On Sunday night, WWE put on its annual spectacular, WrestleMania. It was a perfect excuse to get the old crew back together for a few hours. And what do you know, it was a perfect excuse for me to return to the Tuned in to Pop Culture blog.
In my preview column Sunday, I said this show had the best looking lineup on paper in almost a decade. But would it live up to the hype? Let's go back to my notes from the show and find out.
- We open at 7 p.m. with former American Idol champion Fantasia singing "America the Beautiful." Our party host, J-Dub, is standing at the top of the stairs, nervously pacing back and forth between WrestleMania on his big screen and the Duke-Baylor game on the smaller TV upstairs. He lets out a grim "Oh, God, no." I'm not sure if he's making reference to Baylor losing (thereby ruining his chances of winning an office pool) or Fantasia's performance. Either way, it's warranted.
- After an opening video package, we get the traditional wide-angle view with pyro galore going off on stage. This year, WWE has built a pyramid of HD screens on the stage and has an HD screen-covered cylinder suspended above the ring. The cylinder is lowered at various points to enhance certain wrestlers' entrances. All in all, not a bad looking set. Looks like the University of Phoenix Stadium is pretty close to capacity. Bonus points for leaving the roof open too.
- Our announcers for the evening: Michael Cole, Jerry Lawler and Matt Striker. Cole is the No. 1 play-by-play man for the company, and Lawler is his usual partner on "Monday Night Raw." Lawler is better known for working with longtime broadcast partner Jim Ross. Since the two were split for reasons never explained, Lawler has had a hang-dog look better suited for Morgan Freeman's character in "Shawshank Redemption," as if to say, "Most of all, I just miss my friend." Don't we all, buddy. Striker is the color commentator on WWE's Friday show, "SmackDown," but he gets to tag along with the A-team on pay-per-views. As for Cole, well, let's just say nobody has ever said, "You know, if only this match had Michael Cole calling it." He's been doing this for 13 years now, and he fits The Formula for WWE, but the light just hasn't gone on for him to tell a story with the same kind of emotion that his predecessor, JR, did. Cole hits designated talking points, gives you exactly what you'd expect and not much more, and that's about it. He's like the Nickelback of announcers.
- Our opening bout is John Morrison and R-Truth challenging The Miz and Big Show for the tag team championship. Cole calls Morrison and R-Truth "a unique team," which is code for "we couldn't think of anything else to do with these completely mismatched wrestlers, so we stuck them on a team together." ... J-Dub offers up a bet on how long we can go tonight before the Spanish announce team's table gets destroyed. ... Just as this match really gets going, Big Show gets a blind tag in and decks Morrison with a big knockout punch from the ring apron. Good enough for the pin, and the champs retain in an abrupt opener that goes less than five minutes.
- Randy Orton takes on Ted DiBiase and Cody Rhodes. Orton gets a monster ovation, and after being the most despised heel in the company just a year ago, he's somehow become one of the most cheered wrestlers despite not being a clear-cut good guy. If WWE doesn't cut him off at the knees (don't put it past this company), he could really be a breakout star.
- A member of our party who shall go unnamed sees a giant "WrestleMania XXVI" banner in the stadium's rafters.
"Is this WrestleMania 24?" he asks.
"26," I say.
"Oh. Sorry, I'm not Roman."
- Back to the match. DiBiase and Rhodes work together early, but when DiBiase tries to sneak in a pin attempt behind Rhodes' back, the partnership dissolves. Orton takes advantage by DDT'ing them at the same time, to the crowd's delight. Orton delivers a punt to Rhodes' head, then hits his signature move, the RKO, on DiBiase. And that's all she wrote. Orton wins decisively. The crowd approves.
"So what does he win?" my dad asks.
Responses from our party:
"A firm handshake."
There was one more response, but let's just say it wasn't fit for a family publication.
- In a rare backstage segment, Jillian Hall sings in her trademark tone-deaf style, driving away the rest of the women in the room. In comes Santino Marrella, who bites into a Slim Jim (the sponsor of tonight's show), and Hall magically turns into a series of different people with each bite. A pretty bad segment that couldn't even be saved by Marrella continuing to extoll the virtues of the "Slim James" he was eating.
- Money in the Bank is up next. Striker randomly mentions that Dolph Ziggler is a Kent State graduate during the introductions. Speaking of Ziggler, between his blond hair and his ability to bounce around like a pinball when taking a beating, he reminds me of the late Mr. Perfect. ... Jack Swagger, who calls himself "The All-American American" (that's not a typo), is wearing stars and stripes tonight. He gets caught under a ladder, and Christian and Matt Hardy take the opportunity to impale him with other ladders from each side. Ouch. ... Evan Bourne has a chance to win, but instead chooses to do a flying splash on one of the other wrestlers. +1 for daredevil antics, -100 for being an idiot and not winning when you have the chance. ... Kofi Kingston takes home the award for the most innovative move of the night: He takes the two sides of a broken ladder and uses them as stilts to get across the ring toward the briefcase hanging in the middle. Very impressive! ... For the second straight year, Christian is in position to grab the briefcase and get the win, but this time, Swagger bonks him in the face with the briefcase. After an eternity of fumbling with the clasp holding the case in place, Swagger finally unhooks it to claim the win. Swagger's win was as unexpected as his bungled finish was anticlimactic.
