Welcome back to Ruthless Aggression Revisited, where we take a look back at a memorable period for WWE in the early 2000s. After April brought us the post-Wrestlemania madness, shock hirings and plenty of firings, one would understandably expect May’s offerings to be something of a hangover. Not so. Not so, one bit. Let's break down all the action from RAW, SmackDown and May's pay-per-view, Judgement Day, along with some analysis, highlights and head-scratchers.
WWE in May 2003: Roundup
Eric Bischoff’s tyrannical reign over RAW begins to go a little too far, threatening to fire half the roster and being rather, let’s say, inappropriate towards the likes of Lita (recovering from injury and commentating on Heat) and Trish Stratus . The board of directors steps in, with Linda McMahon introducing a new Co-General Manager of RAW: Stone Cold Steve Austin . A rather hefty pop ensues .
Stone Cold re-introduces the Intercontinental title, announcing a new battle royal to determine its new holder, with only former champions eligible – and Booker T . Booker appears to win the battle royal, only for a screwy finish to deny him and gift the title to Christian .
He also brings back, for one week only, the Legion of Doom , who lost to Tag Team Champions Kane and Rob Van Dam . French-Canadian tag team La Resistance, consisting of Rene Dupree and Sylvain Grenier , debut on RAW, feuding at first with YOUR American hero, Scott Steiner , who seems to be inadvertently contributing to the break-up of Test and Stacy Keibler .
Playing on the idea that Bill Goldberg wasn’t welcome in WWE (which, it seems, wasn’t entirely fictional), Chris Jericho begins a strong feud with Goldberg by humiliating him with sneak attacks, trash talk, and pouring paint all over his car. Jericho even convinces Lance Storm to try and run Goldberg over, leading to some memorable ‘interrogations’ from Steve Austin.
Backed up by Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash is on the warpath, laying out World Heavyweight Champion Triple H and chasing him around various arbitrary parking lots. It’s all to build towards a title match at Judgement Day between Nash and Trips, which somewhat failed to live up to expectations. The champion uses his trusty sledgehammer to retain his belt via DQ, but Nash has the final word, powerbombing Triple H through the announce table. The highlight of the World Title picture comes the night after the PPV, however, as Ric Flair defies Hunter (temporarily, at least) and doesn’t lie down for the champ in a title match. Hunter retains but can’t shake off Nash, with Austin booking a Hell in a Cell match between the two for Bad Blood.
Over on SmackDown, after Big Show decided to hurl a stretcher-strewn Rey Mysterio into a ring post last month, WWE Champion Brock Lesnar calls on Show to pick on someone 70% his own size, rather than 30%. Show and Lesnar do battle at Judgement Day in a Stretcher match. By far the highlight of the night, the match ends with Brock bringing a forklift truck to the ring, launching into Show off of it, before placing the 500lb giant onto it and over the line, retaining his title.
The WWE Tag Team title picture is hotting up, as Team Angle, Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin , are struggling to handle Eddie and Chavo Guerrero – the latter still being cheered on despite blatantly cheating to win matches. Madness! Los Guerreros also steal the titles, a picture of Kurt Angle and Kurt’s medals on the road to a title match at Judgement Day, but Chavo picks up an injury shortly before the PPV. Tajiri steps in and, in a solid, if not spectacular Ladder match, the unlikely team took the belts from Team Angle.
Stephanie McMahon signs an exciting talent from the indies, named Mr America . Making his debut on an edition of Piper’s Pit, the masked underground upstart actually looks a lot like Hulk Hogan , who Mr McMahon had ordered to stay at home. Mr America’s “no-cut contract” means McMahon is stuck with him, even dodging the infamous lie detector test .
Roddy Piper (flanked by Sean O’Haire ) is unable to put Mr American in his place, losing to him at Judgement Day. Along the way, though, an “America-maniac” by the name of Zach Gowen tries to help his hero by rushing out from the bleachers and coming into the ring – only to have his prosthetic leg ripped off . Uh huh.
WWE in May 2003: Analysis
- If you’re hole-picking at WWE storylines (which can lead to some cavernous gaps, if you’re not careful), why did the board of directors choose to wait so long before stepping in on the Bischoff situation? Why didn’t they just fire him? If you’re looking for stability, why pick Steve Austin? Promoting from within is usually a positive move, but this one is a HR nightmare.
- There’s probably a lot more to it than meets the eye, but the concept of the Legion of Doom coming back for one show, losing, then disappearing again, seems very odd. It did get a good reaction , mind you.
- The Los Guerreros gimmick encourages the lazy and disrespectful stereotype that Mexican people are thieves. But it’s also very entertaining and makes them a great babyface tag team. Go figure.
