Hard as it is to believe, the road to WrestleMania has finally led us to New Orleans’ doorstep. Who’d have thought we’d survive several weeks of soon-to-be WWE Hall of Famer (yep, that’s happening this Friday) Kid Rock’s rancid theme song ceaselessly bumpering segments of SmackDown and Raw? But here we are; we’ve made it. And as a reward for our stick-to-it-iveness, we’ll finally find out whether Jinder Mahal can conquer the odds against U.S. champ Randy Orton and fellow challengers Rusev and Bobby Roode in the world’s least-anticipated quartet collision since Chickenfoot. That, along with a slew of other title matches, a duet of ostensibly meaningless battle royals, 11th-hour Undertaker heroics, and the sight of Ronda Rousey in a bout with three competitors on the wrong side of 40.
For those who’ve been paying either too much or nary any attention since relevant story lines kicked off in earnest after January’s Royal Rumble, here’s the final card (pending Undertaker’s overdue response to John Cena’s unanswered calls) for Sunday’s show of shows, along with our ultimate summary of how each bout came to be, the degree to which you should care, and—in the most futile of all sport-entertainment exercises—predicting who will win and how. (Hint: It’s the person holding the belt at the end.)
The Match: Universal Champion Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns
The Story So Far: Count me among those who inexplicably predicted that someone not named Roman Reigns would be the last man standing in line for Lesnar’s title prior to February’s six-pack Elimination Chamber battle. I was also one of the many nonplussed by his and Brock’s subsequent story line, which has cast Roman as the workhorse underdog biting back against a champion he calls out for part-timer complacency. (Yawn.) Along the way, Reigns was pseudo-suspended for upbraiding Vince McMahon, beaten down while handcuffed (much to his haters’ perverse delight), and given a dressing down par excellence by Lesnar’s paid barker Paul Heyman (who’s also been busy stirring the pot concerning Lesnar’s now-confirmed return to UFC), all before making a requisite unscheduled appearance at this week’s Raw and crashing Brock and Heyman’s promo party. Nothing less than the soul of WWE (or its Universal Championship, anyway) is, apparently, at stake.
Who Will Win: Reigns. Lesnar’s already passed the year-long title reign landmark (Mania will make it an even 370 days), and like it or not, Reigns has tasted relatively little time atop the heap. His three turns with the WWE Championship strap have barely exceeded a cumulative 100 days, and it’s been just over two years since he last ascended that mountain by conquering another part-time placeholder—Triple H—at Mania 32. But the most important number is zero, or how many times he’s been Universal Champion as opposed to WWE Champion, which is, somewhat confusingly, a separate thing (see the next section). That will change by Monday morning.
What It Will Mean Going Forward: If Lesnar loses, the rumors of him decamping for the UFC will gain steam. And if Reigns’s, um, reign comes to pass, we can likely nullify any notion that the Shield will pick up where they left off last year when Dean Ambrose returns from surgery. And putting aside current Intercontinental Championship hopeful Finn Bálor’s injury-abbreviated inaugural run and Goldberg’s obligatory comeback tour, the Universal gold has thus far been slotted as more of a long-term fulfillment. The first post-Mania pay-per-view’s usually a clunker, so don’t expect a riveting rival to step up right away, though eventually Reigns will have to prove he can tame not only beasts but monsters among men.
The Match: WWE Champion AJ Styles v. Shinsuke Nakamura
The Story So Far: Somehow, WWE has spun its siphoning off New Japan talent into a self-congratulatory “dream match” narrative, even though this match has already occurred. The difference this time around is that AJ and Shinsuke are battling over rights to the WWE Championship—either as a continuation of Styles’s second reign or the commencement of Nakamura’s first—as opposed to their Wrestle Kingdom 10 clash, which was a glorified superstar sendoff for two guys heavily tipped as heading West. And credit due to both men for making the most of a very short runway to build enthusiasm, thanks to a cockamamie set of plot twists keeping Nakamura’s Mania opponent a mystery until Styles finally bested a bunch of dudes at last month’s Fastlane PPV. The duo’s dueling mind games these past couple of weeks was a chance for each man to flash hubris and humility, and finally build the hype to a level beyond “trust us, these guys can wrestle.” But that’s the main draw at the end of the day: Neither guy needs instructions on what to do in that ring Sunday night. If their match is a letdown, it’ll only be because they’re so talented that the expectations are prematurely overblown.
