Since the beginning of civilization, people have gathered to tell stories. Whether it was around a campfire, in a theater, or on the silver screen, stories of larger-than-life characters have always captivated the (perhaps) overly creative minds of Homo sapiens. The medium in which these stories are presented changes with time, but the themes tend to remain the same (e.g. good vs. evil, David vs. Goliath, coming of age). But whatever your preference of medium or theme, it’s clear that as a species we are suckers for a good story.
Which is why it’s even more impressive that despite wide-spread criticism of lackluster storyline building, and a stadium that contained some empty seats, the superstars of WrestleMania 31 put on a spectacle that truly lived up to the title of “the show of shows.”
Some fans in attendance were casual, others were children, and still others sported neck tattoos of their favorite star’s logo (Yea, I saw you with the Jeff Hardy tat). But no matter their level of devotion, if they came to see the story of WrestleMania 31, they left with a smile. I’m not sure who came up with that “money can’t buy happiness” saying, but if they stood at the gates of Levi’s Stadium on Sunday and saw fans shell out a record-breaking $12.6 million, they might be forced to reconsider some of their beliefs.
SF Weekly was at a variety of wrestling events throughout the weekend. Here are some quick reviews and analysis of each.
WrestleMania 31 High Spots:
Rhonda Rousey and The Rock:
UFC Champion Rhonda Rousey made a surprise appearance, jumping the guardrail (with some encouragement from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to face off against HHH and Stephanie McMahon. After a war of words, she gave HHH a judo throw and Stephanie a standing armlock.
[jump] The undefeated Rousey is widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound female MMA fighter and a genuine star, so her physical involvement in a WWE ring will send shockwaves through the real and real(ly fake) fighting worlds.
Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns . . . Vs. Seth Rollins:
There is always a special feel to WrestleMania main events. Unfortunately (but rightfully) this particular match was widely criticized as being improperly booked and had one of the weaker builds for a big match in recent memory. But the quality of storytelling and in-ring performance of the match should silence all those criticisms.
Seth Rollins cashed in his money in the bank contract, turning the bout into a triple threat (I guess that’s how it works?) and pinned a wounded Reigns for Lesnar’s title. This allows the WWE to take the belt off a part-time Lesnar without having their toughest star lose, and takes the crowd’s heat off of a baby-faced Reigns. It also sets up Rollins to be a classic cowardly villain who can dodge a chasing Reigns and Lesnar.
Reigns kicked out of three F-5’s and looked strong without having to pin Lesnar and face getting booed out of the city. The second-generation wrestler rose to the occasion and had an impressive showing in the biggest match of career. All that pressure, all that doubt, and he shined. But really the best thing Reigns did for himself and his future as a star was lose.
Hopefully the Samoan Dynasty’s latest athlete gets a little more help from the creative team in the future, so he can win over some more fans (like he did me in this match).
For whatever reason, wrestlers always feel it’s appropriate to just punch each other in the face during these big matches, so Lesnar and Reigns each shed some blood in this bout. Reigns busted up Lesnar’s eye and mouth with some stiff right hands before he drove him head first into the ring post. Lesnar gushed from his head after that, against company policy, and much to the approval of the fans.
The Best RKO Ever:
The creativity, athleticism, and execution of that RKO was breathtaking.
HHH (and DX) vs. Sting (and NWO):
Chief Operating Officer and in-ring superstar HHH made a terminator-inspired entrance with a little help from Arnold Schwarzenegger (via video) that was so corny it fucking ruled. His opponent, Sting, came out to a pounding group of tribal drummers.
But the match wasn’t about how the superstars came out – it’s who came out to support them. By the end of the match two fabled 90’s wrestling factions had reunited and played into the outcome of the match. The WWE’s D-Generation X, led by Shawn Michaels, came out to support HHH. That prompted the WCW’s NWO, led by Hulk Hogan, to come to the aid of Sting.
And the old guys weren’t there just for show. Hogan took a bump against the ring post and Scott Hall took a back body drop on the floor.
Briefly after hitting Sting in the head with a sledgehammer, HHH pinned the former WCW star to get the victory. After the match the two opponents shook hands, which, you know, obviously makes no sense at all – but whatever. Only in the world of wrestling can you shake the hand of a man who just minutes earlier committed assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder against you. It’s whatever, I grew up in the 90s and the NWO just came out so I’m fine with it.
