From Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, LA
April 6, 2014
There’ve been angry crowds before in wrestling, but none quite like the hostile horde that was the city of Pittsburgh for the 2014 Royal Rumble. The imaginative and vindictive chants toward Randy Orton and John Cena’s benign World Title match (televised battle no. 6,237 in their lifetime series) were mere child’s play compared to the Royal Rumble match that lay ahead.
A perfect storm flourished from the components of two whirling entities: Daniel Bryan’s exclusion from the 30-man gauntlet, and just-returned (though wholly unwanted) Batista winning the match. The fans in the Steel City unleashed a torrential downpour of anger once Rey Mysterio, the no. 30 entrant, hit the ring, signaling Bryan’s non-participation. Famously, Mick Foley wrote a Facebook editorial following the Rumble, asking unironically if WWE legitimately hated its own fans, the ones who had made Bryan the most unconditionally beloved star arguably since the Attitude Era.
With one darling of the discriminating fan benching himself, that left WWE with just Bryan if they wanted to make up for lost goodwill. WWE Network would be finally launching in February, and the pay-per-view model would undergo a significant paradigm shift. To ask jaded fans to drop ten dollars a month for not only a treasure trove of classic wrestling content, but also the monthly pay-per-views at an astronomically-reduced price, was no longer an easy sell.
With WWE fans at their most discontented, and with a very real threat that WrestleMania could be ruined with caustic fan rage, the company had to act.
Never let it be said that WWE doesn’t listen to the fans. Oh sure, there are times where they completely disregard viewer sentiment, but rarely when staring the lucrative WrestleMania down the loaded barrel.
On March 10, Bryan staged an in-ring demonstration of a couple hundred random fans wearing his t-shirt. At this point, Bryan’s entire story centered around his anger toward Triple H and the Authority for wrecking his main event run in 2013, and the bearded hero was campaigning for a match with “The Game.” When Helmsley and wife Stephanie were unable to quell the vociferous Occupy-esque protest, Bryan was able to goad Triple H into a WrestleMania bout.
Bryan wasn’t finished making demands, and inserted the request that took on the voice of most fans watching: if Bryan beat Triple H, said he, then he wanted to be put into the World Championship bout with Batista and Orton. Past the point of keeping his cool, Triple H agreed to the demand, signaling to the fans that their wish was likely coming true.
A week later, a less-heroic Batista joined Orton in questioning Triple H’s motivation for potentially changing their match on short notice. Angry that the two would even think that Bryan had a chance at being him, Triple H lashed out at his ex-proteges for their whining and lack of faith, and amended the stipulation for his own WrestleMania match: if Helmsley beat Bryan, *he* would be entering the World Title match, thus guaranteeing a triple threat match no matter what.
The day WWE Network launched, another angle would launch itself for WrestleMania. Paul Heyman, on behalf of his client Brock Lesnar, openly lamented that Lesnar wouldn’t be receiving a World Championship match at WrestleMania, and thus put out an open challenge for any wrestler to take on the former UFC Heavyweight Champion on wrestling’s grandest stage. There was even a contract-signing table in the ring to underscore the importance of the challenge.
With such formality at hand, a major opponent was required to answer the call. As is his annual wont, The Undertaker magically emerged from ten months in seclusion to accept a match with Lesnar. A mostly-stoic Lesnar would sign the contract and aggressively shove the pen into ‘Taker’s chest. This led to Undertaker stabbing Lesnar’s hand with the with pen, and then chokeslamming him through the table. No mention had been made of their brutal battles in 2002, though this was the first time Lesnar would be facing ‘dark side’ Undertaker.
In another first, John Cena would take part in his first ever WrestleMania match that wasn’t a) for a title or b) the official main event. The opponent would come in the form of relative newcomer Bray Wyatt, whose raspy, eerie promos evoked memories of Jake Roberts and Kevin Sullivan. Wyatt, along with cult flunkies Luke Harper and Erick Rowan, randomly attacked Cena in a few World Title matches in accordance with Wyatt’s new infatuation: proving that Cena’s upstanding superhero identity was merely a facade.