- During a Womens Title match at Judgement Day, Trish Stratus takes an absolutely vicious-looking bump. Attempting a Stratusfaction on Victoria, Trish is launched out of the ring to the floor, landing flat and face-down. With this in mind, along with various other no-disqualification womens matches, you tend to forget how physical WWE were willing to go with the girls at this stage.
- At this moment in time, there were very few WWE performers better at being a heel than Christian. The booking helped somewhat, with him constantly escaping defeat and causing disqualifications, but you really, really wanted to punch Christian’s smirking face, so mission accomplished.
- There’s ripping things off, then there’s the way that WWE tend to rip off pop culture to make new talent relevant. And then there’s the Matrix -style teaser promos for Gail Kim.
- JOBBER WATCH: It’s always fun to see familiar faces get the tar beat out of them before they went on to bigger and better things. An early incarnation of Kenny Dykstra lost out in Rodney Mack’s ‘5-Minute White Boy Challenge’, while a SmackDown tag match featured Aaron Stevens, who would later go on to become Damien Sandow. Or Damien Mizdow. Or Macho Mandow.
1) The looks on the faces of both Roddy Piper and Sean O’Haire when Piper rips the prosthetic leg off of Zach Gowen. Piper looks bewildered and physically sick, while O Haire basically gives the “I want none of this s**t” look and walks away. Brilliant stuff.
2) In a match between Torrie Wilson and Nidia, referee Mike Sparks gets involved in a classic (for better or worse) women’s match moment, getting rolled on top of by the two women as they tussle on the mat. Afterwards, though, Sparks jumps up to the corner turnbuckle and celebrates, to a huge pop. Literally the funniest thing I saw during this month.
3) Eddie Guerrero vs Matt Hardy. Not on a pay-per-view, for a title, or given pre-match hype; this was just two outstanding performers in their prime, putting on a fast-paced, hard-hitting clinic.
1) I don’t know anyone who wasn’t a fan of Eddie and Chavo Guerrero’s ‘Lie, Cheat, Steal’ gimmick, and May 2003 is when it really begins to flourish. That’s despite some really rather zany and odd vignettes to help develop the shtick. There’s a fine line between likeable mischievousness and general douchebaggery.
2) Goldberg feeling the need to fit the word “ass” into every other statement he makes. “Your ass is on!” “I’m gonna beat your ass!” It’s a bit weird.
3) Every time Charlie Haas was given a microphone. I don’t want to pick on the guy, but Haas really struggled at this point, totally outshone by Shelton Benjamin.
Ric Flair wrestling The Hurricane in a t-shirt and rapidly disintegrating dress pants. And still putting on a show. Vintage Flair.
Next week on Ruthless Aggression Revisited, we look at June 2003, including unmaskings, Hardcore Legends and Olympic Heroes. Have any memories or opinions on this period in WWE history? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook.
Chris - @OTPChris
For my 23rd birthday this April, I only wanted one thing. As an avid gamer, it’s not too surprising that this particular item I lusted for was a video games console. However, it wasn’t the latest offerings from Microsoft or Sony, or that Nintendo thing that breaks apart and modifies like a knock-off Transformer from a Kinder Surprise. No, I wanted something different.
I asked for a PlayStation 2. Released in 2000, the technology and capabilities of the PS2 are, of course, lightyears behind what we can experience on the latest tech. But, as it was the console I owned when growing up, it has a certain level of charm and nostalgia about it that I’ve been yearning for. In fact, that post-millennium era in general is time that I wish I could experience at my current age. Baggy jeans were so in, nu-metal acts were dominating the charts, and World Wrestling Entertainment was a really, really big deal.
After the heralded Attitude Era and the plethora of talent acquired from the purchase of WCW and ECW, WWE had a monumental platform in the early 2000s to kick on from. A pair of unique rosters, a heightened level of mainstream attention and a general, post-Y2K feeling of cultural prosperity and profligacy allowed WWE to have two similar, yet unmistakably different weekly shows that raked in viewers and ratings numbers.
As a kid, I loved this era of WWE, boasting the balls-to-the-wall approach of the Attitude Era, with a refined level of presentation and a stunning roster of talent. So, with the WWE Network’s archive of content now including all the flagship shows and pay-per-views of that era, I’ve been watching them all back with brand new eyes and a more considered outlook.
Ruthless Aggression Revisited: The Premise
Each week for the Hooked on Blog, I’ll take you back in time, reviewing all the WWE action from a month of the Ruthless Aggression era in chronological order. From emerging talents to earth-shattering shocks, seductive soap-operas to silly gimmicks, I’ll break down the headline action, followed by some off-the-cuff analysis, highlights, low points and, like every good report, something a little eye-raising to finish on.
