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.