On the other hand, there have been five years in the past decade that managed to provide lots of entertainment on the road to WrestleMania…
A THINKING MAN’S MEATHEAD
Batista’s success is similar to a lot of guys in WWF/E history. Like Stone Cold back in 1996, Batista got pushed because of someone else’s failures. In 1996, Austin was given the King of the Ring push that was supposed to go to Triple H. Due to HHH’s role in the infamous Madison Square Garden “breaking kayfabe” incident, his push was stalled and Austin’s went ahead. History was then made. Like Sgt. Slaughter, he got pushed when a previous champion just wasn’t working out. Ultimate Warrior was supposed to rematch with Hulk Hogan in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum at WrestleMania 7. His struggling tenure as champion nixed those plans and Slaughter was brought in to carry the belt instead. Like Warrior, Randy Orton was given the championship but did not impress the higher ups enough to see his push be sustained (a WrestleMania 21 match between Orton and Triple H was ready to go, but was nixed). Instead, Batista–up until then, the other guy in Evolution–was given his spot instead.
It’s hard to remember, because Batista has been a superstar (in and out of the ring) for so long now, but during the original inception of Evolution he was basically a bit player. The entire concept behind the team was to highlight the “past, present and future” of Pro Wrestling’s greatness. Ric Flair was the past legend, Triple H was the present legend, and Randy Orton was to be the future legend. Batista was just the muscle. Poor guy. He had to stand there while Triple H went on and on about how great Evolution was as the “past present and future…and Batista too…of the business.” He was so expendable to the original run of the group that he wasn’t even in the original run of the group. Mark Jindrak was supposed to be the muscle but he didn’t work out, chemistry-wise, and was replaced with Batista (who at the time was just a minor sideshow attraction on Smackdown).
Still, when he got his shot he made the most of it.
Defying the stereotype that usually follows the giant muscleheads of pro wrestling, Batista was booked as a thinking-man’s monster. He was shown listening in on Triple H’s schemes, even weaving a few of his own. Throughout the road to WrestleMania, he wasn’t just “The Game’s” equal in the ring, he was also equal to “The Cerebral Assassin” in the head-games department.
Even though Raw, as a show,was poor in quality at the time, this road to WrestleMania was one of the better ones, as it featured a story that took the “risk” of showing some actual depth to the characters involved.
SMACKDOWN MATTERS TOO!
The Undertaker had long been the consummate utility guy in the WWF/E. Rarely was he a title holder, and when he was it was usually only to transition the belt to the next long-time champion. Rarely did he carry a feud and instead was a solid “guy who wrestles The Guy,” whether it was Yokozuna, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin or Brock Lesnar, you could always count on the Undertaker to be there to give the current top guy a marquee feud and a big win on his resume.
When the brand split came, it was important for there to be a locker room leader for each touring group. It wasn’t long after the concept was created that Undertaker became the backstage vet who held court over Smackdown’s roster. After fifteen years of loyalty, the time also came to reward the Deadman with a lengthy title reign. He won the Royal Rumble in his fifth appearance in the match and headed to WrestleMania 23 to face Batista for the World Heavyweight Championship.
Though their match did not close out the show, it easily could have. Rumors abounded that many thought the match would not be strong enough to warrant a true main-event spot. After the two put on a physical and superbly told match, Batista headed to the back where he shouted “beat that!” Depending on who you ask, it was a challenge that was not answered, though Michaels vs Cena came close.
Still, it’s the road to the match that we’re looking at it and it was a great road indeed. The feud between the Animal and the Phenom made Smackdown must-see TV every week. In fact, it was both title feuds working in tandem that made this road to WrestleMania so great. Both John Cena and Shawn Michaels as well as Undertaker and Batista both teamed up frequently as their feuds rolled on. But the way those teams handled themselves was presented as yin and yang on TV. Michaels and Cena remained loyal to one another, with Michaels refusing to score a cheap-shot on Cena the way he had on so many tag partners in the past. On the other hand, the typically-above the fray Undertaker took many cheap shots on Batista, drawing the ire of the champ.
By the time WrestleMania arrived, fans could not wait to see if Michaels’ niceness would pay off (it did not) or if Undertaker’s underhanded tactics would hurt him (they did not). All in all, it was a great road to WrestleMania because WWE had a big-picture story they wanted to tell and they told it with confidence.
That sneaky Edge. Remember what I said about Undertaker finally getting that big, banner-carrying title reign he’d never had before? Yeah that was a non-starter. Certainly that was the intention, but a May injury put Undertaker on the shelf and cut his reign off far too early.
In stepped Edge.
The “Rated-R Superstar” was there to cash-in a Money in the Bank contract and win his first World Heavyweight Championship. After already making history as the first to cash-in and win the WWE title, winning the Big Gold belt only solidified him as the self-proclaimed “Ultimate Opportunist.” Fans knew when the time came that Undertaker would want his revenge.
Thankfully, viewers were treated to some good storytelling along the way. This road to WrestleMania actually began back at Survivor Series, when the Undertaker (who had recently returned from injury) challenged the champion Batista in a Hell in a Cell match for the title. Just as it looked like the Deadman had won (again), a cameraman interfered and prevented the ref from counting three. As it turned out, Edge himself was masquerading as a camera operator during the match, waiting for the ultimate opportunity to poke the bear and screw the Undertaker once more.
