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‘WrestleMania’ Redux

Lesnar vs. Goldberg! The Undertaker! Triple H! A marriage proposal? This year’s card is full of scenes we’ve seen before. Which is just how WWE wants it.

(WWE/Ringer illustration)
(WWE/Ringer illustration)

WrestleMania was born in 1985, but the legend began two years later at WrestleMania III, when Hulk Hogan squared off against the dastardly Andre the Giant. It was billed as a one-night-only mega-card, the culmination of a broken friendship between two titans. The match ended when Hogan slammed the 500-pound giant. "I never thought it could be done, Gorilla," said Jesse "The Body" Ventura after Hogan lifted Andre into the air.

Jesse might have been surprised to know that Andre had, in fact, been body-slammed before — including by none other than Hulk Hogan, who lifted Andre on several occasions, including at the Showdown at Shea in 1980, a WWF supercard that was the spiritual forebear of WrestleMania.

Pretending the past never happened so that we can celebrate the present is a unique gift of the pro wrestling enterprise. Just look at this year’s main event. For all the talk of Goldberg’s dispatching Brock Lesnar at the Survivor Series and again in the Royal Rumble, it’s usually glossed over that they already clashed at WrestleMania XX in one of the biggest stinkers in pro wrestling history. Both men were going to leave WWE after the event, and the fans knew it, and they revolted. The winner of the match, symbolically anyway, was guest referee "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who left both men lying after the bout. (Austin wasn’t going anywhere.) Goldberg mentioned the match when teasing a return last year, but WWE decided not to dwell on that awkward moment. Some things are best left to YouTube.

Of course, rematches are nothing new to wrestling or to sports in general — they’re what great sports lore is built upon. But pro wrestling coasts not just on repetition but on nostalgia, and never more so than at WrestleMania time. The preordained lineup intertwines with an obsession with the past: The Undertaker match, the Triple H match, the inevitable appearances by the Rock and Austin, the title match detached from the previous year’s title picture and repurposed for doubling down on the hype produced by the nostalgia-industrial complex. For the most diehard fans, WrestleMania can come off as a demeaning exercise: familiarity plus contempt. For others, and for WWE, it’s a celebration of the form and a time-tested tradition.

The first WrestleMania was built on the back of MTV and Mr. T and featured an appearance by legendary ex-champ Bruno Sammartino; the main event had as much to do with Rocky III as any wrestling rivalry. The legend of WrestleMania III often omits the oddball celebrity cameos — Bob Uecker, Alice Cooper, Mary Hart — and totally forgoes the fact that Andre himself was a part-time legend, the Undertaker of his day, during his main-event run.

So, yes, we’ve seen all of this before. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be great. Let’s look at the big matches on the card Sunday to see what feels familiar and what we might still be talking about 30 WrestleManias from now.

Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar — WWE Universal Championship Match

WWE split itself into two brands last year, ending up with two (nominally coequal) title belts. Don’t let that fool you, though — this is the undisputed main event of the night. The first Universal champion was Finn Bálor, the WWE’s next big thing, but he got injured while winning the strap, and WWE turned to Kevin Owens as its backup plan. Owens made gourmet chicken salad of the situation and held the company together for half a year, only to be shuffled aside to christen this rivalry with the crown.

Goldberg’s heyday was 15 years ago, he’s 50, and he’s wrestled for only five minutes in three appearances since his return last year. But his otherworldly charisma hasn’t diminished with age. (Nor, seemingly, has his otherworldly physique.) Lesnar has spent the bulk of the last decade in the UFC — including a one-match stint there last summer — and his WWE run since 2012 has been itinerant at best. But he had an epic run as a monster heel champion a couple of years ago. There’s no question that these are two of WWE’s biggest stars — but that their stardom comes from outside the WWE ring is also indisputable. One star was made in WCW, one in the UFC. And sure, we’ve seen them tangle before.

