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Off-Ramp On the Road to Wrestemania

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Scott: David, my friend, it’s been too long. The last time we chatted it was before the Royal Rumble, and now we’re nearly at the end of the Road to WrestleMania. For me it’s one of the most nostalgic times of the year as we’re able to look back on 28 classic events, many of which serve as benchmarks for where we were not just as wrestling fans, but also as life markers. That may seem a bit strong, but don’t tell me you can’t tell me everything about your life the day the Ultimate Warrior challenged Hulk Hogan at SkyDome in Toronto.

That said, some WrestleMania moments are, in a word, overrated. I asked around to get a feel for what some folks might put on their list of ’Mania memories that aren’t quite worthy of the love they get from fans. Jason Mann of Wrestlespective suggested the Bret Hart-Shawn Michaels Iron Man Match from WrestleMania XII belongs on this list. Tom Holzerman of The Wrestling Blog chose another HBK moment — the night he ended Ric Flair’s career. So now I turn the question to you: What WrestleMania moments are more sizzle than steak?

• • •

David: I’m probably going to anger some people with my answer, but here goes. Rock vs Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8. I’ve never been a big Rock fan, even during his late ’90s heyday, and I grew weary of any version of Hulk Hogan around 1999. It’s not that it’s a bad match, it just feels like there is still a lot of hype surrounding this match, and it doesn’t live up to it for me. In fact, I think it’s the third best match on the show, behind Jericho/HHH and the Ric Flair/Undertaker no disqualification match.

I want to know what your most overrated WrestleMania match is, but I also want to ask you this: can a match’s rating change based on the career arc of the participants? Can a wrestler hang around so long (Hogan being the obvious example) that his current performance affects how you look at his past matches?

• • •

Rock vs Hogan

Overrated, Underrated, or Properly Rated? David and Scott disagree.

Scott: Blasphemer! We’ll get to your other questions after I defend Rock-Hogan. Although, in a way, I’m going to answer your last question in my defense. Because the reason I will continue to stick up for Rock-Hogan as a straight-up classic is I’m able to tap in to how I felt at the time. It’s the same for Hogan-Warrior. Do they hold up technically? Heck no. And if you’re trying to be objective and rank which was a better actual match, I’ve got no qualms with preferring the other two matches you mentioned. But in the context of the sport at the time (in this case spring 2002), that Rock-Hogan encounter brought a kind of buzz that far exceeded Rock-Cena in 2012. Since the Rock factored in both, I think credit for the difference goes to Hogan’s mass appeal compared to Cena.

This is the one WrestleMania I saw in a public setting. It was the viewing room at a bar/club in Cedar Rapids. We paid $10 to get in, watch the show and drink all night. My good buddy and I brought my girl roommate to be our driver. She cared very little, if at all, for wrestling in any regard, but believe me when I tell you every last person in that room got insanely caught up in the outcome of that match. The live crowd held up its end of the bargain, and watching it again proves my point.

Now, Hogan tried to recapture that emotion in other “dream matches” with guys like Shawn Michaels and even Vince McMahon at the next WrestleMania, or up-and-comers like Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton, and he never quite reached the same mountaintop. But I’m able to remove those matches from the equation when evaluating Rock-Hogan in its own context.

Your question did spark another thought. Jason Mann and Joe Drilling (co-host of the What A Maneuver! podcast) had a recent Twitter discussion about the Randy Savage-Ultimate Warrior career match at WrestleMania VII, which to me is absolutely one of the best WrestleMania moments ever. Joe maintained there was no need for Savage to drop so many elbows, that it weakened the storytelling at the end of the match and hurt Savage going forward. Jason countered by saying the story was told perfectly because it was a career match — quite a rarity for the WWF at the time — and Savage was portrayed as pulling out all stops in the name of defending his very way of life.

But it led to an interesting question — did Savage’s reinstatement in November undercut the story told in March? Personally, I don’t think that’s the case on account of how well the reinstatement story was told. But I do see where someone could argue the ongoing narrative, in this case, can tint hindsight. But again, at the time the match happened, with everything that was on the line, it’s hard to argue with the impression the performers made that day.

