WRESTLEMANIA XXX: He Lives With the Lights on Bright

WrestleMania XXX

WrestleMania XXX (April 6, 2014) – Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans, LA) – Main Event: Randy Orton vs. Batista vs. Daniel Bryan (WWE World Heavyweight Championship) – Announcers: Michael Cole, John Bradshaw Layfield, Jerry “the King” Lawler, and “Mean” Gene Okerlund – Host: Hulk Hogan.

WrestleMania XXX is a stunning achievement for the WWE.

After a lackluster WrestleMania 29 a year previous which saw their internet stream repeatedly cut out and restart the event, the 30th anniversary of Vince McMahon’s ultimate vision of sports entertainment hit (almost) all the right notes, signaling the passing of multiple torches while paying off long-term story lines and setting up the immediate and longterm future of the company.

And the stream never went out, either.

After eight months of frustrating fans who wanted desperately the cheer the ascension of Daniel Bryan to the top of Title Mountain, the WWE sent the Silverdom- er, the Superdome, brother, home happy by ushering in the Reign of the Goat. While the “Yes Movement” started organically, it’s origins going back to the night after WrestleMania XXVIII when fans at RAW let the WWE know of their displeasure in seeing Bryan beaten by Sheamus in a whopping 18 seconds, it’s become increasingly corporate in the months since Summer Slam. This is the world of kayfabe, of course, where fans complain about the WWE keeping Daniel Bryan down as the WWE keeps sending him out week after week to close RAW; where the fans dredge up old charges of Triple H burying younger stars as Daniel Bryan is given such a large, ever-changing assortment of new t-shirts to wear that even John Cena finds it excessive. The more Daniel Bryan suffered at the hands of the Authority, the more the WWE commodified that suffering in t-shirts, towels, coffee mugs, buttons, stickers, watches, bibs, iPhone cases, baby clothes, fake beards, pendants, sweatpants, wrist bands, flannel pants, lamps, and fan hands.

That’s not hyperbole – all of those items are currently for sale to put pennies in the pockets of Daniel Bryan and the company that’s “keeping him down.”

This is the price for buying in, that fans simply accept the hypocrisy of Daniel Bryan being kept down as he becomes a larger presence in the gift shop. That’s part of the fun. It’s laughable, of course, that some people still decry wrestling as “fake” and wonder how anyone can get worked up by pre-determined outcomes while at the same time becoming invested in television shows and movies and novels. Wrestling isn’t fake sports, it’s live-action theater, and the “burying” of Daniel Bryan by the same people rushing to churn out more merchandise with his bearded face on it is part of the give and take between fans and the company. The company can’t always give us what we might want to see in terms of story, but it makes damn sure to give us anything and everything we could possibly want to buy.

For those thinking that Bryan winning the championship and actually being allowed to leave the building with the belts is going to put an end to the storyline, or who worried that winning the belts would kill the Yes Movement quicker than Bryan getting “buried” yet again, take a look at the WWE.com webpage as of midnight PST:

WWE homepage

Not a single mention of Daniel Bryan anywhere on the front page of the company website.

But, yeah, the Streak is over.

We’ll get to that.

I do not want to spend much time in this reaction talking about who wasn’t at WrestleMania, because the night belongs to those who entertained us, but there were two glaring absences from the event: CM Punk and Vince McMahon. In my own fantasy booking, I had visions of Daniel Bryan winning the title only to be interrupted by a furious Vince, who’d usher Punk back into the WWE after his walkout, setting up a long summer of Bryan and Punk tearing up arenas from sea to shining sea as the soul of the company was battled on three front: Vince and Punk, HHH and Orton/Batista, and Bryan and the fans.

Nope.

Vince deserved a moment in the spotlight for gifting us with an event that helped us make him a billionaire, but that was his choice. It’s also Punk’s choice to stay away from WrestleMania, of course, but the circumstances are entirely different, and it’s hard not to see WrestleMania XXX as a very purposeful thumb stuck in the very obstinate eye of CM Punk. A little information is a dangerous thing, of course, and reading the tea leaves of the internet is often less plausible than reading actual tea leaves, but there is some strong evidence to suggest that Punk’s walkout created the bookends of WrestleMania XXX. It was widely reported that it was Punk who was supposed to get a match with Triple H, but without Punk around, that match went to Bryan, who parlayed the Yes Movement (and the WWE Universe’s displeasure with Batista winning the Royal Rumble) into that match with Triple H earning him a spot in the main event.

