The Surreal Reality of Professional Wrestling: A Wrestlemania Reflection

Audience Studies, NXT, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews, WWE
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The Undertaker’s WrestleMania entrance. [All media provided by the author unless otherwise noted.]

Any WrestleMania weekend experience is going to be marked by surreal moments. From the shear spectacle of the WWE’s collection of events and activities, to the overwhelming amount of professional wrestling occurring over seven days, and to the breathtaking risks and frequently draw-dropping storytelling of the performers on cards all across the weekend’s host city, it is certain that every fan attending these events will be able to take home a story of when they stood up in exclamation and awe. As an attendee of both of World Wrestling Entertainment’s major wrestling events over that weekend, Saturday night’s NXT Takeover: New Orleans and Sunday’s WrestleMania 34, I became privy to some of these moments experienced by those around me.

I attended the NXT show on my own since my WrestleMania companions were arriving late in that evening. On the way from the parking garage to the Smoothie King Center, my stride was overtaken by another man who appeared to also be on his own. He slowed down as he approached me and I was certain I was about to be asked if I wanted to buy an extra ticket or that he was going to try to engage me by telling me how nice my shoes were (this last part is a common line for grifters in New Orleans).

Instead, the man looked at me with a face full of amazement, arched his elbow and lifted his thumb in the direction he had just come from and told me “I just ran into the Miz back there!”

I, not being exactly the most socially skilled academic or wrestling fan on the planet, could only think to say, “Oh, yeah? That’s cool.” This did not deter my new sidewalk companion’s excitement. “Yeah,” he continued, “just walking around. Freaking awesome. I love WrestleMania weekend!”

From there this very excited Miz-bump-into-er sped up is gait and became part of the maddening crowd shuffling into the arena.

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My seat at the Smoothie King Center for NXT Takeover: New Orleans.

I encountered a number of other varying types of fandom once inside the arena. The WWE’s most important annual event draws people from all around the world, and I was genuinely surprised at the many different types of people who had come out for the NXT show. Once in my seat I found I would be spending the following four hours next to what I can most kindly describe as someone representative of the wrestling fan stereotype: a rather large and odorous young man draped in a Matt Hardy “Mower of Lawn” shirt, who insisted to his companions that he had the inside scoop on all things wrestling. He did not, by the way, have any scoop that could not be found on the average wrestling website.

On my other side was a family of four who had made the trip from eastern Europe to attend the weekend’s festivities. When not fully engaged in the show myself, I took note of the son, the youngest member of his family, and his wide-eyed excitement at the action – it was all fresh for him and he wanted to be a part of the crowd in spite of his father’s insistence on keeping a cool demeanor.

It was an interesting placement, being wedged between these two perspectives. On my right was an example of what is commonly conceived, derivatively, as a wrestling fan – loud, obsessed, judgmental, and borderline obnoxious. On my left was a child whose every impulse was to be pulled into the carnivalesque theater of professional wrestling and to engage with it innocently, as if the whole thing were a real competition that held immeasurable stakes. When it comes to professional wrestling, these personalities are equal parts contrastive and complimentary. They are both fully engaged with the products they consume, they are both lost in the moment of the thing, and they are both, willingly or subconsciously, suspending their sense of reality and biting on the narrative being presented to them.

Viewing these two differing ends of pro-wrestling fandom was one of my personal surreal moments from that weekend. Seated uncomfortably in the 300 level of the Smoothie King Center (perhaps the most uncomfortable seat I have ever been in, and I only fly coach), I was taken aback by two personalities I have been. Looking at the young boy, I remembered when I was about ten years old and my parents took me to a tiny armory in northern Maryland to watch a WWF house show, and I saw my favorite wrestlers at the time fight right in front of me, including a match between Bret and Owen Hart, an occurrence that now I wish like hell I could have appreciated more at the time. Looking at the young man on my right I thought about how I had attended yet another house show as a teenager and saw Brock Lesnar in the opening match, before he had debuted on television, and how, being a fledgling internet smart mark, I leaned over to my friends and said smugly, “I read about this guy.”

By contrast, I spent WrestleMania 34 wedged between some old friends whom I made during the ten years I spent as professional wrestler myself. I spent most of the event exchanging thoughts with my friend Greg, an accomplished and still very active performer in the northeast who works under the ring name Greg Excellent. Greg and the promotion he founded, Ground Breaking Wrestling, were the main reasons I was able to live out my own boyhood dream of being a wrestler, and I felt it particularly poignant that I was able to attend the biggest event in the industry with him. It is a rare moment for me to see Greg or any of my close friends from the business, having stepped away from wrestling to pursue my graduate degrees in Milwaukee and now Baton Rouge, and it was another surreal moment to walk into a sea of more than 70,000 people alongside a good friend with whom I share an extreme passion for the business.

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My view for WrestleMania.

Greg and I talked about everything wrestling and WrestleMania related. We discussed the sheer size and design of the event (the beautifully designed Carnivale-inspired stage was even more impressive and massive in person). We talked about the booking of the event and effective booking in general, something we have always clashed over.

We argued over the finish to Asuka versus Charlotte straight into the next morning – Greg is and will always be wrong in supporting the end of Asuka’s streak here, just to be clear. We shared our excitement for the mixed tag match with Ronda Rousey and the entirety of the John Cena/Elias/Undertaker segment, both segments which we agreed personified professional wrestling at its best with emotional storytelling and in-ring action that was exciting and intelligent. We each struggled to take in the main event of the show amongst a crowd in revolt. We even kept our conversation and debates going after the event, over burgers at an extremely busy Fuddruckers inside of a New Orleans casino (a surreal event in itself).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MjWgOx1vuU&w=560&h=315]

Some shameless self-promotion: A match between myself and Greg Excellent.

Through all of this conversation, Greg and I were actively exemplifying the spectrum of wrestling fandom. In the middle of moments like the aforementioned mixed tag match and Undertaker segments, we were on our feet and giddy alongside the other 70,000 plus people around us, stepping back into the enthralled bodies of our younger selves, oblivious and ignorant of the unreal nature of wrestling (“It’s still real to me, damnit!”).

In other moments, such as our disagreement about the Smackdown Women’s title match (in which, let us not forget, Greg is wrong), we were alternating between being internet smarks, assuming we knew what was best, and being experienced professionals within the pro-wrestling world, albeit at a much smaller scale.

We oscillated between the perspectives of the wide-eyed European boy and the smarky twenty-something that I was crammed between the night before while wrestling with our own personas as performers and students of wrestling and storytelling, and all the while we were likely an irritant to the poor folks in front of us who just wanted to watch a wrestling show.

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Seriously the wrong moment here, no matter what Greg says. [Photo courtesy of WWE.com]

I suppose my point in sharing all of this is simply to express my own amazement in the ways that the most surreal of all entertainments attracts and literally brings together myriad perspectives. Often times, like with the young boy and the smart mark at NXT, these perspectives can seem contradictory – one innocent and the other cynical – but the fact is that they all come from an identical love for the spectacle of sports entertainment.

Walking out of the NXT show, I overheard a group of young men talking excitedly about their weekend. They had been shouting so much during the show that they had all strained their voices. The spoke in gasps about how incredible the show was, they wondered how they would be able to handle WrestleMania if NXT had taken their voices, and, most endearingly, one of the young men talked about how he had already been made speechless that weekend when he met Asuka at WrestleMania Axxess.

I had enjoyed the show myself, but my excitement was nothing compared to that of these young men, and in those moments where I eavesdropped on their conversation and heard their enthusiasm for professional wrestling, I could not have been prouder to be a part, as both fan and participant, of this strange and surreal thing we call professional wrestling.