Who Will Win: It sure seems like Nakamura’s moment, but one alternative is letting Styles hang on, play the heel, and carry on with an angle that, as mentioned, barely had time to find its voice. Forget dream matches: This could be the program of legends. Pencil Styles in for the win.
What It Will Mean Going Forward: The elephant in the room is if and/or when Daniel Bryan—who would truly personify a dream opponent against either Styles or Nakamura—gets put back into the title picture (or if it’ll even be on SmackDown). Independent of that, it’ll be fascinating to see how committed WWE is to fashioning Nakamura—who, if he topples AJ, would be SmackDown’s second champ of Asian heritage since 2017—as its future, a far and bold leap from iconic American archetypes (Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, etc.) of generations past. No one would kvetch if Styles maintained, but it’s Nakamura’s future that tells us more about where wrestling is headed.
The Match: Kurt Angle and Ronda Rousey vs. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon
The Story So Far: In January, WWE signed ex-UFC women’s bantamweight champion Rousey away from the real fight game and threw her headlong into the WWE women’s division. Upon realizing she wasn’t ready for prime time, they pulled the McMahon family parachute, teaming her with Raw GM Kurt Angle and setting opposite them the corporate power couple Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, with whom Rousey was due a long-brewing blowoff. Good thing they did, since Rousey—as Steph cannily acknowledged in character this week—still needs some serious polish as an all-around performer and it stretches credulity (even in wrestling) to position Mrs. McMahon-Levesque one-on-one versus one of the planet’s most ferocious female fighters. In the endless series of interviews and showdowns leading up to Sunday, everyone’s gotten their licks in, but the real intrigue is whether WWE intends to keep pushing Rousey as a blockbuster babyface or paper over her apparent growing pains commandeering a segment (not to mention idiosyncratic media appearances) with a villainous pivot. A creaky Kurt Angle sure makes easy prey.
Who Will Win: If they’re playing it straight, this is the easiest call on the card, with Rousey inducing a submission victory (though perhaps making Triple H tap?). And while it’s hard to imagine the new recruit not walking away with a W, don’t rule out a DQ if Ronda flips.
What It Will Mean Going Forward: Either Rousey withdraws into a silent assassin or keeps learning on the job while cameras roll and waits for her shot at one of several possible Raw women’s champs. The former MMA star and medalist is in a tough spot—think of a more high-profile female athlete who’s converted to wrestling year-round in her prime—and her success or failure will be one more essential litmus test for whether WWE makes a similar investment again.
The Match: Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon vs. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn
The Story So Far: For a match that was thrown together at the last moment, this, paradoxically, is probably the longest-running angle heading into Mania. In it, Shane McMahon will have at his twin nemeses, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, who’ve been tormenting him (and vice versa) for the better part of a year. But the real twist came when SmackDown GM Daniel Bryan—who’d been at odds with Shane himself for some time—was cleared to wrestle after retiring two years earlier. Since both he and McMahon eyed revenge on Owens and Zayn (for powerbombing them both straight to SmackDown-adjacent medical facilities), the pair put aside their differences in a scattershot promo this week that made one wonder whether Shane was really recovered from a real-life (we think?) bout with diverticulitis. (At least no helicopters were involved.) Despite offering the legit payoff of substantial hostilities among McMahon, Owens, and Zayn, this match has very quickly taken center stage as the “come see Daniel Bryan kick some ass” showcase, and the ultimate make-good for all the hell Bryan’s been put through over the past half-decade.
Who Will Win: With the Rousey conclusion debatable, this has to be considered the lone no-brainer up for grabs. Right?
What It Will Mean Going Forward: Zayn and Owens have the dreaded “lose and you’re fired” condition hanging over their heads, which if triggered could finally unglue them from a fruitful but relatively inconsequential (i.e. no titles) rampage against authority and start fresh on Raw (possibly). And while it’s tempting to fantasize about things breaking down between Bryan and McMahon, culminating in their own collision, Shane should probably sit out a spell, and Bryan is better served by mixing it up with his true peers. Like, ya know, Owens and Zayn (so maybe those two knuckleheads will spoil Bryan’s return and stay put on Tuesdays?). If only there was someone out there worthy of coming by Bryan’s side. ...
