WrestleMania is, for all intents and purposes, an event that brings out both the best and the worst in the weird world of professional wrestling. That's fitting, actually, since it's a celebration of what pro wrestling in itself is: namely, the most exhilarating and simultaneously profoundly maddening sporting event you can spend time with. Whether it ends up being an excellent card or merely fair to middling, April's big deal often comes down to a moment (or, if you're lucky, several) that define not only the pay-per-view itself, but perhaps that era of wrestling as a whole. Storylines, characters, and overall company direction can progress from these moments. There is no doubt that the crowning of Daniel Bryan as champion after that long, strange trip was validation of a moment. How big of a moment? Time will tell.
That said, it's difficult to overstate the fact that even with that storyline of overcoming ridiculously stacked odds to send the evil Authority to their rightful place, the biggest moment of Sunday's event was unquestionably the ending of the Streak. As a jaded, cynical wrestling fan, I can count on one hand the number of times that I've been sitting in front of my television absolutely gobsmacked over what just occurred. How can anyone possibly be surprised watching a predetermined event? The only possible way is, naturally, the swerve. It's a subject I've discussed at length here at TJR, and it's been done (and overdone) to the point of frustration. There will always be swerves of course, particularly in this instantaneous culture of immediate gratification, as the powers that be and the men behind the curtain pull whatever strings need tugging in their quest to stay one step ahead. But they must be timed right to be effective, certainly if the aftershocks are to be felt for a lengthy amount of time. This was the king of all swerves.
One thing that must be made clear, regardless of any feelings we might have about the outcome, is that the WWE painted themselves into a corner with this streak. What surely started as a fun idea grew into a powerhouse affair, and amazingly enough, the Undertaker kept cranking out astonishingly good matches to keep pace. And let's face it, folks: there was very little misdirection here. Whether Taker wrestled once or a hundred times a year during this unprecedented run, he managed to put it all together and tell the most captivating of stories at the most important times. He continued to find ways to take what could have been an incredibly one-dimensional character and test the limits of it. And he found a way to work with an opponent to attempt to steal the show year after year, regardless of anything else that might have been going on at the time.
That's why the WWE was faced with the most difficult of choices regarding this streak. Topping it year after year would eventually become impossible, risking turning something magical into farce in the blink of an eye. Ending it would take one of the few remaining legendary stories and not giving it the happy conclusion so many of us expected it to have. Finding a way to tell the same story is hard enough; wrestling script writers have struggled with that very concept since almost the beginning. Finding a way to convincingly paint an opponent as a threat to end a run that has already stared down every type of adversity and thrived is damn near impossible. I'm certainly not appealing to anyone that they picked the right man for the job. Rather, I'm stating clearly that no man would be right for the job. In doing such an amazingly good job telling this story, they failed to anticipate the rather limited options they had for bringing it to its terminus.
As for this particular day and time, the build to this match was lacking. Whether that's due to both men's limited schedules or the way the idea was fleshed out, at pretty much no time was Brock Lesnar presented as a credible threat. That certainly could have been careful calculation, but I'm of a mind that it had far more to do with the way Lesnar has been booked since making his much-heralded return home. No doubt Lesnar vs. Taker was a match many envisioned the minute we heard he was indeed returning, but now that the moment had arrived it couldn't help but feel a bit underwhelming. Ditto the match itself, which (possibly due to injury) lacked the high-wire drama and sheer physical exertion that served as hallmarks of previous Undertaker affairs. Undertaker looked spent after some early offense, and Lesnar appeared uncomfortable as he performed punch after punch and figured out what he was going to do next. All part of the plan or evidence of a failure to launch? You decide.
The punch and passion of this drama was, as usual, handled by Paul Heyman, who has done nothing but pay dividends since his own return to the WWE. Lesnar needs Heyman not just for his words but also his expressions, his ability to communicate far more with a simple stare or smile than others can do with an open microphone and a long segment. Heyman's ability to nail promos had plenty to do with establishing what there was of this feud, just as it did when his last client, the departed CM Punk, engaged in his own quest to finish off the streak. It might not have been enough to carry this day, though. The expectation was through the roof before the match even began. I'm not sure that it's fair to either man, particularly Taker at this stage of his career, but there's no doubt fans were seeking yet another show stealer here. It wasn't going to happen, even in the best of cases.
The ending was amazingly odd, ridiculously gutsy, and mind-bogglingly inane all at once. To have Undertaker fail to kick out after taking Lesnar's finisher three times wasn't in itself the issue: this is ground we've all traversed many times before. What sealed the deal in my mind was what happened after the pin. While shots of stunned fans kept rolling in, Lesnar and Heyman hammed it up and walked away, leaving the announcing team to perform an "impromptu" standing ovation (most notably JBL, who was in full heel mode all night long barring this) and Taker to spend the better part of fifteen minutes looking dazed and confused as he clambered out of the ring and out of the arena. If this was the proposed sendoff, I'd have to think there was a more effective way. But as far as shock and awe go, mission accomplished.