WrestleMania 34 Rhetorical Recap: Golden Spotlights, Crimson Masks, and the (Unconscious) Race Politics of Smarks

Audience Studies, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews, Works-In-Process
maniatoday

Image credit: https://www.f4wonline.com/sites/www.f4wonline.com/files/maniatoday.jpg

Throughout the year, the Professional Wrestling Studies Association has offered a range of event coverage for WWE Pay Per Views as well as a host of vintage and indie shows and performers. Our goal is to cultivate an exclusive space for creative and scholarly writing, from close readings and fan perspectives. WrestleMania 34 offers the first WrestleMania since the official launch of PWSA, and with that, the goal for this Rhetorical Recap is to explore the final convergence of many years’ long narratives. Having covered each of WWE’s “Big Four” Pay Per Views starting with last year’s Summer Slam, the focus of this coverage will be to explore how long-form wrestling narratives come to a head—in success and failure—with some culminating stories years in the making and others impromptu due to unforeseen circumstances like injury, industry, or opportunity. Thus, with the cumulative event, this WrestleMania 34 rhetorical recap will emphasize arc over in-ring minutia, and aesthetic spectacle over a chronological review.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All unidentified images come from the WWE’s online gallery collection.

Preshow Highlights: The WrestleMania 34 preshow has evolved in recent years, stretching from a nominal hour to an hour and a half, only to extend well into a two-hour infomercial sprinkled with a couple of minor memorable moments. The majority of the preshow runs with Renee Young hosting a rotating roundtable of commentators, mostly to hype the main card events and provide bumpers to the video packages that have already aired on RAW, SmackDown, NXT: Takeover, and will air again prior to each key event. For this reason, it is highly recommendable that viewers skip or strategically skim the pre-show after it airs so as to fast-forward past the 75-80% of integrated marketing filler.

The two noteworthy moments of this year’s preshow included fan-favorite “Woken” Matt Hardy winning the “Fourth Annual Andre the Giant Memorial Rumble” with an assist from (Woken?) Bray Wyatt, as well as a predictable yet interesting showdown between Sasha Banks and Bailey in the first ever Women’s Battle Royale. The two best frenemies worked together on the final eliminations before Bailey pulled a fast one by chucking out Sasha from behind. However, this proved to be short-term glory, as Naomi happened to re-emerge still an eligible member. These curious conclusions marked the beginning of an interesting trend that continued in WrestleMania 34: dangling plot threads rather than the typical bowtie story-arc endings.

Show Open: The main card show kicks off a traditional combination of video package and national anthem. The national anthem is performed by a younger duo in arguably a quieter rendition than, say, the Super Bowls that cap with jets screeching overhead. But over the heads of the female duet rests a pagan tower of an entrance stage. The entrance stage and ramp over the last four years fit the definition of hyperreal. They are behemoths as if Greek and Roman titans will soon descend from behind the black curtain of smoke and pyrotechnics. The New Orleans Mardi gras color palette plays a central role, but the high definition LED lighting seemingly elevates these colors to the 4K-resolution era.

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First Match: The opening card aims to kick the show off in style with the Intercontinental Championship Triple Threat Match between “The Kingslayer” Seth Rollins, current IC champion The Miz, and the first WrestleMania appearance for Voodoo-esque Finn Balor (sans Voodoo-esque Demon persona). Rollins enters with what seems like a Game of Thrones combination of King of the North meets The Night King theme, complete with ice-tinged contact lenses. The Miz entered with a garish steampunk court jester wardrobe but soon shed his Miztourage atop the entrance ramp. With a newborn child part of his transmedia narrative that stretches across WWE kayfabe, E! Network’s Total Divas, and a new USA Network reality show, the breadcrumbs represent either continuous false finish babyface teases or an authentic turn (to coincide with the press run for the reality series) or the likely signal that his reign will end tonight. Finn Balor enters with yet another set of new tiny trunks; this time sporting an LGBTQ-friendly rainbow pattern for his Balor Club insignia. And in case anyone was to simply assume WWE is reappropriating the colors as part of its Mardi gras theme, Coach and Michael Cole point out that the stage full of Balor Club fans (in matching T-shirts) has branded his club “inclusive” as well as a celebration of “diversity”. Given how much praise Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi quickly received NJPW/ROH’s ambiguous Golden Lovers, this has all the shades of a James Dean-y feel.

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Oh, and there was a match too.

This bout actually progresses somewhere between 90 and 100 miles an hour. These three superstars obviously each have proverbial chips on their shoulder and clearly want to “steal the show” (it’s both already clear but also the announcers cannot help but use the same repeated phrasing to drive the point home). For each, the year has been one of rebound spikes and also roster regression. Miz became the reason to watch SmackDown week in and out, but then was quickly “traded” to RAW where he fell back down the deepest show roster hole in the company.

Meanwhile, Balor had to reestablish his WWE career after a 9-month shoulder surgery and injury that resulted in him relinquishing the Universal Championship and missing WrestleMania 33. WWE teased Balor in a number of high-profile RAW matches but “the Club” carries none of the Bullet Club buzz just as his lingering supernatural feud with Bray Wyatt felt like a placeholder gamble. Rollins also tumbled down the card due to RAW’s super heavyweight division featuring Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Samoa Joe, and the 2017 rise of Braun Strowman. Then Rollins slipped into quasi-interim glory with a cut short The Shield reunion and Tag-Team Championship run with Dean Ambrose. A real-life virus to Reigns and then elbow injury to Ambrose left Rollins hovering in No Man’s Land with WrestleMania looming.

Collectively, all three are deserving of a spotlight match and yet none had anything of worth until mere weeks before WM34. Thus, their match goes off like a canon and sustains a comparable fireworks show from start to finish. A key downside might be that variations of this match have taken place on RAW for at least the last month. Thus, the only unknown was which man would walk away from the champion. After foreshadowing suggested Balor may finally get another belt on his shoulder, Rollins showed why the brass in the back has so much favor in him. WINNER: Seth Rollins.

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Charlotte’s Golden Entrance, courtesy of Daily Charlotte Flair@FlairDynasty. Original video imagery credit: WWE.

The Hedonic Titan theme continues in match #2.

Second Match: Charlotte Flair enters from a literal golden throne, accompanied by three men in full Spartan soldier armor. The gold lit intro is brought to life with Ric Flair’s vintage “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (aka, 2001: A Space Odyssey theme) before Charlotte’s techno-variation accompanies a blue-tinted set change. But audiences ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Suddenly a 3D projection of Geisha masks fills the stadium (and I’m still trying to figure this out) as Asuka enters with a sparkling mask replacing her traditional white mask with colored tears. These two competitors have been destined to clash since they each entered WWE. Bookers were smart to keep them apart this long, moving Charlotte to SmackDown just as Asuka came up to RAW from NXT. Charlotte has dominated both women’s rosters with multiple title runs, while Asuka has only held the NXT belt but still remains undefeated.

While much discussion has gone on about what match should go last, and which men’s bout will “steal the show,” my WrestleMania prediction (especially following this year’s Royal Rumble) is that this match is the dark horse of the entire card. I think it’s got the most in-match potential once the bell rings. And by just the mid-point of the match, this “pre-mon-EEE-tion” feels accurate. These two are lightning in a bottle, and for never having met previously, their chemistry is fluid and sensational.

The camera cuts to John Cena sitting nearby in a grey T-shirt, beer in hand, recur so frequently that the foreshadowing seems almost clumsy (WWE does know sober adults watch, right?). But hey, kids watch too and Cena is now the Billy Crystal of the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards.

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Courtesy of WWE.com: https://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34/gallery/john-cenas-wrestlemania-reactions-photos#fid-40214527

Back to the action: it’s phenomenal. It might be moving even faster than the IC Triple Threat, and already I feel like I’m having a hallucinatory CrossFit dream. By the end of this thing, Charlotte is bloodied and crying, while Asuka seems to be setting up her ultimate victory. But in the quick of things, somehow the momentum shifts just a bit back, and Charlotte inexplicably races a figure four into her patented figure eight, and even more ludicrously, Asuka, universally impervious to pain, taps. Everyone is stunned. Charlotte seems stunned. I’m stunned. Asuka followed red carpet all the way from NXT up but earned it strong-style. Then, she made history by being the Soul Survivor and first Women’s Royal Rumble winner. So naturally, on “the grandest stage of them all”…lose?

