The Rocky Road to Wrestlemania

By James Cohn


For fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, the months between The Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania are the most anticipated time of year. Yearlong storylines culminate in intense grudge matches, part-time superstars make their triumphant returns, and up-and-comers are given a chance to shine on the biggest stage in professional wrestling. This year’s “Road to Wrestlemania,” however, has already been one of the rockiest in recent memory.
First, in one of the most anticlimactic, poorly paced Royal Rumbles ever, fan favorite Daniel Bryan was eliminated almost immediately and other superstars like Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose were unceremoniously dumped to the outside by why-are-they-still-wrestling Kane and The Big Show. Philadelphia fans rained a chorus of boos on this year’s winner Roman Reigns, rejecting the WWE’s hand-picked next big thing in an embarrassing situation that not even a run-in by the beloved Rock could save. The mass disapproval even led to #CancelWWENetwork trending on social media. That can’t be good for business.
While WWE capitulated to the fans and inserted Bryan into a #1 contender’s match at last Sunday’s inaugural Fastlane pay-per-view, it was all for show. Despite getting his head kicked in for most of the match, Reigns cemented his spot in the main event of Wrestlemania, pinning Bryan after a single spear in one of the only clean finishes to a pay per view in recent memory. The match itself was good but it became clear that Reigns going over was WWE’s plan all along, despite the vocal disapproval by large parts of its fan base who feel that their cheers and boos don’t matter.
On the Monday Night Raw following Fastlane, the attempt to get Reigns over became even more desperate, with Bryan trying to give Reigns a rub by praising his victory and WWE champion Brock Lesnar’s “mouthpiece” Paul Heyman stating that he is on the level of legends like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and Bruno Sammartino. The fans in attendance booed yet again and the internet wrestling community cried foul.
It is not that Reigns doesn’t have the potential be a star in the future. He certainly has the look and can connect with young children and women, two demographics WWE desperately needs to attract. Instead, the IWC is upset that he has been Vince McMahon’s handpicked guy from the beginning, despite lackluster promo skills and mediocre in-ring performances. No one can argue that he hasn’t improved in the last few weeks, but how WWE can get fans on his side and convince them that he can beat the legit badass Brock Lesnar remains to be seen.
Beyond the Reign’s situation, there’s also growing discontent about the state of the Diva’s Division where the women get barely anytime to, you know, actually wrestle and are stuck in clichéd storylines that revolve mostly around the superficial drama of WWE’s reality show Total Divas. After an abysmal Diva’s tag team match on Monday Night Raw that barely lasted 30 seconds, many wrestlers tweeted their grievances using #GiveDivasAChance.
The lack of direction for the Diva’s division is even more perplexing given that on WWE’s minor league show NXT, women are given proper time to develop their matches, are put in realistic feuds, and are put over by commentators as being just as talented as their male counterparts. To make matters worse, underutilized wrestler Titus O’Neil posted a lengthy rant on Instagram about discrimination in the WWE, a common issue in a sport that relies heavily on stereotypes. Allegations of verbal and physical abuse by NXT trainer Bill Demott also surfaced this week. At a time when WWE is starting to get exposure on The Daily Show and other mainstream outlets, this is not good. (Jon Stewart’s guest appearance on the 3/2 edition of Raw was spectacular by the way.)
There is also the unresolved situation of Brock Lesnar’s contract. With only a few weeks before WWE’s biggest show of the year, he hasn’t made it clear if he’s staying with WWE or going back to UFC. This puts WWE’s creative team in a bind, as they do not have a clear direction of where they want to go. It also doesn’t help when your champion hasn’t been on TV for weeks. Paul Heyman cut a God-tier promo on the 3/2 Raw to sell Reigns/Lesnar but even that couldn’t make up for Lesnar’s absence. This is also the problem with the buildup for Wyatt/Undertaker and HHH/Sting. Undertaker hasn’t shown up yet, leaving Bray Wyatt to develop their story alone and Sting appears very little, saying nothing of substance about why he is targeting Triple H. This is what happens when you don’t elevate your main roster and rely on part timers for your biggest show of the year.
While Stardust/Goldust, Miz/Mizdow, and the Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match have had meaningful storyline progressions in the last few weeks, overall the buildup for this year’s Wrestlemania has been lackluster. There are many obstacles in their way, but WWE has dug themselves out of creative holes before. Can they turn it around this year? Watch Wrestlemania 31 on Sunday, March 29th to find out.

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