What It’ll Remind Us Of

Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar, WrestleMania 20
The first WrestleMania matchup between these two had all the same elements as this one, except that both have left and returned to the fold since then — evaporating the stench of abandonment that fueled the crowd’s rebellion the first time around. The build-up to their match at Survivor Series this past November had all of that built in, and all the trappings of a major match. But it didn’t have, well, a match. So take the hype from this past fall and combine it with the setting and stage of WM20 and viola, you’ve got … well, let’s hope they can do better this time out.

The Rock vs. "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan (WrestleMania X8)
Not every reminiscence is a straight-up rematch, nor will every comparison on this list be. If Goldberg and Lesnar’s own previous encounters don’t quite capture the majesty of this main-event offering, consider this parallel. The old star versus the late-career transcendent force. A fantasy match of two larger-than-life figures. A crowd on the verge of compelling an unplanned double turn. If Goldberg-Lesnar avoids being a letdown in the various styles of their previous run-ins, this is the bar.

(My podcast partner Dave Schilling smartly compared Rock-Hogan to Undertaker–Roman Reigns on The Masked Man Show, which you should listen to.)

Will We Remember It?

Probably — and hopefully for the right reasons. This is meant to be the bookend to their Survivor Series match, but it’s really the closing chapter in a 13-year redemption story, where two of the biggest names in the sport left it behind to find themselves, only to learn that they could only really exist in the god-size trappings of the pro wrestling world. There’s a chance we’ll be disappointed, but there’s also a chance they’ll realize that even in redemption stories, crowds can boo.

(WWE)
(WWE)

The Undertaker vs. Roman Reigns

We’ve never seen this matchup before, but we’ve seen 24 other Undertaker matches at WrestleMania — and at least 10 since they started publicizing Taker’s undefeated streak as a featured attraction. We know how this usually goes: Undertaker, the grizzled veteran, fights a grueling match and comes out on top. Except when his opponent is Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 30 and he doesn’t.

Taker and Reigns have had a quintessential WrestleMania Undertaker match setup — they had a stare-down at the Royal Rumble and a subsequent one at Raw, where in each instance Reigns insisted that WWE (or the WWE ring; the metaphor isn’t entirely clear) was his yard now, after it being the Undertaker’s yard for years. They point at signs, they issue challenges, bada-bing, we have a WrestleMania match.

The subtext here is juicier. This may well be Taker’s last match, and there is palpable tension between the wrestling tradition of always "going out on your back" (i.e., losing to help boost continuing talent) and honoring his legacy. On the other side of the ring is Reigns, the longtime favorite son of WWE management, whose never-ending ascent to becoming the company’s Next John Cena has been met with derision from the vocal segment of the fan base. On Monday, Reigns affirmed that he’s embracing the role of the villain in this match, which, depending on how you look at it, is what he’s been all along. A win would do a lot to pad Roman’s scripted résumé, but a hard-fought loss may put him in the good graces of his detractors. If the past two years of Reigns’s career can tell us anything, a win seems like a solid bet. But if WWE sees more value in Undertaker’s legacy than in a Reigns main event next month, a loss could make sense. There’s really no predicting this one.

What It’ll Remind Us Of

All of Undertaker’s WrestleMania matches, 1991-present. (Special focus on Undertaker vs. Batista at WrestleMania 23 and Lesnar at WrestleMania 30.)

Will We Remember It?

If the match succeeds in making us care about Roman, then yes. If it’s the Undertaker’s last match, as some reports (and human biology) suggest, then doubly so.