Triple H has taken several veiled shots at Punk over the last few weeks, giving Bryan a measure of respect when he thanked him for not taking his ball and going home, but there is no bigger shot than giving Bryan the one thing Punk has never had: the main event of WrestleMania.

What the “wrestling is fake” naysayers don’t get (or care about) is that attempting to figure out the script is part of the fun for the modern wrestling fan. For the internet smarks, the WWE is like a corpse-less detective mystery, where it can be just as fun to figure out the story before it happens as it can to watch it unfold. The mystery of Punk’s disappearance, and whether it’s a work or a shoot or some combination of both, becomes part of the fun and frustration. The WWE has minimized his on-screen presence, but they’re still selling Punk’s merch. His name was still on the Undertaker’s row of coffins. The head of the company is taking shots at him on RAW that he knows the fans will recognize as shots, even if he never says Punk’s name.

The WWE/Triple H has done such a good job trolling the smarks over the past year (and let’s be honest, right now, Triple H looks like the smartest guy in the business) that you can look at one piece of evidence and draw completely opposite conclusions. Is Daniel Bryan in the main event totally about Bryan and the Yes Movement? Or is it reward for Bryan playing ball? In other words, how much of what Daniel Bryan was booked to do Sunday night in New Orleans solely about him and how much was about Punk’s absence?

And forget the main event for a moment and concentrate on the night’s most historical moment – the end of the Undertaker’s streak. Want to play conspiracy? Last year, Punk and Taker put on the night’s best match. Punk lost. This year? The man who replaced Punk at the side of Paul Heyman took Taker out and ended the streak in a very pedestrian match.

Do any of these things happen if Punk doesn’t walkout? Does it actually matter?

Not really. The world is full of ifs and buts and coconuts, and speculating on all of the backstage and corporate machinations are fun, but they shouldn’t distract us from what makes it to our TV screens. I can’t believe Taker lost because the company wanted to get back at Punk, just like I can’t believe Bryan wasn’t wholly deserving of everything he accomplished at Mania.

Now, would I love to see Punk show up on RAW Monday night and drop a pipe bomb about how Bryan’s success comes from his willingness to play ball with the same people that hate him? Sure. The WWE is a better product with Punk in it … but only if Punk wants to be in it, and I can understand if he’s tired of it. The guys the WWE celebrate the most are always the guys who not only make Vince money, but play ball the best. We can get mad about that, but it makes sense to push the people who don’t make a habit of pushing back, and are willing to be secondary characters on Total Divas.

Such is the foundation of empires.

WrestleMania XXX wasn’t all great but it was mostly great. It succeeded in large part because the night felt like a massive celebration of the things that happen on the screen rather than off the screen. There’s huge, complicated histories between Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and the company (and all of them, at varying points, pushed back against Vince the the WWE), but seeing them standing in the ring to kick off the event was magic. The Hulkster’s flubbing of the Superdome – he called it the Silverdome twice – actually made the moment better, as it gave Austin and Rocky something to riff on and showed that Hogan could laugh at his own expense.

There were also four matches that went over 20 minutes, putting the emphasis squarely on the abilities of the wrestlers to tell stories inside the ring. It was also a good night for the future; as much as the fans marked out for Hogan, Austin, and the Rock, there was massive crowd support for Cesaro, the Wyatts, the Shield, and, yes, Daniel Bryan.

Which are all huge wins for Triple H because of his role in developing talent down at NXT. During the Occupy Yes RAW episode, I tweeted out how I had switched my allegiance over to Hunter and Stephanie (evil women are the bestest women) because I was starting to see what the overall plan had become. Such moves are important only to me, of course, but they also reveal how Triple H is playing this kayfabe game at a level higher than everyone else. It’s brilliant to watch. When he came out out on and declared this the Reality Era, it was a clear shot/acknowledgment of the power of the internet, while at the same time reminding everyone that he was the guy making decisions on, well, just about everything.

And that’s a good thing. If we’re starting to see Triple H’s hands in everything, it almost doesn’t matter if his hands are in everything. Clearly, he’s as important as anyone backstage, and clearly, the product is better now than it was a year ago.

Bow down to the Game, and all.

Even before the Hulkster strolled to the ring, WrestleMania XXX was off to a good start. The kickoff match was a four-way tag team match between RybAxel, Los Matadores, the Real Americans, and the Usos. I like RybAxel as a tag team and I think Curtis Axel has been quietly very good the past few months. I think the hardest wrestler to get over with the crowd is a guy who was given a title belt too soon. When Joe Hennig stopped being Michael McGillicutty and started being Curtis Axel, the company paired him with Paul Heyman and gave him the Intercontinental Belt and then largely made him stand there while Heyman gave more attention to Brock Lesnar and CM Punk. He quickly fell to the bottom, becoming little more than a glorified jobber, but he’s earning another push (whether it’s tag team or solo) with consistently entertaining ring work.

