WrestleMania 34 is on April 8 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It’s the biggest show of the year, but it’s taken a little bit longer than usual for the supercard roster to get solidified. After Sunday’s Fastlane PPV and the following night’s episode of Raw, where John Cena made a WrestleMania challenge, we finally have an idea of how the top of the card will look. So David Shoemaker and Kenny Herzog decided to discuss the shape of the card, the winners and losers of the run-up to the big show, and everything that got us to this point.
David Shoemaker: Well, it finally happened. John Cena b-boyed his way into the ring Monday night, and (after massive amounts of equivocation and some hobnobbing with the front-row fans) he called out the Undertaker. For weeks, Cena’s story has been that he doesn’t have a WrestleMania match, and to some extent that might have been true-to-life; both WWE and the Undertaker were cautious about booking the 52-year-old Deadman, who seemingly retired a year ago. But we wrestling fans know that there’s no such thing as a callout without a destination, and Cena pulled out some vintage trash talk to shame the vintage superstar back into the ring. The Mania card this year is stacked, but it was lacking a super-duper draw, especially with Ronda Rousey sidelined into a tag match (more on that later). Cena-Undertaker is that match, and I have to say, I’m excited.
Kenny Herzog: On the one hand, I can’t believe I took the bait on this being a nonstarter after Cena’s last appearance, but it became self-evident given the outcome of his championship match at Fastlane (which, not insignificantly, featured him far more flatteringly than the Elimination Chamber throwdown). But there’s also a part of me that wanted to see how creative WWE could get without the Dead Man there. One way or another, I’m glad the guesswork is done. I was far less enamored than some with Cena’s promo Monday night. It came off a bit contrived and nonsensical to me (do we really need to spell out the differences between these two, and does it matter?), and I’m less than piqued by the notion of them lumbering around for 20 minutes, but it’s a more fitting return for the Deadman than whatever that anticlimactic Raw 25 cameo was about.
Shoemaker: The Raw 25 cameo was about nostalgia and reminding us that the Undertaker exists—which is pretty much the play at WrestleMania, too. I don’t think these guys will put on a wrestling clinic, but they’ll make it work. Taker had a hip replacement last year and is apparently in the best shape he’s been in in years, and Cena hits the baseline for an Undertaker opponent in 2018: He can carry Taker through a match, both literally and figuratively. The bar that Taker has set in Manias past is high, but the goal here is going to be Andre vs. Hogan—a huge moment that we’ll remember in mental photographs rather than on video. It won’t be a five-star match like Savage-Steamboat, and it shouldn’t even try to be.
That’s the territory of AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, the bout for the WWE Championship. (For the uninitiated or lapsed fan, the WWE Championship is the lead title on SmackDown, which nominally makes it the no. 2 title in the company.) Nakamura earned his title shot by winning the Royal Rumble in January, and Styles retained his title in a Six-Pack Challenge on Sunday’s Fastlane PPV, making official the WrestleMania dream match of every hardened smark in the world (present company included). Of course, these two have gone at it previously—at New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 10 in 2016—and they had one of the best matches in recent memory. Of course, that was in another company with a different style and different expectations. Is there any way they can top it at WrestleMania? Would WWE even let them? Will there even be time for them to have a match of that caliber on a card this packed?
Herzog: Those are the kinds of questions people will be tuning in for. And I confess Shinsuke was never my favorite New Japan superstar to watch perform. I’ve been mesmerized by the way WWE fans have embraced his eccentricity, which hasn’t been too watered down since he came to the States. What I’m really excited for is the prospect of him and AJ Styles being given the platform to bring out each other’s best on wrestling’s biggest stage, satisfying smarks and neophytes alike not simply because this match even exists, but because of how it delivers. I’ll be very interested in the buildup to this. The presentation for their match at WK10 couldn’t have been more different, with Styles as the soon-to-be-departing Bullet Club boss vying (in vain, inevitably, as he was immediately heading out the door for WWE) for Nakamura’s IWGP Intercontinental belt. One of these two has to play the heavy, and one would think this is Nakamura’s moment (Styles, after all, skipped straight to the head of the line while Nakamura slummed it in NXT for a spell). All I really want is a solid half-hour of crisp execution with a clean, thrilling end. To your point about Taker and Cena sticking in people’s minds via still images à la Hogan and Andre, this bout could, ideally, live on as more of a Savage-Steamboat–esque mini-motion picture.
