BloatedMania: Is this the year of the undercard?

In the old WWF days of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and King Kong Bundy, it was perfectly normal to see a main event bout go no longer than 15 minutes. Hogan dispatched of King Kong Bundy at WrestleMania 2 in just 11 minutes. A year later he slammed Andre and won one of Pro Wrestling’s biggest main events ever in just 12. The longest match on that WrestleMania III card was–you guessed it–the Intercontinental Championship bout between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat. The “IC” title was already getting a reputation as the “workhorse” belt, to be defended and fought over by the faster, more athletic superstars of the era. Yet the match lasted less than 15 minutes. In the modern era, the number two match on the card would be assured at least 20, with 25 not unheard of. Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels tore the roof off of WrestleMania 21 (in a match that was probably 4th or 5th most important on the card). That match lasted 27 minutes and could have gone for another 10 without anyone complaining (except for Vince backstage).

Times changed from the 1980’s, and as talent became more athletic, the ability to work longer matches, and keep the crowd entertained became the norm. Fans became used to longer, more epic-feeling contests, and with a roster of talent that was growing not only in number but also in starpower, WrestleMania’s average running time moved from a “two and a half, to three hour” length, to a “near four hour” length. The exception was WrestleMania XX, which was so loaded with marquee feuds and historic underpinnings that the show was stretched to a whopping (and exhausting) five hour length. Even the rabid fans who packed Madison Square Garden could not sustain their energy throughout the evening (though they gave it a great effort).

After WrestleMania 20, the show of shows settled into a groove of providing a four hour event every year, but along the way the card has gotten smaller while the length of the show has stayed the same. As WrestleMania became an event in and of itself the actual “wrestling” gave way to the “mania” and as such, only a handful of the top matches each year get a lot of time devoted to them. That seems fair, on the surface, however, since it is those top matches that people paid to see. They should get their money’s worth, after all. But what works in conception, isn’t working in execution.

Consider a few WrestleMania events:wrestlemania-17-logo


Arguably the biggest Mania of them all, and one of WWF’s greatest shows ever presented.

11 matches made up the main card, with the shortest lasting under 3 minutes, and the longest (the much-hyped main event) going almost 30. There were five matches that received the most attention on WWF TV in the weeks leading up to the event, and each of them received at least 14 minutes of wrestling time.

  • Kurt Angle vs Chris Benoit, in a contest between two of the best technical workers in the world also went 14 minutes
  • Shane vs Vince, in a McMahon vs McMahon brawl went 14 minutes
  • The second TLC Tag Title match was given almost 16 minutes
  • Triple H vs Undertaker, in the top-billed non-title match, went nearly 20
  • As already mentioned, Rock vs Austin, in one of the biggest main events in pro wrestling history, was allowed almost 30.

The other six matches that comprised the undercard went between 2 and 9 minutes, with most going about 8.

It was a very well-paced card, though a couple of the matches were rushed. All in all the 3 hour and 45 minute show had about 127 minutes of wrestling time. That left 98 minutes to be reserved for video packages, elaborate entrances, etc. For a show that–despite its name–is supposed to be the pinnacle of “Sports ENTERTAINMENT” every year, that’s a nice balance of wrestling and filler.

wrestlemania-19-logo
The most star-studded uppercard in WrestleMania history.

9 matches made up the main card, with the shortest lasting 5 minutes, and the longest (Shawn Michaels’ Mania return) going 22. As with Mania 17, there were five matches that received the most attention on WWE TV in the weeks leading up to the event, and each of them received at least 18 minutes (rounding up) of match time, an increase of four minutes from Mania 17.

  • HBK vs Y2J was “Mr. WrestleMania’s” return to the show after 5 years away and was given 22 minutes
  • Triple H vs Booker T in the first of two world title matches went almost 19 minutes
  • Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan fought against the backdrop of their 20 year history, in a match that went 20 minutes
  • Rock and Austin met at Mania one last time, in Stone Cold’s retirement match. It went a healthy 18 minutes
  • The main event of Kurt Angle vs Brock Lesnar showcased two of the most proficient technical wrestlers in the company. They went 21 minutes

The other four matches that comprised the undercard went between 5 and almost 10 minutes.