The Match: SmackDown Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka
The Story So Far: Honestly? The elevator pitch here is good enough: Multi-time champ Charlotte is maybe the best in women’s division history, and Asuka hasn’t lost in WWE since her first match for NXT two and a half years ago. A la Styles vs. Nakamura, the suspense heading into this clash was waylaid by needlessly drawing out the inevitable until Charlotte whooped challenger Ruby Riott at Fastlane. Unfortunately, Flair vs. Asuka doesn’t come with quite as rich a built-in backstory as their male counterparts (not that the requisite melodramatic video package hasn’t tried), so a lot’s riding on where this match goes on the card, how long it runs, and how these women sell their desperation to win from the opening bell. Judging by Charlotte’s dynamite warm-up against Natalya this week, the queen—win or lose—is ready for a career-crowning Mania moment.
Who Will Win: Asuka, although the possibility of Charlotte scoring an “upset” but getting blindsided by Carmella, the pesky Money in the Bank briefcase holder, thereby serving the latter up to Asuka as chum sooner than later, can’t be completely remote. Too complicated? You’re right—it’s Asuka.
What It Will Mean Going Forward: Charlotte has no shortage of ways to go should she lose her title, including an enraged heel turn and rematch with Asuka at Backlash. (Or a move to the Raw brand.) What’s truly pressing is, if Asuka keeps this roll going and becomes champ, when and to whom does she finally succumb? (And don’t say Carmella.) Her streak, predetermined as it may be, is exceptional, and its conquering merits being plotted in kind.
The Match: SmackDown Tag Team Champions the Usos vs. the New Day vs. the Bludgeon Brothers
The Story: The on-again, off-again (by sheer necessity, as the SmackDown division shuffled and stocked its bench) rivalry between the Usos and the New Day has been a boon for both teams, shoring up the former’s Hall of Fame bona fides and putting the latter in that lofty conversation. Their evolution from bitter enemies inflicting unspeakable damage at Hell in a Cell to mutually respectful foes and occasional allies has been an emotional and satisfying arc, the kind of good-sportsman moral that’s become an endangered species in contemporary WWE (though it undergirds the ethos of promotions like New Japan and Ring of Honor). But all the while, newly repackaged former Wyatt Family acolytes-turned Bludgeon Brothers Erick Rowan and Luke Harper loomed, until they came fully crashing down on all five men at Fastlane, and have refused to let up since. This one has it all: seven total individuals (including whichever New Day member keeps watch at ringside), representing the spectrum of freakish athleticism while settling scores and tallying bodies. Oh, and the tag-team titles are on the line. That ain’t booty.
Who Will Win: Harper and Rowan have certainly been denied the spotlight in seasons past, but their willingness to go with the flow of goofy gimmicks and baffling babyface runs is set to reap dividends. Grimly, of course.
What It Will Mean Going Forward: Even though all the focus has been on this trio of standouts, SmackDown’s tag division is now fully stacked, and with NXT upstarts including Authors of Pain, War Machine, and the Undisputed Era presumably headed north in the not-too-distant future, the well only deepens. The sheer diversity of talent and personas (Breezango bringing New Day–worthy comedy, Benjamin and Gable defying gravity like Jimmy and Jey, War Machine potentially one-upping Luke and Erick in primal fear, and so on) bodes well for SmackDown as it aims to keep pace with Raw and draw eyes to its roster on upcoming co-brand PPVs.
The Match: Intercontinental Champion the Miz vs. Seth Rollins vs. Finn Bálor
The Story So Far: In brief, egotist chatterbox the Miz wants to prove he’s WWE’s all-time great IC champ (a done deal as far as I see it), while former top guys Rollins and Bálor could care less about Miz but will happily leapfrog him in order to regain their somewhat waning prestige.