Bray Wyatt vs. Randy Orton — WWE World Championship Match

It’s a timeless tale: man fights cult, man joins cult, man burns cult’s mystical swamp shed to the ground to get revenge. Oh, and in the meantime, man wins the Royal Rumble and the cult leader wins the Elimination Chamber to become the WWE World Champion, so man and cult leader are pencilled in as opponents at WrestleMania. I’ve really enjoyed this story line, though I’ll admit it’s largely for the thrills of Wyatt as champion, his former toadie Luke Harper making the leap, and Orton being useful for the first time since the Authority. (The visual of those three as tag team champs was a visceral thrill in and of itself.) Wyatt has promised big things for this match: "If I were Goldberg or Brock Lesnar, I wouldn’t want to have to go on after me and Randy," he told Sports Illustrated. And if any match is positioned to exceed expectations, it’s this one. SmackDown has been not so quietly outdoing Raw from an entertainment perspective, but it still doesn’t have the mainstream sheen that Raw does. At Mania, Wyatt and Orton will get the platform they’ve been lacking, and both can excel when motivated. We know this because we’ve seen it before.

What It’ll Remind Us Of

Bray Wyatt vs. Randy Orton, No Mercy, October 2016

Will We Remember It?

This match will get time since it’s for a major title, and some of the other contenders for the Match of the Night crown could get cut short due to the length of the card. Orton has all the skills to be the new Mr. WrestleMania, but seemingly none of the motivation, and Bray has been shackled by the eccentricities of his gimmick. If they just go out there and fight, they have a chance. If Bray is right — and far be it from me to second-guess a fire-breathing Max Cady — this could be a surprise MOTN. It better be, because otherwise we’ll probably forget it happened by this time next year.

Shane McMahon vs. AJ Styles

This is a grudge match between two guys who’ve just turned up in WWE in the past 18 months — McMahon after years away from the company and Styles after 18 years on the indie and international circuit. So why does this feel so familiar? Maybe it’s because they’ve interacted enough on SmackDown as commissioner and erstwhile champion to make you think they’ve traded blows. Or maybe it’s because Shane has quickly institutionalized himself as a WrestleMania regular like his brother-in-law Triple H. He’s even got a routine now — roll in late, start a feud with a major star, and elbow drop said star through the announce table from the top rope to prove that he’s a threat.

The difference between this match and last year against the Undertaker is that Shane — who, for all his enthusiasm and daredevilry, isn’t much of a workhorse — is going from an opponent with the mobility of, well, a dead man, to one who’s had one of the best in-ring years in WWE history. Shane will inevitably jump off of something impressively, but Styles will make everything else click, just like he did with John Cena and Dean Ambrose and this guy:

(WWE)
(WWE)

What It’ll Remind Us Of

The Shane McMahon oeuvre with a side of Styles vs. James Ellsworth

Will We Remember It?

WWE won’t let us forget it. For all the fans who lamented this matchup for Styles, this is the option that will do the most for his legacy. Immortality via WWE highlight packages is nothing to sneeze at.

Kevin Owens vs. Chris Jericho

Jericho and Owens have tangled before, but not since their epic run as best buds over the past six months, and the dissolution of said friendship in one of the most singularly entertaining non-wrestling segments on WWE television since crotch chops were a thing.

The story at its postmodern core is a heartwarming one: a tale of two unlikely protagonists — a has-been and a never-should-have-been — thrust into the roles of WWE’s unlikely savior and his unlikelier sidekick. That they managed to draw loud boos from the crowd even as they put on dueling maestro performances is even better — they were so good the crowd let them be bad.

But we’ve seen many dear friendships break up before, from Hogan and Orndorff to Hogan and Andre to Hogan and Savage to, well, Owens and his other former friend, Sami Zayn. The Owens and Jericho split was inevitable from the moment they started palling around. They’ve earned a marquee spot at WrestleMania even in the absence of the Universal title, which is the melancholy ending to a truly heroic tale.

(WWE)
(WWE)

What It’ll Remind Us Of

1. Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage, WrestleMania V

2. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn, Battleground, July 2016

Will We Remember It?

Definitely. On Sunday, they’re spotlight-adjacent, and Jericho isn’t the in-ring workhorse he once was, but this has the makings of a WrestleMania memory. Let’s hope that even though WWE took the belt off Owens, it’s smart enough to give him a chance to make good at Mania.