This feels like a last-minute booking swerve. The politically safe decision “for the brand.” But to be clear, both are deserving before the match, during the match, and in the months and perhaps years to come. And yet the match was definitely even, and Charlotte has earned her stripes. It was not the ideal finish to Asuka’s 2-plus year winning streak. Todd Phillips notes how Asuka’s streak sits at 914 days, which shows staggering patience by WWE. But then again, WWE messed up Charlotte’s PPV win streak over a year ago as well. WINNER: Charlotte Flair.

Third Match: In the United States Championship Fatal Fourway were Randy Orton vs. Bobby Roode vs. Jinder Mahal vs. Rusev. Smartly, WWE looks to push another triple threat out of the way early — er, excuse me, fatal four-way (Sheesh!) — for US Title (aka, the “Meh” second-tier belt on SmackDown). Matches like these showcase how too many belts deflate the prominence behind such storylines. This match is the SmackDown equivalent of RAW’s IC Triple Threat: three talented superstars with stutter-stop storytelling throughout 2017 and the Road to WrestleMania. Technically, Jinder Mahal had the best year of the three, becoming a first-time WWE Champion for the duration of summer 2017. He even feuded with Orton for a couple of initial PPVs.

The silver lining? Rusev, Jinder, and Roode each getting a decent mid-card match at WrestleMania 34. The downside is that this year’s card happens to be so magnificent that the hype might just overshadow matches that are simply “pretty good.” The other silver lining? The match is appropriately short (don’t let the audience get too tired). After a finishing move spot fest, Rusev gets a moment to bask in the “Rusev Day!” glory with the audience. The moment is his, just not the belt. Jinder ducks in last-minute and catches Rusev off guard, pinning him in the process. In hindsight, this was an interesting bout that demonstrated WWE’s talent-heavy issue in 2018. Namely, how to fit so many superstars into a PPV that, with pre-show, will have lasted an absolutely exhausting 7 hours and 10 minutes. Indeed, the brand split is looking smarter and smarter with each passing talent acquisition. WINNER: Jinder Mahal.

The Mid-Point (and Creative Peak) Main Event

In a bit of a surprise, for the fourth match, WrestleMania 34 pivots to one of WWE’s marquee mainstream attractions: the mixed tag match between Triple H and Stephanie McMahon against RAW GM Kurt Angle and Rowdy Ronda Rousey. The entrances were relatively vanilla. Triple H is known for his outlandish wish fulfillment entrances, including riffs on King Conan, the Terminator, even Sons of Anarchy. With out-of-control self-one-upmanship, the retread this year is a less impactful sister sequel to WrestlemMania 33’s oversized choppers revving down the entrance ramp. Meanwhile, Angle and Rousey’s reveals appear quite pedestrian.

And yet…unlike some weeks, the audience seems primed to play nice and root for Ronda. This match had all of the pomp and circumstance theatrics of a hokie celebrity tie-in. But the longer the match went on, the more the crowd got behind Ronda and Kurt (but Ronda especially).

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For all of the gimmick match pieces in place—a McMahon family member, the outsider non-wrestler participation, semi-retired GM and legacy member back-in-action—there was a lot to suggest this match could easily fall into parody. The early uses of Ronda showed potential as well as a woman’s wrestler work-in-progress. Even the strategic placement across ESPN’s programming was hit-and-miss. With so much at stake, this foursome went all in on a gambit match every bit full of stakes, symbolism, danger, and all of the high drama that makes pro wrestling an addictive bit of cathartic theatrical athleticism.

The net results? The mixed tag program turned out to make a case for match of the night. While Angle and Trips were always in play to protect Ronda’s inexperience and Stephanie’s non-competitor corporate role, both women turned in superior performances. Ronda stepped up to the mat while Stephanie arguably played the best version of herself that she’s ever put on. The peak moment occurs when Rousey becomes stirred into attacking Hunter with such ferocious quick strikes that he oversells cowardice falling back into the corner. He is comically emasculated but also putting WWE’s new star over in front of a raucous crowd. The four performers span the emotional spectrum of sports entertainment without the pressure of going last. WINNERS: Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle.

Match Five: The New Day then comes out in a State Fair-themed lowbrow performance complete with dancing little people dressed as pancakes. I can’t even with this kind of sideshow attraction appeal. In the 2.5 sitting’s that it took me to take down the five hours of programming, I fast-forwarded through this “happy” bit both times (it’s probably my aversion to pancakes, but whatever). Truth be told, the New Day bit, which some scholars have compared to a contemporary minstrel show, was the “get excited!” start to the SmackDown Tag-Team Championship triple…*YAAAAWN!* threat match. For what it’s worth, The Usos are pretty slick performers. But this was always projected to be a transitional squash match finally awarding the Bludgeon Brothers (Rowan and Harper of Wyatt family fame) a tag title reward. WINNERS: The Bludgeon Brothers

Tensions between Stockholder Expectations and Fan Service with “Dream Match” Booking

I don’t know if I would feel this way if I didn’t sample SiriusXM’s Busted Open Radio, but the yearlong hype, discussion, and speculation concerning the Undertaker’s (alleged) retirement pushed this inevitable match into predictive overhype. The fans circle virtually shaped the WrestleMania 34 narrative as one that would welcome back the mid-career “American Badass” persona. And all of the ingredients supported this direction: Undertaker retiring his hat and gloves last year, Roman’s need to keep the claim that he “retired the Dead Man,” the induction of Taker’s biker anthem singer Kid Rock into the WWE Hall of Fame, and even the symmetry of the American Badass persona as the first backstager (and champion) to greet Cena after his inaugural WWE TV match. It made perfect sense. At least on paper and out loud and in my head it did.

Greatest Hits, Part I: Liminal Icons (Match Six). But for whatever reason, none of these events unfolded in the way that the teasers suggested. And this is WWE trolling its own “smart” fans for overthinking the simplicity of their narrative structure in the current era.

Cena buried Elias once more, in at least the third such squash since the Royal Rumble. The encounter appeared to be a ruse that took Cena out of the audience and into wrestling gear. The audience was meant to feel duped by Elias, and as Cena solemnly and effortlessly walked back up the elongated ramp mixed with celebration and disappointment, the lights cut to black. The Undertaker returns, traditional Dead Man wardrobe, his patented slow walk as slow as ever.

And yet…wow. The match was less a “greatest hits” between the two mega-stars and more of a complete Cena squash. At most the match went 3:30 minutes in-ring. It was a shocker, and for my money, not in a good way. Not after everything that came before, and arguably everything that would come after. The only gift the match offers fans is another year or more to speculate as to just why this happened in the first place.

At the same time, the layout is entirely understandable. The Undertaker is in indecisive retirement stasis and Cena’s Hollywood schedule is starting to stack up as heavily as The Rock’s. Perhaps neither could fully commit to the appearances, the booking, the rehearsal, and so on. And no one can say they haven’t earned that right, because dollars and cents and longevity on the roster vindicates how things played out. In an information economy, perhaps WWE sees the digital discourse as more valuable than the final product. And given Cena and Taker’s diverse schedule, it is pretty clear this is all they could arrange with limited coordination. There you have it, a clear picture of what impromptu execution looks like.

For the record, as there are competing narratives online: at 2:29:14 the bell rings. Then, the pinfall occurs at 3:32:00. That’s right, the actual match comes in under 2 minutes, 45 seconds.

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Here is the match in a snapshot, courtesy of WWE.com https://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34/gallery/daniel-bryan-shane-mcmahon-kevin-owens-sami-zayn-photos#fid-40214263

Greatest Hits, Part II: Vendetta Tag Match (Match Seven). One match that carries all the hype but perhaps came off just a little bit flat was the Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn tag match against the SmackDown brass of Shane McMahon and the headline-grabbing return of Daniel Bryan. Bryan’s situation, not unlike Undertaker’s, suffers from a bit of hype fatigue in that anything short of a 1-hour 5-Star match would underwhelm obsessive fan audiences. WWE actually executed smart booking by having Shane take a pummeling for the majority of the bout. This narrative approach gave the match a meta-reflection of the 2-3 year Bryan gap, played out over the course of the match. This projects the real-life Brian Danielson (who would likely have some ring rust) and then allows him to play his “greatest hits” move set for a quick pin once he enters. It’s a doppelganger to Undertaker, a fan service match with all the ingredients (Uber-babyface Shane-O-Mac, indie-love for Owens, NXT nostalgia for Zayn). WINNERS: Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon

How To Book a Narrative Payoff (Match Eight).

