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The Rhodes to WrestleMania

What makes a WrestleMania main event? Is it the importance of the title, or the weight of the story? After almost four decades of ’Mania, the debate over the final match rages on.

WWE/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

While the Royal Rumble is usually still the go-to when it comes to indoctrinating new blood into our death cult introducing “wrestling curious” folks to the greatest sport on Earth, the sheer majesty (and tendency toward narrative finality) of WrestleMania makes it maybe the single best show to watch as stand-alone viewing.

Usually. Unfortunately, this idea has taken a beating over the past decade, as the show has ballooned in size while repeatedly ending not with a bang, but with the whimper of a crowd forced to sit through the kinds of matches that even the talent often found disappointing. The incredible lengths of these shows reached their peak at the end of last decade, infamously culminating in the biblical shit show that was getting out of New Jersey after WrestleMania 35’s seven-hour running time from the beginning of the preshow until the end of the main event.

This, however, has largely been dealt with by the forced evolution of the WrestleMania card into a two-night affair starting with 2020’s pandemic show.

As you can see, including WrestleMania 39, there has just been one night of wrestling that’s reached pre-pandemic levels, and it was the second night of the first pandemic show, WrestleMania 36. Except for that show—which featured the 36-minute-plus Randy Orton–Edge Last Man Standing match, kick-starting Edge’s run of comically long matches over the next three years—every night since the two-night format started has been among the shortest WrestleMania cards ever, with only the notoriously thin WrestleManias 11 and 15 and the “WrestleMania in name only” card from the first show ending with “less” wrestling.

Unlike those shows, the amount of wrestling per match is considerably more—though, hilariously, WrestleMania 12 with its 60-minute Iron Man match still wildly outpaces every other show in this stat and will likely do so into perpetuity—and in line with modern wrestling standards.

This cure for the far-too-long show hasn’t been nearly as effective at solving the other major issue with the event: Since WrestleManias 30 and 31, every subsequent main event has been an active disappointment. Well, OK, let’s be fair: the main event of the first night of every two-part WrestleMania has been amazing. Night two? We’ll get to that.

Less pressing, but equally relevant is that none of these matches managed to generate the pomp and circumstance among wrestling fans that the historic main event between Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, and Ronda Rousey at WrestleMania 35 did until the matchup between Cody Rhodes and Roman Reigns. And while it’s totally understandable that the broader cultural impact hasn’t been as far-reaching or resonant as the first women’s match to serve as the main event of the show, the past few main events haven’t even achieved that level of significance on their own terms, insisting upon their importance instead of earning it.

Making a match feel important, if we’re being honest with ourselves, isn’t nearly as easy as it used to be. At least for the first nine years or so, WrestleMania main events could be conjured out of nothing. Or, if not “nothing,” then the ruins of the many friendships that Hulk Hogan destroyed in his never-ending pursuit of power and control.

Eight of the first nine WrestleMania main events prominently featured Hogan involved in the end result, and two of them (3 and 5) involved the Hulkster ruining a friendship. Even WrestleMania 9, with its convoluted ending, was set into motion by Hogan declaring Bret Hart a friend before his main event match with the 1993 Royal Rumble winner.

None of these matches are technical masterpieces, but the five that headlined WrestleManias 2-6 represent a kind of “Golden Era” pentalogy for the Vince McMahon model of sports entertainment. It’s only after the company spent much of the emotional-political capital it had built with the audience to make the Ultimate Warrior the new cornerstone of the company in the final act, just to have it crumble in less than a year, that the magic of “Hogan must pose” ending every show lost its cachet.

Say what you will about “Hogan must pose,” but at least it was an ethos. Hogan provided a default star to build the show around, which isn’t something that’s really replicable these days. Hogan was the main event because the entire company, from a promotional standpoint, was structured around him. Performers like Reigns and John Cena from subsequent generations would be placed in these positions because the company decided that these performers are the ones the WWE Universe wanted to see at the end of the night.

But with Hogan, there really wasn’t another option; and, honestly, it’s totally understandable why that’s not the case anymore. The lack of blockbuster ticket sales for WrestleMania 7, at which Hogan main-evented the show with lifelong mid-carder Sgt. Slaughter, provided concrete evidence of the decline of Hulkamania. But because it was Hogan and the match was for the championship, he had to go on last.

Though the match was no great shakes, the stakes meant it wasn’t the creative nadir of the Hogan era—that would come the next year, in Hogan’s last headlining match, against Sid Justice. There was no reason for either the match or the feud to end the show: There was a genuinely great Ric Flair–Randy Savage WWF Championship match thrown in the middle of the show that was part of an extremely heated personal rivalry between the two.

Outside of the idea that Hogan might retire at 38 after the match, if not necessarily because of this match, the battle—which ended in DQ and led to a post-match angle involving Papa Shango and the Ultimate Warrior—between Hogan and Sid barely had any reason to exist.

