Wrestlemania has come and once more and Project Shanks is here to break down the matches, the booking, and deal out some much needed reaction and grades.
Cruiserweight Championship — Neville (c) vs. Austin Airies: While this match didn’t captivate the crowd the way Neville’s previous PPV title defense against Jack Gallagher did, it nevertheless did what it needed to. In addition to warming up the crowd as the first bout, it told an effective story, culminating with Airies having Neville inches away from tapping out before a brilliant piece of storytelling introduced a twist and carried us to our conclusion. Tearing at Airies’s previously injured eye, Neville showed the kind of desperate brutality you would expect out of a heel champion clinging to his prized possession. Then, with the challenge blinded and vulnerable, Neville sealed the deal with a Red Arrow from the top rope. Don’t be fooled, this is not the end of Airies and Neville’s rivalry. It is merely an solid opening chapter.
Result: Neville wins by pinfall after hitting the Red Arrow.
Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal: Well, color me confused. WWE spent MONTHS building up Braun Strowman as an unstoppable force of nature, only to suddenly undo everything since the Royal Rumble. Sure, Strowman winning the Rumble was a dark horse candidate to sure, but having him eliminated so early, and by a single competitor no less, was surprising to say the least. Flash forward then to Fastlane where his rivalry with Roman Reigns concluded in a clean pin fall after a single spear. But Wrestlemania’s Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal would be a moderate consolation prize at least, right? Nope! Despite being one of two men to actually receive a personalized entrance (the other being the Big Show), Strowman was eliminated in the first third of the match by a swath of superstars moments after eliminating the Big Show in his swan song Wrestlemania. The eventual winner? Not Sami Zayn, who fought his way onto the card just last week and is a fan favorite. Not Big Show for his swan song, as previously mentioned. Not even a new star like the once known Big Damo, now Killian Dain. Nope. We got Mojo Rawley. Why? Because his celeb buddy Rob Gronkowski was ringside and slated to get involved, further burying Jinder Mahal. Cool
Result: Mojo Rawley eliminates Jinder Mahal to win Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal
Intercontinental Championship — Dean Ambrose (c) vs. Barron Corbin: This was another somewhat surprising finish, especially given Ambrose’s lack of title defense over the past two months. It seemed to make sense to continue building Corbin up after his strong showing thus far in 2017. Don’t forget, this was the man who eliminated Braun Strowman single-handedly in the Royal Rumble. And yet Ambrose retained, flipping out of the End of Days and into a Dirty Deeds for the three count.
Result: Dean Ambrose by pin fall after Dirty Deeds
AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon: I was admittedly surprised to see this was the official opening match for Wrestlemania. Seriously, could AJ Styles be anymore disrespected in recent weeks? While some would say it’s a big responsibility to kick off the show, I would argue Style’s ability and greatness should be nowhere near the opener. Open with the Raw Tag Titles or one of the Women’s Title matches. Each of those competitors are highly skilled and capable of igniting a crowd. Whatever, onto the match itself.
The match itself felt a bit slow, trying to show off Shane as if he’s a technical wrestler and not just the owner of the worst looking kayfab punches in the business. What made things worse was the Smackdown Live announce team of JBL, Tom Phillips, and David Otunga professing Shane McMahon to be “built like an NFL linebacker,” and that “he might wear that baggy shirt but believe me he’s ripped under there.” Come on guys. I get that you have to sell the match up but anyone pretending McMahon was a premiere athlete rather than a scrappy underdog with a big heart is kidding their self. “Can you imagine AJ, saying he was going to put on a wrestling clinic and then tapping out to Shane McMahon?” Moments later, “Can you imagine if AJ Styles, saying he was going to put on a wrestling clinic, passed out in a submission to Shane McMahon?” Ugh.
AJ carried the match and did what WWE knew he would do, sell like a champ and add to the drama. To AJ and Shane’s credit, they found a unique way to reverse into a Styles Clash, only to then spoil it by having Shane kick out at two… Then, after a ref bump, Styles brought out the hardware to foreshadow the tried and true Shane spot where he goes coast to coast and kicks a trashcan into his opponent’s face. Shane countered, slamming the can into AJ’s face and then set AJ up for the same spot. So much for this being “a pure wrestling match where Shane would be forced to wrestle.” Good thing AJ is the master of the last millisecond kick out. Shane would go on to attempt his top rope elbow through the announce table and AJ would jump out of the way. Despite this, Shane shrugged off the crash by attempting a shooting-star press, only to again miss. AJ would then hit a phenomenal forearm and score the pin fall.
