Why did some WrestleManias succeed where others stumbled?

You might assume that with so much hype behind each road to WrestleMania, many of the events tend to fail in living up to the hype. You might also assume, that roads to WrestleMania that had poor builds tended to end more often than not with a better-than-expected event.

On the former assumption you’d be marginally incorrect; on the latter assumption you’d be spectacularly incorrect.

It is true that some WrestleMania events simply can not measure up to the hype bestowed upon it during the buildup. WrestleMania 20, 25, and 29 come to mind as shows that–while they may have their supporters–are largely viewed as shows that underwhelmed overall.

On the other side of the coin, there has NEVER been a road to WrestleMania that ended up producing a surprisingly good show. To date, every build up that led to lukewarm reception ended up bearing fruit to a disappointing WrestleMania.

What’s the deal? Why did some WrestleManias succeed where others stumbled? Is there a common link between the hits and the misses? When you look back on the past three decades, a few roads to WrestleMania stand out. Even just among the last ten years (2005-2014) there have been five that really worked, and five that didn’t.

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REPLACEMENT EDDIE

2006 featured a road to WrestleMania that required some last minute revising. Originally the plan was for the big show to feature Undertaker vs Batista for the World Heavyweight Championship but that plan was nixed when Batista injured himself in late December. Also, WrestleMania 22 was supposed to showcase Shawn Michaels battling Eddie Guerrero in a match built around both men’s texas roots and personal demons. Unfortunately, the personal demons that Eddie Guerreo had already exercised, finally got the better of the Latino sensation. He died in November.

Never one to let a tragedy go to waste, WWE decided to “honor” Eddie’s memory by getting behind their other hispanic superstar, Rey Mysterio. Rey won the Royal Rumble and entered a program with Randy Orton, built largely around Eddie’s legacy that Rey was trying to celebrate. The feud ended up involving Kurt Angle, who had won Batista’s now-vacant World Heavyweight Championship on a January episode of Smackdown.

By the time WrestleMania 22 came about, fans were so turned off by the exploitation of the beloved Eddie Guerrero, that they turned on both Randy Orton and Rey Mysterio and cheered, ironically, the odd man out in the feud: Kurt Angle. When Rey won the title, he celebrated alongside Chavo Guerrero and Eddie’s wife Vicky, but unfortunately the Chicago crowd rained on the parade with a chorus of boos. It wasn’t Rey’s fault, but the storyline was exploitative and the central babyface wasn’t who the fans wanted to see win.

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POOR EDGE

2010 featured another disappointing feud for the World Heavyweight Championship, although this one started with much more promise. Edge and Chris Jericho had been a popular heel tag team. Their run together was cut short, however, after Edge suffered an injury soon after winning the tag titles. With only one of the two champions on leave, Chris Jericho took the unorthodox approach of bringing in a new partner, while also dismissing all of Edge’s contributions.

Good timing allowed Edge to return as a surprise entrant in the following Royal Rumble. A month later, Chris Jericho won the World Heavyweight Championship, setting up a feud that was almost a year in the making. Jericho’s title win came about as a result of Shawn Michaels interference. Despite their many years as rivals, HBK assisted Jericho in winning as a means to force the Undertaker to face him at WrestleMania. Rarely do so many different storylines have multiple interconnecting twists and turns in such a logical fashion. The World title match at WrestleMania seemed destined to be a classic.

Unfortunately the road to WrestleMania made it a non-starter.

Edge was simply a better heel than he was a babyface (and had been since his main-event run began in 2006) and his triumphant return at the Royal Rumble and feud with uber heel Jericho forced him to play the good guy. His babyface character had gotten stale very soon after his rumble win. He tried to get over a catchphrase “spear! spear! spear!” and though the one word phrase is an easy chant, it never really caught on with the audience. A feud that seemed like a slam dunk never got off the ground and never caught on with the audience in the month of March. By the time WrestleMania rolled around the crowd only barely cared.

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PRAY FOR DEL RIO

2011 played host to the biggest Royal Rumble in history. For the first time forty men would compete for the chance to “main event” (an honor that now encompasses half the matches on the show these days) WrestleMania 27. WWE was in the middle of major slump, struggling mightily to create new stars. Sheamus had been given a WWE title run a couple years prior, but his push was stopped almost as soon as it started. At this point in time he was fighting for the number four title in the company. Wade Barrett had led the Nexus invasion the previous summer and had captured people’s attention, but then SummerSlam 2010 happened and he and the group was essentially buried just as they were ready to be made. The next hope for a new superstar was Alberto Del Rio.

Del Rio had debuted the previous year and quickly shot up the card. He had a strong pedigree, a good look, and the support of the company behind him, but the crowds never really treated him like a main event level superstar. Instead of trying to fix what wasn’t working, WWE just pushed ahead and pushed Del Rio as though he was a top tier player. Their assumption was “if we treat him like a star, the fans will just follow along like good little sheep.” Despite not even being in the company for a year, Del Rio won the Royal Rumble and headed to WrestleMania 27 in a match for Edge’s World Heavyweight Championship.

No matter how hard he tried, Del Rio could not reach a top tier level with the live crowds. He was “over” in that people didn’t sit on their hands when his music hit or when he cut a promo, but he never got the kind of pops or heat that main event babyfaces and heels expect. Despite all the hype and support he was given between the Rumble and WrestleMania, Del Rio remained a main event guy with mid card support.

