Last year, the losing started in earnest midway through the main event. It was Universal Champion Brock Lesnar versus Roman Reigns, and the crowd wasn’t having it. It was late, the end of a long show, and the headlining match didn’t have a compelling rooting interest—despite being a living legend with mythological physicality, the defending titleholder had little left to prove or offer, and the challenger was a widely despised frontrunner booked as an underdog. The ending felt fated, and even though it didn’t go the way most expected—Lesnar retained—the lassitude hung in the air like a cloud of smoke. The audience did what only a pro wrestling audience can do: They expressed their disapproval, a wry grumble that erupted into a dismissive sonic boom.
“Bo-ring! Bo-ring!” “This … is … awful” clap clap clap-clap-clap. Long-gone ex-champ CM Punk was referenced. Beach balls were batted about. If a 78,000-person eye roll could be distilled into a single, inflatable metaphor, it would be a beach ball, bopping listlessly above a sea of Bullet Club T-shirts. This wasn’t a revolt so much as a mass disrespectful nod. It was the fanboy’s complaint. It didn’t matter who won or lost—the match was a dud either way.
This year feels … different. Sure, there’s been plenty for people to complain about: People complained about Roman Reigns’s inevitability again, until he was diagnosed with a return of leukemia and had to take several months off. (Miraculously, he’s OK now.) People complained that WWE was messing up Becky Lynch, until they announced she’d be headlining WrestleMania, along with Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair. People complained that WWE was holding back Kofi Kingston just a few weeks ago when holding him back was part of the story line.
A funny thing happened on the way to the complaint desk. WWE has harnessed fan angst into a potent drug. People’s complaints are based on the fear that the story won’t go the way they want. That’s exactly what pro wrestling is built on. Of course, now it’s whether the match you want will happen at all as opposed to solely whether your favorite will win. And guess what, with the exception of the Braun Strowman diehards out there, most of the audience is getting what they were chanting for. Becky Lynch, Kofi Kingston, Seth Rollins—at WrestleMania, it’s like we’re all winners.
And since somebody has to lose on Sunday—and since WrestleMania could definitely go awry, despite the incredible card—let’s anoint the night’s winner right now. As I’ve said a million times, wins and losses don’t matter anyway. Here’s who already won at WrestleMania 35.
Winner: Becky Lynch
Forget “arguably”—she’s the hottest star in the company, and the biggest star pro wrestling has seen since Daniel Bryan’s ascendence five years ago. It started with a near-misstep at SummerSlam last year. As her hype grew, WWE turned her heel in a semi-friendly rivalry with Charlotte Flair, seemingly missing the fact that fan support dictated her position as the fan favorite. When she exploded expectations of what a villain could be—and then claimed her rightful spot in the hallowed spotlight—something in the air started to change. When she had her face smashed prior to a Survivor Series showdown with Ronda Rousey and was forced to miss the match, it only made her appeal stronger. Healed up, there was only one place for her to get her rematch: WrestleMania.
And sure, if Lynch hadn’t taken off, WWE might have put Rousey and Charlotte Flair in the main event, eager to embrace the good PR that comes with an all-female main event. But Becky is the wrestler who earned her way into the night’s biggest match. Rousey is the crossover star, and Flair is the unicorn standard-bearer of the women’s division. But watching Lynch over the past months has been like watching Zion Williamson capture the nation’s imagination this season. People stop what they’re doing to see her. On Sunday, she’s going to close the show and—unless WWE wants to incite a riot at MetLife Stadium—walk out the unified champion. And even if she loses, she’s reached a level of rarefied air in pro wrestling that only a handful of wrestlers can lay claim to.
Will she actually win? Unless WWE wants to call in the National Guard to disperse 90,000 fanboys, yes.
Winner: Ronda Rousey
All snarking about her inconsistent mic skills aside, Rousey has had a charmed year. The distance she’s come since her debut at last year’s WrestleMania—one year, folks—is stunning. She’s a natural in the ring, a dedicated performer, and a huge draw. Women’s wrestling had come a long way before she showed up in WWE, but this match would likely not be the WrestleMania main event without her. Lynch certainly wouldn’t have gotten the same effect by needling Flair on social media that she has with Rousey as her foil.
And speaking of foils—this story line (and Lynch’s uncontrollable popularity) has put Rousey into the role of a villain, a job she’s thrown herself into. (One has to assume that Rousey, a longtime wrestling fan and Roddy Piper mark, had her first heel promo high up on her bucket list.)
Will she actually win? Not if Lynch does, obviously. But you can never put it past Vince McMahon to leave the strap on a heel MMA star (see Lesnar, Brock) even when—or especially when—everyone is predicting otherwise. Rousey’s got a fighting chance.