Call this what you want but it’s a waste of AJ Style on WWE’s grandest stage. And at 38, who knows how many more opportunities they’ll have. This was a spot-fest with AJ carrying everything in between and hardly worth his his incredible past year.
Result: AJ Styles wins by pin fall after hitting a phenomenal forearm
United States Championship — Chris Jericho (c) vs. Kevin Owens: Another surprising match for so early in the card. Next to Rollins v. Triple H, it was probably the best story line going in to Wrestlemania. A more fitting second match would’ve been the Raw Tag Team Titles. Either way, let’s get to the breakdown.
Coming out swinging, both men immediately sold the hatred that had boiled over since Owens’s betrayal at the Festival of Friendship. Jericho took control early, but Owens would come right back, showing a ruthless streak unlike anything we’ve seen before (which is saying something).
The two went back and forth, taking turns taunting and smack talking one another. Another welcomed inclusion was the perhaps unintentional wound above KO’s left eye. This most likely occurred during a fantastic dropkick by Jericho, and appeared to be more a friction burn than cut but either way the streak of red added to the bitter rivalry that had finally come to a head.
In the end, Jericho would succumb to a Pop-Up Power Bomb, after kicking out of the first one. Normally my view is to keep a finishing maneuver as strong as possible, but here I think the kick out was wisely handled. As well as these two know each other and have battled together, it makes sense to have it take just that little bit more for one to go over the other. Plus, it gave us a chance to see a Pop-Up Power Bomb reversed into a Code Breaker.
While Jericho is as over as ever these days, WWE made the right choice in going with Owens here. Jericho is scheduled to return to his band’s touring schedule and Owens was in desperate need of heat and momentum following his burial at the hands of Goldberg last month. It’ll be up to Owens to carry the gold moving forward and prop up the mid-card once more.
Result: Kevin Owens by pin fall to become the new United States champion after delivering a power bomb on the ring apron
Raw Women’s Championship — Bayley (c) vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks vs. Nia Jax: Quick question. Is it not a thing anymore for the champion to come out last? Seriously. Charlotte got the last entrance instead of Bayley, the champion. It makes for a very strange sight.
As for the match itself, this was… not great. Considering what these four women are capable of and the story lines that were prevalent going in, WWE creative pretty much wasted everything here. Nia Jax was the final addition to this match, leading many to believe WWE was finally ready for the Braun Strowman of the women’s division to take the title and enjoy a lengthy reign. Instead, Jax was triple-teamed and swiftly cast aside by a triple-power-bomb off the top rope.
Okay, so how about that Sasha Banks heel turn WWE has been teasing for the past couple of months? Well, Charlotte would unceremoniously eliminate The Boss shortly after Jax by removing the middle turn-buckle and then flinging her face-first into it after kicking out of a bridging roll-up. And then there were two. Charlotte would proceed to slam Bayley’s knee into the exposed turnbuckle to setup her opponent for an eventual Figure 8, but after an underwhelming one on one confrontation, Bayley would deliver a Macho Man elbow drop from the top after Charlotte appeared to hit her head on the exposed turnbuckle for the three count.
Yeah, you see the problem here. This match was incredibly short for being a four woman elimination match and it would advance NONE of its story lines in the process. Making matters even worse, Charlotte’s loss at Fastlane sucked out any of the emotion Bayley’s rally and eventual win could’ve had. The moment felt flat, and now The Queen has suffered pin falls in back-to-back pay per views.
Result: Bayley pins Charlotte after hitting a Macho Man elbow to retain the Women’s Championship
Raw Tag Team Championship Ladder Match — Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson (c) vs. Enzo Amore & Big Cass vs. Cesaro & Sheamus vs The Hardy Boyz: Well hot damn. FINALLY something exciting. Making a surprise return, Matt and Jeff Hardy, AKA Team Xtreme injected immediate energy into this tag team ladder match. It wouldn’t be a tag team ladder match at Wrestlemania without The Hardyz.