While you can decide for yourself when the Ruthless Aggression era actually started (some time just before some rookie called John had his debut , I’d say), we’ll pick things up on March 31, 2003 – the day after WrestleMania 19, in which Triple H retained the World title against Booker T, Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels stole the show, and the match between The Rock and Steve Austin was only mildly overshadowed by the greatest match preview package of all time . After almost 55,000 people packed into SafeCo Field in Seattle, it was time to go again on Monday Night Raw the very next night…
WWE in April 2003: Roundup
…A night where, it could be argued, the concept of ‘#RAWAfterMania’ really began to take off. While The Rock dominated proceedings, it was the arrival of Goldberg at the end of the show (known about by some, booed by a handful) that made this show a big one, the Atlanta native spearing The Great One to set up a decent match at Backlash, which Goldberg wins. The Rock’s opponent the previous night, Steve Austin , saw himself ‘fired’ by RAW General Manager Eric Bischoff on medical grounds, using Austin’s real-life injury problems as the basis of his in-ring departure. Bischoff also looks to fire Jim Ross for his critical comments the following week, but JR quits before he gets the sack.
What about the titles? The extremely over tag team of Kane and Rob Van Dam won the Tag Team Titles, defeating various members of the ‘Bischoff Administration’, including Chief Morley and the Dudley Boyz . Trish Stratus holds the Womens Title, but Jazz is on the rise, managed by Theodore Long, and she eventually takes the title at Backlash. Kevin Nash returns to try and diffuse the hatred between fellow Kliq members Triple H and Shawn Michaels , failing miserably but putting himself at the front of the queue for a World Heavyweight Championship shot. As for the Intercontinental title? Still conspicuous by its absence.
Over on SmackDown, Brock Lesnar’s babyface WWE title run was under-way after a long chase to win the belt back. A number one contender’s tournament was put together and, despite the likes of Undertaker, Big Show and Chris Benoit featuring, it was a young John Cena who would win the tournament and face Lesnar at Backlash. Cena takes Lesnar further than many expected in a decent match, accompanied by chants of “Let’s Go Cena!”, but Lesnar unsurprisingly retains at the PPV.
SmackDown is understandably making a pretty big deal about Torrie Wilson being featured in a certain gentleman’s magazine, but it also marked the return of Sable and the beginning of a rather, erm, memorable feud between these two. Meanwhile, Mr McMahon appears to turn over a new leaf by shaking Hulk Hogan’s hand after their WrestleMania match, before forcing Hogan to leave SmackDown and “rot at home”. To back him up – and to work with rookie Sean O’Haire - Rowdy Roddy Piper returns, hosting some rather awkward editions of Piper’s Pit.
The miniscule, yet extremely talented Brian Kendrick (A.K.A ‘Spanky’) joins the Cruiserweight division, ruled by the distinctly un-Cruiserweight Matt Hardy . Rey Mysterio seems to be the only legitimate challenger for Hardy’s title, but he’s too busy picking on people three times his size, like Big Show. That leads to a match at Backlash and that stretcher spot .
WWE in April 2003: Analysis
- The Rock’s heel character around this time is, in my opinion, the best persona we’ve seen Dwayne Johnson put to use in WWE. His sense of utter entitlement and disbelief that everyone in attendance doesn’t adore him is superb. The Rock’s original return a few months previous was as a babyface, but the company used the boos he received for ‘selling out’, instead of battling against them. A very smart move.
- Nathan Jones, recently released from prison and flat-out crazy, debuts as a babyface. Welcome to 2003, everyone.
- SmackDown’s focus on “the spirit of competition” works – and it only works because of the emphasis placed upon it by the likes of Stephanie McMahon and Michael Cole, who regularly reference it. Tournaments, long matches, bouts between pairs of heels or babyfaces – it was all commonplace on SmackDown at this time. They don’t always make for a great show, but you knew what you were tuning into when SmackDown came on, meaning you bought into it.
- It may surprise those who have only seen him in his more recent WWE run, but Goldberg was actually a pretty good character during promos. His comedy segment with Goldust , for example, was an unexpected highlight. Test is better than I expected, too, transitioning from a slightly comedic, skirt-chasing guy, to a womanising bully that’s impossible to like.
- Possibly rewarding him for his excellent segments with The Rock before WrestleMania, The Hurricane received a serious push during March. Matches against top stars, lots of air-time – Helms was clearly seen as much more than a lightweight, comedy character. Temporarily, at least.
- Being a heel GM isn’t the most difficult of gigs, but Eric Bischoff is purpose-built for the role, going full mad-with-power mode at this point. It also helps, though, that he had Jim Ross to work against, who did an outstanding job of making you really feel like he hated Bischoff.
- Kevin Nash’s return got a couple of good pops to start with, but it tailed off pretty quickly. Nash’s work with the microphone was okay and his physical presence added to a few moments, but he was under par in the ring.
- On his way to winning the number one contender’s tournament, John Cena defeated Eddie Guerrero, Undertaker and Chris Benoit. Yup.