Bayley vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks vs. Nia Jax — Raw Women’s Championship Match

These four have clashed in just about every feasible combination over the past few months, culminating in a tag match Monday night. But for all the deck-chair shuffling — and despite the banner year that the women’s division has had — the match smacks of previous eras of mindless multi-woman matches. Best-case scenario is that they reproduce the magnificence of last year’s triple threat between Charlotte, Sasha, and Becky Lynch. Worst case, it’s four big entrances that lead to one big schmoz.

What It’ll Remind Us Of

Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch — Triple Threat WWE Women’s Championship Match, WrestleMania 32

Will We Remember It?

If something happens story line–wise — like, say, Sasha turning on her good friend Bayley — it’ll have some currency for the next several months. But what should be memorable about this match — the crowning achievement for the unfathomably great year that Charlotte and Sasha have had — is muddled by the blur of players and motives.

Triple H vs. Seth Rollins

The history of wrestling is littered with teacher-student relationships gone bad — this is one of those. Rollins was Triple H’s evil protégé until he was kicked out of the club last fall. Wrestling’s also seen its share of grudge matches and no-holds-barred brawls, and — thanks to the "hold harmless" deal Rollins signed to allow him to wrestle with a bum knee (that Trips was responsible for, naturally) — this one will be a brawl, which may do a disservice to Rollins’s ring repertoire and Triple H’s late-life conversion to a ring technician, but if nothing else, it’ll feel familiar.

What It’ll Remind Us Of

1. Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H, WrestleMania 30
Bryan was the bandaged, beleaguered underdog, just like Rollins.

2. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper vs. Goldust — Hollywood Backlot Brawl, WrestleMania XII
The peak of WrestleMania slobberknockery.

Will We Remember It?

This match will likely feed into story lines over the next six months, so it will be kept in the forefront. But for as brutal a match as they’ve projected, this will have to be more than just a slugfest to stand the test of time.

(WWE)
(WWE)

John Cena and Nikki Bella vs. The Miz and Maryse

This match is a car crash of competing interests: The John Cena spotlight match, the Total BellasTotal Divas promotional match, and the Reward-For-A-Banner-Year match for the Miz. The pieces are logical, but the product leaves something to be desired. The last time Cena and Miz faced off at a WrestleMania, it was a title match in the company’s creatively lean years, with Miz an undeserving champion and Cena a tiresome challenger. Now both men are at the height of their talents — Cena is enjoying a winter renaissance and Miz is finally growing into his born-heel skin. If they were revisiting their feud in the main event, they’d deserve it. Instead they’re in a midcard intergender match that seems built to rankle.

The build, it should be said, has been wholly entertaining — Miz and Maryse’s Total Bellas parodies are really incredible, and Cena and Nikki seem to be having the time of their lives as an in-ring tandem. There are rumors that the payoff for the match won’t be a triumphant pinfall but an in-ring proposal by Cena to his longtime lady friend. (Al Roker, cohost of Cena’s occasional weekday morning hangout, the Today show, is the special guest ring announcer for the match. Get it? Ring announcer?) I think they’ll find a way to give us a 10-minute Cena-Miz rematch within the confines of this extracurricular lovefest, but regardless, there’s a lot of familiarity here.

What It’ll Remind Us Of

1. The Miz vs. John Cena at WrestleMania 27

2. "Macho King" Randy Savage and Sensational Queen Sherri vs. Dusty Rhodes and Sapphire, WrestleMania VI — the ne plus ultra of mixed tag matches.

3. (Possible) "Macho Man" Randy Savage proposing to Miss Elizabeth, WWF Superstars, June 17, 1991

Will We Remember It?

Proposals and weddings have a weirdly significant place in wrestling history, and if there’s a proposal in this match, it will be replayed, then this will be replayed on heartwarming WWE video packages for years to come — and let’s not slight the next season of Total Divas, which will surely be enthralled in this story line. Love, angst, and endlessly recycled mainstream legacy — that’s what WrestleMania’s all about.