Four team tag matches tend to play rather clunky as everyone seemingly struggles to unleash their signature moves more than winning the match, and that was largely true here. Once Los Matadores and RybAxel were eliminated, the Real Americans and Usos could get down to business. I was hoping for a Real Americans win, but instead this was the apparent end of the line for the duo. After Cesaro was knocked into Jack Swagger and was subsequently pinned, Swagger came back in to blame Cesaro. Zeb Colter did his now standard, “You guys shake hands” bit, but Cesaro wasn’t in the mood.

It created one of those most awkward of moments where the team that won the tag belts left the ring first so the team that loser of the match could have the final moment in the spotlight. It’s just as well in this instance because the crowd was more behind Cesaro than the Usos, and Cesaro breaking away from his partner was what the crowd wanted to see more than anything else in this match.

The night’s opening match was perhaps the greatest opening match in WrestleMania history, and almost certainly the greatest opening match in WrestleMania history that didn’t star two Harts. Daniel Bryan and Triple H put on a hellacious match that showcased the strength of both men. (I loved Triple H’s cosplay entrance and the switch back to his original Motorhead theme song for an in-rin entrance.) For over 25 minutes, the two men battled back and forth, Bryan relying on his resilience and Hunter relying on his brutality. This was, in large parts, a throwback match as Triple H seemed determined to prove he could administer and counter holds with the best guy in the company at administering and countering holds. What Bryan and Triple H did so masterfully was tell a story in the ring that both reinforced and built on the story they’ve been telling since Summer Slam.

It was as great a match as you could ever hope to see. Sure, there have been better matches in WrestleMania history (like last year’s Punk/Taker match), but after tearing the house down all year, Daniel Bryan did it again. Time after time, he gets the best matches out of his opponents, and on this night, the Game was right there with him. What a match.

It should also be noted that Stephanie continues to be one of the most valuable on-screen performers in the company, and not just because she looked amazingly hot in her Sleepy Hollow cosplay outfit. No, her constant shrieking and antagonizing of talent over the past year has been phenomenal (her “What are you gonna do? Cry?” attack on the Big Show was vicious gold), and tonight was no different.

Stephanie McMahon and HHH

The night’s shortest match was next as the Shield beat Kane and the New Age Outlaws in under three minutes. No night can be perfect when the Divas Battle Royal lasts twice as long as the Shield, and it’s disappointing that after being the WWE’s most valuable asset other than Bryan over the past year that the Shield got hosed with such a short match on the company’s biggest night, but it was even more disappointing the company couldn’t come up with anything better for them to do than wrestle Kane and the Outlaws.

I’m not a fan of Battle Royals, but the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal managed to provide a few good moments. Kofi, once again, did something ridiculously incredible in a Battle Royal just before getting eliminated. The crowd seemed to pop loudest for Dolph Ziggler, so if we want to talk about wrestlers getting buried …

The final four came down to Big Show, Cesaro, Sheamus, and Alberto Del Rio. The latter two eliminated each other, leaving us with a growing fan favorite and the pre-match favorite. I don’t think any wrestler has benefited more from Punk’s absence than Cesaro. He was already popular with the smarks (his matches with Sami Zayn have been some of the best matches of the last few years) as he’s got the indie cred and has been buried in the mid-to-lower card, but the company seems prepped to give him a push after tonight, and the fans will be waiting for him.

I can’t wait. His scoop slam that sent Big Show out of the ring was both a nice tribute to WrestleMania III and a solid announcement of his arrival as a guy we’re going to see a lot of in the coming months.

Unless, of course, the WWE ends up Sandowing him.

The most confounding match of the night was next, as John Cena inexplicably beat Bray Wyatt. Cena winning should never be called inexplicable, of course, but with all the momentum Wyatt had coming in, it seemed like the right thing to do for Cena to get beat and put the Wyatts over. Ironically, on a night when Triple H allowed Bryan to beat him clean, John Cena didn’t allow his opponent to get over. Cena has traditionally been great about recognizing when it’s time for someone else to get some momentum from beating him, but not tonight. His Attitude Adjustment has never seemed more ancient, nor his victory more hollow and pointless.

Which brings us to the most shocking moment of the night – Brock Lesner’s defeat of the Undertaker.

