Television

Highs and Lows from WrestleMania 38

While good, WWE is best enjoyed in the same fashion as a traveling circus.

I need to be honest here. I’m not a WWE fan.

I am a pro wrestling fan. A huge one, in fact. But I haven’t watched a lick of WWE programming since 2017 outside of the few clips I’ve run across online. Even when I was regularly watching, I don’t know that I enjoyed it that much. There were moments back then I remember fondly, for sure (Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho’s program comes to mind). But sadly, most of the good parts are overshadowed by all the times I felt insulted as a fan. Or, even worse, punished for even caring at all. It was unhealthy, and I was hate-watching. So I stopped.

That being said, I decided to give this year’s WrestleMania a chance out of a sense of duty, albeit one I and I alone have placed upon myself. Because if you’re going to write about wrestling, you need to write about WrestleMania – there’s nothing bigger. And despite not knowing any of the storylines heading into the most “stupendous” (why?) WrestleMania of all time, I must say…I kind of liked it.

Thinking about this for the last few days, I’ve come to this conclusion: WWE is best enjoyed the same way one enjoys the circus; it’s cool to see them once a year when they come to town, but if you were to follow them around constantly, taking in their performance night after night, you’d find the clowns quickly get annoying and the guy juggling chainsaws isn’t all that impressive. And after dozens and dozens of performances, you’d sit in the crowd with glazed-over eyes, asking yourself, “What the hell am I doing?”

So I’m done with WWE till next year’s WrestleMania. But before we get there, let’s talk about the highs and lows of this year’s outing from Dallas, Texas.

High: The Celebrities

Celebrities have always had a place in WWE and WrestleMania specifically. Some good, some bad. But it ain’t never been like this. This weekend, we may have witnessed the greatest celebrity performances in wrestling’s history.
Let’s start with Logan Paul. In an alternate universe somewhere, Logan Paul took up pro wrestling earlier and transformed into a modern-day Ric Flair. Yeah…the dude was that damn good. The most impressive part about him was he looked like he was fighting, not performing. Which is the entire point of pro wrestling. Not only that, there were a ton of little things, too, that showed he put in the work. He played to the hard cam like a 10-year vet. His facial expressions were on point. His gear looked incredible. And that Eddie Guerrero sequence is the most heelish thing I’ve seen in years (he even took his time on the suplexes to soak in the boos). Whatever it is that makes someone a star, Logan Paul has it in spades. Hopefully, this isn’t the last time we see him in the squared circle, and judging by the post-match antics of The Miz, it’s looking like it won’t be. But good luck getting fans to cheer Paul if that’s indeed where this thing is headed. That dude is an atom bomb of heat, and there’s nothing he can do to get wrestling fans to cheer him. So embrace the dark side, Mr. Paul. Wrestling always needs bad guys.

As much as I love a good technical showcase, with both competitors matching each other hold for hold and counter for counter, there’s a place for comedy in wrestling if it’s done well. But there’s doing it well, and then there’s putting on a masterpiece, which is precisely what Sami Zayn and Johnny Knoxville delivered. It was, quite literally, a live version of Jackass, complete with ball shots and tasers and folks getting decked in the face with objects, including a giant swinging hand. And the absurdity only ratcheted up throughout the match, culminating in Knoxville utilizing a giant mousetrap to get the victory – a move that, despite its stupidity, somehow still makes sense seeing as Knoxville didn’t physical dominate Sami Zayn. He outsmarted him. Which works. This match was so good that I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue it was the match of the weekend. I won’t make that argument here because I don’t believe it was, but I could buy the reasoning. In terms of comedy, this was Savage vs. Steamboat level of excellence, and it’s something folks are going to remember for years to come.