Now, if you want to talk moments that don’t hold up, my list starts with the three-way TLC tag team title match at WrestleMania 2000. I may have been excited at the time, but it does little for me now. I think it’s worth watching to understand what wrestling was at the time, but to me it just rings hollow. I can’t quite understand why it continues to be held high in so many fans’ memories.

• • •

David: I think it is held high because of what it represents. We all know there is a lot of nostalgia for the “Attitude Era”, and I think in terms of actual in-ring action, that ladder match (which wasn’t technically a TLC match since that format didn’t come into being until SummerSlam) is a touchstone. It’s sort of representative of WWE’s version of hardcore wrestling at that time, as opposed to the ECW version.

A match I enjoyed in the moment, but doesn’t hold up for me, is Shawn Michaels vs. Kurt Angle at WrestleMania 21. I’m not sure Kurt Angle fully grasped wrestling psychology by this point in his career (I’m sure there are people who would say he still hasn’t). That match suffers greatly from Angle’s insistence on slowing down the match at inopportune times. It’s not that I mind slow, methodical matches in general, but in this match there are periods of time where the tempo is picking up, and there’s a flow. Kurt Angle stubbornly insists on breaking that flow. There’s also an element of storytelling that is problematic in this match. HBK starts the match with a flurry of mat wrestling, essentially trying to prove he can compete with Angle in that arena. After a little bit, it devolves into a brawl on the outside, with Angle slamming HBK’s back into the ring post. Shawn spends most of the match favoring his back, and moving very gingerly because of it. However, about 13 minutes into the match, Michaels dumps Angle back out onto the outside, and hits him with a high cross body to the outside. Jim Ross sells Michaels’ knee catching Angle in the face. Angle gets back up within 30 seconds, and never seems to show any effects from that move again. I’ve never thought selling others’ offense was one of Kurt Angle’s strong suits. In fact, I think he was guilty of being Superman before people started referring to Super Cena. I think this match suffers more than most because of it.

The concept of “overrated” is somewhat negative. Let’s get a little more positive. What are some underrated matches to appear on “The Grandest Stage of Them All”?

• • •

Scott: The beauty of having nearly 30 WrestleMania events to revisit, and the wide variety of people who tend to comment on such things, is it’s possible for one person to underrate something while another person overrates the same thing. For example, Razor over at Kick-Out!! Wrestling is running down his top 29 WrestleMania matches of all time. Coming in at 26th on his list is Ric Flair and Randy Savage from WrestleMania VIII. To me, that’s a top-10 classic. And probably putting it in a top 29 list is considered high praise given how many matches to choose from overall. But I can guarantee that even though he’s not posted the rest of his list, I’ll have no problem arguing which of his selections should be moved down to make way for the Savage-Flair encounter.

That said, I think you’re asking a specific question — what sticks out that otherwise wouldn’t? What perhaps is forgotten under the crush of nearly three decades of supercards, especially considering roughly half those shows have been put on with the extreme purpose of being the card of the year, something you couldn’t always say back in the earlier years.

I don’t think the Bret Hart-Roddy Piper InterContinental title match at WrestleMania VIII gets its due historically, but it’s a perfect example of a well-told story feeding a well-executed in-ring performance. The actual match is not only enhanced by the build but provides a satisfying conclusion while properly advancing characters. It simply hits every note.

While I’ve not watched it in quite some time, I have a fond recollection of the Rockers and Twin Towers on the early part of the WrestleMania V card with a great tag team match. Excellent tag team wrestling is entirely different from singles wrestling, and the physical contrast between the two teams worked well in this encounter. Plus, bonus points for it being Michael’s debut at the “Showcase of the Immortals.”

As I go over the dozens of other matches and cards, every time I think of something, I quickly recall another person arguing earlier the same point. Maybe we’ve all overanalyzed past WrestleManias to death… but that’s just crazy talk. We’re wrestling fans, and it’s very, very hard to be a wrestling fan without strong feelings about at least one WrestleMania.

