The past several days have offered sorely needed clarity, bringing the WrestleMania picture into focus and fixing attention spans on WWE’s upcoming Fastlane PPV (the last such brand-exclusive event for the foreseeable future). Despite (or because of) the penicillin gin of the Mania card, there’ve been plenty of boos and hisses about the collective outcomes of last weekend’s Elimination Chamber and subsequent episodes Raw and SmackDown. Namely, that Roman Reigns and John Cena each surmounted seemingly impossible odds en route to predictable placement atop the pack.
(To be fair, there have been hearty cheers for roughly half the developing, spotlighted story lines, particularly when it comes to the Monday night women’s ranks and Tuesday’s terrific tag-team tension, as the Usos, New Day, and Bludgeon Brothers breathed life into Fastlane and its fallout.)
But given that we now know Reigns will battle Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship and Asuka will go for gold against Raw Women’s champ Alexa Bliss, the real Mania intrigue surrounds—who else—the 40-year-old 16-time champ, John Cena. He failed to win in Sunday’s Elimination Chamber, which would have given him a shot at Lesnar’s Universal title, so he went to Smackdown and beat A.J. Styles to earn a spot in the Fastlane main event. If he wins that match, he’ll go to New Orleans as WWE champion. So to help put April 8’s show of shows in perspective, let’s start by examining prospective Cena-rios and see how the card spills out from there.
Cena v. Mysterio
Four years ago, Rey Mysterio stormed the Royal Rumble’s titular match as its final entrant and was summarily booed for the sin of not being Daniel Bryan. This past January, the lucha legend snuck up on audiences as participant no. 27, and was greeted with a substantially more approving round of cheers. And if Sports Illustrated’s Justin Barrasso is onto something, Mysterio may suddenly find himself staring up at John Cena when the bell rings at Mania 34. It’s almost impossible to glean what’s compelling about these two pairing off unless Mysterio makes his mark on SmackDown with some pent-up swagger and real talk about reclaiming stature. But all of this presumes Cena’s on the losing end after Fastlane’s Six-Pach Challenge for A.J. Styles’s WWE Championship. Though it’s awfully hard to see the purpose in Cena pivoting off his loss at Elimination Chamber just to jump brands, best Styles in prime time, and come up anticlimactically short of a shot at becoming the record-breaking 17-time champ. Then again, stranger things have happened.
So If Cena Does Lose at Fastlane …
And we set aside speculation about Mysterio, where does that leave not only John-John but the other handful of men—Styles, Dolph Ziggler, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn and Baron Corbin—with exactly four installments of SmackDown between then and Mania? It’s a shame that Miz is monopolizing the Intercontinental strap on Raw because any of those last four individuals would make sense vying for WWE’s ostensible silver medal. Former IC-title holder Owens and his BFF Zayn still appear tangled up in whatever’s in the works with adversarial Commish Shane McMahon and GM Daniel Bryan. Styles vs. Nakamura is on the books (if Styles retains, and the odds are in his favor), so that’s both the path of least resistance and a kind of official “up yours” to New Japan (and, to a lesser extent, Ring of Honor), the land from which both wrestlers were plucked. Cena and Ziggler, meanwhile, are not without history, and Corbin—as a kind of stringy-haired analog to Elias on Raw—is evidently considered a big piece of wherever the future is headed. Perhaps Survivor Series will come early and five of these six will get roped into some kind of Team Shane vs. Team Bryan standoff. For viewers’ sake, some seeds will hopefully be planted to help us crystal ball all this before Fastlane’s final laps.
What If the Undertaker Match Actually Happens?
That would certainly help un-clutter things a tad. Cena’s fake-out on Tuesday, in which he withdrew a challenge to the ostensibly retired Dead Man moments after teasing it, was an epic trolling. Optimists will observe that Taker didn’t so much formally call it quits after losing to (guess who?) Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 33 as he did shed a skin. (As represented rather heavy-handedly by his Wicked Witch homage.) Those with no regard for the soon-to-be-53-year-old’s physical well-being—or who didn’t see what happened to Sting when he took it too far at age 55—might fantasize about him vindicating his loss last year at Dr. Thuganomics, MD’s expense. And it is true that Taker’s understated cameo at Raw’s 25th anniversary would be a ho-hum grace note on which to conclude his career. But it’s equally true that there are myriad Mania angles for Cena that would serve as launching pads for coming conflicts rather than grind up more ephemeral grist for the nostalgia mill. If, for some reason, the Phenom rises and accepts, it will almost inevitably be Cena who (finally, in the estimation of some) gets buried.