Judging by the crowd reaction alone, Pat McAfee is a top 5 superstar in WWE. Seriously. After Stone Cold and Cody Rhodes, was there a more giant pop for any superstar other than McAfee? Maybe Bianca and Becky? Maybe. The crowd was into this match throughout the entire thing, and McAfee delivered. His backflip off the top, followed by his jump back onto the top turnbuckle, was a thing of beauty and something I’ve only seen a few other wrestlers pull off as gracefully. And again, like Paul, he gets what wrestling is supposed to be, and the crowd went bananas for his win. What happened next was a complete clusterfuck of a situation, but we’ll talk about that later.

High: Cody Rhodes is Back Where He Belongs

The worst kept secret in wrestling finally happened on Saturday with Cody Rhodes returning to the WWE after a six-year absence to face Seth Rollins in what was my match of the weekend. I’ve written here on the site how Rhodes, despite being a founding father, never really fit within the universe of AEW (pun intended). No matter what he did there, he was forever an outsider. But he’s home now. And, my God, he looks like a star, doesn’t he? His patented entrance looks bigger and better than ever thanks to the masterful WWE production, and the crowd was firmly behind him which bodes well for his future within the company. Shoutout to Seth Rollins here as well. Judging by the pre-match video package, it looks like he carried the entire feud leading up to this match, and we know how special he is inside the ring. Also, “Welcome back to the big leagues, bitch!” needs to go on a shirt pronto.

If WWE plays their hand right, they have an interesting story to tell here with Cody Rhodes. We’ll see if they get it right.

Low: Roman vs. Brock Falls Flat

I don’t want to be too negative here. And by all means, if you enjoyed the main event, don’t let anything I say here diminish your enjoyment. There’s different strokes for different folks, and that should be celebrated. But this didn’t do it for me at all. Instead, it epitomizes the one thing that forced me to quit watching years ago: the matches – the actual bell to bell action inside the ring – is of the least importance and only stand to get in the way of what the WWE cares about more, those being the entrances and promos. Even the costumes at times take on a greater importance than the wrestling.

Roman and Brock didn’t build to anything in this match. They simply started in the middle, spamming big move after big move, and none of it was memorable in the slightest. Again, if this is your thing, enjoy the hell out of it, man. Wrestling fandom, particularly now, can be tribal and toxic, and we should let folks enjoy what they enjoy without making a big fuss about it. So I’ll practice what I preach and quit here about this match.

High: Stone Cold is Still Awesome

Stone Cold Steve Austin isn’t just one of the most popular wrestling characters of all time; he’s one of the most popular characters in American television history. Think about it. During the ’90s, when cable television was reaching its peak, Stone Cold was as much a household name as Will Smith or Homer Simpson or anyone from the cast of Seinfeld or Friends. And while his run atop the card wasn’t as long as other wrestling icons, like Hulk Hogan or The Rock, it’s hard to argue that anyone’s star burned brighter than Austin’s. Which is why it was so awesome to see him back inside the ring for one more can of whoop-ass.

This impromptu anything goes match saw Austin playing the hits, which is all he needed to do. And I know this was all about Stone Cold, but we need to give Kevin Owens his flowers, too. Much like Rollins, he carried this entire buildup alone on his back, and he was the perfect opponent for Austin, bumping around like crazy and making the legend look like a million bucks. This felt like the proper sendoff for one of the icons of the art form, and I’m glad I was able to witness it live.

That being said, it is a fairly damning indictment of where WWE is today. Nineteen years after his absence, Stone Cold is still a bigger star than just about anyone else in the company.

Low: Vince McMahon Shouldn’t be on TV

Now that we got the rush of nostalgia out of the way for the Texas Rattlesnake, let’s discuss the awful dredge that was the coda to McAfee vs. Theory. I understand the idea behind this. You have Stone Cold in the building, and you want to give the people one last snippet of Austin vs. McMahon – a rivalry that helped define an entire era of wrestling. I get that. But there’s a better way to do it than what they went with.