As a guy who grew up loving the NWA, does it bother you that Starrcade never quite reached the heights of WrestleMania? Even in the years when I was following WCW pretty closely, Starrcade never seemed to stand out as much from the rest of the year to the degree WrestleMania rose above all other shows. But maybe that’s the real crazy talk. What say you?

• • •

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Never quite the equal of Wrestlemania…

David: I can’t really say it really ever bothered me. WrestleMania was sort of destined to be the bigger event, because Vince McMahon’s vision and execution were, for the most part, beyond Jim Crockett’s and then Ted Turner’s. By the time 1996 and 1997 rolled around, WrestleMania was already a household name, and even though WCW was beating WWF in the Monday night ratings war, that name recognition of WrestleMania was probably never going to change.

The scope of Crockett’s vision and execution also plays into the fact that Starrcade seemed closer in scale to a typical pay-per-view than WrestleMania. Ever since the beginning, Vince and company have constantly looked for the biggest and most historic stadiums and arenas to stage their annual event. Starrcade was almost always in arenas Crockett and WCW would have appeared in on a regular basis anyway. The Greensboro Coliseum, home of the first Starrcade, also was a normal stop on the Mid-Atlantic house show circuit, unlike the Pontiac Silverdome or Trump Plaza. Those places are destinations. People are willing to travel great distances to be a part of something special, which WrestleMania undoubtedly is. Even though it was their biggest show, Starrcade never turned into a “destination” pay-per-view.

Time of year might also play into this as well. WrestleMania is uniquely situated on the calendar, during the beginning of spring. That means in a lot of markets they can use an outdoor arena and still have the fans be comfortable. In November and December, there aren’t a lot of places WCW could’ve taken their road show and had people comfortably sit outside to watch their biggest stars.

Of course, you could argue whether or not that’s necessarily a good thing. Are you a fan of wrestling being taken outdoors?

• • •

Scott: As we’ve discussed before, I will happily defend the concept of staging WrestleMania IX (if not the execution of the show itself), though it was not the first major outdoor WWF production. Major open-air stadiums in New York, Toronto and Milwaukee hosted WWF supercards well before 1993, not to mention the grand success of SummerSlam 1992 at Wembley Stadium in London.

But by and large, the open-air tradition has been reserved in recent years for WrestleMania alone, and I have to say I’ve come around to very much supporting this move. If you’re going to convince everyone that one show a year is different — worthy of an extra hour, worthy of an extra $10 on pay-per-view, worthy of months of buildup and everything that goes with it — then you darn well better deliver, and putting WrestleMania in America’s largest arenas helps set the stage for success.

There are drawbacks. Last year’s “palm trees” that supported all the above-the-ring lights, fireworks, sound and cage with a lid caused notable obstruction problems for people who paid obscene amounts to attend the show. When a crowd is too big, or too removed from the action, the cheers and boos may be lost to acoustics, hampering the way the show is presented on TV. And we’ve yet to see if staging an outdoor WrestleMania in coastal New Jersey in early April is a good idea.

I’d love to see WrestleMania come back to Chicago for a fourth time, but the AllState Arena (née Rosemont Horizon) isn’t going to be viable unless the company bottom line heads back in the tank. And Soldier Field, with one of the smallest seating capacities in the NFL, isn’t worth the outdoor risk posed by being literally next to Lake Michigan. Outdoor isn’t the only rule — the Georgia Dome did a passable job and I have high hopes for the Superdome in 2014. But when you want to pack in 60,000 or 70,000 people, you almost have to be somewhere without a roof.

Do we agree on this one?

• • •

David: Yes, we agree. From a television presentation perspective, I thought Sun Life Stadium was an almost perfect place to stage WrestleMania. On the WrestleMania XXVIII episode of Wrestlespective, K. Sawyer Paul noted that when they would pan the crowd, it just seemed to go on and on forever. That endless expanse of people brings an epic feel to WrestleMania that is made almost necessary by its history and the things you mentioned like extra time, cost and hype. And since it’s unlikely I will ever be able to go to WrestleMania, the television presentation is more my concern.