The WWE RAW Women’s Championship match reached an appropriate cathartic conclusion that feels like it has been building longer than it really has. Throughout most of the last year, Alexa Bliss manipulated Nia Jax into a kind of one-way friendship as a method of diversion. This kept Nia from fully committing to challenge for the RAW Women’s Championship while occasionally protecting Bliss and providing a partner in tag matches. This made sense with both characters embodying distinct shades of heel (the hard-talking coward and the monster, respectively).

This succeeds as a long-form narrative arc because it allows characters to develop patterns while still leaving WWE booking options. Asuka was a player in the fold and could have easily overcome Bliss for her belt. And yet after winning the Women’s Royal Rumble, Asuka chose the noblest option possible by going after the strongest competition in Charlotte. Meanwhile, the insertion of Ronda Rousey into the Women’s Division equation created immediate possibilities in all directions, with the most logical decision to gain favor by taking out the boss (Stephanie). Thus, the Alexa/Nia angle came into focus at just the right time.

Mickey James transitioned from opponent to frenemy to mean girls accomplice, which put Alexa in position to accidentally and carelessly expose her low opinion of Nia. In a storyline that featured bullying, body shaming, smack talking, and gaslighting, these two performers tapped into some of the most authentic reflections of toxic masculinity/femininity in digital culture today. Their match is excellent and encapsulates the year’s worth of ups and downs with appealing choreography. Real-world incidents, unfortunately, end far too often in tragedy, but this match concluded with the appropriate level of triumphant, cathartic pathos. WINNER: Nia Jax.

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Nia vs. Bliss, courtesy of WWE.com http://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34#full-detail-40040893

Match Nine: WrestleMania 34 was insane in just how few times there was room for filler or letdown matches. Arguably, the sheer volume of content is what led some matches to appear more valley than peak (U.S. Championship) and the adrenaline crash of week-long festivities will always give way to audience impatience in the final acts. The WWE Championship is a different verse to the same song that haunted parts of the WrestleMania 34 macro narrative.

To clarify, the A.J. Styles versus Nakamura is a story that doesn’t need a heavy narrative setup (good thing too, because SmackDown mostly ignored it), but these strong styles (double pun?) do need temporal room to breathe. And yet a double bind emerges within this win-win setting. The performers will always already be compared to their previous, less restrictive New Japan Pro Wrestling main event at the Tokyo Dome. And while a large portion of WWE’s audience has never and will never see this match, the Nakamura character got further lost in translation moving from NXT to the main roster.

This sounds like a bit of armchair bellyaching and fan wallowing. Truth be told, this is another terrific match that had the relief of a Style victory (deserved) and the refreshing surprise of a Nakamura heel turn (which should fix some of his weekly character issues). Instead of the over-labeling of a “Dream Match” payoff, the post-match low blow to A.J. perhaps signals a new beginning (no end in sight!) that suggests this rivalry is just hitting its appropriate stride. WINNER: A.J. Styles

All TV Finales Suffer If You Binge-Watch the Entire Show in one Long Sitting

There is a danger in over-thinking pro wrestling, but one wonders if the proverbial transitional gimmick match between championship main events doesn’t serve as a “pallet cleanser” so much as a potential scapegoat for any time the final match doesn’t execute perfectly for either the performers or the fans.

That said, while the match was perfectly entertaining and serviceable, the fan reaction shifted into neutral during the A.J./Nakamura match and may have only popped hard one other time when Braun Strowman tagged in a young teenage kid that he “randomly selected from the crowd” to serve as RAW Championship tag-team partner. Other than that, the RAW Tag-Team bit was excruciating to watch primarily because WrestleMania 34 was at this point past the four-hour threshold. And six hours if one counts the pre-show. And nine and a quarter hours if one counts NXT: Takeover New Orleans. And fourteen plus hours if one considers how mind-numbering excess of a five-hour Hall of Fame ceremony Friday evening (I can never watch another Hillbilly Jim match ever).

The density of all this WWE content highlights their industry attempt to suffocate the competition, which is the typical corporate consumers buy into with Disney, Wal-Mart, the NFL, Netflix, etc. In reality, market saturation has led independent organizations to fight even harder. Every legit indie product now shadows WWE at the annual host site for WrestleMania. The entire week becomes a pro-wrestling mecca, and anyone who’s anyone makes appearances at multiple venues. The WWE may harness an unstoppable corporate hegemony, but the pro-wrestling community thrives as always from the success of warehouse outlets and passion-fueled communal productions.

To return to the final main events, it makes logical human sense that fans would face exhaustion de la spectacle after a full week of festivities (and thousands of dollars). If the adrenaline crashes for performers that “blow up” if not properly fit and fueled, imagine the average fan that is expected to sustain emotional investment from the antsy pre-gate moments in route to the stadium, up through the 7-hour card. The elongation of WrestleMania thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for impossible odds at show’s close. The bigger question is, why wouldn’t audiences be flat?

Match Ten: The interim tag-team championship was, apparently, entertaining. Braun went ultra babyface by picking a virtual child partner from the audience, in the process maintaining his strength cred by then beating Cesaro and Shamus (no slouches) to single-handedly gain the RAW tag titles. This much was telegraphed weeks in advance. WINNER: Braun Strowman (and Nicholas)

Match Eleven: Speaking of telegraphing, Brock Lesner versus Roman Reigns for the WWE Universal Championship. Industry insiders were talking about this match regularly as far back as spring. There were times throughout 2017 where I thought this made no sense. So many fresh foes emerged from Samoa Joe to Braun Strowman. The four mentioned superstars even shared a fatal four-way main event at Summer Slam 2017, so the idea of reteaming only two of them felt soft and repetitive. But there I was overthinking WWE’s booking again.

Regardless, I thought Reigns was aces in his weekly mic promos. The “suspension” storyline also made sense, and the UFC tease of Brock “skipping” this year’s Elimination Chamber to dine with Dana White brought back classic levels of kayfabe in mainstream media. As much as we all love to suspend disbelief, sometimes President Trump is accurate with this alternative definition regarding “fake news”. But I’m talking about Kardashian levels of gossip rag publications and websites, not scientific journals.

Days after WrestleMania 34, I am still perplexed by the main event. It was terrific and also a supersized rerun sequel. It closed with two shocking surprises, but only one of them felt (looked) organic. These two absolutely pummeled one another, but jaded fans that paid probably thousands of dollars on their ticket seemed disinterested. And for fans that still chant “C-M-Punk!” after all these years, I don’t feel like it’s a false equivalency to compare this act to constituents voting against their own interests. There is a certain Idiocracy Effect to paying thousands to go wait around an entire day just to sneak in and blow up a beach ball.

Is “safe booking” always fun? No. But neither is going to a murder mystery dinner theater and then refusing to eat or engage others or put your phone away when the theme is set to Victorian England. Dear smart mark fans: get over yourselves instead of trying to get yourself over.

Fans aside, the showdown between Reigns and Lesner was crazy weird. Braun and Samoa Joe each fell to a single F-5, but Reigns needed to take six. The false finishes piled up so high that each shoulder burst moved the match into Frank Miller Dark Knight Strikes Again/All-Star Batman & Robin territory. The surprising non-comeback and eventual win by Lesner recall the early seasons of Game of Thrones, where everything tells you the story is heading toward a noble mythological victory only for the hero to die. And how about that crimson mask on Roman? Along with Ronda emasculating Hunter and Charlotte’s golden-tinted entrance, this trio of images cultivates my visual memory of WrestleMania 34. LOSER: Roman Reigns

With Reigns losing, there was a sadness to letting the air out of his longstanding chase for the title. WWE and others constantly remind audiences that Roman is now in “Hulk Hogan” territory with four WrestleMania closing matches. But the angry mob wins in not letting him enjoy a legitimate title run, despite all of the clear work he puts in.

