The main event of WrestleMania 31 will be remembered among fans as having one of the most exciting and surprising finishes in WrestleMania history. It probably won’t be remembered, though it should, for the success it achieved in saving the career of one future main-eventer, preserving the career of another, and launching a third into it. Going into the match, Roman Reigns was a damaged babyface. A combination of bad booking, bad writing and some bad performances exposed the young wrestler as very green and seemingly unprepared for the role thrust upon him.
Meanwhile the champion Brock Lesnar was riding a wave of momentum as one of the strongest-booked champions in pro wrestling history. He had looked literally unbeatable since winning the title at SummerSlam. The entire point of his reign of terror–dating back to a cage match victory over Triple H in April of 2013 and climaxing with breaking the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak and then winning the title in the most one-sided squash match in WWE Championship history–was to put over the next great superstar of tomorrow. But something happened along the way that threw those plans for a loop.
Brock turned babyface.
Official WWE history will spin it that Lesnar’s face turn actually happened the night after WrestleMania 31, when the evil Stephanie suspended him indefinitely, but fans know better. Lesnar had been steadily getting cheered by a larger and larger portion of the audience since his return, and his decision to spurn UFC’s offer and remain with WWE only solidified him as a folk hero among the fanbase.
Actually that wasn’t the only thing that happened along the way. Reigns, as mentioned, struggled to fill into the boots of “the next John Cena” and the fans turned on him, understanding the once-in-a-lifetime moment that will come with being the guy who beats Brock Lesnar, and finding Reigns undeserving.
But then there’s Lesnar, who always had his supporters since his 2012 return, but really got the larger part of the WWE audience on his side during the buildup to the triple threat match at the 2015 Royal Rumble. The match pitted Lesnar against seemingly-perpetual challenger John Cena and then-Money in the Bank holder Seth Rollins. Rollins had done such a great job stepping his game up since splitting from The Shield, and his smarmy heel character had gotten so over he managed to turn the wider WWE audience pro-Lesnar. The crowd was dying to see the champ get his hands on the cocky young challenger, and when he did, Lesnar’s F5 and pin of Rollins won the pop of the night.
After that Lesnar and manager Heyman turned attention to the Royal Rumble winner, Roman Reigns, but the challengers struggles made it hard for the audience to latch on to his journey to conquer the conqueror. Forced to choose, the fans simply continued cheering for Lesnar.
Which takes us to the main event of WrestleMania 31.
When it comes to the all the drama (on camera and behind the scenes) during the buildup to WrestleMania, none of it really mattered once the bell rang and the fight started. It didn’t matter that the actual “feud” in advance of the fight was largely non-existent. None of the Lesnar contract stuff or the Roman Reigns fan-rejection mattered. What mattered was what happened. Lesnar re-signed and entered Levi’s Stadium a bonafide hero. Very likely, had he elected to return to UFC he still would have been cheered and thanked by the audience for the great work he did over the past few years. But since he decided to stick with WWE, there was no way he wasn’t going to be the hero going into the match.
Roman Reigns, meanwhile, was marginalized in his own main event. He was the hand-picked guy to dethrone the beast and ascend to the top of the mountain but the fans couldn’t care less about that. They wanted to see Lesnar the conqueror beat down Vince’s golden boy.
And that’s exactly what fans got.
Sure it was spun later that, before Rollins cashed-in, the match was essentially a draw, but that’s revisionist history. The match was as one-sided as it gets. Lesnar nailed a dozen viscous suplexes (Germans, Fishermans, Exploders, Verticals, Delayed, etc), several stiff shots, and multiple F5’s. It was a clinic on pain.
Me personally: I had spent the weeks leading up to it thinking and saying that the match would be a dud. I was going off the assumption that it would be an evenly matched fight that saw Reigns going over in the end.
In my wildest dreams I never thought they’d do a repeat of the SummerSlam 2014 match. But for two-thirds of it, that’s exactly what we saw. The crowd was the most energized I’ve ever been a part of, cheering on every Lesnar suplex, but when Roman hit his third superman punch and then back-to-back spears you would have thought a riot was about to break out.
Then the real future of the company showed up.
Being there live I can tell you that 90% of the people who were cheering for Lesnar (which was about 75% of the crowd) immediately shifted their allegiance and started cheering for Rollins. How much of that was because they wanted to see a title change, and how much of it was they wanted to see ROLLINS win the title, I don’t know. All I know is we were cheering like madmen and when he pinned Reigns to win the title it was pandemonium in Santa Clara.
