EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The WWE would never look to experiment with WrestleMania, simply because the stakes are too big at the signature event. It’s where the stuff that’s tried and true is delivered to those fully invested. “Trying something” at WrestleMania would be like experimenting with a new rule change at the Super Bowl.
Then there’s the matter of the randomness of sport. The utter unpredictability, be it the bad bounce, the missed call and the injury. Everything in the perspiring arts is at the mercy of stuff unforeseen and uncontrollable — everything, that is, but the WWE in general and WrestleMania in particular.
Thus was a lot of the talk about this WrestleMania more than a little wrong-headed. Much was made of the main event being an all-woman affair, as if the WWE were somehow undertaking a risk, doing something daring, even progressive, by booking Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch in a three-way match for the Raw and Smackdown Women’s Championships.
Maybe commentators and rubber-neckers in realms that don’t pay much heed to the WWE would question whether die-hard fans were ready for a WrestleMania card topped by women.
Maybe they would suggest that the WWE had a finger in the political wind and decided the time was right.
This thinking was, however, back to front, upside down and inside out. In bringing on Rousey, Flair and Lynch last late Sunday night, the WWE was giving devout fans what they want, what they demanded and the company was entrusting three of its most compelling characters with closing the spectacle: Rousey the controversy-courting former MMA champion whose dead-eyed glares ice the drinks of everyone in the front row at shows; Flair a.k.a. The Queen, the imperious daughter of true pro wrestling royalty, Ric Flair; and Lynch, a.k.a. The Man, the driven Irishwoman.
The question isn’t whether wrestling fans would buy in but whether the rest of the world is ready for it, which the simple entertaining of any doubts whatsoever suggests that it might not be.
After requisite peaks, bumps and escapes, Lynch reversed and rolled up Rousey for the win but not without some small bit of controversy. On the replay, it was clear that Rousey’s shoulders were inches off the canvas when the count started. Maybe that will set up a storyline for later but no matter. Lynch owns the belts for now.
The WWE isn’t trying to get Rousey, Flair or Lynch over. The three are the best the company has right now. In fact, the WWE might need a little luck to keep them — the rumour being that Rousey might be looking to take a leave to start a family.
Rousey, Flair and Lynch have come along at a time of greatest need. You just had to glance at the line-up to see a vacuum of talent, profile and brand. It’s not a harsh indictment of those on their way up. Doubtless some who were up earlier will play greater roles down the line and likewise some who were on the sidelines entirely, but no other match could have generated the heat that Lynch’s win did.
The WrestleMania card didn’t lack for action. There were a few stand-out matches. In the best, Kofi Kingston, an earnest pro whose chance at stardom seemed like it would never come, beat Daniel Bryan for the WWE Championship. Bryan was only tremendous in getting Kingston over and the fans ate it up when the new champion’s family and friends ran into the ring in the wake of his victory.
Almost as stirring: The match between Shane McMahon and the Miz spilled out of the ring and onto the floor. Though it seemed like it was bound to finish on the New Jersey Turnpike, the match reached its climax atop a camera scaffold, McMahon absorbing a huge superplex but then getting the pin.
Other moments were less arresting, however. Seth Rollins knocked off Brock Lesnar for the WWE Universal Championship, a surprise only if you didn’t take rumours of Lesnar’s return to MMA seriously. In lesser bouts, Roman Reigns beat Drew McIntyre, Finn Balor beat Bobby Lashley and A.J. Styles beat Randy Orton. It might have been red meat on the undercard but none of it was remotely headline stuff.
Some of the show was excruciating to watch. In a match that came along 15 years to late, Triple H, 49, beat Batista, 50, but to do so needed the help of Ric Flair, 70. Triple H also used sledgehammers that were conveniently stored under the ring and a pair of pliers with which he extracted Batista’s nose ring. He did not use a local anesthetic.
The premise of the match — Triple H having to retire from the ring if he lost — was right in direction but really didn’t go far enough. Hopefully Triple H will stick to the business side of the family business and Batista’s fights will be limited to those in which he gets multiple takes, some editing and CGI as necessary.
Similarly sad was what was billed as Kurt Angle’s last match. An earnest pro if there ever was one, Angle was pinned by Baron Corbin in a match not quite quick enough to stifle a yawn.
Worst of all was the Andre the Giant Battle Royal for which the WWE recruited two of the most unlikely celebrities ever: Colin Jost and Michael Che from Saturday Night Live. The two comics wound up last in the ring with Braun Strowman at the end of hostilities, with the late addition of Jost’s therapist.
This was not a shining moment for the WWE, SNL or therapy. The sketch would never have made it out of the writer’s room at SNL and Strowman spoke for all of us when he threw Jost over the top rope and into a crowd of wrestlers who tried to catch him like bridesmaids circling under a bouquet.
Thankfully, the WWE saved its best for last and erased any questions about whether fans were ready for women headlining a WrestleMania. They were, and hopefully the rest of the world will follow.