Michael Cole, Jerry Lawler, and JBL performed commentary duties. The first pay-per-view to stream live on the WWE Network featured Hulk Hogan as guest host, as well appearances from Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, plus other legends in backstage comedy bits. Mark Crozer and The Rels performed Bray Wyatt’s theme, while Rich Luzzi of Rev Theory performed Randy Orton’s. The Hall of Fame class included The Ultimate Warrior, Jake Roberts, Lita, Razor Ramon, Carlos Colon, Paul Bearer, and Mr. T. Warrior, tragically, passed away several days later at the age of 54, but not before finally making peace with the wrestling world.
Daniel Bryan def. Triple H in 25:58
(Behind Bret and Owen Hart’s epic WrestleMania X clash, this is by and far the second-greatest WrestleMania opener ever. Helmsley was game to keep up with Bryan’s fast-paced physical style, and the result was a surefire match of the year winner for 2014 until Sami Zayn and Adrian Neville topped it, only barely, in December)
The Shield def. Kane and The New Age Outlaws in 2:56
(A simple squash to put the new class over the fogies, which most swear never happens. This would also be one of the last times fans considered Roman Reigns a hero)
Cesaro wins an Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, last eliminating Big Show in 13:25
(What looked like a way to shoehorn thirty upper-midcarders and forgotten-abouts into a match ended up a great vehicle to get Cesaro over as a true star. Sadly, 2014 wouldn’t be this sweet again for him, thanks to a failure to grab some mythical ‘brass ring’)
John Cena def. Bray Wyatt in 22:25
(The morality play at hand saw Wyatt trying to goad Cena into cheating, embracing some sort of inner demons. Cena’s mortal stock proved to be too much, and many felt the wrong guy won. One match later, Cena’s win would be virtually forgotten about)
Brock Lesnar def. The Undertaker in 25:12
(Hands down the most shocking in-ring moment of this millennium. The startled crowd reactions were a story unto themselves as Lesnar felled The Streak clean as a whistle. The entire sequence from Lesnar’s final F5 to Undertaker’s pained exit is forever rewatchable, maintaining its staggering punch. Quite simply, it’ll never be forgotten)
WWE Divas Championship: AJ Lee won a Vickie Guerrero Invitational in 6:48
(The crowd was still catatonic following Undertaker’s loss, summoning only enough strength to dully boo a Nikki vs. Brie Bella confrontation)
WWE World Heavyweight Championship: Daniel Bryan def. Randy Orton and Batista in 23:20 to win the title
(And WWE makes good to their fans. Of course, the shock of Undertaker’s loss was still reverberating to a heavy degree, but that didn’t stop the fans from coming alive for each of Bryan’s comebacks and hope spots. Every ten years, it seems a WrestleMania ends with a beloved technician breaking through: Bret Hart, Chris Benoit, and Daniel Bryan)
ITS PLACE IN HISTORY
Of the event’s losers, Attitude Era throwbacks like Triple H, Kane, the Outlaws, Goldust, Mark Henry, Show, and yes, The Undertaker all went down in defeat. In a sense, it felt as if a new beginning was at hand, with yesterday finally losing its footing in the face of Bryan, The Shield, and Cesaro, among others.
The freshness would fade quickly. Bryan needed multiple neck surgeries, the World Title would go missing when Lesnar won it, the Authority angle choked the phlegm out of Raw and PPV, and the ‘Brass Rings’ statement crushed all goodwill. Thank God for NXT.
Ordinarily, the defining moment would be Bryan celebrating, but it isn’t here. Fans knew the ending was coming from the March 10 Occupy segment. Instead, Lesnar standing tall over a crumpled Undertaker gets the nod. Rather than celebrate their chosen one getting what he’d earned, the internet punditry shifted focus toward why they felt The Streak ending was BS.
Any chance to mark out for Bryan’s victory was traded in for the right to hyper-analyze a finish that stunned even the smartest fan. Better to bare your brains than your smile, I suppose.