Winner: Seth Rollins
Rollins has long been the anchor of Monday Night Raw and one of the surest things in the company this side of AJ Styles. Unlike Styles, he’s a product of WWE’s developmental system, and has the glow of a made man, even when he’s toiling in the midcard. But after his onetime Shield-mate Roman Reigns exited the picture for months (more on that later)—and moreover, in the absence of any other babyface luminaries like John Cena—Rollins was left to carry the load. And just as with his heel champ run in 2015, he’s succeeded with flying colors.
On Sunday, he’ll get a crack at dethroning the Universal Champion, Brock Lesnar—a role long occupied by Reigns, and one many assumed Reigns would be playing again this year before he went on the DL. It’s widely thought to be time for Lesnar to relinquish the belt—whether he’s going back to the UFC or not—and if Rollins can do what Reigns never quite could, it’ll say a lot about how the front office views “the Architect.” WWE has seemingly wanted to put the belt on Reigns for years but always got cold feet at the last minute, until he finally beat Brock at last year’s SummerSlam and quickly reunited the Shield to make sure the fans would cheer him on. If Rollins can pull off a relatively decisive win, he’ll succeed where Reigns never could: in having the confidence of the WWE front office. Wrestling may be fake, but that’s real.
Will he actually win? The odds are in his favor, but with Lesnar, anything’s possible.
Winner: Brock Lesnar
He reportedly made $12 million last year. He wrestled eight times.
Will he actually win? With that kind of money, who cares?
Winner: Kofi Kingston
Let’s get this straight up front—Kofi Kingston doesn’t need this push. As one-third of the New Day, he is already one of the biggest stars in the world, and as Paul Heyman pointed out, whenever fans agitated for the New Day to split up, there was an obvious rejoinder: they’re making too much money to mess with a good thing. But as with all good things in pro wrestling, sometimes fate intervenes. And an act as popular as the New Day is the pro wrestling version of a room full of gasoline: They make you dizzy with joy, but if you get too close with a match, they’ll explode. The Elimination Chamber was the match.
Mustafa Ali (now just “Ali”) got hurt before February’s six-man match, leaving an open spot that Kingston filled, and something amazing (but ultimately kind of obvious) happened: Kofi became the overwhelming fan favorite in the match. He was an underdog by virtue of his lack of inclusion in the original lineup. WWE saw the wave coming, and they let him earn it the old-fashioned way, too—in an hour-plus performance in a gauntlet match before the Chamber, a heroic near-win in the Elimination Chamber itself, and another one in another gauntlet match last month to win his way into WrestleMania. (He fell short, but his partners in the New Day won him the spot in a gauntlet of their own the following week.) Vince McMahon materialized to ensure that the story line of corporate antagonism toward Kingston was clear, and heel champ Daniel Bryan deliberately evoked his own climb to the top five years ago to make sure everyone in the back row understood the stakes. Eleven years into his WWE run, and four and a half years into being one-third of the most popular group in WWE, Kofi is your Next Big Thing, he’s your underdog sensation, he’s an A+ player.
Will he actually win? One of these babyface challengers has to come up short on Sunday, but it really feels like this is Kofi’s moment, especially given how much they’ve paralleled Bryan’s past storyline. My guess is they’ll give him a win on Sunday and a chance to bask in it, and then yank it back through some shenanigans to keep the chase alive.
Winner: The Miz
The Miz started off as a reality TV star who wanted to be a pro wrestler like the Rock. When he (somewhat surprisingly) made it to WWE, he forever came off as, well, a guy acting like the Rock. He got a run as WWE champion and got to headline WrestleMania 27 opposite John Cena, who got an assist from the Rock, but since then he’s been spinning in entertaining but largely non-vital circles. Two years ago—coinciding with the on-screen return of his wife, Maryse—the Miz has become WWE’s must-see, deliciously bad, bad guy. His beef with Daniel Bryan is an endlessly renewable resource, ensuring that he’ll stay near the top of the rankings. His current identity as a babyface—a feat few thought possible—positioned against the crown prince irritant Shane McMahon only enhances his rise. Miz gets to share the WrestleMania ring with the son of the owner, play the hero, and have the whole arena rooting for him. Now that’s a win.
Will he actually win? This match is Falls Count Anywhere, and Shane has a long history of jumping off of things in big matches, so there’s certainly an argument for the boss. But Miz has defied our expectations of him so dramatically that it wouldn’t surprise me to see him make a WrestleMania plunge of his own on Sunday.