There is a reason this show is looked at so favorably, despite tepid buys at the time. It’s pound-for-pound a wrestling fan’s dream card. There were 131 minutes of wrestling on the 3 hour and 45 minute show. It had more wrestling than Mania 17, though only by four minutes, yet it is viewed as such a loaded card. The reason is because the undercard was given time to breathe. There may have been two fewer matches than at Mania 17, but there weren’t any 10 second rollup wins or 2 minute squashes. As such, it felt like the whole show mattered. As great as the balance of wrestling and filler was at Mania 17, this one was even better.

wrestlemania-21-logo
The first Mania of the next generation.

WrestleMania 20, which ended with Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit celebrating world title victories, was about honoring the past. WrestleMania 21 (wherein neither Eddie nor Chris were anywhere near the main event) was about deciding the future. Only 8 matches were featured on the main card, with the shortest lasting only a paltry minute long, and the longest going 27.

Of curious note is that the WWE title match received only 11 minutes of match time; this is because of the extra time that went into the Angle vs Michaels match (which was originally slotted for 20, but Michaels refused to wrap it up because they were flat out stealing the show). Also, though it was not a huge match in the US, the Big Show vs Akebono match was designed to draw great interest in Japan. It only went 1 minute but it was not a standard wrestling match. Instead it was a sumo contest (and an embarrassing one at that).

This show was laid out like the prototype of Manias to follow. Almost every match, apart from–naturally–the Divas contest, received a lot of hype, and all featured main-event level superstars. The show lasted 225 minutes with only 108 minutes devoted to the actual in ring action. Despite the lengthy masterpiece that was Angle vs Michaels, the fact that over 2 hours was devoted to “filler” was a disappointment for sure.

wrestlemania-24-logo


The stadium-sized spectacle.

9 matches made up the main card, with the shortest only lasting 11 seconds, and the longest going 24. This was the second show in a row to be held in a football stadium since Mania 17-19. After those shows, Manias 21 and 22 were held in smaller arenas but with business stable on John Cena’s shoulders, WWE decided to make WrestleMania a stadium show, annually. This show would be the first to feature a one-off appearance by someone working a match. Floyd Mayweather, one of the biggest box office draws in boxing squared off against Big Show. In years to follow, there would be part-timers Undertaker (Mania’s 27-30+), Rock (WM28-29), and Batista (WM30) following that trend.

The show was built around four matches, ranging from 11 to 24 minutes in length;

  • Shawn Michaels retired Ric Flair in an emotional 20 minute match
  • Raw’s three biggest champions of the modern era met in a triple threat, as John Cena, Randy Orton and Triple H had a mostly forgettable 14 minute contest
  • Floyd Mayweather and Big Show used a lot of smoke and mirrors but managed to entertain the crowd for all of their 11 minutes of bell time
  • The main event, featuring Undertaker finally getting his revenge on Edge, was given the most time, with 24 minutes devoted to the action

The undercard, unlike at Mania 19 (where each match had time to work) and unlike at Mania 21 (where there really wasn’t one), was disjointed; at times it was exciting, such as the 15 minute ladder match, and at times it was pedestrian (the short Batista vs Umaga match, for example). And at times it was stupid (Kane’s quick victory over Chavo Guerrero was over in less time than it takes for Kane to summon his ringside pyro). Because the undercard was largely forgettable, it was up to the few top matches to carry the card. Because of that, there was an unbalanced feel to the event.

Despite the sparseness of the undercard, the show went 233 minutes, but it only featured a little over 100 minutes of wrestling. The show was longer than Mania 21, but had 8 minutes less bell-to-bell action, in large part because the undercard was not treated with care and those lower matches were hurried through in order to get back to various backstage skits and segments that fans have never cared much for.

wrestlemania-26-logo

Mania 24 done better

10 matches–the most since WrestleMania 22–were featured on the main card, with times ranging from 3 minutes to 24 minutes. Unlike at Mania 24, this show gave more time to the undercard, which spread the action throughout the show, making for a much more balanced presentation.

The show was built around four matches:

  • Bret Hart finally got his revenge against Mr. McMahon in an 11 minute beatdown that felt awkward after 3 and sad after 8
  • Edge and Chris Jericho sparred over the World Title in a great 16 minute matchup between Attitude Era mid-carders turned main-eventers
  • John Cena and Batista locked up in their first WWE title match (and only their second marquee match ever) in a main-event worthy bout that only went 13 minutes
  • Undertaker tombstoned HBK into retirement in a marvelous 24 minute main event

The remaining six matches featured big names and rising stars, with the shortest of them being a 3 minute tag title match that should have been given more time. The longest match of the undercard was the last WrestleMania edition of the Money in the Bank ladder match (it went almost 14 minutes). Set that one aside and Triple H vs Sheamus’ 12 minute battle would have been the longest of the non-marquee matches.