Tom Holzerman recently floated an idea I want to get your take on:

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In my opinion, he’s right. It would suck to be there live, but for a company that prides itself on “moments,” that’s one the WWE could show forever. Where do you stand on a rain-soaked WWE champion?

• • •

Scott: I’m torn. WWE does indeed pride itself on moments — especially WrestleMania moments — but they almost always are intricately planned. I’m thinking a serious rainstorm, while visually enthralling, would be exactly the kind of unexpected wrinkle that could send the production crew scrambling. Of course, the company has a huge investment in this one show (a recent International Object podcast does a good job of breaking down the actual economics) and it would be pretty silly to think there aren’t a boatload of contingency plans.

Of course, with wrestling being a unique art form, we’re never quite sure what’s planned, what’s spur of the moment and when impending doom is all part of the spectacle. That’s why asking you for predictions about this year’s show is fraught with peril — sometimes the only thing to expect is the unexpected. That said, what do you expect?

• • •

David: You’re right. Predictions for this show are fraught with peril. Even the match order is up in the air. I think there are a few things we’re likely to see, though. First, I think we’re nearing the end for Team Hell No. I predict they will lose to Dolph Ziggler and Big E. Langston, which will precipitate a return to full-time singles action for both Daniel Bryan and Kane. However, if this match occurs after the World Heavyweight Championship match, there is the possibility Ziggler has cashed in and is already the champion. If so, he may be disinterested in the tag team titles, causing a dissolution of his arrangement with Big E.

I think Ryback is likely to win his match with Mark Henry, but only because WWE seems to want to shove Ryback down our throats at every opportunity. I’m not invested in this match because I haven’t been thrilled with the build for this feud. Although, I have to say I did enjoy Ryback throwing Santino at Mark Henry on Raw. That gave me a chuckle.

One of the matches I’m really looking forward to is Fandango vs. Chris Jericho. I think it’s unlikely Fandango would be built up the way he has been only to lose his debut match at WrestleMania. I’m more interested in seeing if the former Johnny Curtis can shut up the segment of the crowd who are intent on screaming “You can’t wrestle” at him just because he hasn’t wrestled. I was a fan of his work on NXT, and I have to give him solid marks for really committing to the character.

CM Punk would probably tell you there’s no need to commit to a character if you’re being yourself. But in his feud with the Undertaker, he has transcended from a typical wrestling “heel” to a true villain. I’m looking forward to that match the most, and while I don’t think Punk will win, there’s enough room in my mind to say… maybe the streak is in jeopardy.

Of course, the headline match is The Rock vs John Cena. I predict John Cena will emerge victorious but the drama for me is to see if this match goes on last or not. I think it probably will, but I’m not positive.

Thoughts on these matches or the others on the big card?

• • •

Scott: It seems this might be the year the World Heavyweight Championship match doesn’t open the show, but they’ve already moved the Intercontinental title match to the preshow. I really think you have to let Del Rio and Swagger go on after the tag title match just to build speculation for a Ziggler cash-in. But up until the go home Raw I was prepared to say they’ve really backed off the focus on this feud. I guess maybe the spotlight shone a bit brighter on this story during those weeks Rock was off camera. And with Glenn Beck not taking the bait, well, at least we’ve got some tension with an injured Rodriguez and the escalating violence of late. This could be the most brutal match on the card — but it won’t, because Brock Lesnar is also wrestling.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the Lesnar-HHH match. In the same vein, I’m unsure about The Shield in the six-man tag. I can predict a winner, but what’s more interesting to me is what happens as it relates to the story? If Lesnar wins, so what? We get an HHH farewell the night next on Raw, sure, but what does Brock do? Does he challenge the champ? Does he stare down the Undertaker and set the scene for WrestleMania XXX? I expect the Shield to win because a loss wouldn’t make any sense in context of their ongoing story, but are they going to get “a leader”? Do they need one? Can they win the match and that be secondary to Orton and Sheamus initiating a feud? The Shield, at some point, needs a stated purpose. There aren’t any six-man tag belts to be won these days.

