It isn’t often the case that a wrestling show feels cohesive. Generally, PPVs are 5–9 matches, all containing separate stories. Wrestlemania XXVIII felt, to me, as one long, repeated message. It was highlit in every match, suggested in every scene, and showcased from every camera angle: Do not, under any circumstances, take your eyes off the ball.
This message was clear from the opening video, which was focused on the two main events in a way almost no Wrestlemania opening video has been in many years. It showcased two focused dreamers growing up, working hard, and achieving their goals. The Rock and John Cena are separate men in separate generations, but as WWE Superstars, they tell a parallel story. These men are at the top because of their focus and drive, because they didn’t let anything stop them. That’s a strong message.
We have to talk about Daniel Bryan and Sheamus. Many wonder why, if a fast match had to occur, why it was not Show vs Rhodes. I think I can explain. But first, let’s talk about why this Wrestlemania began with this match. The opening contest of the show can rile up a crowd, but is also, in special circumstances, there to set the tone. Daniel Bryan and Sheamus was the second kind. It was there to say, “every match tonight is going to be a variation of this simple equation.”
What’s the equation? Focus vs Hubris. Every match on this card extented and toyed with that idea. It began simply, and quickly. The dominant Sheamus never took his eyes of his opponent, while Danial Bryan—by demanding a kiss from his girlfriend—did. It cost him. End of story.
I know people are going to ask if I consider the Rumble curse broken. Yes, Sheamus cashed in his Rumble win and picked up a world championship. But he did it in a way that, if anything, damaged the reputation of the title. What is that thing he’s carrying around? It’s not a championship under the defintion that I understand.
As for why Big Show and Rhodes went on third and were given time, I can offer two suggestions: for the Big Show to have a “Wrestlemania moment,” it has to come after people wonder if he will not. They had to, for a few minutes, create tension that Rhodes may deny him. Rhodes needed to toy with Show, so that we could see that Rhodes’ intentions here were not just to win, but humiliate.
The losers here were not all villains, as heroes are sometimes known to fall to hubris. That’s what happened with Orton, as he took too much time with what he—and everyone else—felt was an easy foe. That Kane’s victory was clean shows who the more focused of the two was. Kane knew exactly why he was in that ring. Nobody knows what Orton was even doing here.
WWE undoubtably wants each audience member to feel different things throughout the evening. Jubiliation is an obvious one, this year. The set, tone, and atmosphere was reminiscient of a great party, almost more ‘Summerslam’ than Wrestlemania. Palm Trees, neon signs and banners, orange and green and white everywhere you look for a mile around and nearly straight up. No fewer than a dozen times WWE showcased the arena in full-view from above, as if to suggest the full force of their universe. “This is what a good time is,” it said. That is, until the sun set.
The Undertaker and HHH were in a no-win scenario. The Undertaker has been in arguably the best match on the card for the last five years, and they’ve learned from 23, 25, and 27 that not putting him in the main event can severely diminish the show as a whole. Here, just over a quarter into the show, is the only place it can really happen. It’s placement also telegraphed the ending somewhat, but they did their damndest to make us believe otherwise.
You could tell simply by the entrances who was more focused. HHH’s involved another ode to cartoon barbarianism, with green lights and skulls and yada yada. It was there, and then it got deflated or something and immediately forgotten. The Undertaker’s entrance was spartan, especially for him, though no less grand. His jacket, full of spikes an excellent goth texture, ensured that Chris Jericho would not win best entrance attire. Finally, Undertaker’s haircut—a short buzz with a single line of slightly thicker hair down the middle—added another layer. He stripped away everything that might distract or get in the way.
Not that HHH didn’t exude focus, but he was focused on the wrong thing. He was determined to end the Undertaker. That meant steel steps, steel chairs, and sledgehammers to every part of his opponents’ body. That meant accosting Shawn Michaels into ringing the bell. But because there’s so much difference between hurting a man and defeating him, HHH’s hubris shone through.
This is as good a time to mention it as any, but Michael Cole stayed well within the bounds of his job. He, too, was focused on his task instead of petty arguments and twitter (which, I believe, was mentioned perhaps only twice and early on). Adding Jim Ross to the match gave it an enhanced sense of gravitas, though some of it was maybe too thickly delivered (‘carcinogenic right hands’ may sound cool phoenetically, but paints a very odd picture).
So often, we forget that there’s a third performer in the ring. The referee’s job is to be invisible until needed. A special guest referee’s job is generally to fuck something up that a normal referee would get right (or be super strong, though that’s almost never the case anymore). Shawn Michaels has a history of fucking things up as a referee, but that wasn’t really the case tonight. Instead, Shawn treated his place in the ring as an opportunity to showcase his ability to look tortured. Shawn Michaels is not one of the greatest performers in history just because of his cockiness and charisma, but also his depths of sorrow. Michaels has a range in a way that nobody else does. We’ve seen him emotionally pained before, but this was thunderous. As he became increasingly powerless to stop his best friend and his greatest rival from killing one another, the weight of the world pushed him down. He could barely contain himself as he cowered in corners, waiting for the end.