Who Will Win: Yikes. Maybe the toughest result to handicap. Miz most definitely won’t retain, if only so he can go on new-daddy leave. As for Bálor, he can proceed lording over his nascent, namesake stable—featuring “good brothers” and former New Japan Bullet Club stablemates Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson—with or without Intercontinental cred. Rollins, however, sorely needs an anchor since the Shield reunion (a group that, no matter Roman Reigns’s stature, Rollins ostensibly led) went kablooey and he was diverted to the Jason Jordan rehabilitation program (I still say not to rule out that Kurt Angle’s story line son might make his presence felt in this match). Unless it’s foregone that Rollins is fated to mix it up with likely Universal Champion Roman Reigns—or switch brands himself and move to Tuesdays. Still, a win on Sunday would be what earns him that spot, no?
What It Will Mean Going Forward: To be more succinct about the above speculation, this match—while lacking juice leading up to it—has major implications for mid- and upper-card happenings from here to SummerSlam. All three of these guys could helm the IC division, and any of them could make the jump up to the main event.
The Match: U.S. Champion Randy Orton vs. Rusev vs. Jinder Mahal vs. Bobby Roode
The Story So Far: Randy Orton, having snagged the U.S. title off Bobby Roode at Fastlane, somehow keeps catching people off guard with “RKOs outta nowhere” and convincing millions that he’s totes fine with recovered jobber Jinder Mahal as his defining adversary of the past calendar year. Mahal, Roode, and Orton have been in a revolving-door angle with one another since Dolph Ziggler up and vacated the U.S. belt back in December. Audiences have largely shrugged. Concurrently, as so often occurs in wrestling, perennial foreign heel Rusev unwittingly ingratiated himself to Americans with his and arbitrary sidekick Aiden English’s cheeky cheerleading shtick. Solution? Throw the Bulgarian Brute into the mix and make this dud of a triple threat a thoroughly middling Fatal 4-Way!
Who Will Win: Rusev. Or Orton. Mahal’s been unfairly maligned by his critics, but this doesn’t feel like the time and place for his pointed triumph. And if we’re being honest, it’s hard to project where the nearly 41-year-old Roode—particularly in thankless babyface mode—slots in on next Mania’s docket, so why have him leave this one with a leg up? Orton can easily recharge and reenter the main-event scene (a rare luxury maybe solely afforded to him), so if Sunday’s not Rusev Day, then when is?
What It Will Mean Going Forward: For starters, a forthcoming Virgil vs. Million Dollar Man-esque fallout between Rusev and his doting accomplice English, although it’d be hard to figure who’s more suited to break good or bad in that divorce. There is no shortage of guys gearing up for a modest solo push (Mojo Rawley, ex-U.S. Champion Baron Corbin, Ziggler, virtually any individual from among the tenuous SmackDown tag teams referenced earlier, and so on), and as mentioned, both Mahal and Orton are prime candidates for resurfacing in the WWE Champion’s rearview. Will the winner of this match make the U.S. title itself matter any more than it has in 2018? The anticipation is killing no one.
The Match: Raw Tag Team Champions Sheamus and Cesaro vs. Braun Strowman and Partner TBD
The Story: Braun Strowman seemed a deserved heir apparent to Universal Championship contention, but got seriously derailed by the Roman Reigns express at Elimination Chamber (even though he owned that shit). Fast-forward a couple of months, and once the wood chips settled from a back-and-forth of musical-instrument demolition with interim obstacle Elias, and Strowman finds himself flying solo against Sheamus and Cesaro. (He won a tag-team battle royal upon entering by himself, because WWE is total anarchy.) Like so many other volatile ingredients in this year’s Mania stew, there’s been some confusion about whether Strowman is showing up stag or with a companion. The official show card suggests he won’t be at a disadvantage.
Who Will Win: Strowman and whomever? Aleister Black’s aesthetic seems like a natural complement, and if he loses to Cien Almas in his NXT Championship match on Saturday, that makes him available. Here’s a curveball: Sheamus and Cesaro (collectively, though not always, the Bar) have been serviceable champs four times over, but maybe they lay down for Braun and pledge allegiance to some new stable? (Beats the League of Nations.) As seductive as Braun holding both tag belts himself is, it’s hard to see him biding too much time outside the singles ranks, so however this breaks down, tag gold befits the Bar.
What It Will Mean Going Forward: That we all hope and pray Woken Matt and Brother Nero find their way to one another, or the Undisputed Era or their NXT peers come and rattle Raw’s flagging tag scene out of its sleep.