Shoemaker: Exactly. It’s an honor that they’ve earned the Savage-Steamboat spot on the card, but the hard part is living up to that. It’s been a tough position for the work-rate dream matches in recent years—Jericho-Punk comes to mind—because there’s never time to let it be special. Even if WWE wants it to be that good, precedence always goes to returning stars like Cena and Taker and the main events. And even though Styles-Nakamura is a title match, the most important belt on the line in New Orleans is the Universal title, which Brock Lesnar will be defending against Roman Reigns. The build to this one has been interesting, to say the least. Everybody who’s ever read a wrestling blog knows (or “knows”) that Reigns is the favorite here, and that’s been a recipe for disaster in the past for WWE. Reigns is great, but fans hate that WWE is so intent on making him work as a megastar. For its part, WWE has doubled down, making the feud about Reigns’s commitment to the company as opposed to Lesnar’s part-time, mercenary status. Is what WWE is doing working?
Herzog: That’s precisely what’s happening, re: the doubling down. I was amazed to see WWE break the fourth wall, as it were, by having Reigns bust in on Vince McMahon backstage during Raw this week.
It’s almost overkill, but with Lesnar largely in absentia, WWE does need to stack the deck. Thing is, though, I guarantee this match will bring the goods. I think you have to end the night with it, simply because it will offer something right in the sweet spot between Taker and Cena’s clash of titans and Styles and Nakamura’s more elegant staging. And I’m convinced that—as with Cena—part of what fans the flames of peoples’ ire toward Roman is that, love him or not, he wrestles his ass off and entertains. I’m not saying it’s all Bronx cheers. There’s still some real, residual resentment there between him and the WWE universe, but Reigns is starting to give it back as convincingly as he’s taken it, and he’s making that tension his own. I’m always excited to watch Brock, and ever-grateful when we get weeks of Paul Heyman hustling for attention. Outside of Asuka vs. Charlotte and the SmackDown tag-team merry-go-round, this title match is what I’ve got highest Mania hopes for so far.
Shoemaker: Let’s not get too excited. Lesnar has spent about an hour wrestling between WrestleMania 2017 and now, and a number of those minutes were spent lying under an announce table. If he’s motivated to put Roman over, this match could be fantastic. But if he’s more motivated to stay healthy for another UFC run—like he was during his disappointing match against Dean Ambrose at WrestleMania 32, this could be a risky note to end the show on. But I am excited for it, for practical reasons. Despite the current story line that features Reigns calling Lesnar Vince’s “boy” (which explains his lax contract obligations), everybody in the cheap seats sees Reigns as Vince’s pet project. Vince has been trying to end WrestleMania with Reigns standing tall as champion for years, and I’m ready to get off this hamster wheel. I’m also ready to get the title belt out of whatever wintry tree stand Lesnar keeps it in and back onto Monday Night Raw. Whatever you think about Reigns (and like you said, you should think highly of him), he’s right in saying that he shows up to work.
You mentioned Asuka vs. Charlotte Flair. This has been a weird one, only because WWE took its sweet-ass time finalizing it. It should be an epic showdown between two of the most dominant wrestlers ever on the women’s side, but the uncertainty about Rousey’s spot on the card dragged out the announcement until Sunday night at Fastlane. On the one hand, the story here writes itself, so we don’t need three months of buildup, but handled correctly, this match could be the main event rather than a rush job.
Herzog: I think you’re right on two counts, namely the potential for Asuka-Charlotte to be a show-stealer, and the confusion and delay surrounding this thing being booked to begin with. Not to sound overly cynical, but is WWE really ready to go all in on Japan’s finest front-lining Tuesday night’s men’s and women’s divisions? Fans are, I think, but does the company have enough faith in the millions of consumers it so often credits with all its success? Then again, is there even any guarantee that Asuka and whoever comes away with the Raw women’s title (Nia Jax over incumbent Alexa Bliss, we assume) won’t swap belts and broadcasts by April 10? Asuka is amazing, and so is Charlotte, and I’m as weary from months and months of Stephanie McMahon’s patronizing speeches about women’s revolutions (how many female superstars were among the company’s top 2017 earners, again?) as you are on the Roman Reigns hamster wheel. In both cases, folks are already buying what you’re selling, so it’s time to quiet the carnival barking and just let the talent promote itself.
Shoemaker: But carnival barking is part of the game. It’s why one of the biggest losers this week was Alexa Bliss, who lost her big-name dance partner when Asuka went to SmackDown to challenge Charlotte. Alexa will be fine, and her match (presumably against Nia Jax) will be fun, but she’s had such a good year that you wish the women’s division would pull a page out of the men’s book and bring back Trish Stratus for a legend-vs.-contemporary-star fight.
Speaking of Stephanie McMahon, though, we haven’t even discussed the biggest match of the night, if casual fans and WWE PR are judges: Stephanie and her husband Triple H vs. Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle. Two semi-retired wrestlers, one non-wrestler, and one very green wrestling rookie in the biggest spotlight of the year. What could possibly go wrong?
