Is There Still Time to Save Wrestlemania?
It was 2001, Monday Night Raw, a day after the No Way Out PPV. The Rock had just won the WWF Championship from Kurt Angle. He confidently marched to the ring and grabbed a microphone. Normally, the crowd would have been happy to simply submit to the catch-phrase-heavy, electric greeting from The Rock. But not that night. Fresh in the minds of the fans in attendance and the millions (and millions) watching around the world was Steve Austin’s Royal Rumble win. They only wanted to hear one sound:
Finally, the glass shattered, the crowd erupted, and Austin confidently confronted The Rock in the ring. The storyline for the most anticipated match in company history — a match we all knew was coming; a match we all wanted –began in earnest. And we were all better off for it. We spent the next month and half on the edge our seats, dreaming about the coming main event, arguing with our friends over who would win, debating who was better. The angle was ultimately accompanied by one of the greatest hype packages ever produced — one worthy of the story being told.
I bring up one of the greatest Wrestlemania build ups to remind people what “The Road to Wrestlemania” is supposed to feel like. It’s supposed to feel like you’re about to see the match you always wanted to see, even if, up to that point, you never knew you wanted to see it. It’s a feeling that was captured again last year when The Rock came back to challenge John Cena. No matter people’s feelings on part-time performers headlining Wrestlemania, whether you were a Cena-hater or an ardent Cena-defender, The Rock Vs John Cena was compelling television. We all wanted to see that match.
Then we saw it. And more importantly, we saw the build up to it; one that included seemingly brutal personal attacks exchanged — attacks aimed, not merely at WWE characters, but the men behind them. We had Cena, the company man; villified by smarks everywhere; adored by children; but someone who was there, day in and day out, vs. The Rock; beloved by disheartened haters of the PG-Era and fans nostalgic for the Attitude Era; but a part timer who “sold out” to Hollywood, becoming bigger than the industry that made him. It was the present vs. the past, blue collar vs.white collar, young vs. old, etc. It was billing worthy of the ‘Mania main event and the tagline “Once in a lifetime”.
For months, the writing has been on the wall. We suspected all along that a rematch was coming, but we were certain when John Cena won the Royal Rumble. For many, such as myself, an uneasy feeling began to creep in; something wasn’t right. But we witheld judgment. The Rock vs. Cena program couldn’t begin in earnest until after Elimination Chamber and we were willing to wait.
And then it happened. Elmination Chamber ended. Rocky prevailed. The match was set..and then..and then…
…RAW happened the following night and, instead of an epic beginning to a program like Austin vs. Rock in 2001 or last year’s Rock vs. Cena, we were greeted with indecision. We have to wait until this coming Monday before we get our Wrestlemania mainevent. The kayfabe world wants us to believe it’s either The Rock vs. John Cena or The Rock vs. CM Punk, but we all know the real possibilities are The Rock vs. John Cena or a Triple threat between all three competitors.
It was then that I realized, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of whether it’s a rematch from last year or a triple threat, there will be no magic. It’s a match that, on paper, from a WWE business perspective, just seems like a slam dunk. And in the short term, it might be, but for those of us who long to be swept away by a wrestling angle, the main event programming right now can offer nothing but disappointment. The nostalgia element from last year has run its course. The Rock has nothing left to prove. and the Cena redemption narrative seems forced and disingenuous. Nothing feels real. Maybe if the actual match performance last year blew everyone away I’d feel differently, but it didn’t. Rock vs. Cena is a match that requires the hype, and I just don’t see it being there this year.
I turned off RAW on Monday and a strange feeling lingered. There was something hiding between the lines of the programming — derived not from something that was said or shown, but from everything that wasn’t. It was as if the Creative team opened the safe holding the Wrestlemania hype-magic the morning after Elimination Chamber only to find that the safe was empty. Without their hype-magic the creative team was forced to present mostly filler programming along with promises of great things while, behind the scenes, they frantically overturned couch cushions trying to find the magic. Was I sensing the vague tinge of desperation in the writing and presentation? Did WWE Creative really just say “fuck it, we don’t know how to hype this, we need another week to figure it out”? Is this how the Road to Wrestlemania really begins?
Needless to say, I was feeling extremely pessimistic.
But as the week progressed, something else started to happen. I began to read stories from mainstream outlets about The Shield’s rise to stardom and the controversial repackaging of Jack Swager as a xenophobic racist. Along with the coverage, there emerged a growing sense of excitement among fans, including a swelling sentiment– “this is more interesting than anything else they have planned”. By Friday, I realized that something special was happening; special because it didn’t seem like something the WWE Corporate office timed or planned. Interest for a match planned for over a year was waning, but people were starting to get that “anything can happen” feeling that really defined the Attitude Era.
I don’t know if Wrestlemania can be saved, but if it can be, it will be because the script will be re-written. It will only be re-written because Vince McMahon begins to sense what some of the fans are sensing: the story for this year’s Wrestlemania is really a meta-story. It’s that the Rock vs. Cena program is a lackluster main event destined to be overshadowed by a new breed of Superstars. Luckily for WWE, they occupy space in a unique medium that allows them to make adjustments and turn their weaknesses into strengths almost in real time. To be clear, I am talking about actual kayfabe acknowledgment that The Rock vs. Cena is a stale attraction and not really the main event of Wrestlemania — that fans are tired of it and want to see something new. If this is to be the case, the fans will be the ones who lead the charge. A lot is said on the internet that doesn’t manifest itself in live audiences, so we may be conflating a narrative that only appeals to a small subset of fans. But, for me, I look forward to finding out which direction the momentum is heading. To me, that’s the real compelling angle for this year’s “Road to Wrestlemania”.
Will casual fans be eager to consume the “Twice in a lifetime” match and the rumored Brock vs. Triple H rematch. Is that really enough for them? Or is frustration more widespread than anyone has yet acknowledged? Will they gravitate to the edgy programming surrounding The Shield and Swagger? Is “what’s cool” beginning to shift again?
Time will tell, but this is shaping up to be one of the most interesting journeys toward Wrestlemania I can remember and not for any reason the WWE scripted into their programming last March. No, it’s because of everything they didn’t script. I can easily see WM29 being one of the worst, most predictable Wrestlemanias in company history, but I can also see it being one of the most shocking, memorable events in company history.
Whatever the case, this year I’m not waiting to hear the sound of broken glass. I’m waiting to hear a sound I’ve never heard before — in some ways, that’s more exciting, even if I’m more likely to be disappointed.