- This year's WWE Hall of Fame inductees are introduced on stage. Outside of Ted DiBiase Sr., let's just say the years haven't been kind to most of these folks.
"What is this, the blind, crippled and crazy?" my dad asks.
- Triple H vs. Sheamus. Most of our watching party, seeing Sheamus for the first time, are horrified by his pale appearance. "There's nothing wrong with my TV!" J-Dub insists. "He's that white!"
- A whole lot of nothing going on in the ring, and conversation in the room somehow turns to the Sesame Street character Cookie Monster. I learn that he's now the "Veggie Monster," who says "A cookie is a sometimes food." Childhood obesity or not, this is an outrage. Another piece of my childhood is destroyed. I'm appalled.
- Sheamus hits a couple of big kicks to Triple H's head, but can't finish the job. H rallies and hits his signature move, the pedigree, for the win. As Triple H heads up the ramp, Striker says, "You have to wonder what's next for Triple H." I get a sinking feeling that this is foreshadowing and Triple H is going to get involved somewhere later, but this ends up being the last we see of him.
- CM Punk comes out with his Straight Edge Society for his match against Rey Mysterio. As Punk walks to the ring, I see a sign in the crowd that says "Even Jesus hates CM Punk." Geez, that seems a bit much. ... Punk's wearing camo tights with his name patterned after the GI Joe logo. OK, that's pretty awesome. ... During the match, Mysterio leaps off the top rope and does a flip into a DDT on Punk. Sweet move! ... Punk's lackeys get involved, but Mysterio fights them off and hits his finishing combo to pull off the surprising win.
- Now, Bret Hart vs. Vince McMahon. Given that Hart suffered a stroke a few years ago, there was some concern over how much he could do here. Sure enough, those worries proved to be well founded. Vince comes out and reveals that he has bought off the rest of Hart's family to serve as outside enforcers during the match. But before things can even start, we find out that the Harts are sticking behind Bret and they're here to join in the beatdown on McMahon. ... Bret gets in some punches before dumping Vince outside the ring, where he gets annihilated by TJ Hart and DH Smith, two members of the family who now wrestle as the team The Hart Dynasty. ... Vince comes back in and gets punched some more. Bret just can't do a whole lot else here. You get the sense the crowd wants to erupt, but they just aren't being given much to work with. ... Vince finds a crowbar under the ring, but Bret wrestles it away from him and beats on Vince with it. ... Bret teases his signature hold, the Sharpshooter, and that wakes the crowd up. But no, Bret just stomps on Vince below the belt. Bret gets a chair and lays in more shots. This is supposed to be an epic beatdown, but it's just getting tedious. Bret finally slaps on the Sharpshooter and mercifully it's over.
- As we get a shot of the announcers at ringside, we see actor Seth Green and former Indian Manny Ramirez in the crowd. The announced attendance: 72,219. That seems about legit, but I have to wonder, if you're sitting in the top of the stadium, how much of this can you really see? Those seats are awful for football games, and here, all the action is confined to a 20 foot-by-20 foot square in the middle of the floor. Is it worth it just to say you were there? I dunno.
- Ah, here we go: Chris Jericho vs. Edge. Jericho has our party in stitches, preening and posing after every move right from the get-go. He also works in his classic "Ask him!" to the referee every time he gets Edge in even the simplest headlock. Jericho can do no wrong. ... The whole build-up of this match has been Edge telling Jericho he can beat him at any time if he hits the spear, a running tackle. But it's Jericho who decides mid-match to turn the tables and try a spear of his own. This goes horribly wrong, as Jericho runs right into a boot and gets knocked silly. Edge tries a spear - but Jericho counters with his own finisher, the codebreaker! Edge kicks out of a pin attempt and we fight on. ... The announcers talk endlessly about Edge's achilles tendon injury that shelved him for six months, and Jericho is like a shark smelling blood, locking in a single-leg version of the classic Boston crab. Edge survives by making the ropes. ... Referee gets knocked out, giving Jericho a chance to whack Edge with the belt - excuse me, "the championship" if you're a WWE announcer ("belt" is apparently now a dirty word), but again Edge kicks out. After some more back-and-forth, Jericho hits another codebreaker (grabbing the opponent by the head and dropping down with both knees on his face to knock him out). This time it's enough for the win. Our party is in shock that Edge lost. I crack open a cold beverage and celebrate my hero's victory. ... Jericho goes for some post-match shenanigans, but Edge revives and goes nuts. He sets Jericho up on one announce table, runs across the other, and spears Jericho through a security wall. The announcers try to put Edge over as still dangerous, but there's a healthy current of booing from the crowd. Nobody likes a sore loser.