The following month, the three met in a triple threat match, with Edge winning thanks to interference from his posse, the Edgeheads. After almost a year of hitting and running, payback would finally come at WrestleMania. As a reward for such a brilliant slow-burn story, Undertaker and Edge would main-event the show (Edge’s first ever, and Undertaker’s first in over a decade). Their feud and match showed that a slow-burn story can be done well if the babyface has the crowd behind him and the heel has the crowd wanting to see him hanged.
GOOD, CLEAN HATRED
Randy Orton has had a long career, filled with many ups and downs. At times it seems the company says “you know this Orton fellow has it all figured out. Let’s give him a big push.” Then he’ll get a big push and when it’s over his disappear to Smackdown for a year or so before they do it all over again.
By 2009, Randy Orton was in the midst of one of his semi-regular “big pushes.” He was working a gimmick where he was punting people in the head and putting them out of action. That alone isn’t a very engrossing story, but you had to be there. Anyway, he won the Royal Rumble, last eliminating Triple H, who had been kind of an arch-nemesis for a while now. Orton then began feuding with the whole McMahon clan (of which Triple H was a part, both in storyline and out), taking on Shane McMahon in a street fight in January and punting both he and Vince (!) in the head. Poor Stephanie also got in on the action, though she was spared a punt and simply ate an RKO for her troubles.
All of this occurred before and after Orton’s Rumble win but it wasn’t until March that Orton officially selected Triple H as his opponent for the big dance. Instead he let The Game squirm while he held the only opportunity for revenge in his hands. Isn’t that a novel approach to a WrestleMania? Essentially, the champion became the guy chasing the challenger.
The feud dominated WWE TV, with each of the McMahons trying to take down Orton. Naturally it would fall on the good son (in law) to defend his family honor.
If you were watching at the time you likely remember how engrossing this feud was. It was probably the best feud Randy Orton had been a part of in his career, including his killer feud with Undertaker in 2005. The grudge between Orton and Triple H had all the makings of a once-in-a-generation type blood feud, akin to Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels in late-1997. This was great and epic stuff that doesn’t happen very often anymore on WWE TV. While the match itself was a let down (and really, anything would have been after the classic Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels match), the road that led up to it was one for the ages.
THIS ONE’S FOR US
WrestleMania may one day see a 50th anniversary or a 100th anniversary, and still it may never create a moment as cathartic as seeing Daniel Bryan beat Evolution in one night to win the gold.
The road to this main event is perhaps the most unique in the history of WrestleMania. Sure, the “little guy rising up and winning” story has been done. The “underdog overcoming the odds” tale has been told. Countless “anti-authority guy sticks it to the boss” stories have closed out WrestleMania. But this was different. Yes, this story had all of those things, but it also had Daniel Bryan personally involving the so-called “universe” of fans. We became part of the story. Our relentless and unyielding desire to see THIS GUY in the main event could not be denied or ignored.
I remember watching Raw on the night the Bryan led an occupy movement against the Authority. When he finally was granted his wish to wrestle Triple H I was happy…but not TOO happy. I looked at a Triple H match much like CM Punk apparently did: it was a consolation prize. I didn’t want Triple H to lose in a big match, I wanted Daniel Bryan to WIN in the BIGGEST match. So when Bryan said to Triple H “that’s not ALL that I want.” I leapt up and cheered.
And to no one in particular, I shouted:
“This is it. He’s getting it. We’re getting it. We’re gonna win.”
For 30 years the near-certain mantra of WrestleMania was “This one’s for you. The good guy wins. Happy endings for all!” And even though the road to this WrestleMania looked like the exact opposite of “this one’s for you” a quick course-correction moved us away from a rejected Batista vs Orton story and into the fan-approved, fan-desired, fan-demanded “Daniel Bryan victory lap” story.
My parents can have their “Hogan slams Andre.” My older brother can keep his “Austin stuns McMahon.” I will forever remember the knee the broke The Game, and the submission that claimed the Championship.
You can’t always learn something from a failure, despite what dads everywhere say. The fact is, sometimes stuff happens and it causes a cascade effect that screws you over. On the other hand, I do believe you can always learn from success. “What did you do that made it work?” is the best question you can ask as soon as the celebration is over. Whatever you did, do it again, do it better, do it in a new way, but just keep doing it.
Looking at the past decade’s road to WrestleMania shows a few that worked and a few that didn’t. Those that worked did so for a variety of reasons, none of which were necessarily specific to just that moment. They worked because the characters were given depth. They worked because the writers had confidence in their story. They worked because a long-form story, well told, is almost impossible to screw up. They worked because there’s nothing more potent than a villain and a hero who just absolutely hate each other (it’s why Rock vs Punk simply clicked better than Rock vs Cena). And they worked because, at the end of the day, they desired to please the people who pay to watch it.
Is that so crazy?
This road to WrestleMania seems to lack the stuff that works. Maybe…just maybe…they will pull a rabbit out of their hat and surprise us with a payoff that actually exceeds expectations.
We’ll find it soon; the road is almost ended.