Or Dave Bautista, if you prefer his name in IMDb format. I have to be honest—when Big Dave left WWE for Hollywood back in 2010, it felt like a fool’s errand. John Cena couldn’t even line up movies back then—and despite his guilty pleasure status and chiseled physique, nobody would confuse Batista with Dwayne Johnson. But Batista smartly eschewed those comparisons in Hollywood—as he told the Tampa Bay Times: “I want good roles. I don’t care about Fast and Furious or Bumblebee. ... That’s not the kind of stardom I want. ... I want to be in Dune. I want to work with Denis Villeneuve. I want to work with Sam Mendes and Jodie Foster. I want to work with Academy Award winners. I’m proud to be a character actor. I want that respect and credibility and education.”
Even though he was last seen (in WWE) getting booed for attempting to hijack Bryan’s WrestleMania moment five years ago, perhaps it’s unsurprising that this newly minted film auteur would produce two of the best segments in recent memory—one where he swooped in like an evil Batman to assault Ric Flair backstage and spoke a combined total of 12 words.
In the same way that Kingston has achieved the kind of smart-fan response normally reserved for indie darlings, Batista has transformed himself from a mid-tier returning star to an icon by harnessing the powers of sparseness and irony at the same time. And he’s a living lesson in “less is more”—a concept normally untenable in a promotion with 10-15 hours a week in programming. He’s facing off against his old running buddy, Triple H, on Sunday, and honestly, the less said the better. It’s a legends match between two dudes who have found wildly different but equally successful second acts. And frankly, Batista doesn’t have much to be mad about.
Will he actually win? Since Triple H’s wrestling career is on the line, I doubt it. Hollywood stars don’t normally come back to WWE to tarnish their résumés—but then again, Batista’s not an action hero showing up to save the world. He’s a character actor, and sometimes they take the fall for the good of the story.
Winner: Ricochet and Aleister Black
These two were called up from NXT to the main roster in a confusing fit of pre-WrestleMania pique, but they immediately showed that they were built for the big time—Ricochet is a ready-made megastar like AJ Styles before him who immediately connected with the crowds with his literally unbelievable arsenal of acrobatic maneuvers, and Black is a ready-made replacement for the Undertaker, who appears to be too busy hocking diet plans on Instagram to make his annual WrestleMania appearance. They’re an unlikely team, but their union has allowed them to avoid the normal awkwardness of new-wrestler introductions. Why spend time with backstory when they can just start throwing kicks?
Will they actually win? I think they have a shot. They’re vying for the Usos’s Smackdown tag belts in a four-team affair that didn’t have a lot of build, so the default in these low-stakes situations is that the champs retain. But Ricochet and Black have already insinuated themselves on the main roster, and starting a feud with the Usos will only solidify their standing even further.
Winner: Bayley and Sasha Banks
They willed their women’s tag-team belts into existence and so found purpose in their promising but meandering career arcs. Sasha looked like a sure thing when she first appeared on the main roster, and she’s largely lived up to it, competing in some of the most high-profile women’s matches in WWE history. And Bayley—the fourth Horsewoman in a developmental crew that also counted Banks, Lynch, and Flair—had a sea of heartwarming upside. But both were cast aside in the wake of Rousey’s ascent and Lynch’s explosion, and despite WWE’s commitment to telling multiple stories on the women’s side, they never seemed to find the time to make Raw fans care about these two like they did when they were on NXT. Now, with the tag belts around their waists, they’re living history, even as the main event overshadows them.
Will they actually win? Sure. Their stiffest competition on Sunday is half-retired anyway.
Winner: Roman Reigns
We’ll see what happens when he gets thrust back into the main event. But as it stands, this dude beat cancer and finally won over the hearts of a sea of irony-hardened wrestling fans in the process. His match against Drew McIntyre at Mania will be a fun one, but it’s hard not to see it as beside the point. He’s a winner, period.
Will he actually win? Probably, but who cares.
Here are a few other winners of the night, as long as I have my rose-colored glasses polished up: Charlotte, because her inclusion in the main event gets her etched in stone—and (even though this is a heelish part of the story line) because of her indispensability to the new era of women’s wrestling. AJ Styles and Randy Orton, who just might steal the show on Sunday with a veteran spotfest. The Usos, who have solidified their rep as one of the very best tag teams in the business—in an industry where tag-team wrestling is thriving mostly in non-WWE environs—and have a couple of new contracts to prove it. Samoa Joe is the best wrestler in WWE and on Sunday he’ll finally get a spot on the biggest stage after two years of missing WrestleMania. Kurt Angle gets to go out in style, even if it feels a little anticlimactic. Braun Strowman gets to rough up the hosts of SNL’s “Weekend Update” (yes, really), which is a great honor if you squint just right.