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A SWERVE FOR SWERVE’S SAKE

2012 looked to be one of the better years WWE had seen in a long time. New stars were emerging/solidifying–CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Sheamus–and as the year kicked off, a veteran future Hall of Famer made a huge comeback. Chris Jericho returned on the first Raw of the new year in one of the most memorable “debut” segments in Raw history (Jericho already had the most memorable, when he first debuted in 1999). For weeks preceding his return, creepy vignettes aired on the TitanTron promising that “the end of the world” was approaching. When finally it came, the lights cut out and Jericho stood at the top of the ramp, arms outstretched in his trademark pose (highlighted by the first appearance of his amazing lite-brite jacket).

As the crowd went bananas, Jericho raced down the isle, slapping every hand he could. He then entered the ring, mic in hand, and allowed the roar of the crowd to persist. Not satisfied with his pop, he slid out of the ring to do another run around the barricade, slapping hands like a politician on speed. In and out of the ring he went, combining a bit of Rock’s frozen posturing while the crowd cheered his name with Hogan’s over the top grandstanding and ear-cupped hotdogging. Finally, without saying a word he slid out of the ring, walked back up to the stage and prepared to leave. The crowd booed, angry that the brilliant talker never made a sound beyond “yeah baby!” and “whoo yea!”

And then he came back the next week and did it again.

By the time Raw was six days away from the Royal Rumble, Chris Jericho had still not said a word. Finally on the go-home Raw before the January PPV, he grabbed the mic and spoke:

“This Sunday at the Royal Rumble…it’ll be the end of the world as you know it.”

It was clear what his intention was: Win the Rumble, earn a title shot against CM Punk and beat the self-proclaimed “Best in ‘the world’.” The road to WrestleMania got off to an unorthadox but very hot start. Despite Rock and Cena’s year long feud sure to be the true main-event, the WWE Championship match looked like it would feature a more traditional two month showdown for the top title in the land. With Jericho’s great return in the books, things were looking good heading into the Royal Rumble PPV.

Except nope: Brough Kick.

Everybody and their brother figured Jericho would win, so of course there would be a swerve. Sheamus won the Rumble and sent Jericho to Raw empty handed. Essentially all the work and hype leading to his return, and his spectacular trolling heel work after his returned, was all for naught. He attacked the champ but even then didn’t secure his WrestleMania match; instead he had to wrestle for the right to compete for the title at the February PPV. Then, he was dumped out of the match like a chump and walked out of the Chamber with an 0-2 PPV record since returning. Finally he won the right to face CM Punk at Mania in the most half-hearted way possible: He won a battle royal. And not even a big battle royal, just the limp, ten-man kind. Despite some great promo work from both men, the wheels were off the bus long before it rolled into WrestleMania. The road to the big event was a dud because smart booking was ignored and the right guy didn’t win the Rumble.

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THIS AGAIN

2013 would be no better than 2012; in fact it would be much worse. CM Punk had been WWE Champion stretching back to Survivor Series 2011. Though he never main-evented a show without John Cena also in the main-event, he did put together an entertaining series of feuds as both a babyface and a heel. As a fan-favorite he had a couple great matches against Chris Jericho, and a trio of them against Daniel Bryan. As a villain, he wrestled John Cena and Ryback. A step down in quality, but a step up (at the time) in starpower. No matter the opponent, though, CM Punk was solidified as a main event player.

He also was solidified as the longest transitional champion of all time.

He dropped the title to Rock at the 2013 Royal Rumble, and then failed to regain it at the next PPV. Despite giving Dwayne Johnson his two best matches since returning (out of four total matches), and putting on a much more entertaining and passion-filled feud than anything Cena and Rock had between WrestleMania 27 and 28, Punk was pushed out of the title picture to make room for the WrestleMania 28 rematch of a match originally billed as “Once in a Lifetime.”

As the Royal Rumble approached, and especially after Rock announced that he was going for the title at the show, it was clear what direction things were going. After he won the title and Cena won the Rumble match, it was even more clear what direction things were going. South. South was the direction things were going. As in down, downward, downhill.

After all the work Punk put into his reign, he was cast aside for a rematch few were really clamoring for. In fact, the match people really wanted to see headline WrestleMania was CM Punk vs John Cena for the title. Despite that match having occurred on PPV a half-dozen previous times in the past year and a half, every time they met seemed to be a better match than the one previous. Cena was on a so-called road to redemption that WWE claimed started when he lost the Mania 28 main event match to the Rock.

Nuh uh. His story didn’t start at WrestleMania 28, Cena’s story started at Money in the Bank 2011. Since then, the title has eluded him, and Punk had his number every time they fought…at least until their now-legendary Raw match to determine who would face Rock at WrestleMania. That was a match that should have topped the show. Instead, the lure of part-time celebrity appeal took precedence over better storytelling, and WrestleMania suffered for it.

____________________

When you look at the past decade of WrestleMania, there are a few shows that just missed the mark. The reason why is different every time. Sometimes it was because a guy was pushed the fans weren’t really behind. Sometimes it was a babyface who just worked better as a heel. Sometimes it was because the big push a new guy was getting wasn’t jiving with the lukewarm reaction the people were giving. And sometimes they just flat-out book it wrong, either by not pushing a guy in any momentum-building way, or just by booking the wrong match in the first place.

How will this WrestleMania go down? So far the road has been lackluster; can the end buck the trend?

We’ll see.

One thing’s for sure, the story of 2015’s road to WrestleMania won’t go down as fondly remembered as some of this decade’s other stories have gone…

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