The match itself was solid as far as ladder matches go these days. Almost all innovation has been done already so you’re going to be somewhat limited with regard to finding something new to do. Even still, these four teams tried. There was Hardyz nostalgia, Enzo being thrown time and again as a lawn dart by his own partner, and plenty of stiff ladder shots to go around. Each time was given an opportunity to shine and undoubtedly brought the crowd to life. Hopefully this isn’t the last such match up between these four teams. How great would it be to see a three-part series of ladder matches like the Hardyz, Dudleyz and Edge and Christian had?
In the closing moments, we saw a Twist of Fate from the top of a ladder, a swanton off a twenty foot ladder onto Sheamus and Cesaro through TWO ladders, capped off by Matt Hardy retrieving the Raw Tag Team titles to become a seven time champion with his brother.
Result: The Hardy Boyz win the Raw Tag Team Championships
John Cena & Nikki Bella vs. The Miz & Maryse: This match was what we all expected it to be: a fairly short, fairly entertaining affair that would ultimately result in John Cena and Nikki Bella going over and then John Cena proposing in some cheesy manner in the ring. It was harmless. It’s just a shame that the departing couple got to go over the Miz and Maryse when they are white hot.
Result: John Cena and Nikki Bella win by double pin fall
Seth Rollins vs. Triple H: As far as Wrestlemania entrances go, Triple H is typically one of, if not the most, elaborate. This one… eh. Not so great. Rollins, meanwhile, brought a torch, touched it to the entrance ramp, and pretended to light the areana on fire. So double meh. I would’ve rather Rollins rush the ring or attack from the crowd. Even still, the two men went right at each other and delivered plenty of punishment, which is the best you could hope for. Rollins busted out the baby-faced high flying arsenal, desperately fought to keep Triple H away from his surgically repaired knee, and brought the fight to his former mentor.
In the second half of the match, Triple H finally seized control and proceeded to work over Rollins’s knee, tearing it to shreds as he methodically picked it apart. This wasn’t a spot-fest, and it even limited itself in the early going with regard to weaponry, but it managed to tell its story in a compelling way, something that’s lost on a lot of story lines these days.
In the latter part of the match, the stakes were ratcheted up to new levels. Rollins writhed in pain as he limped around on a shredded knee, hitting The Game with everything he had no matter the consequences on his own body. He continually came at his traitorous mentor, only to be cut down each time with a blow to the knee. But when all seemed lost, Rollins answered the call.
Hitting a superplex before rolling into a falcon arrow, Rollins scored a near fall. From there, he survived Stephanie’s interference and then another vision submission hold by the cerebral assassin. After Rollins kicked out of the Pedigree, Triple H set up his protegee for a top rope Pedigree, only for Rollins to reverse and strike with a Phoenix Splash. Triple H would kick out, but after Stephanie tried to get involved again, only to be accidentally knocked off the apron and put through a table by Triple H, Rollins would score with a Pedigree and get the three count
Result: Seth Rollins by pin fall after hitting the Pedigree
WWE Championship — Bray Wyatt (c) vs. Randy Orton: Setting aside how conflicted I feel over the booking of this one, this match at least tried to culminate a length story line between two of Smackdown’s top competitors, so for that I can at least appreciate it from a continuity standpoint. Whether or not the clear indicator of face vs heel has been well done or whether the feud has lost significant steam in recent weeks, that’s another story.
Orton stormed out of the gates to pummel Wyatt, even going for an RKO before a stunned Wyatt fled the ring. Orton would pursue but Wyatt would use this hot headed approach to his advantage, knocking the Viper back and then turning the ring beneath them to live maggots (or at least an animation of them).
The crowd responded well to Wyatt and his assault, ooing and aweing whenever he demonstrated his power, which he used again and again to play mind games. Wyatt controlled the majority of this bout aside from the opening moments, but that just made it all the more inevitable that Orton would rally. He did so with an RKO on the outside. Despite rolling Wyatt into the ring, Orton could only score a two count.
From here on, Orton would appear frazzled, frustrated in the ring as Wyatt continued to fight back. He’d even attempt his skull punt, only for Wyatt to counter. In the end, Orton would withstand Wyatt’s mind games and strike with his third RKO of the match. He then stared out to the crowd, took a breath, and nonchalantly pinned Bray Wyatt, half-assing the pin at best. There is no disputing it: Wyatt was buried despite the best work of his career over the past couple of months. He was made a paper champion for Randy Orton to dispatch of. All so Orton could become a thirteen time champion. This was nothing more than returning Orton the favor after letting Brock Lesnar bludgeon him back at Summer Slam.
