Unlike the winding path that WWE’s caravans have taken from the Royal Rumble up until this point, I will not be grading 2015’s road to WrestleMania on a curve. That might not be good news for some of the storylines that have been foisted upon us over the past few months, but just like the late, great Jack Tunney, I’m stern – but fair.
So, as we barrel down the homestretch to Sunday’s Showcase of the Immortals, here are my grades for the build-ups to all nine matches on the card, beginning with the preshow’s tag-team turmoil and ending with the Lesnar/Reigns main event that, over the past 48 hours, has certainly become a lot more interesting.
Which feuds made the grade, and which should be held back in Professor McMahon’s remedial wrestling program? Here’s my take.
The Usos vs. Los Matadores vs. Cesaro and Kidd vs. New Day (Tag-Team Title Match)
How, exactly, does New Day decide who gets to wrestle on any given night, let alone at ‘Mania? Flip of a coin? Toss of a kerchief? Sermon battle? On this night, the honors go to Big E and Kofi Kingston, two former Intercontinental champs. In other woods, sucks to be Xavier Woods. The most noteworthy addition to this mix, surprisingly, has been Los Matadores, who’ve played heel-foils and interspecies faces alike in ostensibly replacing the Ascension and regaining relevancy. The Usos have been limited a bit of late due to Jey’s shoulder injury, but Cesaro and Kidd have held it down atop the division, providing spot after spot and constantly progressing with their tandem gimmick. It’s hard to see the duo losing, and we don’t know what we’ll get from a partly hobbled Usos, but it sure tops, say, Adam Rose vs. the Bunny as an opening act. Road Gauge: C+
AJ Lee and Paige vs. The Bella Twins
There may be more intrigue here around how much time they’ll be allotted than the outcome, per se. They got an ample stretch of TV on Monday’s Raw, and delivered the goods. Of course, after that match, one suspects a rift might officially fissure between partners AJ and Paige. Their oddball alliance has seemed a bit contrived, but a hasty split would be equally unmeasured. That conundrum aside, it’s a shame that primary emphasis hasn’t been placed on Nikki Bella’s Divas Championship on a night when the other major singles titles are being held in the highest regard. It’s still a big spot for these women, coming off the buzz of #GiveDivasAChance and a subsequently brighter TV spotlight. And, whether they’ve got five or 15 minutes, they’ll make them count. I’m just not that invested in the foursome’s collective squabble. Road Gauge: B-
Bray Wyatt vs. The Undertaker
I’m not too keen on the notion of Undertaker making an annual appearance merely to silence whatever fool dare summon him from beyond the grave. It could be argued that the yearly anticipation over whether the Dead Man will rise is more exciting than the execution of a one-sided, slapdash feud. In fact, Mark Calaway may, like Rocky, have experienced his noblest triumph going out in defeat to Brock Lesnar last year (unless you’re more of a Rocky IV stickler). All credit to Bray Wyatt, who’s an heir apparent to ‘Taker’s aura in many ways and is accustomed to speaking in tongues about unseen demons. But the harshest truth is that ‘Taker’s brief, voicemail acceptance of Bray’s challenge was far more scintillating than weeks of Wyatt’s inscrutable séances. At minimum, it’s guaranteed the Phenom knows how to make an entrance, and his arrival is the closest thing this card may have to pure, potential spectacle. Road Gauge: C
Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal
If Bray’s motivation (I guess) is to face and conquer the bogeyman, the second-annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal needs to shake the ghost of 2014. That’s when Cesaro toppled all challengers, took home the trophy, claimed Paul Heyman as his manager and, not long after, experienced a prolonged plunge down the card that seemed bottomless until his kismet union with Tyson Kidd. Folks have dumped on what they deem a pitiful field of “jobbers” and Superstars regulars crowding the competition, but to quote RS interviewee the Brooklyn Brawler, there’s no such thing as a jobber in 2015, because “they’re all workhorses.” That’s not the issue. What curbs my enthusiasm is having no feel for what’s on the line, apart from an abstract sense of pride in honoring the match’s namesake. The saving grace is how WWE’s bundled a potential Miz/Mizdow payoff into the fray, and the addition of a rising NXT talent to the field should help, but possible Sheamus return notwithstanding, it’s otherwise a fairly colorless free-for-all. Road Gauge: B-
Seth Rollins vs. Randy Orton