To hand this laurel to Lesnar is an interesting move. Regardless of your opinion of him as an in-ring competitor (for me, the hype does not equal the general result), having a part-time contributor be the man to achieve this milestone is slightly puzzling at best. If this is an attempt to regain some of the momentum lost so far since Lesnar's return to the ring, it's understandable. Unfortunately, there can be little doubt that having Brock go toe-to-toe and decimate Undertaker with tons of offense only to lose by the slimmest of margins would be no less effective at proving his mettle. We've been hit over the head with Brock as beast incarnate: we get it. Being the (presumably) last one to wrestle Taker, let alone defeat him, on the grandest stage should in my mind be reserved for an up-and-coming superstar that the organization plans to bet the farm on. It's a perfect way to lend him an immediate aura of reverence as he enters the next phase. Not that there's anyone like that on the roster right now, mind you. If they are, they are most certainly waging war (and losing) to John Cena.
Undertaker owes us nothing at this point. He has actually found a way to get better with time, and he's been the glue holding the WWE locker room together during some very turbulent times. He's also managed to carve out a niche for himself that's less about titles and achievements and more about his persona, which is unbelievably old school and notable compared to how things generally work right now. There can also be very little doubt that he had a large amount of creative control over when (and to whom) he would be ending his streak to, once that decision was made. Before you decry the result, I merely offer that perhaps this moment more than any other offered notice that this "Realism Era" is truly upon us. From Messrs. Hogan, Austin, and Rock having a great moment at the beginning of the night and then pretty much disappearing to The Shield possibly headed down nebulous semi-face territory the next night on Raw, we have all the makings of a very interesting ride indeed.
Wrestling is a series of moments. Most of them take place within that squared circle. The truly notable ones grip us and never let go. Not all of them, unfortunately, are positive. What we watch matches our life experience in that way. Any type of raw emotion is something that every professional wrestler should strive for when they head through the curtain to entertain us. It is one of the reasons, presumably, why they do what they do, and it's an unbelievably huge reason why most of us love it so much. It's naturally, then, to take the decision personally. It wasn't the right way, the right time, the right opponent, or the right match. But would it ever be? In a world bereft of surprises and packed with spoilers, it's damn near impossible to reach back through the sands of time and produce something that can truly shock. That happened on Sunday night. You may not agree with the decision, but you have to respect it. As a wrestling fan, it's what we all signed up for.
*In terms of the main event at WM XXX, the easy route would be to say it's about time. The culmination of a storyline that went on forever and seemed to meander around incessantly finally paid off with the company handing its most important title to Daniel Bryan. That tale was furthered last night, as HHH immediately inserted himself into a Bryan title defense that ended up being another beatdown before a Shield save which most likely sent many readers headed straight for the heartburn medication. It would seem perhaps a bit rude to harp on something after getting to experience something as long-awaited as this, but hey, when has that ever stopped me? I appreciate the level of difficulty that Trips and company serve up to DB on a nightly basis and certainly think it added to this story in a major way. But presenting Bryan as indestructible is a tough sell for someone not cut from the same mold that action figures like Hogan and Warrior were, and I think we're bordering on that following stretches, sledgehammers, and finishing moves through tables. Adding adversity makes the story interesting, but too much takes an underdog story and turns it into Cena Lite. Bryan is going the "Vox Populi" route and it's working for him. Focus on his athleticism and pluckiness, for sure. But don't overdo it. There is simply no need to keep tacking on addendums to one of the more captivating stories in the WWE of recent memory.
*To say I was thrilled with the outcome of the Andre the Giant Invitational would be an understatement. Cesaro's long overdue split from Jack Swagger and Zeb was already good enough for me, but having him hoist battle royal "favorite" The Big Show (not that anyone saw that coming with how many times they hit us over the head with that moniker, mind you) and power him out was a thing of beauty. To follow that up with placing him in the Paul Heyman camp just puts me over the moon. I am slightly surprised that Cesaro didn't head down an immediate face road, but this works for me even more. It will give him an opportunity to build his character in ways that unfortunately did not pan out with Curtis Axel. Ditto my delight with Paige's appearance and victory over AJ Lee. That division is desperate for new characters and talent, and she's got plenty of both. We are truly heading down unprecedented territory for the WWE roster. More please.
*The Hall of Fame ceremonies were the usual mixed bag, but overall worth a look if you did not get a chance to see it. The main event was Warrior having the ability to say whatever he wanted, and while he ran a bit long (as did many), overall I thought the tone of it was remarkably restrained, especially for him. I was more enthused Monday, when he took his newfound "ambassador" status and cut an uplifting promo in the ring. Fans respond to UW and always have, and that's the important thing here. Now that he's achieved his place where he belongs, hopefully the past can be left where it is and he can bring that energy level and vitality to helping the next generation create their own heroes. Secondly, I was absolutely floored by the honesty of Jake "The Snake" Roberts. It's no surprise that he's one of the best talkers of any era, and he found a way to be fantastically uplifting and brutally honest all at the same time. Jake laid himself bare in a very public forum, and I give him absolute credit for that. It appears he has truly exorcised those demons, and that's about the best news any wrestling fan can hope for.
*News has finally broken that Jeff Jarrett is indeed starting up a wrestling promotion, and while anyone can be excused for having a healthy dose of skepticism, it's excellent to have even an appearance of eventual competition. A huge part of the WWE's issues of late is that there are no contenders to the throne, or even pretenders for that matter. No promotion is going to rise up and immediately challenge the WWE for dominance. What's important here is diversity and differentiation of the product. There are tons of ways to showcase professional wrestling, and as anyone that has spent any time watching the indy scene knows, just about all of it has its good points. Being a second WWE does nobody any good and is a recipe for almost certain disaster. Competition breeds creativity, and that's about the best thing out there for wrestling. I wish them well with the endeavor and will be keeping a close eye on it.