- Next up, a 10-diva tag team match. This was a late addition to the card, not announced until after I turned in my preview late last week. ... Matches like this tend to be clunkers, so it becomes the designated "nacho break" match of the night. ... I return to see each woman hit her big move. The sequence ends with Vickie Guerrero, the widow of former champion Eddie Guerrero who has, in her own right, turned into quite the hated character, doing an awful top-rope splash for the win. Other than giving the ladies a WM pay day, I don't know why this was added to the card, especially given that a couple of bigger matches were cut short.
- WWE championship, Cena vs. Batista, is next. I'm really surprised this isn't going on last. Batista's entrance, with a single spotlight in the darkened arena, has a cool, old school vibe to it. Cena's entrance includes a performance by the US Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team, as they are identified by the announcers. Cena tosses his shirt into the front row and it's caught by Cleveland's own Nathan "The Fantasy Consultant" Zegura! In last year's blog, I pointed out Zegura sitting in the third row, and this year, he's moved up to Row 1. He must have had some good luck with those mid-round picks in his fantasy football league. ... Fairly early in the match, Cena gets Batista on his shoulders and goes to dump him (Cena's finishing move, the attitude adjustment), but Batista turns into in a NASTY DDT. That looked rough. Batista takes control with various headlocks. This drags on a little too long and we get restless. Apparently, the WWE production crew agrees, as they decide to start showing wide angle shots of the arena during the match. Put it this way: If you have time to start doing scene-setting shots mid-match, it's time to pick up the pace. ... Sure enough, we get things rolling again, as both guys hit their finishing moves, but can't get the 3-count. ... Cena goes to the top rope, but gets caught on the way down and driven into the mat. That's how he lost to Batista a year and a half ago in their first meeting. This time, though, Batista gets cocky and instead of going for the pin, he picks up Cena to inflict more damage. Cena, though, escapes and traps Batista in a submission hold, and Batista is forced to tap out. That's a fine piece of storytelling and smart way to build off their last match. Cena finds a guy in the front row wearing a "We hate Cena" shirt, and he goes and poses with him with a smirk on his face. Wait, this looks familiar. What do you know? This same guy was in the front row last year, and Cena did the same thing to him after winning a title then too!
- Main event time: Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels. I thought there was no way they would have the nerve to play this straight and try to top last year's epic, but they certainly tried. ... Within five minutes, Undertaker lands awkwardly and tweaks his knee. He favors it throughout the match. This was either the greatest sell job on a faked injury ever or Undertaker is actually hurt, because he limped noticeably the rest of the match, and it really took away from the flow of the action. ... Michaels takes a tombstone piledriver on the floor, but fights on. ... Michaels turns the tide and gets Undertaker out cold on an announce table. This opens the door for Michaels to do a backflip off the top rope and come crashing down on Taker, destroying the table! (For the record, it was the American announcers' table. The Spanish table was never broken, probably the biggest upset of the night) Michaels actually lands on Taker's legs, which is either very clever (given Undertaker's knee problems) or (more likely) a missed target. ... Back in the ring, Michaels hits his sweet chin music kick to the jaw, but Taker survives. Everybody in the room thought that was the finish. ... Taker gets a tombstone in the ring, but Michaels kicks out. ... Taker signals the end is near, but pauses for a second as Michaels feebly tries to get back to his feet. Undertaker has second thoughts. Michaels, though, seals his own fate by making a throat-slashing gesture at Taker and then slapping him in the face. Oops. Taker grabs Michaels and gives him an especially stiff tombstone, and that's that. ... They really tried to top last year's match, but between Undertaker's knee and the ungodly hype coming in, this just didn't have a chance to hit that level. Not a bad match, mind you. Just an impossible standard to meet.
- With the loss, Michaels is forced to retire. Taker hobbles over and gives him a post-match handshake before bowing out, leaving Michaels to soak in the cheers one more time. We see him disappear into the tunnel on the stage, and we're out at 10:57. Huh, no highlight reel to end the show this year. Odd.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Even writing this on Monday afternoon, I'm torn on where I come down on this show. The action was pretty steady with a couple of nice spots here and there, and (except for the women's match), nothing was particularly awful. But everything just felt so ... formulaic. WWE has really settled into a certain format with everything these days - The Formula I mentioned at the beginning of this - and it just gives everything such an antiseptic feel. The "WWE" brand is promoted above any individual wrestler, the announcers are given their talking points that they carry out with little sincerity, and, for the most part, everybody in the ring works pretty much the same style. Everyone's interchangeable. Everyone's replaceable. It makes for a seamless production even when someone goes down with an injury, but it also makes for a lot of forgettable programming. It becomes a challenge for even the most colorful performers, like a Chris Jericho or a Shawn Michaels, to truly shine through.
Coming in, I thought this show really had a chance to be something special. And, again, while there was very little that was outright awful, there was also very little that anybody's going to remember a year or two from now.
But that brings me back to the last match. Watching Michaels head out, my buddy asked, "Do you think he's done?"
"Nah," I said. "Six months. He'll be back. ... They all come back. They ALWAYS come back."
And our whole crew will be back too, with hopes renewed. Even if we likely won't remember much from the show we just watched.
- Tom Valentino | TValentino@News-Herald.com