Man, was this bungled. They (i.e. whomever books/writes this stuff) punted Randy Orton’s return with some convoluted plot to “infiltrate” the Authority, and this long-awaited blowoff cooled before it could even warm up for WrestleMania. Too many chess moves, entirely too much J&J and Kane and Big Show, not enough passion and a general botching of Orton’s latest face turn have really soured fans of what should have been a can’t miss ‘Mania winner. Like many, I’ve been more concentrated on how Rollins might factor into the main event. Though admittedly, that might be by design to catch me off guard when he and Orton tear the house down in the middle of the pack. Here’s hoping. Road Gauge: F
John Cena vs. Rusev (U.S. Title Match)
This is purely subjective, depending on whether you go in for nationalist rhetoric or think it’s patronizing and monotonous. Or, for a good percentage of WWE fans, none of that matters so long as Lana is present in requisite micro-skirt and blazer. I, for one, don’t despise Super-Cena nearly as much as Captain America Cena (or his “stunt penis“), and I’m anxious to see Rusev evolve after he’s exhausted all his heat from stirring up an imaginary Cold War. Yet, it would be shortsighted to overlook that this has been one of the purest builds of any clash on the card, and it could very well top Brock vs. Roman for pure physicality. It’s definitely personal, even if I think what they’re fighting for is silly, and the outcome is a real head-scratcher to call. Such unpredictability in itself is a win. Road Gauge: B+
Sting vs. Triple H
As Jim Ross opined with us months back, there isn’t much assembly required to construct a successful story between these two. In other words, how do you fuck this up? You don’t, and WWE didn’t. It’s a bit odd that Sting’s basically been untouched throughout he and Triple H’s song-and-dance that commenced at Survivor Series. More worthy of discussion is how the Vigilante’s charisma is fully intact, he’s still wielding that black bat, Triple H’s history on the ‘Mania stage speaks for itself and both of these gentlemen’s entrances could give ‘Taker’s a run for its money in the chills department. In fact, the good vibes going into this one are so uncontrived that the perfectly serviceable narrative about Sting on the hunt to redeem 14 years of unanswered injustice is merely perfunctory. Enough games. Time to play. Road Gauge: A
Wade Barrett vs. Daniel Bryan vs. R-Truth vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Luke Harper vs. Stardust vs. Dean Ambrose (Intercontinental Title Ladder Match)
Monday’s go-home Raw went a long way toward stirring excitement around this one. No matter who wins, the seeds have been planted for myriad rivalries for – and in pursuit of – the long-underserved IC title. That alone might be the minor miracle that’s come from all this chaos. It’s also a reason not to panic if your favorite underdog (i.e. Bryan or Ziggler), hard-working eccentric (Ambrose) or woe-begotten incumbent (Barrett) doesn’t successfully ascend that ladder and untether the strap first. Of any ‘Mania match, this is the one that most screams for a bucket of popcorn, suspension of disbelief and willingness to be amazed, and there’s been plenty of indication all seven men are ready to make that sacrifice for the greater good of Intercontinental lore. Sure, it’s still a bummer that Stardust and Goldust were separated, and it’s definitely unclear how R-Truth wound up so central in the past month’s drama. And, yes (no pun intended), it’s too bad Bryan was a no for the Heavyweight clash. Boo-hoo, I say, because the main-event’s loss hasn’t been without gain. Road Gauge: B+
Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns (World Heavyweight Championship Title Match)
There have been two lives for this showdown: Pre-Brock Lesnar’s Tuesday night announcement that he’s re-signing with WWE, and everything since. Suddenly, Monday’s anticlimactic Raw meeting between he and Roman Reigns is less cop-out than knowing wink to the fact that Lesnar had no intentions of going anywhere or ceding his title to anyone. He didn’t need to say that then, nor was he obligated to mark his territory with a show of force after Reigns wrested the belt from his hands. The basic message that Paul Heyman’s been conveying on Lesnar’s behalf is that Roman Reigns is no Undertaker, that it’s practically an insult to suggest this ex-Shield upstart can slay the Beast. Thus, he’ll quietly and convincingly go about his business when the bell rings at ‘Mania, and not a moment before. That’s fair, but not even considerable dollops of Heyman’s histrionics can obscure the lack of anything non-circumstantial bringing these two nose-to-nose. And keeping them at arm’s length since Fastlane didn’t cultivate interest so much as create a vacuum for naysayers and trolls. That’s all the past now, because as of this week, it’s common knowledge that Brock is staying put for some time, thus making it a truly fascinating open end as to whether Roman’s future is now. Road Gauge: B