Only two years ago, I caught my first shoddily assembled video top 10 list of Rey Mysterio’s most astounding moves on YouTube. I was in awe. Seeing Mysterio, a high flying luchador, spin-crawl around his opponents with apparently such momentum as to send them flying was an enchanting enough sight to pique my interest. Other than an odd pay-per-view with a cousin here and there, I grew up thoroughly indifferent to professional wrestling. In college, I started catching bits of the WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw with a friend who never lost interest and eventually started watching every week with my own group of friends. Out of seemingly nowhere, we found an endlessly engrossing, if not occasionally frustrating, world of serialized high drama, low comedy, and dudes whaling on each other.
Each week of USA’s Raw features a multitude of storylines that inch ever forward, mostly in the form of feuds destined to be resolved at whichever pay-per-view is coming next. Just as soon as the storyline resolves, a new wrinkle in the narrative typically forms, and ratchets up the tension for the next pay-per-view. Historically, this endless form reaches a sort of stopping point each year at Wrestlemania, the biggest and most bombastic pay-per-view of them all. There, overarching feuds can finally come to an end and start building toward next year’s storylines. However, in the past year especially, the WWE has succumbed to a significant issue of bloat, and this year Wrestlemania XXIX suffered accordingly.
Last summer Raw ballooned up by an extra hour, and has yet to figure out what to do with its extra time other than throw in a social media-fueled match each night. Unsurprisingly, casting a vote by way of hashtag feels about as valid as participating in a Russian election. At three fluffy hours, Raw can be a bit much to handle on a weekly basis. But while Wrestlemania clocks in at over four hours, it regularly manages to stay entertaining, thanks to tightly planned events and a dearth of repetitive USA-centric advertisements. Last year’s event for example pulled off a bevy of fun and quirky bouts that lead up to the three headlined matches.
In the first hours, culminating a year-long feud, a title hilariously changed hands in well under a minute; later, an Access Hollywood reporter bested two Divas in a tag team match, and Raw’s general manager was hired in accordance with the results of a frenzied 12-man tag team fight. Of last year’s three biggest matches, one between HHH and The Undertaker was billed as “An End of an Era,” and John Cena versus Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was headlined as a “Once in a Lifetime” match. That this year, both HHH and ‘Taker again were set to participate in (separate) matches near the top of the bill, and that Cena was squaring off against The Rock for a second “Once in a Lifetime” match did not bode well for Wrestlemania XXIX. This new era sure seems like the last one.
There were however a few firsts throughout the night, including the debut of two young firebrands: Dolph Ziggler and AJ Lee’s newest cohort Big E Langston, and Fandango, a sneering ballroom dancer absolutely oozing with attitude. Fandango was slated to debut multiple times in the weeks leading up to Wrestlemania, but each time refused to compete over the “butchering” of name. (In his parlance he goes by “FAAAHnn-DAAAHHHnnn…GO!”) In a time when nearly every wrestler’s entrance confuses gravitas with pyrotechnics, Fandango instead enters amid 12 fast-stepping ballroom dancers, and features an understated, but equally enjoyable kind of spectacle. His fight against WWE mainstay Chris Jericho wasn’t nearly as tight as his persona, but he’s got plenty of time to grow.
While the WWE thrives on cannibalizing storylines—and always has—Wrestlemania XXIX was simply too much of the same, with nary a sense of fun to the matches. Right off the bat, The Big Show indignantly turns heel after suffering a pittance of a loss. Later on, we saw a classic match between two very large men attempting to pick each other up. Ryback picks up Mark Henry, but Henry falls on Ryback for the pin. Match over. What looked to be an exciting mixed-gender tag team match featuring Cody Rhodes and Damien Sandow was inexplicably canned. Together, Rhodes and Sandow (the self-described intellectual savior of the WWE) have been tearing ass as the despicably condescending Team Rhodes Scholars (get it?), and it was a shame to see them passed over for less interesting matches.
Of the major bouts of the night, two of the three were a bust. HHH put his career on the line in a match against Brock Lesnar—a man with the body and wit of an ogre—but the only real stake at hand was seeing if Lesnar would break The Game’s arm for a third time, and stoically leave the WWE forever and ever yet again. He doesn’t, HHH wins and retains his position as chief operating officer both on and offscreen. The crowd seems rightfully uninterested. He was never going anywhere. At the end of the night, Cena faces off against The Rock, but the match felt near identical to last year’s. I’m sure the specifics and beats of the fight were technically different, but the setup was all too similar, and the match never popped. However, this time Cena beats The Rock, and while this is speculation, it’s likely so that The Rock can take a leave while Dwayne Johnson films Hercules.
Making up for it all was CM Punk, who squared off against the legendary Undertaker, making a brazen attempt to upset ‘Taker’s 20-0 Wrestlemania streak. While folks have been trying this for years, Punk gave the performance of his life thanks to a storyline influenced by the very real death of Undertaker’s former handler Paul Bearer aka William Moody just under a month ago. The short timeframe (just four episodes of Raw) made for a quick escalation of their newfound feud. Punk is the type of wrestler Fandango needs to be; he has a brilliant persona with a wrestling style that showcases his attitude. Throughout their match, Punk mimics moves Undertaker failed to execute moments before, while his handler Paul Heyman posed throughout with Paul Bearer’s famous urn, taunting Undertaker. Like something out of Chekhov, the urn obviously becomes a pivotal weapon for Punk, though he ultimately fails to secure the match.
Their match was the one and only time during the night that I legitimately forgot I was watching an event with predetermined results. There were enough near-pins down to a split-second, and brutal-seeming finisher after finisher that an inner child I never knew was aglow. Though it came nearly an hour before the night was over, their match was the clear climax, and the only true triumph of Wrestlemania XXIX. That said, much of the night was enjoyable, even if only for the dudes-wailing-on-each-other factor. There was plenty of that to be found for cynics and wide-eyed fans alike.
Where the next year will take the WWE is an interesting question, but one likely not too far off from what we saw last night. The WWE's ratings have stayed consistently strong, and in-house attendance was at all time high for this year’s Wrestlemania. So long as the WWE continues to peddle in flighty wrestlers like Brock Lesnar and The Rock, it will have trouble building monumental moments like Punk and Undertaker’s match. But, because of forces outside the realm of control for the company, their match truly was once in a lifetime, and a fitting tribute to William Moody.
- As far as interludes go, P. Diddy’s gave a spectacularly phoned-in performance during a quasi-halftime show. I’ll take last year’s funky army of dancing mommas as led by Brodus Clay over Diddy any day of the week.
- I and many others missed much of the first match due to a technical hiccup from the site’s official stream. A lot of fans never got their broadcast back. I would heartily recommend sticking with the regular cable pay-per-view in the future.
- Announcers Michael Cole and Jerry “The King” Lawler did a fine job calling the night, but John Layfield stole the show during a low-energy shill for Power Slammers action figures. As the toys seized about, Layfield brought down a fist repeatedly and muttered “I’ve always wanted to do this to Rey Mysterio” ad infinitum.
- Celebrities spotted/pointed out in attendance: Snooki, Michael Strahan, Donald Trump (who was inducted into the Hall of Fame???), and Judah Friedlander, who was briefly featured in this very uncomfortable pre-show segment.
- Favorite signs of the night: “If Cena wins we complain online,” “#PORK,” and one that was just a picture of Skeletor. Any other good ones I missed?