Like with Mania 24 there was a lot of attention paid to several uppercard matches, but the difference was a greater focus on the midcard matches. Overall the event lasted 234 minutes with about 112 devoted to wrestling. The split was still not 50/50 and more time was spent away from the matches than in them, but it was better than the time breakdown at Manias 21 and 24. The extra time paid to the undercard, however, made the show feel like a true “wrestling” event.

This show would end up being an anomaly, as the shows in years preceding and following would have an even worse match/filler breakdown. Notice the downward trend among the Manias not covered in length here…

Mania 22 – 11 matches, 118 minutes of wrestling on a 233 minute show (3 minutes more wrestling than filler)
Mania 23 – 8 matches, 108 minutes of wrestling on a 221 minute show (5 more minutes of filler than wrestling)
Mania 25 – 8 matches, 112 minutes of wrestling on a 237 minute show (13 more minutes of filler than wrestling)
Mania 27 – 8 matches, 106 minutes of wrestling on a 239 minute show (27 more minutes of filler than wrestling)

wrestlemania-28-logo


A main event so big, little else mattered (or was allowed to).

Despite the downward trend with WrestleMania becoming more “mania” than “wrestle” a funny thing happened around WrestleMania 28: The show came to be built entirely around one “wrestling” match. A year was spent hyping the contest between John Cena and the Rock and when it finally came time for them to lock up, they wrestled for a full half-hour. Despite the fact that Rock was gassed halfway through the match, the thinking was that the match was so big it deserved to go as long as possible. A 20 minute match would have made more sense from a “booker’s” perspective (the tickets are already bought, so book the most exciting match) but 30 minutes made more sense from an “investment” perspective (a lot of money was spent to bring us Rock vs Cena, the fans need to see as much as possible).

As had become the standard, the show featured 8 matches. Of those, four were highly touted. One of them was the now-infamous 18 second squash of Daniel Bryan by Sheamus. The other was CM Punk’s debut to the WrestleMania “main event” (though not actually) stage as he defended his WWE title against Jericho in a solid 22 minute wrestling contest. Triple H and Undertaker settled their score from a year prior in a 30 minute Hell in a Cell match (wherein a good 10 minutes was spent with both guys lying on the floor selling their big moves). The aforementioned Rock/Cena clash took up the final half hour of the show. Actually, I should correct myself: the actual “wrestling” of the match took 30 minutes. In fact, apart from a brief display of WWE’s special brand of racism (featuring a mini-army of large-bottomed black women dancing and jiving to Brodus Clay), the ENTIRE last hour of the show was devoted to Rock vs. Cena. Apart from the thirty minute match, was an additional thirty minutes of pyro, ballyhoo and mini-rock concerts.

As for the undercard, the remaining four matches ranged from 5 to 11 minutes. Normally that would be fine, but when you consider that it was a title match that got the short-end of the stick this year, it kind of cancels out a stronger focus on the midcard. All in all the show lasted 231 minutes, with 116 devoted to wrestling. In other words, the show was split evenly, 50/50 between wrestling and filler. But considering the main event was booked too long, and there was about 20 minutes of prematch nonsense that could have been cut, more time could have been given to other matches, notably the opening 18 second title match. The show received average-to-good reviews, but you have to think that if Sheamus and Daniel Bryan were given 17 minutes to work the opening bout, and if the Rock/Cena contest had been trimmed, the show would have been even more strongly received.

wrestlemania-30-logo
What midcard?

WrestleMania 30 will go down among the better Manias WWE has presented, but it will be one better remember for its big moments than its great matches (apart from the opening and closing contests). Like with Mania 21, there really wasn’t an undercard to speak of. Every match was one that was hyped and featured top level competitors (other than the Divas match). Even the Battle Royal, usually a staple of the 1980’s as a way of getting everyone on the card, was promoted heavily, featured big named competitors and was hyped up by the host of the show, Hulk Hogan himself.

The show only had 7 matches, with the shortest being a 3 minute squash by The Shield, and the longest being the play-in match between Triple H and Daniel Bryan (which really was the spiritual main event, even if–due to the nature of the booking–it couldn’t close the show). There were 120 minutes of wrestling on the show that used up almost every minute of it’s 4 hour runtime. It was a 50/50 split yet it only had 7 matches (one of which was a squash, and the other was an always short divas match).

