Once a year around late March or early April, wrestling fans from around the world descend upon a city of Vince McMahon’s choosing. This year the city was San Jose, California and I was right there with them. Locals might not realize what’s happening. They might wonder why their city is suddenly overrun with Japanese tourists and large men with beards. But we can tell our own. We recognize the Boston Terrier in a sparkly robe as a four legged Ric Flair. We know that the guy sitting behind us in the pizza place is Vladimir, the superfan. We start twenty minute conversations with random Irishmen at Starbucks and we know we are among friends. This is Wrestlemania.
And it’s not just the fans that come out for Wrestlemania. In the week leading up to the main event, you can see near constant shows from independent promotions. I saw amazing things at these shows. I saw Rich Swann coax an audience into singing the entirety of Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” as he entered the ring. I saw The World’s Cutest Tag Team perform a triple boob/ballplex on Zane Riley. I saw a waffle wrestle a cyclops.
Going to these indy shows, it’s easy to get cynical about the WWE. You see amazing wrestlers like AR Fox or Richochet doing crazy high flying stunts. You see Candice LeRae effortlessly prove that anyone who’s ever said that wrestling fans don’t want to see women wrestle is an idiot. You see all this with a 25 dollar ticket in the third row and it’s hard to believe that anything you’ll see in the hundred dollar nosebleeds at Levi’s Stadium will top that. Sure, one of the best indy wrestlers you saw was Uhaa Nation and he’s going to WWE, but they’ll probably just make him change his name and won’t let him do standing moonsaults. It seems such a shame to end an amazing week of wrestling with the spoon fed drivel McMahon expects us to swallow at Wrestlemania.
Then you actually go to Wrestlemania. Upwards of 70,000 fans pile into the stadium. The show starts with a ladder match. It’s incredible. Six of the best performers in the company hurl themselves off ladders for your amusement and miraculously, none of them come away injured. Daniel Bryan even takes the belt! It’s a great match and the story works from every angle you can think of.
But up next is Randy Orton vs Seth Rollins. Rollins is great, but Randy Orton is possibly the most boring wrestler on the planet. What’s he going to do, an “RKO outta nowhere?” Like we haven’t seen that one thousand times before. All this was going through my head as I watched the match. At one point, I was literally grumbling about it. Very few people despise Randy Orton like I do, but when Seth Rollins went for that curb stomp and Randy Orton propelled him into the air using only his head then turned around and delivered that all too familiar cutter and jumped to my feet and shouted, totally without irony, “Holy shit, that RKO came outta nowhere!!”
Now, when I watch this match again on the WWE Network, is it clear that Randy Orton is just bending over and Rollins is jumping on his shoulder to give himself a boost? Absolutely. Did that make it any less spectacular in the moment? Hell no. This was when it became clear that this Wrestlemania was special. This was going to be one for the ages.
The matches after this don’t let up. As if Triple H vs Sting wasn’t iconic enough, it also breaks out into an impromptu DX vs NWO match. AJ and Paige refuse to give a bad match even if they’re stuck in a bad angle. John Cena beats Rusev in a match reminiscent of the best parts of the 1980s American Hero style of wrestling and the Undertaker proves he doesn’t need the streak to stay relevant. In the middle of all that, The Rock brings out Ronda Rousey to kick Stephanie McMahon and Triple H’s asses. It was everything you could possibly want in a Wrestlemania and the main event hadn’t even happened yet.
Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns get into the ring and what follows is a barbaric, brutal, bloody beatdown. Nothing looks clean. Nothing looks rehearsed. It’s just minute after minute of Lesnar letting everyone in attendance know why they call him the Beast. It wasn’t the best wrestling you’ll ever see. Not by a long shot. No real thought was put into the pacing or building the story of the match. But oh man, was it fun to watch! This is what WWE does best. This could have gone on for a minute or an hour and it would have been spellbinding. Rollins cashing in the briefcase and turning it into a triple threat was the greatest way it could have ended. The crowd reaction was electric. Wrestlemania couldn’t have gone better.
But of course, this is wrestling. Which means the story is never over. The Monday Night Raw after Wrestlemania has a reputation for being the best of the year. Expectations were high, especially after the amazing show the night before. Things started out great. Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler had an incredible match for the Intercontinental Title. Cena took the crowd from chanting “Cena Sucks” to “This is Awesome” and back again during his match with Dean Ambrose, which honestly might have been the best WWE put out that week, but the feeling was not going to last.
A dark cloud began to form during the Divas match. First began the inevitable CM Punk chants while AJ was wrestling. Your weekly horrible reminder that despite being one of the best wrestlers currently working, to a lot of gross, misogynist WWE fans, her greatest accomplishment will still be marrying CM Punk. Something different happened this time, however. After only a few Punk chants, I heard the words “AJ Lee” suddenly echoing through arena. They were actually chanting for her! Had we turned a new page? Had all the angry fourteen year olds in the crowd finally grown up?
Mere seconds later the answer came: a resounding no. After a minor feminist victory, a new chant began that was probably the low point of the whole week. During the six woman tag match, fans chanted “You suck Cena” at Nikki Bella. Then “You suck Bryan” at Brie. Then “You suck Uso” at Naomi. I would like to believe that wrestling fans are not the disgusting, woman fearing stereotype we are sometimes thought to be, but we certainly didn’t prove anyone wrong that night.
Finally, after a week of mostly amazing wrestling, Raw closed as it always closes, as it always will close and as it has always closed for time immemorial: with a six man tag match featuring Kane and the Big Show. It is baffling that this was the best WWE could come up with. I’m surprised it didn’t turn into the vomit scene from Stand By Me with how sick of this match we all were.
Looking back at all those hours I spent crammed into uncomfortable chairs watching men and women in colorful spandex hurl their bodies at each other, I can say that Wrestlemania 31 and the surrounding events were awesome, hilarious, exciting, unexpected, and frustratingly predictable all at the same time. In short, wrestling IS wrestling.