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WrestleMania XXI: A Portrait in Wrestling History
From The Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA
April 3, 2005
Since the day that Vince McMahon gained majority interest of the World Wrestling Federation from his aging, ailing father Vincent J., the younger Vince had grandiose dreams for the wrestling enterprise.
But wrestling is, of course, a bad word to McMahon. “Wrestling” conjures up scorn and mockery from the mainstream media, which is the very group that McMahon wants to charm most. While Vince has taken many a potshot at the mainstream, even on his own WWE programs, it’s done with a “sour grapes” bent.
McMahon has wished for years that his televised events would get the same respect that American Idol, Monday Night Football, Survivor, Seinfeld, CSI, and other wildly popular contemporary shows receive. Other than a war with WCW in the latter half of the 1990’s, he’s never seen other wrestling ventures as direct competition, since other wrestling promotions cater almost solely to ‘wrestling’ fans.
So for WrestleMania XXI, set in the same city as Rodeo Drive and Television City, McMahon unveiled one of his most clever advertising schemes, which fits right in line with how he perceives his work of blood, sweat, and tears.
For weeks building to the April 3 gala, professional looking vignettes were aired, featuring WWE superstars parodying popular movies, from Triple H playing William Wallace in Braveheart, to Undertaker recreating Inspector Callahan for his take on Dirty Harry, fans enjoyed WWE’s attempt to prove that they’re just as “Hollywood” as the giant letters that adorn that California mountainside.
As “WrestleMania Goes Hollywood”, WWE would go fresh. It was here that McMahon decided to pay off his “new class” of star by featuring several in-house developmental talents in major roles. For better or worse, these men would lead WWE into its future.
For the first time since becoming a major player in the late 1990’s, Triple H would be thoroughly outsmarted by the opposition.
Beginning in late 2004, Triple H began to show signs of a rift with Evolution’s muscled enforcer, Batista. Though Batista usually did as he was told, clearing paths for his boss to escape with the World Heavyweight Championship, “The Animal” began to speak out in bold, subtle tones against some of Triple H’s demands. Though the group’s veteran adviser, Ric Flair, would often smooth over the trouble spots, it was clear that Batista was tired of taking orders.
Batista and Flair both competed in the 2005 Royal Rumble, with the idea being that, as long as one of them won and Triple H remained champion (he retained over former protégé Randy Orton earlier in the night), the main event of WrestleMania would center around Evolution. Batista would win, tossing out John Cena in a controversial finish.
However, Triple H tried to steer Batista into going to SmackDown to challenge champion JBL, giving him the idea that Evolution could hold two World titles. After weeks of hemming and hawing, Batista appeared to agree with Helmsley’s plan, only to reveal that he saw through the façade, believing that Triple H was simply afraid of him. Batista attacked the champion and Flair, severed his ties with them, and officially signed to face his former jefe at WrestleMania.
Speaking of JBL and John Cena, they would represent the SmackDown main event for the WWE Championship. JBL had become the unlikely champion in June 2004, transforming from beer-swilling, card-playing Texan to something more like his real-life alter ego, a stock market savant who handled his money as well as he did smaller opponents. JBL survived title defense after title defense, mocking the middle class all the while. Among the former Bradshaw’s wins were a bullrope match with Eddie Guerrero to win the belt, a “Last Ride” match with Undertaker, and a barbed wire steel cage match with Big Show.
Cena became #1 contender by winning a tournament final over Kurt Angle at No Way Out. JBL and Cena were a match made in heaven, as JBL’s upper-class snobbery meshed with Cena’s streetwise blue collar attitude.
In other big matches, Kurt Angle would meet Shawn Michaels for the first time ever at WrestleMania XXI. Angle became convinced that he could do anything that Shawn could do, and tried to replicate his entire career in just one month, hoping to culminate the story with a win over Michaels. The saga included winning a classic match with Michaels’ former partner Marty Jannetty on Smackdown.