The days of WrestleMania 3, which had a dozen matches (only two of which crossed the ten minute mark), are long gone. Superstars can work longer matches, but with literally half the show devoted to filler the midcard is getting the shaft. Granted, some of the filler is necessary: The grand setting of WrestleMania deserves big elaborate entrances. Some of the filler, however is entirely pointless: Wrestlers playing Slam City, for example, would be a waste of time on Raw, much less WrestleMania.

Having said that, there was not a LOT of filler on WrestleMania 30. If anything, this was one time when some of the matches might have been trimmed in order to allow for a proper undercard match. Cena vs Wyatt especially seemed to drag and easily could have lost 5 minutes. Also Undertaker vs Lesnar, though it suffered more to Undertaker’s concussion than the match time, still could have lost 5 minutes as well. That’s 10 minutes to give to a United States or an IC title match.

Again, the problem isn’t that this show managed to achieve a 50/50 split between wrestling and filler, it was that a better booked show could have had more wrestling and less filler.

20141022_WM31_EVENT_LOGO_2


Revenge of the undercard

This year things look different. Though many fans are expecting disappointment, that is a feeling only focused on the main event. If last year’s Mania was about “moments not matches” this year’s Mania looks to reverse that. The card itself looks jam-packed with what should be, IF GIVEN TIME, some great contests.

I am confident, because the circumstances that led to Mania 30 having so few matches take up so much time are not present this year. Last year 50 minutes of wrestling was devoted to the opening and closing contests, the star of which was Daniel Bryan. He was the workhorse with years of experience wrestling in long matches and holding his stamina. His opponents, Orton and Triple H, could do likewise (let’s ignore Batista, though he held his own in the triple threat). Lesnar vs Undertaker might have been a classic but we’ll never know because of the early concussion. Nevertheless the 25 minute time allotted to them wasn’t altered on the fly, so both men slogged through an increasingly dull affair. This year, neither Bray Wyatt nor Undertaker have any business being in a 25 minute match; Bray is best in the 17-20 minute range, and Taker probably doesn’t need to exceed that either.

Cena’s match with Rusev feels like it will be more about the USA vs Russia gimmick, and that lends itself to a 15 minute contest with plenty of extra-curricular activity before and afterward.

While Triple H put on his best wrestlemania match in a decade last year, he had a white hot and talented Daniel Bryan as his dance partner. Sting, circa 2015 is no Daniel Bryan. Triple H will be carrying the WCW legend in a match that has no business being any longer than 20 minutes. It probably should be less, but they will add enough smoke and mirrors to cover for Sting’s limitations, while still giving fans plenty of “Sting in a WWE ring” to soak up.

The main-event last year was a wonderfully paced 25 minute affair (though the first half featured a crowd still hungover from 21-1), and it deserved every second it was given. This year features Lesnar vs Reigns. The former has never called a match in his life and the latter has only been wrestling at all for 5 years (and WrestleMania will only be his third singles match on PPV…ever). It’s likely to be a no-DQ brawl with little fluidity happening in the ring, and those can only sustain the crowd for so long. Expect that one to be no more 18-20 minutes.

It might not seem like it, but the matches this year look to be leaner and meaner than last year. With the exception of the Triple H match (which will be saved by the novelty of it) and the main event (which has little chance of being saved), every match looks to be improved upon from last year to this.

The card (not counting the preshow, which I figure will feature the tag title match) as I see it leaves plenty of room for everyone, upper card and lower card, to put on a great show.

8. Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns – 19 minutes
7. Triple H vs Sting – 20 minutes
6. Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt – 20 minutes
5. AJ & Paige vs Bella Twins – 10 minutes
4. John Cena vs Rusev – 15 minutes
3. Intercontinental Title Ladder Match – 15 minutes
2. Randy Orton vs Seth Rollins – 14 minutes
1. Andre the Giant Battle Royal – 12 minutes

That’s 125 minutes of wrestling, on par with WrestleMania 25, and depending on how much of the four hour run-time they use, would feature more wrestling than filler.

On a show that looks to disappoint when it comes to big moments (at least where the main event is concerned), a stronger reliance on the in-ring product might be in order. Heavy hype will be given to the WWE and US title matches, as well as the Undertaker and Sting contests. The undercard will be greatly enhanced by the Orton vs Rollins grudge, a renewed focus on Divas action, what should be a great IC ladder match, and the return of last year’s popular Battle Royal.

If WWE plays its cards right, and gives its undercard a chance to breathe, it might surprise a lot of skeptical fans and give us a WrestleMania we look back on as one of the better shows in recent memory.

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