Herzog: Ha. Ya know, I got a lot of flack for commending the multigenerational fogey fight at last year’s Survivor Series, and I should be suspect of this one for all the reasons you mention. But I sense that, like I do, you’ve got a sneaking suspicion that it could be a beautiful disaster. It’s primarily happening to facilitate an ephemeral thing—Rousey’s in-ring initiation—so it’s unlikely to generate many lasting memories, which is perhaps why it didn’t even come to mind as I mulled over my most-anticipated Mania matches. Or that could simply be on account of Rousey, Triple H, and Stephanie’s collective no-show, one of several conspicuous MIA jobs on both Raw and SmackDown this past week. The flip side is viewing this as the payoff of a tacit, two-year-long build dating back to Stephanie and Ronda’s initial rowdy run-in at Mania 31. In that respect, it’s already a bigger success than that slapdash Steph–Brie Bella business from 2014, which quickly ran out of gas. We know who will win, but the real drama concerns how ready Rousey is for this, giving the match authentic juice. And could it really go much worse than when CM Punk pulled a similar career transition in reverse?
Shoemaker: As lackluster (and I’m being kind by describing it as such) as Rousey’s brief run in WWE has so far been, it’s made a compelling video package, which is a point I often make. For WWE, the goal is often less about what happens on Raw or SmackDown, and more about how impressive the video package touting the PPV match is. And the same will hold true about Rousey’s WrestleMania match. The images of her standing tall over a fallen Triple H and Steph will render her debut a success, even if it is, as you say, a beautiful disaster. I can’t fault WWE for anything it’s done up until now; you have to sign Rousey if given the opportunity, and you have to feature her on the Mania card. Not putting her up against Flair or Alexa Bliss is a wise move for the legitimacy of the women’s division (ironic as that may sound when discussing a UFC champion). And putting her alongside the McMahons and Angle is a feature spot, no doubt. But at some point she’ll have to deliver in the ring, or it will all be for naught.
You mention the no-shows on TV this week. It’s conspicuous, but it’s deliberate, I think: WWE sometimes chooses to leave big matches off of Raw in order to give each big feud a week to shine. This week belonged to the Intercontinental title feud—the Miz defending the belt against both Seth Rollins and Finn Balor—and, more centrally, to Braun Strowman establishing himself as the one-man contender for the Raw tag-team belts, currently held by Sheamus and Cesaro. Strowman was the odd man out on the Mania card. He’s one of 2017’s real success stories, but he’s not getting a title shot or even a consolation match against Triple H. Will Strowman vs. the Bar be a step forward for the Monster Among Men?
Herzog: I’m not going to justify this Strowman-vs.-the-Bar Hail Mary. And while I concur that giving the IC story line some love was a wise move, I can’t pretend that I’m excited about it or feel particularly pumped for any of the participants not named Miz. Just to zoom in on Strowman for a second, though, how on earth did this happen? He was, as you observe, the story of the past year, and there is very little answer as to why he’s not facing Brock, other than substantiation of the “Roman or bust” theory of how WWE is handling business. I don’t have selective amnesia (though if I did, it would be par for the course with a classic wrestling trope), and neither do fans over the age of 5, and we all realize Sheamus and Cesaro’s partnership was far from organic. Alas, it’s been thrust upon us, and this is what it has wrought. Strowman can make anything worth watching, and you could argue this closes one chapter of his ascent—coming full circle from squashing two jobbers at once to toppling the best duo on Raw by his lonesome—as he hurtles toward an even bigger 12 months ahead. Either way, can someone please tell me why the hell I should “get these hands”?
Shoemaker: Trust me, you don’t want those hands. (You may want the official “Get These Hands” foam fists WWE will inevitably be selling sometime this year, though.) I think, in the absence of anything better to do with Strowman—and as much as I love the guy, it’s fair to at least argue about whether he’s properly slotted at this point in his career—the visual of him owning both tag titles is a funny concept. But if Strowman was the odd man out on the Mania card, Elias got it even worse when Strowman left him behind. Sure, Elias will play a song at WrestleMania and probably eat a Rock Bottom for his efforts, and that’s not nothing, but to go from the Elimination Chamber main event to DNP-Coach’s Decision at WrestleMania is a bad look. (If he somehow ends up being Strowman’s tag partner, forget I said any of this.) Before we leave the IC scene behind, I want to at least point out that for all the star power of the Universal title feud, and the work rate of the WWE title match, it’s possible that the IC title match has the most wattage. You called Miz the wrestler of the year (with good reason) and Rollins and Balor are “future is now”–level performers, both awaiting the right moment to shine. I’m excited about that match as much as any we’ve discussed, both because it could be really cool and because it’ll be interesting to see how it charts the course for the next six months of Raw. It’s almost a win-by-losing situation, because any of these three could be beefing with Reigns after WrestleMania, but probably not if they win the IC title.
