For lifelong fans of WWE, it’s impossible not to get excited about the prospect of WrestleMania when it comes around each year. No matter what match-ups are on offer, you can nearly always rely on the world’s biggest wrestling brand to pull something truly special out of the bag and rise to the occasion – but that task is becoming increasingly difficult in a media landscape which sees more exposure to the product than ever before.
With a few notable exceptions (WrestleMania’s IX, XI and XVII spring to mind), the biggest event of the year rarely disappoints, offering fans spectacle, pageantry, awe-inspiring moments and historic title changes. And while 2013′s offering did feature a lack of original pairings for its triple main event, that certainly wasn’t a sure-fire sign that the show itself wouldn’t deliver the goods and then some. Emanating from New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium just months after Hurricane Sandy tore apart the state, the scene was certainly set for an emotional ‘homecoming’ (well, almost) for WWE, as 80,000 fans packed the open-air arena to witness history.
The Grandaddy of them all?
WWE WrestleMania 29, available to pre-order on DVD and Blu-Ray from WWEDVD.co.uk now with a limited edition dogtag, breaks with tradition from the outset. After an emotional tribute to the victims of Sandy and the usual video package, the show kicks off immediately with its first match. No fireworks, no rendition of ‘American The Beautiful’, no formal introduction from the announce team. It’s unfortunately a sign of things to come.
Opening the show is a big six-man tag match, as the unlikely team of Randy Orton, Sheamus and The Big Show square off against the undefeated hounds of justice, The Shield, who cut an impressive entrance as they make their way through the huge crowd. For his part, former headliner Orton does his best to look fired up before the match, but it’s to no avail – you can tell that he’s disappointed to be lost in the quagmire of this opening bout. In contrast, the trio of Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose continue to impress in this cracking opener, using a combination of furious fast-paced offence and quick tags to great effect to keep on top of their heavyweight opponents. Ambrose, in particular, shines – and it’s duly noted by the WrestleMania crowd, who are firmly behind the eccentric newcomer from the off. The finish, pre-empted by a beautiful mid-air RKO from Orton, feels rushed, but ultimately leads to the inevitable implosion from the three Smackdown! stars.
Curiously, no sooner after the first match has finished are we shown a promotional vignette for the main event. Yes that’s right, the main event – not due for another three hours, is already been pushed, leaving the viewer in little doubt that this year’s WrestleMania is, for the third consecutive year, all about John Cena and The Rock.
Ryback and Mark Henry square off in match two – and if that sounds ugly on paper, it’s even worse in reality. The pair of big men are only given seven minutes to tell a story, but boy, do those seven minutes feel like a lifetime. With a dreadful finish that does both men absolutely no favours, viewed with the benefit of hindsight it’s clear that this match was contested purely to serve as the catalyst for Ryback’s heel turn the following night on Raw.
After being robbed of a WrestleMania moment in just 18 seconds last year, Daniel Bryan received an opportunity at retribution in New Jersey, teaming with partner Kane to defend the tag team titles against Dolph Ziggler and debuting strongman Big E Langston. It’s refreshing to see the doubles gold defended once again at WrestleMania – the last time it featured on the show itself was in 2010 – and it’s even more rewarding that it’s in a bout featuring two of WWE’s brightest stars of the future in Bryan and Ziggler, unsurprisingly the two stand-outs in this match. The crowd is firmly behind “the flying goat” (JBL‘s nickname for Bryan) from the outset, raining down ‘YES!’ chants on WWE’s famous vegan from the opening bell right to the very end.
It’s now impossible to hear Fandango‘s ChaChaLaLa entrance theme without singing along (that Jim Johnston sure is a genius), but back at WrestleMania when the character made his pay-per-view debut, there’s nothing funny about either the music or the match that follows. Try as he might, veteran Chris Jericho and the newcomer just don’t mesh in this encounter, a fact that is further compounded by the messy closing moments. Still, at least Y2J got a lovely firework display for his walk down the aisle, so it wasn’t a complete waste of an evening.
WrestleMania wouldn’t be WrestleMania without a musical appearance, and 2013′s edition sees the honours passed to P. Diddy, or Diddy, or Puff Daddy, or whatever alias he is going by these days. Credit where credit’s due, the East Coast rapper does a good job of getting the crowd singing along to his greatest hits … it’s just a shame that his performance came at the expense of an actual wrestling match that had to be scrapped from the show later on due to time constraints.
For the first time in three years, the World heavyweight title wasn’t defended in the opening match, which must have been a relief to champion Alberto Del Rio and challenger Jack Swagger; but it’s likely that the talented pair took little solace from the fact that the only reason their bout had an elevated degree of prominence on the card was as a result of a distasteful storyline built on immigration and xenophobia. Swagger’s ‘We The People’ routine, led by racist voicebox Zeb Colter, has done nothing to rejuvenate The All-American American’s career, and while the former World champion tries his hardest to come across as the menacing foil to Del Rio’s Mexican underdog schtick, it just doesn’t work, as this lifeless scrap culminates in predictable fashion.