1) Jeff Hardy vs The Rock is a pretty great match. There are very few performers out there that are better than Jeff at playing the role of valiant underdog.
2) In RAW’s opening credits after Steve Austin’s firing, instead of taking out the short clip of Austin, a bid red ‘X’ is put through it instead. Just like putting Bischoff’s face at the end of the WWE opening video, subtle touches like that are brilliant showings of that all-in approach to the show that made it so entertaining.
3) Sean O’Haire’s teaser promos before his debut. No, seriously. I thought they were really good and outlined an intriguing character – making it all the more confusing that his run in WWE was basically a total flop.
1) Scott Steiner. Just… ugh.
2) Jerry Lawler’s heel comments on Booker T’s upbringing and criminal record. It’s obviously all in gest and meant to make you hate Lawler, but it goes a little too far at times, for me.
3) The SmackDown team putting a table cloth and some salt and pepper on a backstage table in catering, to try and signify some sort of mafia-esque meeting between the F.B.I. and Undertaker…
Gillberg vs Goldberg. We nearly got the dream match! As part of The Rock’s plan to goad Goldberg into the ring, Gillberg is on hand to poke fun at the man he parodies, before coming face to face with him for the first time. Goldberg throws him around briefly before Rocky sneaks up from behind. Such a shame. It was a close one between this and Josh Matthews’ face as he conducts a so-non-PG backstage interview with Sable.
Next week on Ruthless Aggression Revisited, we look at May 2003, including Judgement Day, beer-swigging and three-limbed wrestlers. Quite clearly, you don’t want to miss it. Have any memories or opinions on this period in WWE history? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook . Or both, if you feel like it!
Chris - @OTPChris
Did you join the Hooked on Wrestling team for one of our EIGHT awesome WrsetleMania shows? If so, or if you watched it at home (we won’t judge) or actually saw it in person in Orlando (we won’t get too jealous), you would’ve witnessed the annual pinnacle of sports entertainment. Whilst WrestleMania is the culmination of 12 months of anticipation and booking, the real challenge comes when the dust settles and WWE must use its ‘Mania momentum to go again.
To help keep things rolling, a ‘Superstar Shake-Up’ was announced on the RAW after ‘Mania (sorry, that’s #RawAfterMania), with performers from RAW and SmackDown Live switching shows and freshening up the look of both rosters. Whilst only time will tell just how successful the shake-up is, the early signs are positive for viewers, performers and even those yet to appear on the ‘main’ roster. Let’s take a look at four ways the Superstar Shake-Up has already changed WWE for the better.
1) SmackDown Live gets another boost
WWE has been trying for quite some time now to make the SmackDown show a legitimate flagship show once again, rather than the B-show behind RAW. The damage done to SmackDown during the late 2000s and early 2010s looked for a while to be irreparable, but lots of good work has gone into changing the mind-set surrounding the show. Permanently taking it live and adding the likes of Shane McMahon, AJ Styles and the actual WWE title was all in the aim of aligning it with RAW – and the Superstar Shake-Up was certainly designed with the same goal in mind.
SmackDown was at its best in the past when it offered something a little different to what RAW had to offer, but shared the same all-in, fast-paced, over-the-top presentation that we saw on Monday nights. While RAW had the big names and jacked-up monsters in the early 2000s, SmackDown shone the spotlight on outstanding in-ring performers to create a product that appealed more to different sub-sections of the WWE demographic. There have been glimpses of that same dynamic since last year’s Draft and I fully expect this to step up a notch following the Shake-Up.
While today’s RAW is still stacked with talent, SD Live now boasts Styles, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura, Charlotte and many more top-level performers. Even Byron Saxton is an upgrade on David Otunga. A lot of those names pull in numbers (not Saxton), so moving them to SmackDown shows more serious intent from WWE to create two genuinely entertaining shows, which can only be a good thing for viewers.
2) Breathing room for NXT
The second NXT after WrestleMania was a big show for the brand. After the usual post-PPV NXT recorded before the main card on Saturday, the exceptional yellow-heavy show came complete with a new opening sequence, new music , new in-ring talent and plenty of mentions of “The New Era”. The success NXT has experienced over the last three years has not gone unnoticed and it’s clear to see that WWE hierarchy has more plans for the show.
The one aspect that hinders NXT is its bi-annual farming of talent, sent upwards to RAW and SmackDown Live. That’s by no means a complaint or a call for the show to no longer be a ‘developmental’ proving ground the red and blue brands. This was always going to be the case and it’s accepted by the loyal fanbase who, despite regularly picking up the exact moment they’re seeing a performer for the final time on NXT , are very understanding of seeing their favourite stars leave their favourite show.