And while it’s not the worst, it’s definitely one of the front-runners for the ’Mania main event that fell the flattest, though it also helps us understand why WrestleMania 39’s ending was so “controversial.” While any match could conceivably be a main event on any card, WrestleMania main events require a few key elements to make them feel they belong at the end of the show before anyone steps in the ring. Most notably, because WrestleMania is ostensibly supposed to be a “supercard”—as opposed to either a gimmick show like Elimination Chamber or a monthly “premium live event”/“pay per view” like the original In Your House series—the main event should serve as the linchpin for the entire event.

The goal should be to give the entire spectacle a theme, or at least a tone. While that doesn’t need to involve a title, per se, without one, the juice very much has to be worth the squeeze, or the entire show can feel like it didn’t matter.

For the most part, these kinds of matches ended up being good enough for government work, though there is one in particular that was decidedly not. That match, between Reigns and the Undertaker at WrestleMania 33, went so poorly that the Undertaker specifically cited it in his Last Ride documentary as one of the reasons he ended up coming back multiple times after what was, ostensibly, his retirement match (which is what led to it ending the show) and the documentary has footage of Taker apologizing to Reigns for how the match went.

But even before that, there was no real answer to the “why” of the match, especially not as the designated main event of the show. The “feud” mostly centered on Roman eliminating Taker in the Rumble that year and then claiming that the WWE was “[His] yard now.” More so than any other, maybe in his career, that match and its preceding feud felt like Reigns being designated as the Guy and also went a long way in explaining why it didn’t start to work until Year 8, as Cody explained on the Smackdown before WrestleMania 39. That the match indirectly led to WrestleMania 36’s Boneyard Match (and the cinematic redemption of the Undertaker at the expense of the coward AJ Styles)—is perhaps its only saving grace.

So when a match without any pre-established meaning happened at the end of what was to then one of the longest WrestleManias ever in terms of in-ring action, it fell pretty flat. Mark Calaway leaving his boots in the ring as a valedictory statement on his career as the Undertaker made the match worthy of being placed at the end of the show, but that gravity also weighs down the performance immediately preceding it.

On the other end of the spectrum, “LT” Lawrence Taylor versus Bam Bam headlining the otherwise totally nondescript WrestleMania 11 is a fun attraction that makes the show somewhat memorable (if not for the best reasons) and, much like the Rock–John Cena I at WrestleMania 28, derives its buoyancy from the same kind of joy we get when we watch other celebrities do well with their WrestleMania moments. This may seem like a dig at the Rock’s in-ring work, and that’s just simply not true.

It’s mostly a dig at Dwayne Johnson and how his fame as a movie actor has eclipsed his success as a professional wrestler to the point that there’s presumably a sizable number of fans who know professional wrestling as “the thing that the Rock used to do.”

Expectations are generally a difficult mechanic to calibrate for these non-title matches, but especially for main events without championship stakes. Without having the importance of a major title in these matches, the professional and personal stakes, or the star power of the people involved, needs to be high enough to warrant capping off your flagship event with them. On the other hand, you also don’t want expectations so high that it makes reaching them nearly impossible, or you could end up with what happened to WrestleMania 26’s main event between Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker.

In terms of stakes, personal animosity, and even star power, there is perhaps no more worthy main event ever in the history of wrestling without a championship involved than Michaels-Taker. Michaels put his reputation as arguably the greatest in-ring performer of all time on the line against what was to that point the most significant single accomplishment in WWE history in the Undertaker’s streak. That it was told through an essentially two-year-long story line is about as perfect a way to build a WrestleMania main event (or, any match) as you could ask for.

Despite all this, it’s still considered a little bit of a disappointment, which shows how hard it is to tell how well things will go over and to gauge how well they went over in the immediate aftermath. While the bout was a good one, bordering on great, it suffers in no small part because of its comparison to what is considered by many to be the greatest match in WrestleMania history between the two from just the year before.

While Reigns and Rhodes have definitely worked together, thankfully they saved their first singles match against one another until WrestleMania 39. This is a rare commodity in modern wrestling, but between Cody’s absence and Roman’s post-return reduced schedule, this was still a pure “dream” match that became (a very depressing) reality.

Taker and Michaels’s WrestleMania 25 match is universally considered to be superior to their streak-versus-career bout at WrestleMania 26. Meanwhile, the main event of WrestleMania 25—Triple H and Randy Orton for the WWE title—is a textbook example of the kind of ’Mania main event that leads to disappointment, and it’s basically the only creative “hiccup” that Rhodes-Reigns didn’t hit.

Not every main event is “objectively” the best match at a given event—for instance, Rhea Ripley and Charlotte Flair’s absolute barnburner from night one could’ve been a worthy main event. But these matches are notable only because they are not even kind of the best match on their card, and in all three cases could have ostensibly been usurped by a “more deserving” match as the headlining bout. And while Cody and Roman definitely didn’t have the best match of the weekend, they at least avoided having this fate.

Triple H–Randy Orton at ’Mania 25 was, at least, both for the WWE Championship and the hottest feud in the company before blowing up SPECTACULARLY in the lead-up to the show. Though, it should be said: ’Mania 25’s choices at the end of the show—which included having Triple H use a sledgehammer to win a match where the stipulation was that he could lose the title upon disqualification—are perhaps the best parallel to WrestleMania 39’s poorly-executed main event finish.