I have several working thoughts and critiques as to why fans fawn over Daniel Bryan but reject Roman Reigns, and cheer for Brock Lesnar despite a handful of yearly appearances. There is something toxic to this type of fandom. When it’s aimed at the company, at the corporation, there is a working class catharsis to such frustration. But when the angst seems to be aimed at a superstar that does everything fans “respect” from names like John and Mark and Daniel and Terry…I have to rhetorically question what that missing ingredient might be.

WrestleMania 34 Honors

Wrestling Match of the Night: Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka

Wrestling Story of the Night: Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs. Stephanie McMahon and Triple H

Wrestling Story Arc of the Year (fulfilled): Nia Jax defeating Alexa Bliss for the RAW Women’s Title

Best Entrance of the Night: Charlotte Flair

Best Heel Turn: Nakamura

Fan Service Award: Daniel Bryan comeback victory

Scarlett Letter Award: The Roman Reigns Crimson Mask

WrestleMania 34: A Travelogue

Fan Reviews, Travelogue

In recent years, WrestleMania weekend has become an opportunity for numerous domestic and international wrestling promotions to converge on the host city in order to capitalize on the presence of tens of thousands of wrestling fans from around the world. I have attended three previous WrestleManias (XXV in Houston, 2009, XXVII in Atlanta, 2011, and XXX in New Orleans, 2014), but limited myself, with the exception of a Ring of Honor (ROH) television taping in 2014, to WWE events, particularly the Hall of Fame ceremony and WrestleMania itself. This year, however, I resolved to take full advantage of the presence of numerous independent promotions in New Orleans, resulting in one of the most tiring and enjoyable experiences in my long history of attending wrestling events. In total, I attended ten events in four days, from April 5-8, culminating with WrestleMania 34. With so many events, a match-by-match evaluation would be infeasible, so instead, I will offer an event-by-event travelogue, with my (admittedly subjective) summaries and observations.

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Event 1: Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport (Pontchartrain Center, 3pm CT, 4/5/18)

I drove to New Orleans Thursday morning, in time to attend my first event, Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport. Matt Riddle (“King of the Bros”) is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter who wrestles primarily for the New Jersey-based EVOLVE promotion, and this event was based around a rare, if not unique, premise in modern pro wrestling: realistic, Mixed Martial Art (MMA)-style matches that could only end in knockouts or submissions. As an MMA fan since the early days of the sport, I was curious not only to see how these matches would be worked, but also how fans would react to a very different presentation of pro wrestling. For the event, the ropes had been removed from the ring, evidently to emphasize that, as in MMA, there would be no rope breaks to escape submissions. As one might expect, these matches featured extensive mat-based grappling sequences and mostly-believable stiff strikes, and, to my surprise, fans did not appear at any time to be bored with this style, reacting to and cheering even the most minor transitions from one hold or position to another. To be fair, it’s safe to assume that most of the fans present were of the “smart” variety, and therefore more likely to appreciate mat-based technical wrestling than mainstream fans accustomed to near-constant action. With the exception of hardcore wrestler Nick Gage, who attempted to use a table against his opponent in their bout, practically every match featured entirely plausible, realistic action, akin to what one might have seen in early twentieth-century matches featuring Frank Gotch or Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Upon arrival, I was especially thrilled to learn that Riddle’s original main event opponent, indie legend Low Ki, had been replaced by Minoru Suzuki, the current IWGP Intercontinental Champion in New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and a legit MMA pioneer from the Japanese Pancrase promotion. As in Japan, fans belted out the climactic “Kaze ni Nare” from Suzuki’s entrance theme, and he received the biggest pop of the show. After the show, Riddle announced that he planned to organize another Bloodsport event for next year’s WrestleMania weekend, and I would certainly not hesitate to attend another one. This style is not for everyone, but the fans in attendance largely enjoyed this unique and unusual presentation of pro wrestling.

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Event 2: EVOLVE 102 (Pontchartrain Center, 8pm CT, 4/5/18)

Although held in the same venue, the crowd for this event was smaller than for the earlier Bloodsport show. I’m fairly certain that this show’s attendance was greatly affected by the WrestleCon Supershow, held at 9:30pm at the Sugar Mill in downtown New Orleans, featuring the “Golden Lovers” tag team of Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushii. This was a solid show overall, and featured an excellent EVOLVE championship match between recent New Japan Cup winner Zack Sabre Jr., champion for over 400 days, and Matt Riddle. The two had a fantastic, largely mat-based match that saw Riddle wrest the title from Sabre, who recently signed a new contract with NJPW. This show featured plenty of solid action, but the diminished crowd meant that there wasn’t quite as much heat as in many of the other events I attended.

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Event 3: The Crash (Sugar Mill, 12pm CT, 4/6/18)

The following day, I headed downtown for a couple of events at the Sugar Mill, which is directly across from the convention center where WWE’s WrestleMania Axxess events were being held, beginning with The Crash, a Tijuana-based lucha libre promotion, at noon. This show featured many recognizable indie and lucha stars, including Joey Ryan, known largely for performing spots involving using his penis to flip opponents, as well as a fun main event featuring Austin Aries versus Penta El Zero M. LA Park (formerly La Parka), Psicosis, and Damián 666 received a huge nostalgia pop when they entered to Eddie Guerrero’s old World Championship Wrestling (WCW) theme, clad in LWO (Latino World Order, from a brief WCW angle) shirts. Throughout the show, the mostly Anglo-American fans chanted “uno mas” (one more) when encouraging various luchadors to repeat a strike or move, Penta’s catchphrase “cero miedo” (zero fear), and counted turnbuckle punches in Spanish. This minor, though not insignificant, embrace of Spanish, if only in the context of a Mexican lucha event, was a welcome reminder of the increasingly global character of pro wrestling. As we move further and further from the days of oversimplified national stereotypes in wrestling, American fans seem more willing than ever to embrace international stars, from Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev in WWE to LA Park and Penta 0M at The Crash. Attendance for this show was decent, though a bit underwhelming.

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Event 4: Revolution Pro Wrestling (Sugar Mill, 4pm CT, 4/6/18)

It was fortunate that I was already present for The Crash, as this Revolution Pro show was absolutely packed, undoubtedly due to the presence of various NJPW stars on the show. As soon as the doors opened, I wisely planted my proverbial flag at a good vantage point in the general admission bleachers; by the time the show began, there was absolutely no space to be had. Once again, the fans eagerly belted out “Kaze ni Nare” for Suzuki’s entrance, and cheered wildly for Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushii, Tomohiro Ishii, and Zack Sabre Jr. Of the four shows I’d attended so far, this one’s fans were the most energetic and animated. The main event saw Sabre lose the RevPro championship to Ishii, making him 0-for-2 in title defenses at this weekend’s events.

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Event 5: WWN “Mercury Rising 2018” Supershow (Pontchartrain Center, 8pm CT, 4/6/18)

This show was much better attended than the previous evening’s EVOLVE 102 at the same venue. This show featured Daisuke Sekimoto and Munenori Sawa, a pair of stars from Big Japan Pro Wrestling, a promotion that used to feature mostly hardcore matches with crazy weapons such as fluorescent light tubes and scorpion-filled tanks. Sekimoto had an excellent, hard-hitting match with Keith Lee, while Sawa faced Zack Sabre Jr. This show’s main event, between Matt Riddle and IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay, featured the scariest bump I have ever seen live. With Riddle on his back in a rear-naked choke position, Ospreay did a backflip off the top rope, landing both of them on the back of their necks. Ospreay appeared legitimately injured, as several referees and officials rushed to the ring to attend to him. A hushed silence came over the crowd, as we collectively realized the potential gravity of the situation. After a couple of minutes, the match resumed, and at the time I assumed this was merely an elaborate attempt to work fans into believing Ospreay had been severely hurt. At the next day’s PROGRESS event, Ospreay told fans that he had indeed been injured, and had proceeded directly to the hospital for x-rays following the match. He then proceeded to wrestle in a mixed-tag match that saw him take only a handful of safe bumps. Many fans around me were making comments about how they wished Ospreay, known for his high-flying and extremely dangerous style (taking neck bumps on the ring apron, for example), would wrestle more safely, lest he end up like “Dynamite Kid” Tom Billington, whose reckless (albeit entertaining) style eventually made him wheelchair-bound, and I couldn’t agree more. There is an inherent risk of injury in pro wrestling, but taking numerous bumps to one’s neck in every match is a recipe for disaster. I’m certain that most fans would prefer Ospreay and others perform fewer dangerous moves in the interest of their long-term health.

