In 1987, I was 8 years old and WWE was my life. It was the company’s original salad days, and I was definitely getting my vegetables, donning the red and yellow colors of Hulkamania and rooting on babyfaces like Paul Orndorff, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake and the Hart Foundation – all outlandish characters, none existing in the so-called gray area that most wrestlers occupy today.
“Kayfabe,” a code word within the industry for maintaining the false storylines and façade of real fighting, was in full effect, which kept those larger-than-life personalities from actually being real people with real lives. I remember once, a kid told me that Hulk Hogan’s real name was “Terry,” and I had an easier time accepting the plausibility of Santa Claus than believing Hulk had a woman’s name. Wrestling lived and died by its secrets, and remained that way until events like the infamous ’87 traffic stop/arrest involving sworn enemies the Iron Sheik and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan (why were they riding in the same car?!?) started a ripple effect that eventually crested with the Attitude Era of the late Nineties.
These days, with WWE producing “reality” content like Total Divas and faces like Daniel Bryan proclaiming “everything I’ve done is fiction” at the Hall of Fame, the line between reality and fantasy has all but disappeared, requiring wrestling’s fanbase to evolve, to accept both more (and less) from sports entertainment. We’ve become postmodern viewers of a tradition that once depended on smoke and mirrors, but now mainly relied on the latter – until Sunday’s WrestleMania.
For the past month, the 2015 installment of wrestling’s most important night was shaping up to be the most self-referential in its history. The main event, loudly disliked by the WWE Universe, pitted rising star Roman Reigns against the “Beast Incarnate,” Brock Lesnar, who, at last year’s SummerSlam, dismantled the publicly traded company’s golden boy John Cena with 16 suplexes. You see, fans know that behind the scenes, Reigns has become the new “Chosen One,” hand-picked by WWE owner Vince McMahon for superstar status for reasons like “He is handsome” and “Little kids like him.” Following Reigns’ win at the Royal Rumble (which guaranteed his title shot at ‘Mania), the motivations for his elevation began seeping into storylines – mostly because fans were so vocally opposed to them. They believed Bryan, small in stature but huge in wrestling ability, should’ve been the man in the main event.
While the drama between Reigns and Bryan culminated in a showdown at last month’s Fastlane PPV (Reigns won the match), an even bigger behind-the-scenes battle began making its way into actual WWE storylines: Reigning champ Lesnar was reaching the end of his contract with the company, eyeing a return to UFC and letting the real-life drama of his decision play out on, and off, TV. His “advocate” and mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, threatened McMahon on-air that Brock may just unify the WWE and UFC titles, alluding to a possible jumping of ship by the champion. And rumors swirled online that McMahon and Lesnar had words during actual negotiations, leading Lesnar to storm out of an episode of Raw. Lesnar’s contract status threatened to overshadow his match with Reigns at WrestleMania – until he made a surprise appearance on ESPN’s SportsCenter to announce he had re-signed with WWE, a huge coup for a product that usually is ignored by the mainstream media. The announcement was hardly even mentioned as a wrestling storyline and seemed true to the games played during an actual athlete’s contract negotiations. His new deal also became a sign of a guaranteed WrestleMania win as smart fans predicted the night’s results. They knew how this type of event chain usually plays out. The good news is that it didn’t happen.
When WrestleMania came to close last night in Santa Clara, California, and a young upstart named Seth Rollins celebrated his new Championship after crashing the title match with his “Money in the Bank” clause, he may have technically been victorious, but the true winner was the rebirth of kayfabe. The night played out in traditional wrestling form, with the almost 77,000 in attendance, including myself, enjoying the festivities at face value. Gone were the winks of self-awareness or insider trading, replaced by dramatic wrestling matches and engaging personalities.
Bryan started the night off with a win – and the first concession to the complaining fan – becoming the new Intercontinental Champion in a dazzling Ladder Match and hopefully throwing him back into the mix of relevance starting with tonight’s WWE Raw. John Cena defeated Rusev in a throwback USA vs. Russia rivalry that felt so much like a Hogan vs. Nikolai Volkoff match from the ’80s that they included Ronald Reagan in Cena’s video intro. Before he became the new champion, Rollins faced Randy Orton in the night’s most technically impressive matchup, telling an intriguing story as the two professionals showed off their undeniable skills. Triple H defeated Sting, bringing out old guards like Hulk Hogan’s NWO and D-X, the Rock ranted against the Authority with the help of front-row fan Ronda Rousey and the Undertaker pinned Bray Wyatt in a slow-paced, straightforward match that reminded me of my preteen days parked in front of my parents’ TV screen. There was no celebrity thrown into the mix for no reason (shouts to Snooki and Donald Trump), no need to cloud the spectacle of the night by adding a layer of self reference for the jaded fan and, most importantly, no need to break kayfabe. WrestleMania was a success largely because it was actually about the wrestling.
The crowd inside Levi’s Stadium celebrated this by being one of the first pay-per-view audiences in recent memory to not audibly crap on the product in the ring. Sure, Reigns heard his share of negativity as he prepared for his match, but through hard work and heart, he had the audience cheering for his comeback before he ultimately came up short – something we just didn’t see coming. Fans didn’t continuously chant for CM Punk, a wrestler who recently walked from a lucrative WWE contract last year, signed with UFC and is now entangled in a connected defamation lawsuit that promises to get ugly soon. The rebellion against the WWE as a company and creative entity was put on hold, mostly because they delivered a magnificent product for both purists and causal fans, one that paid tribute to the art form that was recently lost in snark.
Whether or not the purism continues is yet to be seen. The online gossip and moments of reality will obviously pop up again, maybe even tonight during the follow-up live Raw in San Jose. But hopefully WWE saw the positive reaction that came from just producing an awesome wrestling show without succumbing to viewers looking to pick apart the magic. In 2015, it’s hard to believe kayfabe still has a place in sports entertainment, but after a month of learning too much, it was nice to just sit back and lose myself in the spectacle of WrestleMania once again.