But, with NXT still on the rise, the show could do some consistency over the next six months, keeping hold of its top stars, whilst infrequently adding to it with Performance Centre rookies and the odd global sensation. Of course, the actual shake-up did include plenty of the NXT roster (Tye Dillinger, The Revival, Shinsuke Nakamura, etc.), but the new look of RAW and SDLive should mean a big-name call-up shouldn’t be in order for a while to come. That means the likes of Bobby Roode, DIY, Asuka, Ember Moon and others can continue to carry NXT into the next chapter of its, ahem, ‘Evolution’.
3) Surprises and shocks are what we adore right now
Of course, one of the reasons those NXT call-ups to the big stage are enjoyed so much is the shock value they carry – and in WWE right now, surprises carry a greater value than they ever have.
Some of the most memorable moments on WWE programming in recent years have not been matches. They’ve not been scathing promos or iconic images, either. All they’ve been is the entrance music of someone we had absolutely no idea was in the building that night. The reaction when Shane McMahon returned in February 2016 was one of the best reactions I’ve seen from a modern day WWE crowd. The Royal Rumble match is now as much about shock competitors than it is about the eventual winner. Then of course, at this year’s WrestleMania, the stand-out moment of an exceptional show was two old boys who were relevant in the ‘90s turning up for a tag match…
Of course, I’m being sarcastic. Anyone in London’s Walkabout Temple for the HoW ‘Mania party knows how I popped like a child finding a puppy under the Christmas tree when Matt and Jeff Hardy walked out at the Citrus Bowl.
That was a shining example of how much the current WWE audience enjoys the unexpected. While telling us a week in advance to tune into RAW next Monday for a big title match is a tried-and-tested strategy to draw in viewers, how exciting was it to be tuning into RAW and SmackDown Live having almost no idea who we were going to see? That unknown element isn’t something that can’t be replicated too often, but doing it so soon after WrestleMania, to keep that momentum going, was a smart way of tapping into a key interest of WWE fans.
Speaking of momentum…
4) Top stars won’t see their momentum tail off
As it so often does, WrestleMania appeared to signal the end of a number of rivalries between talent.
The women’s division of both flagship shows looked like all options had been exhausted after the big show. AJ Styles had basically seen off every SmackDown Live babyface. Sami Zayn had faced off against every big guy this side of King Kong Bundy. Anderson and Gallows’ elongated run to the RAW Tag Team Titles meant they had very much finished business against every other team on the show. The natural cycle of WWE that Vince McMahon referenced on the RAW after ‘Mania had reached its natural conclusion. So, as with most of the great promo segments in recent years, McMahon claiming that a shake-up was needed was a piece of entertainment, doused in reality.
All the aforementioned stars have so much to give, but regurgitating old rivalries and facing off against the same opponent every night doesn’t do much for your reputation – unless you’re Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. Moving things around gives those stars a chance to add more strings to their bow, thriving in matches that have more interest on allure due to them being fresh.
Charlotte has the chance to solidify her spot as the queen of WWE by squaring off against new opponents with different styles. Charlotte vs Naomi, in particular, has the potential to be a show-stealer. Arguably the most improved performer over the past two years, Alexa Bliss can put her superb heel character to the test against long-standing babyfaces in Bayley and Sasha Banks. Even those who haven’t switched shows will reap the benefits; Randy Orton, for example, looks set to stay at the top of the SmackDown Live roster alongside guys he’s rarely (if ever) faced, including Zayn and Nakamura. Too many talents get lost in long-standing rivalries. Shaking things up gives the roster every chance (and no excuse not) to further establish themselves.
Are you a fan of the changes made in the Superstar Shake-Up? Who do you think will benefit most? Let us know your thoughts.
Chris - @OTPChris
WrestleMania. The time of year when it feels that all eyeballs are on the WWE and the wrestling world. Seldom nowadays is it the best card of the year for us hardcore fans but there is no doubt at all that it’s the biggest occasion. WWE have done an incredible job over the last decade of elevating WrestleMania from simply being their biggest event of their to being something much bigger. Nowadays WrestleMania is like a festival of wrestling. WWE fills the weekend with events and activities such as NXT Takeover, the Hall Of Fame Ceremony and WWE Axcess. Hell, even the Raw After Mania has become a marketing brand in itself. Outside of WWE, independent companies from around the world come to town to capitalise on the tens of thousands of fans flying in for the big show. This year even sees companies like Progress, Rev Pro and WCPW flying the flag for UK companies – it truly is amazing to see every wrestler of any note in one city to be part of the occasion.
In mainstream terms, WWE are no longer content with marketing WrestleMania to their fanbase. Nowadays it is incredible to see WWE seep out in to mainstream consciousness, even for a weekend. Every media outlet in the western world seems to touch on the WrestleMania. It still amazes me when I see articles on the BBC website celebrating WWE. Unthinkable even five years ago.