And About That Universal-Championship Drama
We’ll eat crow and confess we were pie-eyed to think Braun Strowman or anyone not named Roman Reigns would rule the day at Elimination Chamber and get to (maybe) slay the Beast (i.e., Brock Lesnar) at Mania. Call it wishful thinking. We’ll duly admit to being stunned by the force of Reigns’s on-point Raw promo on Monday, whether or not Lesnar no-showing was unplanned or simply part of giving Roman room to assert himself. Where was Lesnar, anyway? It could be that Dana White is blowing smoke about Lesnar looking good for a comeback in UFC, if not straight-up scheming with WWE to stir up mutually beneficial drama for their respective promotions. There are reasons to love and/or hate both Reigns and Lesnar, but everything in their histories bodes well for the kind of dynamic, physical theater that pro wrestling—and Mania headliners especially—have always been about.
As for Braun Strowman …
Let’s assume WWE has bigger plans for the Monster Among Men at Mania than battering through Elias. It’s difficult to see what either up-and-comer stands to gain from the experience, except of course for wrestling on a freakin’ WrestleMania card. (Something that, as the Usos reminded this week, isn’t always a given, even when you’re multitime champs.) Strowman is a sure thing with years of draw ahead. There’s plenty of sense in slow-building his main-event mystique following a speedy and successful run up the ladder. And much as haters hate to hear it, this might be the company’s only shot to seize on the box-office bonanza of hyping Lesnar v. Reigns. Besides, who’s to say Strowman and Elias’s animosity won’t get spicier with a no. 1 championship contender prize on the line? Or, since WWE is falling over themselves to book orgiastic match scenarios, that both guys don’t get tossed into the Intercontinental stew.
And Then There’s Everyone Else
No slight intended—but every Mania card is bloated, and hypothesizing about this one could fill a novel. There’s been a groundswell of enthusiasm for 205 Live, and the Cruiserweight Championship Tournament finals would make for a great way to set Mania’s pace. (Our money’s on former ROH lifer Roderick Strong, per the whole thumbing their nose at other promotions thing.) Barring that, kicking off with one last hurrah for The Usos and New Day is a newly charged notion, on account of Big E’s big-time rebuttal to Jimmy and Jey. Impossible, you respond? Not if the Bludgeon Brothers disrupt their Fastlane clash, setting up a three-team tango in New Orleans. But back to Miz and that IC belt, it would be served best by changing hands to Finn Bálor or Seth Rollins, allowing those two to press play on their short-circuited 2016 feud. Then maybe, just maybe, when Dean Ambrose is back, Bálor Club and The Shield can become more than some 2K18 pipe dream. Cesaro and Sheamus, Raw tag-team champs, claim to have run through all their possible competition, which may open the door for a new team (cough, Authors of Pain, cough) to jump into the fray. And lastly, let’s close out with a look at Raw’s women’s ranks (SmackDown champ Charlotte’s course is pretty muddy once you get past a probable Fastlane win over Ruby Riott). All credit to Nia Jax for keeping herself in the foreground of Asuka’s upcoming collision with Alexa Bliss. One jaw-dropping barricade spear at Elimination Chamber added a hint of doubt as to whether the Empress of Tomorrow can continue her undefeated streak by toppling the division’s best. If Jax interferes, prompting a resumption of she and Asuka’s hostilities, the end result could be as rewarding as the more obvious alternative. For her part, Bliss has made us nearly forget about the ghosts of ghastly promos past with flashes of royal villainy. Ronda Rousey, who projects a bit stiff on-camera so far, could do worse than looking up to her five-foot competition.
Speaking of Rowdy Ronda …
Even Mike Tyson had a better poker face than Rousey during his brief ’98 program allying with DX. The former UFC women’s bantamweight champ has made no secret of her lifelong WWE fandom. As such, she can be forgiven for getting caught up in the moment at her Elimination Chamber contract signing and ensuing Raw appearance when she careened from overeager blushing to broadly serious stares. But Rousey is no celebrity guest host or hired gun. She’s a contracted, full-time worker, and she’ll have to figure out how to compartmentalize her enthusiasm and contrive the kind of stoic badassery that came naturally as she pounced on Octagon prey. An apparent mixed-tag Mania debut alongside Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon offers perfect cover for, and distraction from, her growing pains. Case in point: that showcase belly-to-belly on Triple H through a table. It’s hard to argue wanting to speed up Rousey’s timeline to make her part of this year’s biggest night, but the best thing for her and WWE’s investment—and to ensure fans don’t turn on her like ’96-era Rock—is the chance to land some big spots and a submission win to the roaring approval of a sold-out Superdome. Then, as in her winning MMA days, she’ll start routinely landing her familiar, cocky verbal blows.