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Event 6: Joey Janela’s Spring Break 2 (Pontchartrain Center, 11:55pm CT, 4/6/18)

This event was both unusual and extremely fun. I have very eclectic tastes in pro wrestling; on the one hand, I love extremely realistic, hard-hitting “old school” matches, and on the other end of the spectrum, I enjoy wacky absurdity as featured in Japan’s Hustle and DDT promotions. Joey Janela’s Spring Break most definitely fell into the second category. The crowd for this was massive (for the venue), with roughly 1,500 fans in attendance. There was a party/club/rave atmosphere, with lots of drinking and chanting throughout the show, even as we passed the 3:00 am mark. Having already bought tickets for three other shows on this day, I was primarily drawn to this show because I wanted to see The Great Sasuke in the main event against Joey Janela. Sasuke, a masked wrestler who helped, along with Ultimo Dragon, popularize the so-called “lucharesu” blend of Mexican and Japanese styles in Japan, was also the founder and top star of the Michinoku Pro promotion from 1993 to 2003. The crowd was hot for their match, which began around 3:00 am, and saw the 48-year-old Sasuke take several crazy bumps onto tables, ladders, and chairs. The card also featured a random, mostly-incoherent promo from Virgil, former bodyguard to Ted DiBiase and a staple at seemingly all wrestling and comic conventions, a Clusterfuck Battle Royal won by an invisible man, a great match between 50-year-old Pierre Carl Oulette (who wrestled for the WWF and WCW in the mid-to-late ’90s) and Austrian giant WALTER, and a squash match in which Matt Riddle quickly defeated former WWE talent James Ellsworth. More than anything I attended during this trip, this event reminded me of the old Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) arena crowd, with their constant (and occasionally obscene) chants and energy. Some of the matches on this card were not what I would call “good” in a technical sense, but the fans’ constant engagement with the wrestlers created a wild and enjoyable atmosphere for those willing, like myself, to sacrifice sleep for the show.

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Event 7: PROGRESS Wrestling (Pontchartrain Center, 12pm CT, 4/7/18)

PROGRESS is, arguably, the hottest wrestling promotion in Britain at the moment, and this show did not disappoint. Several fans around me said that this show’s crowd was smaller than the previous day’s show (also held at noon), due at least in part to hangovers and fatigue from the previous night/morning’s Spring Break event. This show featured solid wrestling up and down the card, including the aforementioned mixed-tag match featuring Will Ospreay and Kay Lee Ray (a Mae Young Classic participant) versus Austin Theory and Jinny. The match was originally a singles bout between Ospreay and Theory, but was changed due to the former’s injury against Matt Riddle at the WWN Supershow.

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Event 8: SHIMMER 100 (Pontchartrain Center, 4pm CT, 4/7/18)

SHIMMER is a women’s wrestling promotion whose alums include numerous current WWE women’s stars, including Becky Lynch, Bayley, and Paige. The crowd was smaller than for PROGRESS, but enthusiastic. The match that stole the show for me, and for many others, saw 6’1″ Madison Eagles win a back-and-forth grappling contest with Deonna Purrazzo. As with Bloodsport, I was a bit surprised that a match featuring mostly mat wrestling had engaged fans so thoroughly. All things being equal, I would expect to see Eagles in an NXT ring in the near future, given her imposing stature and solid technical skills, provided she is interested and willing to sign with WWE.

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Event 9: Ring of Honor Supercard of Honor XII (UNO Lakefront Arena, 7:30pm CT, 4/7/18)

This was probably my most-anticipated show of the trip. This event was attended by nearly 6,000 fans, making it the largest crowd in ROH history, due largely to the featured main event of Cody (Rhodes) vs. Kenny Omega. By the time I arrived, the parking lots were already filling up, and I missed the first “pre-show” match, a Women of Honor Championship semifinal between Kelly Klein and Mayu Iwutani. The crowd was hot for most of the show, and the ladder match for the six-man tag titles between the Young Bucks, SoCal Uncensored, and The Kingdom was an epic spotfest from start to finish. Kenny Omega received the biggest pop I’d heard on the entire trip for his entrance, and the crowd was extremely engaged in his match with Cody, which saw the latter prevail after he ducked a pair of Young Bucks superkicks that hit Omega instead. Unfortunately, this show suffered from a glaring pacing issue, as would WrestleMania the following day. The Cody-Omega match had featured prominently in the promotion for this event, including on the main jumbotron graphic for the show, and therefore should have gone on last. The emotional peak of the Cody-Omega contest was instead followed by the ROH world title match between Dalton Castle and “The Villain” Marty Scurll, a match that was technically sound, but couldn’t manage to elicit much interest from the exhausted crowd, who had already sat through nearly five hours of wrestling. I was baffled about this choice of match order, as were many around me, and some people began leaving right after the Cody-Omega match. Like WrestleMania, this show would have benefited from being shorter, as its length and match placement led to a championship match that felt flat despite featuring solid in-ring performances from Castle and Scurll. The match that drew the fans should always go on last, building fans’ anticipation and excitement to a crescendo. As it happened, there was simply no way that Castle and Scurll could have engaged the fans after the emotionally-draining experience of the previous match.

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Event 10: WrestleMania 34 (Mercedes-Benz Superdome, 4:30pm CT, 4/8/18)

As this was my fourth time attending WrestleMania, including XXX at the Superdome, I knew I was in for a long and exhausting show. The card was, on paper at least, potentially one of the best WrestleMania events of all time, but in the event, it fell short of expectations. The early matches featured solid action that mostly held fans’ interest, but the surprise of the night was Ronda Rousey’s debut, tagging with Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. This match could not have been more perfectly booked to protect Rousey in her debut and to minimize the performers’ limitations (Angle’s due to a career’s worth of injuries, Stephanie’s as a non-wrestler). The match, built largely around Rousey’s attempts to ensnare Stephanie, and the latter’s infuriating escapes, held the fans’ attention and excitement from start to finish. Rousey played her part well, including a fun sequence in which she pummeled Triple H when the two were left alone together in the ring. When she finally forced Stephanie to tap to an armbar, fans erupted in what was arguably the biggest pop of the night. In retrospect, the match probably should have gone on last, because it represented an emotional peak for fans that later matches would fail to reach.

As for other matches, I loved Charlotte Flair’s entrance, which reversed her father Ric’s habit of entering arenas accompanied by a seeming “harem” of women when she entered surrounded by scantily-clad men in gladiator costumes. Perhaps more significantly, it also served as a nice inversion of Triple H’s “King of Kings” entrance from four years earlier at WrestleMania XXX, which featured a pre-stardom Charlotte as one of three scantily-clad fantasy slave women (the other two being Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks). Her match with Asuka was fantastic, possibly the best of the entire show from a technical perspective, but I was baffled by the booking decision to have Asuka lose the match, as the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble winner. When Nakamura, the men’s winner, lost to AJ Styles, I was even more perplexed. After watching the Rumble in January, I came away impressed that two Japanese wrestlers not only won the Rumbles, but would potentially win major titles at WrestleMania. I can understand one or the other losing, but it was quite disappointing that both lost their matches.

Daniel Bryan’s return garnered a massive pop, though the booking was, yet again, confusing. He was attacked before the match, and spent the first ten minutes or so laying outside the ring, an element that completely drained the match of its heat until he managed to “revive” in time to save partner Shane McMahon from Kevin Owens’ and Sami Zayn’s assault. I suppose the idea was to play upon the possibility of him being re-injured immediately, but the crowd was completely dead for the first part of this match as a result.