Anyone reading this though doesn’t need an article such as ‘The Top 10 Reasons You Should Watch WrestleMania’. We are all going to be watching along whether we like the card or not. Will you be in the stadium in Orlando? Sitting at home with the WWE Network on your big screen? Or will you be among the cool kids and enjoying WrestleMania with hundreds of fellow fans at one of the Hooked On parties in London, Leeds, Brighton, Liverpool, Cardiff, Manchester, Nottingham or Birmingham? If not, if they haven’t sold out when you read this you might still be able to get yours from www.ringsideworld.co.uk .
As the first blog article on our new website we wanted to put together our thoughts on the WrestleMania card. Let’s call a spade a spade. There have been better events on paper. It’s not by any stretch looking like a bad event but I think we all would have done things slightly differently. That said, there truly is some gold in there. Some that will provide spectacle, some that will showcase ‘sports-entertainment’ at it’s finest and some that will be flat out damn good wrestling matches.
So with that in mind, here’s our breakdown of the card and our predictions for who will be walking out of WrestleMania with ‘the winner’s share of the purse’ (Thanks Gorilla Monsoon)
WWE Universal Title Match: Goldberg (c) vs. Brock Lesnar
Let’s start with a wager: Is this one going over or under five minutes? One thing we can be quite sure on is that this will be the shortest world title match at WrestleMania since Sheamus inadvertently catapulted Daniel Bryan in to superstardom.
If you would have told me after WrestleMania 32 that Bill Goldberg would be walking in to this weekend with WWE gold strapped round his waist I would have had you sectioned. But here we are. What started as a quick shot to build up a video game has mushroomed into a well-received and hugely successful return to WWE for Goldberg. The fans have embraced Goldberg on his return and quite quickly that one match became the run that was due to culminate this weekend against Lesnar. Make no mistake, the short interactions at previous shows have been done purposely to not give away the real match that we will get at Mania. It’s classic booking. Make no mistake, we are not getting 25 minutes of catch as catch can here but what we are going to get is a ‘proper match’ where Goldberg will likely finally take those bumps that he hasn’t needed to do yet. The question is, can he withstand the genuinely high impact, hard-hitting style of Brock Lesnar. It’s genuinely intriguing.
What can we expect from this match? A great atmosphere. Although Lesnar’s aura has undoubtedly cooled, he still garners a great reaction from the crowds. As does Goldberg. Despite a smattering of boos since he won the title, he still has the vast majority of fans on his side who are still enjoying the chance to be part of the Goldberg experience. We are certainly not getting a repeat of the poisonous crowd we saw last time these two met on this stage at WrestleMania 20.
Will it be a great match from a technical standpoint? Oh heck no. it will be hard hitting and short and expect Lesnar to walk out with the red belt around his waist. We have a choice with this one folks. It’s an attraction. We can either poo poo the simplistic nature of the match or we can enjoy the spectacle. I’ll be in the latter camp and I hope we get the ‘Goldberg, Goldberg, Goldberg chants’ at out party.
WWE Championship Match: Bray Wyatt (c) vs. Randy Orton
Another world championship match, another match where I have conflicting feelings. I’ve loved the Wyatt/Orton dynamic since they surprisingly began teaming last year. Clearly it was temporary and leading to a showdown but my god it worked, breathing new life in to both guys on Smackdown. When Orton won the Royal Rumble, a WrestleMania title match felt nailed on, and as it proved when Bray Wyatt won the belt at Elimination Chamber. All was set for a great build into the split and the Mania match and it began as such, bringing Luke Harper in to the story on the way in a hugely successful way.
Then Randy Orton burnt down Wyatt’s compound and the wheels came off entirely.
Who are we rooting for? Who’s the babyface? Who’s the dastardly heel here? I genuinely don’t know and neither do the audience and that has really dampened down the hype for this one because the audience is confused.
It’s going to be a spectacle, of that there is no doubt. It will also likely be a hard hitting, well worked match, Each of these men have a grasp of ring psychology that comes from growing up in the business and we will possibly see involvement from Luke Harper and a returning Erick Rowan. Ultimately though, they are going to need to tell a damn good story to bring the crowd back in to it. The first 5 minutes are critical.
Who will win? Randy Orton I suspect. The thought of The Viper in a title programme with AJ Styles is mouth-watering.
Undertaker vs. Roman Reigns
Let’s get this out of the way first. Roman Reigns is a damned good big match performer. Feel free to knock the booking and resent how he is pushed down our throats (Which he undoubtedly is), but do not knock this man’s talent to deliver on the biggest stage. This year he has been given the honour of wrestling the centerpiece of WrestleMania in The Deadman and if you believe rumours they will be closing the show – the third year in a row that Reigns will have done so.