Wrestling requires a suspension of disbelief, and when you have something as blatant as a 70-something-year-old man beating up a dude who we just saw put on a supreme athletic performance and is four decades younger, how am I not supposed to respond to that with anything other than anger? You might as well be holding up a huge sign that reads, “All this is bullshit, you idiots.” If my intelligence isn’t going to be respected enough to at least present me with a scenario that seems plausible, something that might actually happen if this was a legitimate contest, then why the hell should I care? And we haven’t even mentioned Vince’s terrible stunner sell, which, if you’re keeping score, was instantly catapulted to the very top of the worst stunner sell of all-time list.

Look, maybe I take this stuff too seriously. It’s possible. But Vince McMahon’s segment Sunday is precisely the type of thing folks point to when they try to downplay the artistic merit of professional wrestling as low brow. And we’d be better off if we didn’t give those folks any more ammo. They have plenty.

High: Bianca and Becky Deliver

Having not watched WWE in a while, I’d never actually seen a Bianca Belair match. I knew she was the girl with the hair just from the random snippets I caught online, but this was the first time watching a match of hers live. And I gotta say, she’s a bonafide star. She’s got it all. The athleticism. The appearance. The babyface fire during comebacks. It’s all there.

Belair couldn’t have done it alone, though. She needed a good dance partner, and Becky Lynch also delivered a big-time performance. These two had great chemistry and turned in the 2nd best match of the weekend, only slightly behind Rhodes vs. Rollins.

And not to get too political or philosophically here, but WWE currently has three Black women as champions. That’s a big deal. Representation matters.

Rapid Fire Random Thoughts

  • The Brantley Gilbert performance to kick off Night One was dreadful. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but that sucked.
  • I need Dave Meltzer to find out the pyro budget for WrestleMania. It’s gotta be in the millions, right? No one does spectacle quite like WWE.
  • Those floating, cartoony-looking animations shown during entrances are, literally, the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. Who thought those looked cool?
  • If we’re ranking wrestlers in terms of in-ring influence on the art form, Rey Mysterio is in the Top 5. No question. He’s the greatest luchador of all time, and his fingerprints are all over the modern-day wrestling style.
  • Edge vs. AJ Styles was a bit of a letdown. If it had taken place a dozen years ago, those guys would’ve torn the house down. It’s a shame we didn’t get it back then.
  • So…are we just okay with the fact that Drew McIntyre committed attempted murder? He literally swung a sword at another man’s head. I get that in reality it was a rubber sword, but in kayfabe, he just tried to kill someone. And no one did anything about it.
  • Your reaction to Charlotte vs. Rousey says a lot about how you view professional wrestling. If you thought it sucked or was somehow “off,” you like your wrestling to resemble more of a choreographed dance. If you thought it was good, you want your wrestling to look like more of a legitimate fight. Consider me in the latter camp. That match would have looked right at home in Memphis during the 1980s.
  • I’ll probably be dead wrong about this, but Gable Steveson doesn’t have it. He got not one but two stand-alone segments during WrestleMania, and it’s clear the WWE brass see him as the next big superstar. But, judging solely on this weekend, I don’t see it. And he should have kept his shirt on.
  • Amos is worse than the Great Khali.
  • The announcers’ incessant need to say Seth Freakin’ Rollins EVERY SINGLE TIME was annoying as hell and almost caused me to mute the television.
  • WWE should take a page from the Super Bowl and embrace the event’s history by incorporating numbers into the branding. This was the 38th year for WrestleMania, yet it wasn’t found on the logo anywhere. I don’t know if it was even mentioned during the broadcast. That seems like a missed opportunity. Nowadays, perhaps more than ever, people have an appreciation for the past. It’s why sites like Ancestery.com and 23 & Me and antique stores and vintage clothing have become so popular in recent years. If it’s good enough for the NFL, it’s good enough for the WWE.

That’s all I got, folks.

Overall, it was an enjoyable weekend of pro wrestling sports entertainment. I’ll enjoy my 364 days away from the WWE, and I’ll see you when the circus rolls back around next year.

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