The Match: Raw Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss vs. Nia Jax
The Story So Far: Once wannabe cruiserweight romeo Enzo Amore, whose story line had him smitten with Jax, was sent packing (more on that later), Nia was freed up for the big time. Bliss, ever the bully, made the unwise choice to pick on someone several times her size, and Jax—as overdue for a push as anyone in WWE—has been out for blood. Nia’s been a great sport pulling off the somewhat degrading part of emotional woman scorned, and Bliss has grown into an entertainer with charisma far more massive than her diminutive height. This is personal, and a sleeper to back up Daniel Bryan’s return as emotional high of the night.
Who Will Win: Nia. No doubt.
What It Will Mean Going Forward: A hopefully dominant and deserving champion in Jax. Bliss has grown tremendously as an entertainer, and with Sasha Banks going all badass, there’s a lot to be said for those women finding shared ground and finding common enemies. With Paige’s in-ring status still undisclosed and her Absolution stable still learning the ropes, one’s thoughts return to an antagonist Ronda Rousey, who’d believably have her hands full getting Jax to say, “I quit.” (That or Carmella cashing in after this one, because WWE is chaos, and brand loyalty be damned.)
The Match: The Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal
The Story: Per tradition, 30 men will tussle for possession of an eerie Andre the Giant trophy that may or may not be a very convincing New Orleans human statue.
Who Will Win: This is tricky, given the Madden Curse aura that shrouds this annual ho-down. Let’s assume this year’s victor will be anointed and not doomed to a year in story line purgatory, as has ritually been the case, if only because Mania 34 coincides with HBO’s epic Andre the Giant doc. Clearly, then, the winner will be Primo Colon.
What It Will Mean Going Forward: Less than nothing, hence the copout non-prediction.
The Match: The WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal
The Story: On the heels of the historic first women’s Royal Rumble match in January (won by Asuka), Mania rolls out an all-female complement to the Andre the Giant tradition. Initially named in honor of late ladies legend Fabulous Moolah, that plan was hastily scrapped once fans took issue with naming the event after such a problematic figure. That PR crisis hopefully just amped up participants to ensure the match transcends its scandalized origins and endures. Though judging by everyone’s awesome women’s Rumble showing, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Who Will Win: Erring on the side of it being meaningful, why not go out on a limb and say it will be the start of Lana’s push in earnest?
What It Will Mean Going Forward: Ideally something.
The Match: Cruiserweight Tournament Finals: Cedric Alexander vs. Mustafa Ali
The Story: Previous cruiserweight champion Enzo Amore was abruptly fired from the company (he has denied all claims against him), leaving his title up for grabs in a lengthy 205 Live tournament coming to a head this weekend.
Who Will Win: Because someone has to … Alexander.
What It Will Mean Going Forward: That all depends on WWE’s plans for its high-flying set. From the winner’s perspective, it at minimum sets them up for solid bookings if and when their run with the company ends, so there’s good cause to root for them both.
Bonus Match Prediction: The Undertaker vs. John Cena
The Story So Far: Living legend Undertaker tacitly hung ‘em up last year after a Mania loss to Roman Reigns (his second such Mania loss in four years following a two-plus-decade winning tear), but movie star John Cena—despondent after losing his chance at a record 17th world championship at Fastlane—wasn’t having it. Problem has been, Cena’s goaded him for weeks, pegging him as a cowardly Judas unwilling to give fans a little thrill. As it stands right now, Cena is planning on attending as “a fan” (arena sellouts be damned!) while we wait and see how and where the Dead Man rises during Sunday’s spectacle.
Who Will Win: The producers of the Cena-starring comedy Blockers (out this Friday!), who hope to benefit from a bit of serendipitous cross-promotional timing. But also, probably, Undertaker. Cena will get his record-setting 17th title down the road (remember, again, that Triple H entered Mania as champ as recently as 2016) and has a mainstream entertainment profile the likes of which Undertaker hardly sniffed (take that, camel breath!). Bringing Taker back for anything but redemption—for both his losses to Reigns and Brock Lesnar and Cena’s mudslinging—is tough to square.
What It Will Mean Going Forward: Outside of providing closure to the inevitable Undertaker DVD boxed set, absolutely nothing.