This match is a logical piece of booking when you look at the long term. Rightly or wrongly, WWE want Reigns to be their top star going forward and therefore pairing him with ‘Taker (Rather than Cena which I and many others clamored for) makes all the sense in the world. Reigns has an opportunity to do here what only one man has done before and that is defeat The Undertaker at WrestleMania. But should he?
Yes, he should. But only if it is done right. Let’s face it, Taker is not the force he once was. The man has given his all to the wrestling business and now it’s starting to show in his work and wellbeing. It truly is amazing that it’s taken this long. The scuttlebutt says that this could well be Undertaker’s last WrestleMania and if so, he really needs to go out on his Shield (outdated pun intended) and give Reigns the win. However, this could easily be counter productive. If Reigns wins a competitive match and walks out after a handshake or a hug with Taker, the crowd are going to absolutely crap on proceedings. This helps nobody. If however WWE uses this moment as a way to give Reigns the heel turn then we are off to the races. It is so, so obvious that the way to accomplish their goal of bringing the fans in to Reigns is to give him a short heel run. It will work incredibly well as it’s so natural. If they do that here, Reigns can turn back when the fans are dying to cheer him (And they will), and when that happens they will have a fresh, elevated, rehabilitated main event act on their hands that crucially will have EARNED the fans support.
Come on WWE, don’t waste this golden opportunity. Make it happen for everyone’s sake.
AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon
Yet again we come to a match that has frustrated many fans with the booking. There is a pattern here. Whilst many fans wanted to see the best wrestler in the world (Sorry Shane but I’m talking about Styles) in a match that would give him a chance to match the spectacle of the Okada vs. Kenny Omega classic promoted by NJPW in January. This match will not allow for that to happen. What it does though is give Styles a chance to be spotlighted in a clear main event match which will have a memorable impact. Shane McMahon is a key player in WWE. All one needs to do is look at the pop on his return last year and see how he spiked WrestleMania ticket sales for evidence of that. A match with the younger McMahon man is a clear endorsement of the exceptional work AJ has done in WWE since joining at the start of 2016. It bodes extremely well for his future prospects and my advice for Styles fans is to enjoy this match, safe in the knowledge that it paves the way for even bigger and better moments for the Phenomenal One. Shane is no slouch even in his 40s and AJ will be desperate to drag something great out of him and you know what? I think he will. This is unquestionably my sleeper choice for match of the night. Do not underestimate what these guys will do together.
As for a winner. It has to be Styles. Shane is 100% expendable and has never been a man that needs his ego stroking with big victories. He will know that the value going forward is in Styles winning and that will happen. I can’t wait for this match.
Seth Rollins vs. HHH
In my view, the best booked match at WrestleMania. Pretty much pitch perfect to get us to a point where many are desperate to see this match and it could well steal the show. It has also been successful in rehabilitating Rollins as a babyface. Something that was well needed after a mediocre run for him so far. This match is likely to be in a similar vein (Although not as epic) as HHH vs. Shawn Michaels at Summerslam 2002. Rollins real life injury has actually been a blessing for this feud and gives them another dramatic wrinkle to play with. Who’s going to win? Hard to say actually. Rollins probably should but this story likely isn’t over. There are rumours of a HHH led faction forming after this show and will one of the guys pegged in that group (his name rhymes with A Rower Toe) get involved here? Bank on it. Like Shane/AJ on Smackdown, this Indy darling vs. McMahon family member has the chance to blow away everything else presented by their respective brand on the night.
John Cena and Nikki Bella vs. The Miz and Maryse
I don’t care what people say about this, I am bloody loving this feud and actually cant wait for this match. For many reasons. Firstly, the build has been great. Both men have been on fire on the microphone. They’ve been going down the well-worn ‘shoot’ road but in the best possible way. The barbs they’ve thrown have really raised the stakes in the feud and got the atmosphere up to boiling point. It’s going to be pure soap opera (Hell, most of us are expecting Cena to get down on one knee at the end!) but it’s going to be fun and hopefully, Miz’s exceptional work as a heel and level of loathing from the audience will result in Cena finally and deservedly hearing a cheering crowd at Mania. As fun as it is to boo Cena (Because nobody really means it nowadays, surely?), it would be so fitting for him to get that massive ovation that he has earned over the years. Let’s hope it happens. Surely Cena/Bella winning is the lock of the night? I can’t see any scenario where them losing serves any purpose.
Raw Women’s Championship Match: Bayley (c) vs. Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks vs. Nia Jax
This has big boots to fill after the greatness of last year’s multi-women title match. This writer has to confess about having somewhat of a sulk on with this match. I was so adamant that Charlotte would be champion walking in to this event that I allowed my graphic designer (Big up, the talented Sam Ibrahim) to break my rule of not using images with title belts on for our poster for the Brighton party. Annoying! That aside, why did they spoil Charlotte’s well-built streak right before Mania? The title hot potato of last year was frustrating but ultimately did well in serving this image of Charlotte being unbeatable on PPV. Now, it’s for naught and we have a fairly aimless multi-women match here. Who wins? I’m going with Sasha Banks who will head in to a heel turn and feud with Bayley. I wouldn’t put the mortgage on that but that’s where I would take it.