The mixed-tag isn’t worth discussing from an ongoing plot standpoint. I agree with you Fandango winning seems to make the most sense, but is that it for Jericho? He’s in far too good of shape to have this be his last WrestleMania moment, but they certainly don’t need him for the rest of April, do they?

In your mind, whose absence from the card is most disappointing? I think the obvious answer is Antonio Cesaro (sorry for the ask and answer), so is there anyone else you think deserves a spot based on the last several months?

• • •

David: Honestly, Antonio Cesaro is the only guy who really comes to mind, especially in terms of disappointment. I will point out that this is the first WrestleMania since 23 Kofi Kingston hasn’t been a part of, but it’s hard to call that a disappointment based on what Kofi’s done over the past few months.

There is something that makes me scratch my head, though. The mixed tag team match neither one of us talked about when discussing the card features two female “tag teams.” One that just came back to the WWE after an extended hiatus, and one that, as far as I can recall, has had one match… last week on Raw. Yet, the WWE Divas title, and by extension, the WWE Divas Champion, Kaitlyn, will not appear (as of Friday morning) at WrestleMania. While not unprecedented, for fans of women who wrestle, this is just one more slap in the face by the largest wrestling company on the planet.

• • •

Scott: I’ll admit I needed the Internet to figure this out, but if my research is correct, the Divas championship has never been on the line at WrestleMania. The last title match involving women was WrestleMania 23 when Melina retained her WWE Women’s Title against Jillian in a “lumberjill” match. Of course, the top women have usually been on the card in one way or another every year, and not having Kaitlyn scheduled (especially in favor of two wrestlers who just returned and two who have scarcely been presented as wrestlers) is a huge disappointment to her fans.

As many have noted, there’s a very natural Kaitlyn-AJ Lee story to be told, one that could easily center around the title, but it’s either something they’re not yet interested in pursuing or perhaps are saving for a show that’s a little less cluttered. AJ is pretty heavily wrapped up in the Team Hell No story, not to mention her own relationship with Ziggler and Langston, so it’s easy to see why they’re leaving her alone there. Any other Kaitlyn match would seem thrown together, but hey — when has that stopped them before?

One last question before we go. You’re predicted a Cena victory. I’m not so sure, but that’s more me being hopeful he loses (because he’s a more interesting character in defeat) than actually predicting what makes the most sense. But let’s say Cena wins. There’s six weeks between WrestleMania and Extreme Rules. Any ideas what the road map looks like with a victorious Cena and a defeated and (presumably) departed Rock?

• • •

David: Not a clue. That’s actually one of the more intriguing things about this WrestleMania to me. Some of the matches on the card leave me baffled as to where the players go next. If the Rock wins, then there is obviously a story there about Cena potentially getting another shot with the third time likely being the charm. If Cena wins the title, and Dwayne Johnson goes back to Hollywood, then what? Feuds with the Shield, Punk (more on him in a minute) or Ryback are possibilities, but what is the transition? I’m intrigued to see what the WWE creative team comes up with.

The Undertaker will likely not be on Raw on Monday. The bigger question is, will CM Punk be on Raw on Monday? I’ve read numerous rumors that Punk will be given some time off after WrestleMania to heal up from some of his injuries. If not, his transition from his feud with Undertaker also will be interesting. He could go into a program with Cena, provided Cena wins the title, or could a loss to The Undertaker cause seeds of dissention to be sown between Punk and Heyman leading to a potential feud with Brock Lesnar? After all, Triple H probably will go back to the boardroom after WrestleMania no matter the outcome of his match with Lesnar, and Lesnar probably will need something to do, unless he goes back to taking time off.

The road to WrestleMania usually is a time of fun and building stories in the WWE, and while the period after WrestleMania is considered a dead season, I think this year’s road away from WrestleMania has the potential to be pretty interesting.

Enjoy WrestleMania everyone! Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time.

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