Herzog: You’re not wrong to have high hopes for how all three men in the IC contest can bring it. Nothing but talent, charisma, and experience in that ring. I suppose I’m still foggy on how Finn (who I relish not having to reference by surname so I don’t have to format that accent over the “a”) and Seth wound up being spat out of the randomizer into this specific scenario (apart from their respective stables being deliberately rolled out or injury stalled), but it is absolutely a credit to them that keeping them in contention for a prestige title was paramount. And as you noted, it’s more of a bone than Elias was thrown. (P.S. If he and Strowman are Team Hell No 2.0, sign me up.) However, if we’re talking about A-list stars somewhat out of the upper-card loop, let’s tackle Randy Orton. Letting him walk into Mania as defending U.S. champ saves some face, and it’s not a meaningless notch, as this is his first turn with the belt. And it should be said that Orton’s track record (at least between the ropes) is such that he can survive hills and valleys and, even if he falls to either Jinder Mahal or Bobby Roode (if anyone, it will be Mahal, but probably not yet), he can take one of his customary hiatuses and return as a mysterious mega-heel by SummerSlam. Still, this is a rough look not too far removed from a long and awful angle with bogeyman Bray Wyatt. The truth of Bobby Roode is that he turns 41 in May and has made a hell of a lot more of this twilight opportunity than former TNA running mate Austin Aries, so anything further is gravy. Jinder, on the other hand, is comparatively fresh and multifaceted, and I am not among those who’ve confidently deemed his ’17 push a laudable bust. If WWE’s going to double down on any SmackDown regular in the upcoming era, it should be the Maharaja. So, apart from possible revulsion over what wrestling would look like if I were general manager, any other odds and ends we’re missing?
Shoemaker: For all the talk about whether Cena-Taker or the Rousey brouhaha might close the show instead of Lesnar-Reigns, I’ve got another modest proposal: Let the Usos and the New Day have the main event. That’s the only feud with a backstory like the early WrestleManias or Starrcades. Sure, it’ll never happen, and sure, the Terribly Dressed Bludgeon Brothers are tangling with both teams now, but we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the greatness of those five guys before their match gets shunted to the midcard (or worse, the preshow). Speaking of SmackDown, there’s one legitimate WrestleMania headliner we haven’t discussed: Shane McMahon. I know, I know. In terms of legend comebacks he’s not exactly the Undertaker, but at least to a certain set of casual fans (and to the WWE decision-makers), a match against Shane is a prime slot. This year, his exact role is up in the air, but it feels like we careening toward some kind of three-way dance with Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn—two other guys who, in another year, might have been at the top of the card—or, at least, the top of this conversation. These three can have a fun match and fill the highspot quotient for the night. Hell, this is the last thing we’re talking about here, but anyone who’s seen Owens and Zayn’s pre-WWE Ladder War history or any of Shane-O-Mac’s oeuvre knows that this fight may be the first thing we’re talking about after WrestleMania.
Herzog: It was inevitable that the Usos would get back over with the way they were bringing it night after night and, more to the topic at hand, connecting in an exceptional way with New Day, who’ve really dug deep lately and reminded us they’re more than just (absolutely joyful) merchandise machines. The Bludgeon Brothers could have blunted that magic, but in reality, we have them to thank for prolonging the Usos v. New Day saga, since it was never obvious which tandem made more sense as a standalone rival. To me, this is your opener, a role that’s evolved nicely with the times and often puts viewers and other competitors on notice.
As far as where Shane/Zayn/Owens slots in, dealer’s choice, I guess. I’ve made no secret in recent weeks about this threesome’s convoluted history wearing thin, but I’m also generally not much of a Shane-O-Mac nostalgist. Watching him take powerbombs and ricochet off ring posts accomplishes one thing from where I sit: demystifying the impact when more polished professionals suffer similar fates. The big wild card is where and how, if at all, Daniel Bryan will fit into this when he returns to SmackDown next week. He’ll presumably crystalize the match’s parameters now that Shane’s no longer commish, but will he still be functioning as a simmering adversary of Shane’s, or has that been scrapped for some guest-referee appointment or similarly perfunctory Mania presence? The only way I’ll be riveted is if the voice of (sigh) Corey Graves, Byron Saxton, or Tom Phillips bellows, “Daniel’s gonna fight!”
Shoemaker: This is part of the problem with some of the uncertain storytelling WWE has done on the Cena and Rousey fronts. WrestleMania is a month away, and we might not know with certainty about its plan for Bryan, the subject of one of the longest-simmering story lines and an almost impossible return from the IR. (There is almost a zero percent chance that Bryan is ever going to wrestle in WWE again.) But let’s look on the bright side: WrestleMania is a month away! Bryan vs. Shane probably won’t happen, but Cena vs. Undertaker probably will—and this is definitely going to be a fun ride.