Three main events … of rematches
With the undercard out of the way, it’s time for the show to really begin, as a musical appearance from New York band Living Color paves the way for CM Punk‘s entrance, as the man with the longest WWE title reign in 25 years faces off against The Undertaker with the legendary streak on the line. Unsurprisingly, this epic encounter between two of wrestling’s greats proves to be the match of my night – but don’t take my word for it. Instead, enjoy James Musselwhite’s excellent in-depth look at this historic clash.
Following the match of the night is never an easy task – and while Triple H and Brock Lesnar‘s ‘grudge match’ attempts to distract the audience through both a no-holds-barred and a career-on-the-line stipulation, there’s no hiding the fact that the two muscle-bound heavyweights just do not gel as opponents (as was proven in the previous encounter at SummerSlam 2012). Any chance that the pair of ring veterans did have of putting on a hard-hitting classic was quelled by Triple H being on the receiving end of dry-ice-inflicted serious burns when his entrance goes awry, as well as Lesnar being inadvertently knocked out, legitimately, in the early going. While Shawn Michaels prances around the squared circle being little more than a spare part (and wearing hunting gear, no less – come on HBK, you could at least scrub up for the occasion once a year), the two big men engaged in a brawl that Jim Ross would no doubt describe as “bowling shoe ugly”, were Ross still allowed to call pay-per-view matches. After the action spills to the outside within the first minute, the crowd – thoroughly worn out by this point – quickluy lose interest, and only come alive for a flurry of belly-to-belly suplexes and throws from the former UFC champion. Not deterred by the lack of atmosphere surrounding their matchup, the two introduce steel steps, chairs and, of course, a sledgehammer into the match, all in a bid to make it a memorable classic. It isn’t – and is proof that ego got in the way of sensible booking, that would have dictated that Punk-’Taker should have had the semi-main event spot.
It’s fitting that ‘ego’ should crop up when describing the penultimate match, as the main event of the evening is grounded on it - John Cena versus The Rock, for the third year running at WrestleMania, would this time see Cena look to find redemption. You wouldn’t guess it from the challenger’s entrance though, as he exudes both arrogance and confidence on the way to the ring; anything but a down-on-his-luck underdog. Starting with no fanfare (spending the entire evening playing promo videos setting up this match ironically meant that no introductory video was played immediately before the match, as viewers have come to expect), there is noticably less anticipation or interest from the crowd than there was in Miami, and it damages the bout tremendously, with little in the way of ‘big match feel’. This is further compounded by the fact that the first ten minutes of action comprise mainly of rest holds and shoulder barges; a formula that led to their ‘Once In A Lifetime’ face-off being a commercially successful but rather dull affair. Those that watched this match when it first aired back in April will note that, by watching in retrospect, there is, of course, a semblance of rationale behind the slower pace – as we now know of the serious abdominal injuries suffered by The Rock during this match – but that still doesn’t make for a compelling altercation second time round. While the cold and largely disinterested crowd do come alive in the closing moments as finishing move after finishing move is blocked and countered, there’s a noticable lack of noise after the three is mercifully counted – and a huge budget’s worth of fireworks can’t disguise the genuine apathy and disinterest shown towards the victory, as the crowd finally realise that the anticipated ‘big moment’ that had been rumoured for months just isn’t going to happen.
For those purchasing WrestleMania 29 on DVD, there are just two extras included: the pre-show Intercontinental title match between Wade Barrett and The Miz (which lasts a paltry six minutes and, with the benefit of hindsight, was utterly pointless for both combatants) and a curious post-show show which sees Jim Ross, Dusty Rhodes, Scott Stanford and, for some reason, Kofi Kingston, suited and booted and reflecting back on the evening’s action, in Match of the Day style. So, if four hours of WrestleMania isn’t enough for you, you can now receive blow-by-blow analysis of each and every match. If you’re so inclined.
Standing in the Hall of Fame…
If this review seems overly negative, that’s because WrestleMania 29, as an event, will surely be remembered by both fans and critics alike as a creative dud – but a financially successful one, all the same. It was a show that, through its booking, seemingly gave little thought to the company’s future – so it’s ironic, but not surprising, that it did a truly excellent job of remembering its past through the Hall of Fame ceremony.
Taking place at the historic Madison Square Garden in nearby New York City, 2013′s crop of inductees may arguably have been the finest selection of past grapplers that WWE has ever inducted – and this year’s Hall of Fame ceremony, now an annual highlight, benefitted greatly from the decision to actually allow each and every inductee the opportunity to speak at length.
A natural storyteller, Mick Foley is the perfect choice to start the ceremony, and after being inducted by Terry Funk, the ‘Hardcore Legend’ regales the audience with memories of idolising Jimmy Snuka in MSG (the fact that Snuka looks on from the crowd in the very same venue thirty years later is just incredible), that Hell In A Cell match, and never having beaten Chris Jericho; leading to a memorable moment involving Y2J and one CM Punk. It’s not the only memorable moment though, as Santa’s biggest fan receives a very special send-off that will bring tears to the eyes of long-time fans of Mrs. Foley’s baby boy.