In addition, Randy Orton, in an attempt to further his “Legend Killer” persona, challenged The Undertaker at WrestleMania, figuring that if he could end the streak, his moniker would be worth its presumed weight.
Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler, along with Michael Cole and Tazz, provided the commentary yet again. The WWE Hall of Fame inductions saw Hulk Hogan as the headlining figure, going in along with six of his classic nemeses: Rowdy Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, Cowboy Bob Orton, Jimmy Hart, Iron Sheik, and Nikolai Volkoff. Hogan would save Eugene from an attack by Muhammad Hassan and Daivari, while Piper hosted a raucous Piper’s Pit with Stone Cold Steve Austin and Carlito.
Rey Mysterio def. Eddie Guerrero in 12:39
(What should have been an excellent match was somewhat marred by Mysterio wearing a mask that was looser than a Louisiana ring rat. Mysterio kept stopping to readjust, ruining much of the timing. It should be noted that these two were WWE Tag Team Champions at the time)
Money in the Bank: Edge def. Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Kane, Christian, and Shelton Benjamin in 15:17
(The first, and possibly best, of these types of matches saw Shelton try to steal the show with a hands-free run up a sloped ladder, and Edge royally piss the fans off by winning. This is when he stole Lita from Matt Hardy in real life, and the fans rallied behind Hardy. Sounds funny now, I know. Amazing match)
The Undertaker def. Randy Orton in 14:14
(One of the last times I truly felt Undertaker’s streak was in jeopardy was when Orton landed an RKO out of a Tombstone attempt for two. The other highlight was Bob Orton running in with his old cast and whacking Taker with it. Pretty good match, actually. That’s thirteen)
WWE Women’s: Trish Stratus def. Christy Hemme in 4:11
(If Hemme was any more useless, she’d be WWE stock in 2025. Stratus pretty much openly mocked her during the match, which I’m sure was half-shoot)
(Just a great match from perhaps the two best overall wrestlers of the last twenty years. I was as shocked as anyone when Shawn Michaels tapped out cleanly to the ankle lock, and I’m sad that the two more times that these men faced off would be the end of their series. There should have been WAY more)
Sumo Match: Akebono def. Big Show in 1:02
(Two fat guys in thongs, all to get WWE free press in Japan. Don’t inquire further)
WWE Heavyweight Championship: John Cena def. JBL in 11:26 to win the title
(Pretty weird match, as the ending came out of nowhere, and there was none of JBL’s usual chicanery. Fans barely reacted for the new WWE champion, in Cena’s first reign. These two had a MUCH greater match at Judgment Day two months later, so check that out)
WWE World Heavyweight Championship: Batista def. Triple H in 21:34 to win the title
(Fans give this match a bad rap, but I quite enjoyed it. Basically, Batista managed to bust Triple H open, and then he began taking out all of his aggression from years of being a lackey out by mauling the champ into oblivion. At least the fans marked out for the finish this time)
ITS PLACE IN HISTORY
If you exclude Rey Mysterio’s World Title win at WrestleMania XXII one year after this event, then Cena and Batista are the last two men to win their first career World Titles at WrestleMania. Since then, WWE has largely relied on the same people in the same clutch situations, as opposed to taking a risk at the big annual spectacular.
In fact, let’s go one step further. Excepting Mysterio again, every World Title participant at WrestleMania after this (22 through 26) have either been previous-champions, or have already been in World Title matches at WrestleMania previously. That doesn’t show a lot of creativity, nor does it show any iota of faith in rising stars. WrestleMania XXVII will feature Alberto Del Rio, which is definitely a noble risk.
But for this event, WrestleMania XXI, John Cena and Batista were given transplants of faith by the office, and both men would remain as featured players for years; Cena to this day, and Batista up until he left WWE in the spring of 2010.
The enduring image of WrestleMania XXI is the torch passings, to a former Evolution bodyguard and a wannabe freestyle rapper, both of whom became made men on this night.