Last year, I wrote about how wrestlers should take more bows. HHH, Shawn Michaels, and the Undertaker took a bow before exiting. They knew that simply standing there, holding one another up, would elicit applause. I wish more wrestlers understood that. After a stirring performance, wait. The crowd will applaud you. They want to show you that they love this, too.
The 12-man tag suffered the exhausted crowd, but someone had to go on next, and I’m just thankful it wasn’t the ladies again. Once again, focus one the day. All the Miz wanted was to get a match at Mania. He got it, and he delivered. All Ryder wanted was for Eve to like him. That’s not a great goal for winning wrestling matches. It should be noted that Eve didn’t really do anything here except want to get in on Ryder’s chant. Zack’s the one who turned his back on a determined villain.
The video before the Women’s match was strange. It began with a video package about how great it was to be a Diva, as if they were actively recruiting. “See the world!” “Experince life!” “Have fun!”
Once again, focus won the day. The first thing I noticed about Maria Menounos was how small she was. I don’t mean skinny, as she clearly had muscle structure; I mean petite. You often forget, watching wrestling, just how much larger these people are. Also, how tanned. Maria wanted to win the match, broken ribs be damned. Beth and Eve wanted to look mean and pick on the little celebrity.
One note about the ladies match: I don’t think Maria was having any fun. It’s very possible that she was in real agony the entire time, and even Eve and Beth going easy on her may have been too much.
The night was sparse on interviews. It was even sparser on video segments. Of the main events, only Punk and Jericho received a highlight video, and nobody from any of the main events appeared before their match to speak. Though one could say that there isn’t much need since everyone they’re selling to is already watching, I’m sure there were some who wished to hear something from The Rock, at least.
But we did get something from Punk. Not a speech, but a short meeting with the new GM of WWE proper. John warned Punk about having anything other than a wrestling match. Read between the lines: don’t take your eye off the ball, professional wrestler. Focus.
Jericho took advantage of the new lose-title-by-DQ ruling early by bullying Punk. Thankfully, the gimmick was abandoned five minutes in, and the two best technical wrestlers to ever hold the WWE Championship proceeded to wrestle in the acceptable five-snowflake fashion. Someone in the front row brought a sign that said “CM Punk & Chris Jericho: The Art of Professional Wrestling.” I’m of the opinon that everything here, from best to worst, is art. But if we can all get ‘art’ to mean ‘great’, I’ll take it.
The final set of moves that led to Jericho’s submission—and subsequent comforting head scratch—involved a pair of small packages, no doubt a callback to the first perfect Wrestlemania match: Steamboat vs Savage. We live in a good age. Jericho lost not because he failed, but because he succeeded in becoming as close to Randy Savage in 1987 as possible, and Savage’s character had to lose. Jericho and Punk danced, and won together.
Brodus Clay: This is what happens when you cheer for something you don’t fully understand.
If you listen to Jason and I talk about the main event of Wrestlemania last year (and you should), you’ll hear me suggest that The Rock and John Cena’s story has been disappointing because it isn’t really for wrestling fans, but instead people who like feuding celebrities. That may sound like the same thing, but it is absolutely not. You’ve heard of the term ‘casual wrestling fan’ or ‘casual video game player’ or what have you, but I think Rock vs Cena was for the ‘casual person’. It was broad, obvious, and simultaneously opaque. There were no layers to this story because this story was not built to have layers.
The wrestling fan sees Rock and Cena as a wasted year, but the casual person sees Rock and Cena posters and commercials all over the place and is given as early and often notice as humanly possible to think about buying this show. It was the greatest pitch WWE has ever made to people who couldn’t care less about wrestling.
That is, of course, why the Rock won. They are absolutely not concerned about John Cena’s drawing numbers as the loser of Wrestlemania XXVIII. In fact, it’s a side bonus for them. If he had won and he’d stuck around, who would he fight? Now, Cena’s been knocked back down. He can start over. He can do something different. He can be challenged.
Besides, I thought we all hated it when Cena won all the time? Pick a side, marks.
Rock vs Cena was why this show was so cohesive. Imagine Wrestlemania XXVIII was the first wrestling show you’ve seen in your life. You have no idea who these characters are, or why you should care. But you’ve been sold on this vague notion of Wrestlemania because Rock vs Cena posters were everywhere and it felt like a big deal. How do you make someone like that choke down 4 hours of fake fighting? Make it all mean something. Communicate a theme, and weave the narrative through. That’s why Bryan and Sheamus was a storytelling device that was echoed throughout the night. That’s why The Undertaker stepped on HHH’s sledgehammer, smiled, and decked him in the neck. That’s why John Cena, filled with false pride, tried to hit The People’s Elbow on the Rock and was punished. Wrestlemania XXVIII, as a whole, needed to be digestible.
It also had to be unbelievable, because this is a fantasy land. Have you ever seen a night filled with so many faces unable to believe their eyes? With Bryan, anger; with Orton, panic; with Michaels, harrow; and finally, Cena, with a mountain of defeat. WWE wanted us to feel these things, too. They wanted us to having trouble believing this show.
It’s the 25th anniversary of Wrestlemania III, which was the last time the world was really watching. Wrestlemania XXVIII may have finally taken them back there.