The finish to this match is one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. So much electricity was in the crowd, on commentary, and among all three guys. Each superstar played a part in pulling off the finish for the ages; it was wonderful.
The recap: Reigns and Lesnar are both laid out. Rollins runs in, cashes-in, and immediately kicks Roman out of the ring. Why? Because he witnessed first-hand at the Rumble how quickly Brock can recover from a finisher. As I’ve joked before, Lesnar is playing with cheat codes. So Rollins kicks Reigns out and hits a curb stomp on Lesnar. Again, he doesn’t even try to cover him. He’s been in this position before. So he waits, and sure enough just a second later Lesnar is back to his knees ready for a second curbstomwoops, Lesnar has him up, ready for the F5 and the victory when SPEAR OUTTA NOWHERE! Lesnar goes down, Rollins doesn’t even bother covering the beast (because, cheatcodes); he hits a quick Curb Stomp on Reigns and steals the win.
It wasn’t his main event. It wasn’t his WrestleMania. But he was the guy who deserved it. This was always supposed to be Seth’s WrestleMania (as I wrote in the pre-Mania article right here on cultofwhatever!), the way 2014 was always supposed to be Bryan’s, even if the guy in charge was too myopic to see it until the last minute.
With his win, Rollins becomes the right champion at the right time. It was never Reigns, because Reigns winning would have kept Brock a heel, and he hasn’t been a heel since the Royal Rumble buildup. He’s a babyface, and probably the most exciting babyface since Austin. This should always have been the finish to WrestleMania 31, Vince was just too enamored with Reigns to realize it. He kept trying to book Lesnar as a heel and Reigns as a face, but fans WANT to cheer Lesnar.
That’s why Rollins is so perfect to be the guy with the belt right now. It’s why the buildup to the Rumble title match was the best Lesnar has been since his first feud with Cena in 2012. Cena, Triple H, Big Show, Undertaker, even CM punk: Those are all veterans who know what Lesnar is capable of. Cena fought him in his first run. Triple H was on Raw back then but he knew how dominant Lesnar was on SmackDown. Undertaker and Big Show used to be rag-dolled by him back then too. They understood The Beast, so when they faced him in his post-UFC run, they did so with the right amount of temperance and respect for his power. Punk may not have had that kind of first hand experience, but he was the OTHER Paul Heyman guy, and he certainly understood what Lesnar was.
With Rollins you get the sense that he’s an entitled little punk kid, too full of youthful ignorance to realize the sort of bear he’s poking. He keeps getting away with it thanks to his posse of cronies and that only fuels his overconfidence. It makes you want to (pay to) see him get his tail thoroughly whipped.
Who better to put the belt on and have the now-babyface Lesnar (and, in the meantime, Reigns) chase after? Lesnar is an unstoppable monster, whose prize (that validates that monster-status) was stolen from him by a smarmy, weaselly cocky punk kid. It’s the perfect dynamic.
And in the meantime, there’s Roman Reigns. If Rollins is a good enough heel that he can take the guy who broke Undertaker’s streak and turn him babyface then Rollins is the perfect guy to rehab Roman Reigns and turn him into the hero Vince and co. want him to be.
Looking back at the past WrestleMania season, it’s easy to complain: Rollins barely was involved in it mainly because he wasn’t supposed to win the title until the last minute. Reigns and Lesnar barely interacted because the former was getting booed as a face and the latter was getting cheered as a heel. The story they wanted to tell couldn’t be told because the audience wasn’t having it.
But all of it was saved with Rollins’ cash-in. It was the most out of nowhere cash-in since Edge’s very first one back in early 2006. It’s taken almost a decade but they finally topped the first one, and hopefully it will propel Rollins to the main-event scene for years to come the way it did Edge.
My hopes and dreams are that Rollins keeps squirming away from Lesnar from now until next year’s WrestleMania. Give Lesnar a title match at SummerSlam and Survivor Series (triple threat matches featuring Orton and Rollins and later with Reigns and Rollins make the most sense), have him win the Royal Rumble and then challenge Rollins 1-on-1.
As bad as this year’s road to WrestleMania was, how awesome would THAT be?
This year, everything looked doomed, but WrestleMania was saved at the 11th hour by the right guy at the right time. The guy who, as I wrote a couple weeks ago, earned his big championship moment at WrestleMania. The guy who, of the three of them, best stepped up his game since leaving The Shield, the guy who has become a great talker to compliment his amazing ring work, and the guy who has become the best pure heel on the roster today.
Hats off to Seth Rollins: The perfect heel and the perfect guy to carry the WWE Championship for the foreseeable future.