I have no desire to say anything negative about Taker, but after a fantastic string of WrestleMania matches that seemed to increasingly defy time itself, Taker looked gassed from the get go at WrestleMania XXX. Brock is a physical wrestler and has never been all that good about telling a story in the ring or carrying his opponent, and so what we got on this night was a sluggish, plodding crawl towards an ending no one suspected but that we all should have seen coming.

The evidence has been there on RAW, where Taker has looked virtually indestructible and Brock has looked afraid and spooked. If it was anyone else but Taker in this story, we’d all know that Brock was going to win.

Taker deserves to have the streak ended on his terms, and if he wanted Brock to take him out, so be it. The best part of the loss was the absolutely stunned silence that befell the Superdome. Even Brock’s pin looks off, like it happened too soon and without the proper set-up, which is a neat trick since the match lasted for 25 minutes. Deep down, I wonder if any of us really believed the Streak would end, even though Taker is so respectful of the business that you had to figure he’d pass the torch at some point. It’s a sad end for Taker, if this was his last WrestleMania, because he looked like a dead man wrestling in fact, not just in gimmick.

Then the Divas Battle Royal happened, which is significant only because the company did the right thing (in my eyes) and kept the belt around AJ Lee’s waist. It’s nearing the time that she should drop the belt so she can kickstart a new feud, but losing it in a Battle Royal wasn’t the way to do it.

The WWE Heavyweight Championship match was a strong match to end the night, including the spot of the night when Batista and Orton combined to toss Bryan from a Batista Bomb into an RKO on top of two announcing tables. Their timing was slightly off, but it was still a massively big moment that looked like it legitimately messed up both Bryan and Orton.

The hero of the night is Daniel Bryan, of course, but Randy Orton’s work needs to be respected, too. There have been far too many occasions over the past few years where it looks like Orton has lost his passion for wrestling, but during the Authority/Bryan storyline, the problems with Orton seem less about Orton to me than in his being misused. He’s thrown himself into this “Face of the WWE” role, and has turned in great matches with Bryan and solid work with guys like Kofi and Cena. The ass-kissing Orton has been less than impressive, but his in-ring work – especially his manipulation of the audience during matches – has been very strong.

The match ended in the best possible way, with Bryan forcing Batista to tap out. This ending should allow Orton to become increasingly unhinged, which is a very good thing. More importantly, though, I think Batista needed to tap out to help save him from the lingering anger at his victory in the Royal Rumble, a match the fans wanted Bryan to win. Batista was meant to come in as a returning hero, but the fans rejected him, forcing a heel turn. Batista tapping out should cleans the palette, so to speak, allowing the company to either push him face or heel, depending on how he reacts to the defeat.

I know I made mention back up at the top that in my fantasy booking Bryan’s celebration would have been interrupted by Vince and Punk, but that would have been a mistake. I think the Superdome and the WWE Universe needed a clean celebration for Daniel Bryan. Seeing him celebrate in the ring is the kind of payoff that long form storytelling needs to deliver every now and then. Fittingly, on a night that started with Hulk Hogan, the event ended in Hoganesque fashion, sending the crowd home happy after our hero conquered long odds to emerge victorious.

In the night’s opening match, JBL (who was excellent all night) said that Triple H had the advantage because “he lives with the lights on bright,” meaning he was used to this kind of spotlight and Bryan wasn’t. At the end of the night, not only did Daniel Bryan demonstrate what we’ve known for a while about his ability to perform in the ring, but Triple H demonstrated he’s ready to accept those bright lights being on Daniel Bryan all day, every day.

And if they all happen to sell some more towels and t-shirts and fan hands in the process, so be it.

That’s what’s best for business, after all.

Join the conversation on Twitter.

__________

MATCH OF THE NIGHT: Triple H vs. Daniel Bryan.

STAR OF THE NIGHT: On a night when the Streak was ended, there’s only one obvious choice for the star of the night: Daniel Bryan.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: Jerry “the King” Lawler: “Have you been drinking milk from forgetful cows?”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT #2: JBL: “The brain doesn’t rust.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT #3: Paul Heyman: “21 and 1. And then the smallest number becomes the biggest number.”

__________

Gunfighter Gothic: Under Zeppelin Skies, from Mark Bousquet and Atomic Anxiety Press.

Gunfighter Gothic: Under Zeppelin Skies, from Mark Bousquet and Atomic Anxiety Press.

3 thoughts on “WRESTLEMANIA XXX: He Lives With the Lights on Bright

  1. Pingback: Feet of Clay: The Passing of the Ultimate Warrior | Mark Bousquet

  2. Pingback: The Linked Life 1: Warrior, Cesaro, Frog Thor, Jeff Smith and more - Super Powered Fiction

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