The Braun Strowman match, which saw him choose a seemingly random child from the audience as his tag partner, was fun for what it was, and at least it was kept short. The main event, however, was another story. For the fourth year in a row, Roman Reigns was featured in WrestleMania’s main event, in Vince McMahon’s seemingly unwavering resolve to make him the company’s next top star. As in the previous three years, Reigns was heavily booed during his entrance, as fans continue to refuse to accept him as a top babyface. Reigns’ opponent Brock Lesnar received modest cheers, but a fair share of boos as well. The pervasive feeling that this was little more than a long-planned coronation for Reigns meant that, from the opening bell, fans were determined to defy McMahon’s intended narrative and sabotage the match. Throughout the contest, fans ignored the match in favor of various chants, including “CM Punk,” “this is awful,” “we want Nicholas (the kid from the Strowman match),” “you both suck,” and the classic standby, “boring.” Numerous beach balls were passed around, with fans booing security guards as they confiscated them. Absurdly, Reigns kicked out of five F5s from Lesnar, after the move had been built over the past year as the definitive end for any wrestler. Rather than cheering Reigns for his perseverance, fans booed every time he kicked out, and numerous people began heading for the exits during the match. Not even a nasty blade job by Reigns could elicit sympathy from the unforgiving (and mostly disinterested) crowd, though there was a decent pop when Lesnar surprisingly won the match.

This bizarre match is, unfortunately, part of a recurring trend at WWE’s biggest show of the year. Fans largely were disinterested in Reigns’ other main events, from WrestleManias 31-33, which should have been a clear signs for Vince McMahon and the creative team to go in a different direction, and yet, for the fourth year in a row, a Reigns who has largely failed to connect with fans was shoehorned into the main event. When there is a pervasive feeling among fans that they are being “told” who to like, there often is a tendency to do the exact opposite, or, worse yet, simply to stop caring. As I filed out of the Superdome alongside thousands of other departing fans, I heard several variations of “that was awful.” I would compare the mood among fans leaving the Superdome with the depressed emotional atmosphere after a home team’s (such as the New Orleans Saints) loss in team sports. As with the ROH show, fans’ engagement peaked with an earlier match (the Rousey tag), and later bouts failed to reach those emotional heights.

Conclusion

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip, though I would not want to do it (at least not to this extent) every year. Probably the most fun show for me was Joey Janela’s Spring Break, as the insanely hot crowd kept the energy and excitement going until 3:30 am, and I saw one of my all-time Japanese favorites, The Great Sasuke, live for the first time. In general, it was great to see several Mexican, European, Japanese, and other international wrestlers in person, especially since many of them make few, if any, other appearances in the United States. I strongly suspect that some of them, including WALTER, Madison Eagles, and Zack Sabre Jr., will likely end up in WWE at some point or another. Ring of Honor wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped, but that was mostly due to their decision to have the world title match go on after Cody and Omega. Until the final match, the crowd was consistently lively, but simply couldn’t maintain their enthusiasm after the emotional heights of the show’s “true” main event. As usual, WrestleMania had its positives and negatives, the latter of which could probably have been mitigated by a different match order.

Review – NXT TakeOver: New Orleans

Fan Reviews

This past weekend, New Orleans, Louisiana played host to several different professional wrestling promotions, all of which offered an abundance of pro graps to wrestling fans of all persuasions. For instance, AAW, Fight Club: Pro, and The Wrestling Revolver co-sponsored the Pancakes and Piledrivers show, which took place at WrestleCon and caused some controversy when AAW tag team champions The Besties in the World (Davey Vega and Mat Fitchett) hit tandem piledrivers on their opponents The Rascalz (Dezmond Xavier and Zachary Wentz) in violation of the Louisiana Boxing and Wrestling Commission’s rules. WrestleCon also played host to the Impact vs. Lucha Underground crossover event, featuring a high-profile rematch between Eddie Edwards and the controversial Jeremiah Crane (aka Sami Callihan). Meanwhile, Ring of Honor unleashed their 12th annual Supercard of Honor, this time featuring a hotly-anticipated contest between current Bullet Club leader (and former WWE Superstar) Cody Rhodes and previous leader Kenny Omega, now one half of the Golden Lovers tag team with Kota Ibushi. And, of course, WWE dominated the weekend with another installment of the granddaddy of all wrestling shows, WrestleMania, which this year boasted the in-ring debut of former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Ronda Rousey, along with several other marquee matches.

Yet, for many fans (myself included), NXT TakeOver: New Orleans represented the pinnacle of a week filled with all manner of pro wrestling. Since 2014, NXT’s periodic TakeOver shows have become the gold standard of big-time wrestling events (which is appropriate, given the brand’s predominantly yellow color scheme), often overshadowing the shows produced by WWE’s main roster. Starting with the original NXT TakeOver, which aired exclusively on the WWE Network on May 29, 2014, and continuing through the most recent show broadcast live from NOLA on April 7, 2018, each TakeOver event has offered discerning wrestling fans a fresh alternative to the often stale and sanitized programs featured on shows like Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live!. NXT’s live events routinely feature exciting, hard-hitting action, memorable entrances, hip guests, and emotionally-gripping storytelling. These things and more have helped transform NXT from a mere developmental program to a widely-beloved brand and one of the most popular sports entertainment promotions around.

NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is no exception, largely because it features the final chapter (at least for now) to one of the most riveting pro wrestling story lines currently going. The show starts with a wild six-man ladder match that saw Lars Sullivan, Killian Dain, Velveteen Dream, Adam Cole (BAY BAY!), and the debuting Ricochet and ECIII all vying for the new NXT North American Championship. The match was chaotic and fun, and it allowed every single competitor a chance to shine. Ricochet — a staple of the indie wrestling circuit for years as well as the man behind the Prince Puma mask on El Rey Network’s cult phenomenon Lucha Underground — immediately emerged as the star of the match, taking every opportunity to show off his high-flying offense and impressive strength. Meanwhile, Sullivan and Dain looked appropriately monstrous (the spot in which they tossed Ricochet back and forth was quite fun), and their interactions served as a nice preview for their eventual one-on-one confrontation (HOSS FIGHT). ECIII was instantly over with the crowd and seems primed to fill the entitled heel/tweener spot recently vacated by Bobby Roode (who now wrestles as part of the Smackdown Live! roster). Velveteen Dream proved once again why he deserves to be considered one of the biggest stars in the world; his charisma and athleticism were on full display throughout, and his elbow drop off the top of the ladder was a thing of beauty. The match ended with Cole winning the title, which is the right decision and hopefully gives his character some much-needed direction (he has felt somewhat aimless since debuting at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III on August 19, 2017).

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The second match featured NXT Women’s Champion Ember Moon defending her title for the second time against former mixed martial arts sensation (and inaugural Mae Young Classic finalist) Shayna Baszler. At NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia on January 27, 2018, Moon defeated Baszler but suffered an injured shoulder in the process (the same shoulder that Asuka injured on the May 3, 2017 installment of NXT’s weekly show). A few weeks later, on February 14, 2017, Baszler and Moon faced off in a rematch that ended in a disqualification when Kairi Sane attacked Baszler. This led to yet another intense match between the Moon and Baszler at TakeOver: New Orleans, which built expertly on their previous matches. The two women had clearly learned from their prior encounters, as they managed to counter one another’s moves and tell a powerful story in the process. At one point, Moon stomped on Baszler’s left arm (as retribution for what Baszler did to Dakota Kai a few weeks earlier), separating Baszler’s shoulder and leaving her vulnerable. Nonetheless, Baszler managed to pop her shoulder back into place (a la Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon) by slamming it repeatedly against the steel ring post, which provided for a great visual and an excellent demonstration of her toughness. Soon after, Moon hit Baszler with an Eclipse (her finishing maneuver, a diving corkscrew stunner) off the top rope to the arena floor, showing off her own resiliency and reckless abandon. The match ended with Moon going for another Eclipse inside the ring, only to get caught in the Kirifuda Clutch and choked out by Baszler, who left the arena as the new NXT Women’s Champion. Meanwhile, Moon showed up on Raw the following night to tag with new Raw Women’s Champion Nia Jax against Mickie James and former champ Alexa Bliss.