These matches highlight the danger of deciding what a main event is and forcing it on folks, as opposed to letting what “deserves” to be the main event dictate the matchup. The most egregious example in this respect is the main event of WrestleMania 13, the WWF title match between Sycho Sid and Taker—which oddly doubles as Taker’s first main event. This main event is overshadowed by what was many consider to be best match in WrestleMania history (before Taker-Michaels I): Bret Hart and Steve Austin’s submission match.

The amount of twists and turns involved in getting Sid the championship and Taker into the match so that they could be in the main event instead could have gone into making the match feel like it mattered outside of that context. Or, better yet, spending more time selling Austin-Hart as potentially the best match in the history of WrestleMania while also adding championship stakes.

Thankfully, this lesson would be learned fairly quickly and Austin would go on to main-event three of the next four shows. To the surprise of no one, these easy-to-comprehend stories end up being the best kind of match to end the Showcase of the Immortals.

Now, sure, most of these matches include either Michaels or Austin, but each of these matches also followed a fairly simple path with minor complications to make them more interesting without requiring any kind of understanding of the behind-the-scenes dynamics to enjoy. Even the most convoluted of these stories was part of one of the farthest-reaching (and easy to understand) feuds in wrestling history between Mr. McMahon and Austin and felt almost paint-by-numbers when it was happening.

Keeping it simple isn’t necessarily a guarantee that a main event will work, but when this kind of straightforward main event fails, it most often happens because the simplicity is in service of shoehorning someone into the spot that the fans are not particularly interested in seeing there.

Almost none of these matches are bad—though WrestleMania 29 involved the Rock ripping muscle off the bone, so it’s not exactly a workrate classic and I should know, I was there—outside of WrestleMania 34’s main event between Reigns and Brock Lesnar going so off the rails that Vince changed the ending midway through the match based on the crowd reaction. But all of these matches aren’t quite able to get over the hump into the legendary status that you would assume based on many of the people involved (give or take a random Miz appearance).

This, as you may have noticed, seems to be a recurring pattern with at least one of the participants in this year’s main event. But for top-of-the-card performers who can’t quite capture the crowd’s attention in the way those in charge are hoping, an “everybody in the pool!” mentality usually can save the day.

It’s easy to think Reigns has had trouble in previous main events because of some kind of deficiency in his in-ring work. But even Bret Hart had trouble getting his feet under him following WrestleMania 9’s withering climax. This, along with the interminable Jerry Lawler feud he’d found himself embroiled in over the previous year, meant that Hart was sincerely in need of a massive promotional and narrative push in order to return to his former glory at the top of the card and feel worthy of a WrestleMania main event. Enter Lex Luger. (Yes, that Lex Luger.)

An enormously underrated worker, Luger helped carry a lot of the storytelling bits in the build-up to WrestleMania 10. Luger’s battle with Yokozuna for the soul of America allowed Bret to tell a much more resonant story with his youngest sibling, Owen, which would manifest itself in the now-legendary opening bout of the show, while interweaving the prestige of the title opportunity that Bret would receive (and make the most of) later that night with the deeply personal tale he was spinning with his brother.

This is something that has been particularly notable about the story line between Cody and Roman—which certainly has its flaws and is more than a little overhyped when it comes to the historic nature of the matchup (based on an overinflation of the importance of his title reigns)—and speaks to how well the Usos, Solo Sikoa, Zayn, and Owens have all played their roles in a feud with which they are not directly involved. Allowing Solo and the Usos to serve as Roman’s proxy has allowed Cody to make up for Reigns’s (at this point, very pronounced) absence(s) without ever losing the larger narrative thread.

The same can be said of matches of historical importance, when the emotional and cultural burden of the result can be too much for one “regular” match to withstand. Although historically significant for VERY different reasons, WrestleManias 30 and 35 both served as watershed moments for the direction the show and, by extension, the company could go. Sometimes a third wheel just serves to add some excitement (as was the case with Daniel Bryan’s addition to WrestleMania 37’s main event with Edge and Roman) or shift the direction of the narrative entirely, as was the case with Seth Rollins’s cash-in at WrestleMania 31.

All of these matches, even WrestleMania 2000’s somewhat lackluster four-way elimination match, helped establish all of their participants either as main event mainstays or at least important cogs in the WWE machine for years to come. Which, even more so than selling tickets, is the goal of these matches at this point.

The main event at WrestleMania is supposed to speak to the direction of the company much more than it’s supposed to be a “great match” or even a “draw.” What was potentially great about this year’s matchup between Cody and Roman was the idea that it could be all of those things at once, as well as a melting pot of everything that comes together to make a memorable ’Mania main event.

It had managed to both tell an incredibly simple story and layer it with a wide range of characters interacting with the main narrative. But the show was stolen from underneath them. And even if it hadn’t been, the match finished with everything that is fundamentally wrong with the Roman Reigns experience at this point.

While we could care less about who won a scripted wrestling match, as a critical observer of these kinds of proceedings, the ending of this show felt shitty in a way that nearly deflated the entire weekend. Hopefully, this is just a momentary blip, but if WWE continues down this path, it may find itself turning from undeniable to undesirable faster than it can possibly imagine.

And you can believe that.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.