At 34, Trish Stratus is the youngest Hall of Fame inductee in WWE history, but age aside, the six-time Women’s Champion is more than deserving for her contribution to putting women’s wrestling back on the map – even if a cynic would point out that the Divas division in 2013 is almost non-existent. Exuding charm and warmth, Stratus – inducted by Stephanie McMahon – thanks a very long list of people that paved the way for her career, and then turns her attention to her husband Ron, who receives lofty boo’s from the crowd. The boo’s, hurled in tongue-in-cheek jest, are comical at first, but as a wife tries to publicly thank her husband for supporting her throughout her career and the boo’s continue, it just becomes a bit … uncomfortable. Still, that doesn’t stop Stratus from revealing one more piece of big news before leaving the stage.
With 35 titles under his belt, it’s no surprise to see current Smackdown! commentator Booker T entered into the HoF – what is surprising is that T’s brother, Stevie Ray, who has never set foot inside a WWE ring, was allowed to do the induction honours. After Ray sets the scene for a younger brother who overcame life adversity to become a star, the six-time World champion takes to the stage and delivers a gushing speech that praises his WWE family and displays a surprising amount of indifference towards the demise of WCW, the company that first made him a household name. Less surprising is the fact that his two-year tenure in TNA is conveniently glossed over … it’s almost as if it didn’t happen. Still, T does emotionally thank his wife Sharmell – who fares much better than Trish’s poor spouse did with the MSG fans.
‘Eccentric’ is probably the best word to describe Bob Backlund, and his induction speech is an unexpected the highlight of the ceremony – purely for its intensity and unpredictably. Inducted by Maria Menounos – a long-time friend, apparently – Menounos receives a hostile reception from the crowd after spending an age name-dropping and relentlessly singing Backlund’s praises before introducing him. Former NCAA All-American and WWF champion Backlund is more than deserving of his place in the Hall of Fame, however, and the speech that follows is pure gold.
The 2013 celebrity inductee is probably one of the most worthy ‘famous faces’ to enter the HoF – Donald Trump. While The Apprentice star receives a less-than-positive reception from the New York crowd as he is inducted by Vince McMahon, there’s little denying his contribution to the WWE landscape – it could be argued that, without Trump’s high-profile endorsement of WrestleMania in its formative years in the late 80s, the show wouldn’t have gone on to become the cultural phenomenon that it is today. Trump, or rather his hair, also had a big part to play in the commercial success of WrestleMania 23 – thanks to ‘The Battle of The Billionaires’, which is mentioned at length, with not a mention given to either of the combatants in that match, Bobby Lashley and the late Umaga. There’s a surprise.
With a class of big, big names, it’s a testament to the star power of Bruno Sammartino that his induction makes the other names pale in comparison; but as the pre-induction video repeatedly notes, this is a man that sold out Madison Square Garden an incredible 187 times during his many years as WWWF Champion. If that wasn’t enough, Triple H notes in the same video that “without Bruno Sammartino, there is no Hall of Fame … there is no WWE”. It’s easy to understand why Sammartino is so respected by those within the industry, as the 78-year-old superstar, inducted by long-time friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, offers a wonderful speech filled with memories of an incredible life; a life that has involved much more than just professional wrestling. Celebrating 54 years of marriage and seemingly still in very good health, Sammartino is clearly one of wrestling’s few success stories – and comes across as a genuine, humble and sincere gentleman, more than deserving of the several lengthy standing ovations that he receives from the crowd.
Bruno Sammartino’s Hall of Fame induction, which signals the end of this three-disc set, is an emotional climax to an event that paid great respect to its past – while almost completely overlooking its future. The Hall of Fame is an emotional and historic class of deserving inductees, and the ceremony itself is essential viewing; it’s almost worth buying this DVD for that alone.
The same cannot be said for WrestleMania 29 itself, however. An event that showed little originality or creative risk on paper delivered even less in reality, and just illustrated the gaping chasm that exists currently between WWE and much of its audience – not just those pesky “internet wrestling fans”. It also falls flat thanks to the combination of holding an event in an open-air arena on the chilly east coast in the middle of spring, and poor time management resulting in a lack of backstage skits and, inexcusably, an entire advertised match being dropped from the card completely.
It’s very rare that WrestleMania fails to deliver history-making moments – but in its quest in 2013 to be remembered, it seems that WWE lost sight of the most important aspect of all: delivering compelling action and moments where it counts – inside the ring.
This article was written by Ben Veal, the founder and editor of CollarAndElbow.com.
Over the last 20 years, Ben has met many of the industry’s biggest stars, including Bret Hart, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Davey Boy Smith and Chris Jericho.