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Next up was a triple threat match for the NXT Tag Team Championships that featured the Authors of Pain (Akam and Rezar), The Undisputed Era (Kyle O’Reilly and Adam Cole, subbing in for the injured Bobby Fish), and the hastily-assembled team of Roderick Strong and NXT UK Champion Pete Dunne. The match was originally meant as a reward for the winner of the 2018 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, with the winners of the tournament receiving both the Dusty Cup and a title shot against The Undisputed Era (TUE). However, Fish’s knee injury necessitated a last-minute booking change. Thus, on the April 4, 2018 episode of NXT, TUE interfered in the finals, prompting the referee to throw out the match. As a result, the two teams that made it to the finals, Authors of Pain (AoP) and Strong/Dunne, both got an opportunity to face O’Reilly/Cole for the belts. The match itself was sloppy but fun, culminating with Strong’s heel turn, which allowed TUE to win both the belts and the Dusty Cup. This outcome gives the faction some much-needed credibility and (as mentioned above) direction, because they can now brag about being the most successful stable in NXT history while running roughshod over the entire promotion (much like the nWo in WCW or D-Generation X in the WWE). Furthermore, adding Strong to the group sets up some compelling storytelling possibilities down the road, most notably Cole and Strong potentially feuding over leadership of TUE. It could also lead to a faction-versus-faction feud between TUE and cult heroes Sanity (Eric Young, Alexander Wolfe, Killian Dane, and Nikki Cross). In any event, the match outcome should give Cole and his running buddies something to do going forward.

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In the penultimate match, Aleister Black challenged Andrade “Cien” Almas for the NXT Championship. While the match itself was good, it failed to generate the same level of drama or excitement as Almas’ incredible match against Johnny Gargano at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia. The Almas/Black match felt somewhat thrown together, and therefore lacked the sense of urgency and excitement that marked Almas/Gargano. During the buildup, Black and Dain challenged Almas for the title, leading to a number one contender’s match between the two. Black came out on top and spent the next few weeks verbally sparring with Almas’ valet/manager, Zelina Vega. The promos were good, but never felt personal in any way. In that regard they were the exact opposite of the promos leading up to the Gargano/Almas match, as Vega made that match incredibly personal by constantly reminding Gargano of the betrayal of his former best friend, Tommaso Ciampa (more on that below). Furthermore, while Almas nailed the role of entitled heel champ during his run, his mic skills proved less than stellar and hurt his credibility somewhat. Crowds never quite connected to him as a face, and failed to respond strongly to him as a heel. Meanwhile, much like Cole, Black’s character often felt directionless, and that aimlessness remained in his feud with Almas. Therefore, the title match lacked an emotional core, though both performers delivered an entertaining contest. Black and Almas are undoubtedly two of the best wrestlers in the world, and they showed off their skills in the match, which was unfortunately hurt by the lack of a compelling story. Still, Black emerging as the winner is a good thing; he’s got the look and the talent to carry the company, especially if the NXT creative team gives him some solid storylines. Almas, meanwhile, is likely headed up to the main roster, and if WWE keeps Vega as his mouthpiece, he should prove an extremely valuable addition to either Raw or Smackdown.

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Finally, in the main event, Gargano battled Ciampa in one of the most powerful and heart-wrenching matches in the history of NXT. The two spent years as singles wrestlers on the indie circuit before getting called up to NXT as a tag team on September 9, 2015. They competed in the first Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, making it to the second round, only to lose to the team of Baron Corbin and Rhyno. Ciampa and Gargano then competed in the first-ever WWE Cruiserweight Classic (CWC), with Gargano eliminating Ciampa in the first round. Afterward, they reunited as a tag team under the name DIY (Do It Yourself) and had a series of classic matches with then-NXT Tag Team Champions, The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder). On November 19, 2016, DIY defeated The Revival to win the NXT Tag Team Titles, but lost them to AoP two months later at NXT TakeOver: San Antonio. DIY faced AoP once more in a brutal ladder match for the Tag Team Titles at NXT TakeOver: Chicago on May 20, 2017, but came up short in the end. After the match, an injured Ciampa turned on Gargano, setting up a bitter rivalry between the two. Over the next few months, Gargano emerged as one of the top babyfaces in NXT, while Ciampa disappeared from the weekly show during his long recovery from knee surgery. He eventually returned to become one of the most hated heels in NXT, interfering in a match that not only cost Gargano the NXT Championship, but drove him out of NXT. This then set up a much-anticipated unsanctioned match between the two former best friends at TakeOver: New Orleans.

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The match delivered on every level, cementing both performers as two of the best wrestlers in the entire world. Ciampa and Gargano held nothing back, taking sick bumps throughout and nailing one another with stiff strikes that no doubt left more than a few battle scars. More importantly, they told an incredibly emotional story in the ring, with Ciampa unleashing his anger at being abandoned by the NXT Universe, and Gagano fighting for his career. At one point, following nearly 30 minutes of grueling competition, Gargano was set to bash a battered and bruised Ciampa with a crutch (retribution for Ciampa doing the same to Gargano several times throughout the feud), but stopped when he realized his former-friend-turned-enemy was defenseless. In that one moment, Gargano solidified his place as the purest white-meat babyface in all of WWE (while simultaneously revealing the inconsistent characters of most of the main roster faces). The match featured several other shocking and heartrending moments, including Gargano powerbombing Ciampa onto exposed concrete, an exhausted Gargano crawling over to a disgusted Ciampa (who, by that point, sported a nasty-looking swollen black eye), and Gargano using Ciampa’s own knee brace to lock Ciampa into a submission and forcing him to submit (pictured above). Gargano eventually picked up the win, thus reclaiming his spot on the NXT roster and hopefully starting down the path toward a run with the NXT Championship. Ciampa, meanwhile, remains one of NXT’s most loathed characters, and his activity on social media gives fans the sense that this feud is far from over.

Overall, while it never quite reaches the heights of NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn (in which Bayley fought Sasha Banks in one of the greatest title matches ever televised) or NXT TakeOver: Chicago (which featured an all-time classic between Dunne and Tyler Bate for the UK Championship), NXT TakeOver: New Orleans continues NXT’s impressive streak of excellent live events. The show offered a variety of matches and spotlighted some of the best wrestlers around, culminating in an exciting and emotional match that served as a capper to one of the best feuds of the last few decades. Fans of NXT should come away happy, and those who have never watched the product may not get the same sort of impact from the main event as those who have followed along week after week, but the in-ring action should nonetheless satisfy even the most jaded smark. NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is a triumph, and promises a bright future for WWE’s most over brand.

 

 

Special Edition for PCSJ on Pro Wrestling

Journal Publication

The editors for the Professional Wrestling Studies Association are happy to celebrate this year’s Wrestlemania week with the new special edition of the Popular Culture Studies Journal on professional wrestling.

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This special edition can be accessed for free here. The essays contain work from a variety of scholars on numerous topics related to professional wrestling studies. All academic discussions were written to be accessible for the widest possible audience.

Along with the scholarly work, the collection contains an essay from a fan on New Japan Pro Wrestling, reviews for various pro-wrestling media (from a documentary to a podcast), and interviews with pro-wrestling indie stars on how they view social media in their profession.

You can see the full list of articles and contributors below.

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PWSA would like to thank editors Garret Castleberry, CarrieLynn D. Reinhard, and Christopher J. Olson for overseeing this special edition, as well as reviewers David Beard, Matt Foy, Charles L. Hughes, Jack Karlis, Dan Mathewson, and Catherine Salmon.

Over the summer of 2018, we at PWSA will be working to organize our own open access, free journal to coincide with each year’s Wrestlemania. If you are interested in this journal, then please contact us at prowrestlingstudies@gmail.com.