Result: Randy Orton wins by pin fall via RKO to become WWE Champion
Universal Championship — Goldberg (c) vs. Brock Lesnar: Well, this was a spot-fest. Lesnar exploded out of the gate with three powerful german suplexes, only to see Goldberg hop to his feet and catch Lesnar with back to back spears that knocked Lesnar outside the ring. From there, Goldberg would strike again, delivering yet another spear that would send the challenger crashing through the barricade. Inside the ring, Goldberg would attempt a jackhammer, only for Lesnar to counter with an F-5 attempt. Goldberg would escape, hit a fourth spear, and then bury Lesnar with a jackhammer. 1. 2. Kick out. Shocked, Goldberg sank back into the corner and prepared for a fifth spear. He exploded for his challenge, Brock leapt over him, letting Goldberg hit his head on the turnbuckle. Lesnar would then unleash a tirade of german suplexes before hoisting the champion up for a final F-5. 1. 2. 3. I didn’t time the match, but I’m willing to guess it went about five minutes. At least a lot happened in those five minutes, even if the move sets weren’t all that diverse. 10 german suplexes, 4 spears, a jackhammer, an F-5. Shesh.
Result: Brock Lesnar wins by pin fall to become the new Universal Champion after hitting an F-5
Grade: C- (only for its explosive spots)
SmackDown Women’s Championship — Alexa Bliss (c) vs. Entire SmackDown roster: Going on surprisingly second-to-last, the Smackdown Women’s Championship match saw six competitors take to the ring in a first-pin-fall wins contest anchored by champion Alexa Bliss and hometown hero, Naomi, who was making her return to the ring after an injury forced her to relinquish the gold weeks ago. Much like the other women’s match earlier in the night, this match felt rushed and a bit clumsy. No one got much of a chance to shine, everyone just took turns trying to steal pins. Even still, since it wasn’t the story line let down the Raw Women’s match was, it gets the edge. In the end, Naomi won via submission to reclaim her title.
Result: Naomi wins the Smackdown Women’s Championship via submission
The Undertaker vs. Roman Reigns — No Holds Barred Match: Closing out Wrestlemania, this contest saw a special guest announcer in the form of Good Old JR, Jim Ross. The Hall of Famer immediately lent an aire of grandeur to the match, even more evidence perhaps that this is Undertaker’s last Wrestlemania, if not his final match.
The two powerhouses traded lows early, each talking smack as they knocked one another out of the ring. “This is MY yard,” they continued proclaimed. This was a slow, steady match in the early going, but, as is the case with many Wrestlemania matches, eventually turned into a spot-fest. The odds of one, let alone all three announcer tables surviving unblemished is next to zero, so fans had an idea of what was to come.
Reigns struck the first blow, spearing Undertaker through the Spanish announce table. Thankfully, being a No Holds Barred match, no count outs or DQs could be registered. This both protected Undertaker’s diminishing abilities and allowed the competitors to milk the drama of every high impact move.
After a plethora of super-man punches, spears, a tombstone, a hell’s gate submission hold, and more, the long-sought heel turn appeared to come to fruition. No Holds Barred or not, Reigns’s demeanor and actions were not that of a baby-face. He showed disbelief at Undertaker’s resilience, arrogance as he took control, disgust as the Deadman continually rose to his feet. The time for the heel turn had come…. And WWE squandered it. He was right there, his toes at the threshold of a career revival that would finally lead to fans’ acceptance. Instead, WWE drew back and let Reigns pin the Undertaker without a heel-turn. A sour note to end on.
Result: Roman Reigns wins by pin fall after hitting a Spear
I’m torn overall on what I think of this Wrestlemania. On one hand, we got some great matches like Triple H vs Seth Rollins and Chris Jericho vs Kevin Owens. But it also gave us duds like the Raw Women’s Championship match and the end of the Orton vs Wyatt match. It provided a shocking return with the Hardy Boyz, as well as an explosive, albeit short, brawl with Goldberg and Brock Lesnar. It saw significant highs and a couple of abysmal lows. But, overall, I feel it was a solid showing from WWE. At least until it failed to pull the trigger on a Roman Reigns heel turn. As such, the overall grade suffers somewhat. Nice moment giving Undertaker an appropriate send off though. Thumbs up there.
Final Grade: B-