Smackdown Women’s Title Match – Alexa Bliss (c) vs. The World
I love Alexa Bliss. Just love her. For me she is right up there with The Miz and Braun Strowman in the most improved stakes this year. She has got a big future and plays her character so, so well. That said, I don’t see her walking out with the belt here. Naomi is the hometown girl and the temptation to give her that Orlando title win will be too tempting to pass on. She’s winning. Will we see appearances from some former stars? It’s been rumoured and they’re all in town so let’s see.
US Title Match: Chris Jericho (c) vs. Kevin Owens
Team Friendship explodes! Whilst Rollins/HHH has been the best-built match on this card, this one runs it mighty close. The Festival Of Friendship was probably my favourite segment on Raw in 5 years. We are chomping at the bit to see this match aren’t we? Two guys who have clearly steered the ship towards this match will not disappoint on the big show. It’s going to be an exciting, passion filled match that I suspect will be full of suspense for the 15 minutes or so it gets. Expect the return of the more vicious Kevin Owens on the way to him taking that title off of his former best friend. It’s not a happy ending but it’s the right one. Jericho has been absolutely stellar all year and he knows this feud has to end with Owens looking like a true star. And he will. Can’t wait for this one.
Intercontinental Title Match: Dean Ambrose (c) vs. Baron Corbin
This is one match that really, suffers from being on this card. These guys have done really well in building up a good rivalry but ultimately it could never have been enough to crack the top of a card this stacked. It’s a shame and the hope is that they put in a good show here on the undercard and get more of the spotlight that they deserve on Smackdown’s next PPV.
It’s Corbin’s time presumably. All signs are pointing to it and the next step for him is title gold. He deserves it too. He’s had a good year and will make a good heel champion. And could we see this as the next step in a blossoming Wrestlemania streak for Corbin? Maybe. You heard it here first….
Raw Tag Team Title Ladder Match: The Club (c) vs. Enzo and Cass vs. Sheamus and Cesaro
This one is going to be our opener. Very little doubt in my mind. Enzo and Cass are becoming masters of hot PPV openings and the ladder match has also opened the show the last two years. This one seems nailed on. As far as triangle tag team ladder matches at Wrestlemania go, this has massive boots to fill and on paper, it cannot do that. The talent level just isn’t there. If we don’t get any surprises in this one then I would like to see Cesaro and Sheamus take back the belts as I am a sucker for an arse kicking face tag team. I would suspect Enzo and Cass would get the nod though which will be fine and all but crowds are starting to see through their act a bit. Are they more than just an entrance? Time will tell.
Could we see any surprises in this match? Who knows. I wouldn’t want to get your hopes up too much though. There is nothing worse than BROKEN promises….
Cruiserweight Title Match: Neville (c) vs. Austin Aries
What a shame this is on the pre-show. This feud, these two guys deserve the Mania spotlight and 12 minutes to wow the crowd. Instead they are likely to get 10 tops and still could well steal the show. Austin Aries is, well….Austin Aries. His moniker of The Greatest Man That Ever Lived isn’t that over the top. Neville has been a revelation since his heel turn and these two (With Tozawa and Gallagher in support) have breathed life into the 205 Live brand that in my eyes was dead on arrival. No longer. I seriously cannot wait to see this match and I am not alone. Who wins? Who cares, really. Either outcome will be satisfying. I hold both men in very high regard and both have bright futures.
Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal
On first look this match seemed quite jobberific. Looking closely though, there is some real talent in here and intriguing possible winners. It’s a shame American Alpha, Sami Zayn and Braun Strowman haven’t had higher profile showcase matches but it is what it is and let’s hope they make the best of it. It’s also been announced that Killian Dain (Big Damo and Kassius Ohno (Chris Hero) will also enter which will please a section of the audience.
The smart money is surely on Strowman to win and it’s the right choice. With a gun to my head that would be my comfortable prediction. However, if you like a flutter, my cheeky tip would be Tian Bing. His odds are long and rightly so but it’s worth remembering just how important cracking China is to WWE. It’s an enormous market awash with money and consuming more and more Western Media. WrestleMania will be the first ever WWE PPV aired live in China and what better way to make real waves in the country than have Bing take the win here. From a business point of view it would be massive and with my experience in international broadcasting coming in to play, I could completely see the logic in putting this scenario in place. So in a nutshell, Strowman is my favourite but Bing is my ‘I’m so smug because I look so smart with this prediction’ choice. If he is the second man eliminated then please forget I said anything!