tens of thousands of people are booing your supposed top babyface star and are chanting for wrestlers on an entirely different roster to show their dissatisfaction with your product, then there’s an issue.
I think this show more than deserved its distinctions as the worst show of the year. Point blank, this show was exhausting. I don’t any person reading this that watched WrestleMania 32 can say that they didn’t get tired at any point. And this wasn’t the ‘that-show-was-so-awesome-I’m-tired-from-all-this-cheering’ sort of exhaustion, but the ‘when-will-this-end’ sort. As I wrote earlier, this was an example ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’. This show did not need to go six hours in length. A lot of stuff could’ve been trimmed down or outright cut out (Rock’s celebration, the post-match segment after the HIAC match, among others).
Luckily, WWE appears to have learned these lessons with more recent editions of WrestleMania, especially this year’s (WrestleMania 36). Everyone got to be on the show, and the length was trimmed down by splitting it onto two nights, which made perfect sense and made for easier viewing for audiences at home. And that show had decisions that make sense both creatively and logically. It’s just too bad that it took four years and a global pandemic for them to finally learn this lesson.