Last year’s main eventer was the very first guy to come out of the curtain for this year’s WrestleMania. He defeated a crop of hungry contenders to claim the Intercontinental title in a grueling ladder match. Hopefully this, combined with Cena’s victory over Rusev to claim the United States of America, adds some importance to both belts.
But he’ll probably just be put in a comedy tag team with Hornswoggle.
When people talk about wrestling, they often throw around the word “pageantry.” Well, if there was ever one image I could show you to explain what they were talking about, here it is. Please look at Rusev, an evil Bulgarian brute, loyal to Russia, who speaks ill of America every chance he gets, entering the arena on a tank as cannons in the background fire fireworks at the crowd.
He’s just a bad guy. And John Cena beat him, for America.
WrestleMania 31 botches:
There were plenty of empty seats in the spacious outdoor venue. Some fans with extra tickets couldn’t sell them the day of the event at face value (if anything). A brutal sun baked fans alive who did show up during the first half of the event and dulled the experience of some entrances that look better in a darker setting. Also, some fans in the back of the floor-level seats could be seen facing away from the ring, turning their back on the matches to watch the action on the only visible big screen (behind them).
2015 Hall of Fame:
No well-adjusted person could sit through this entire show and enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong, there were some high spots: The Bushwhackers' hilarious and energetic acceptance speech being the main one. But if I wanted to listen to old men ramble endlessly, I would watch WWE’s Legend’s House segments about what the group was eating for dinner.
This event is mostly for the wrestlers themselves. That’s great – they deserve it.
If you do not currently own a $400+ replica belt or never seriously considered buying one, do not attend this event. The only exception to this rule is if you don’t have a replica belt because you blew all your cash on that sweet Jeff Hardy neck tattoo.
If meeting wrestlers of all ages is your thing, then this is the event for you. This is a lot more casual and fan-friendly than the Hall of Fame. If you get sick of waiting in line the stars of NXT were putting on great matches at this convention all weekend long.
You can meet Vader at this event. You can hug Roman Reigns. You can smell Ric Flair.
Do you want to smell Ric Flair? Don’t lie, I know you do. You wouldn’t be this far down in the post if you didn’t want to smell Ric Flair, you liar.
Jim Ross’s one-man show:
Jim Ross has one of the most popular podcasts in the world. If you enjoy that podcast, you will enjoy this show. I say that partially because you enjoy Jim Ross’ brilliant insight and perspective on the wrestling industry, and partially because he is going to tell several stories you already heard on his podcast.
The best part of the event is a super-sized Q&A where Ross gets to display his quick wit and humor in his responses to crowd questions. No questions were off limits and Ross' answers were as thorough as they were funny. The famed commentator brought out Samoa Joe, who connected with the audience of hardcore fans immediately.
Ross also rallied against racism, sexism, homophobia AND transphobia, calling out and mocking past acquaintances in the old wrestling territories for their blatantly racist bookings of black wrestlers. That was awesome (and refreshing in the wrestling world).
NXT at San Jose State:
Selling out in only a few hours and grossing over $200,000 at the door, this event was one of the hottest tickets of the weekend. Hardcore WWE fans are passionate about NXT, the company’s developmental league that has die-hard supporters who believe it is superior to the main product.
“Better than ‘Mania!” and “Better than Roman!” chants echoed throughout the college campus as stars like Finn Balor, Hideo Itami, Sasha Banks and Charlotte performed in front of a red-hot crowd. WrestleMania always has a special vibe, but the true rabid enthusiasm of this crowd is unrivaled.
Have you ever been in a room with 5,000 who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world and believe in their heart of hearts that what they are doing will change the course of history? I have. It was at NXT. And I saw Vince McMahon peeping out from behind the curtain smiling.
I can’t predict the future, but if I was a “diva” on the WWE’s roster I would be concerned about the female wrestlers coming up through the NXT brand. Charlotte and Sasha Banks stole the show, and they might just move up and steal someone’s spot sometime soon. Or maybe not, but they certainly deserve it.