Has The Build To WWE WrestleMania Become Irrelevant?
After a weekend of defied expectations, does it even matter what happens on the Road to WrestleMania?
It’s the week following ‘Mania, which of course means that social media is a complete warzone. But if there was a safe way of summarising WrestleMania 37, I’d opt for ‘a surprising experience.’
The weekend was full of the unexpected, from the tragicomic weather delay to Bad Bunny actually being good. But as jaw-dropping as these examples were, the more potent shocks were those which flew directly in the face of WWE’s 'Mania build.
WrestleMania 37 defied our expectations in quite a few different ways. The overarching surprise was the positive response it received, because in blunt terms, the build had us braced for disaster.
It’s unclear which factor led to this feelgood sentiment - the general sense of relief that live wrestling was back, or a batch of excellent performances from the likes of Banks, Belair, and the three Universal title competitors.
But despite the talent on show, we can be forgiven for expecting the worst. The road to WrestleMania was glaringly devoid of the big names we’ve become dependent on over the past decade, with Edge the sole exception. On top of this lack of star power, several matches were thrown together on short notice, and even those that weren’t suffered from unfocussed storytelling.
Why on earth was Reginald the star of the SmackDown Women’s title picture? Who greenlit the break up of the Hurt Business? And when was it decided that the age-old Owens/Zayn rivalry needed a dash of Logan Paul to spice things up?
Some storylines had far too much going on (hello Randy, hello Bray) while some had far too little. The planning of one feud in particular seemed to consist only of the words ‘Shane’, ‘Strowman’ and ‘stupid’ on a Titan Towers whiteboard, and I’m only half-joking.
Yet despite suffering all of this over the course of two long, unpredictable months, we came away from WrestleMania relatively happy. Not ecstatic, but certainly sports entertained to a satisfactory degree.
So the question now is: does the build to WrestleMania even matter? After all, we’ve seen WWE follow this pre-’Mania pattern before, stumbling out of the blocks only to rescue things in the nick of time.
It happened most famously in 2014, when the Royal Rumble went down horrendously. WWE were aiming for an incredibly tone deaf Batista vs. Orton main event, but thankfully bowed to fan pressure and booked Daniel Bryan to win it all. The following year was an even sharper turnaround, with a negative atmosphere lingering all the way up until the day of WrestleMania 31 itself - until a series of exciting matches and a legendary Rollins cash-in had us happily eating our words.
Yes, this has all happened before, but never so comprehensively. In the history of the event, WrestleMania 37 may well be the least faithful to its build. The Wrestling Observer reported that the finishes of four matches were changed at the last minute, one confirmed as Randy Orton’s bizarre victory over The Fiend. One can imagine another being the WWE Championship bout, as all signs pointed to Lashley losing his title. I’ve seen some throw doubts at this idea, citing WWE's recent interest in booking Bobby strong - which is no bad thing. But if a Lashley victory really was the plan all along, why transition the belt to him via The Miz in the first place? Just have him beat Drew for the title!
But then of course a fair chunk of the results didn’t make sense; we shouldn't be surprised. ‘Mania exists in its own elevated universe, separate from the rest of the product. Things happen that don’t usually happen, and in recent years, that magic stuck around until the following night. That trend appears to be over now, if this week’s very ordinary Raw was any indication.
WrestleMania’s one-off nature is a result of its own size; in the modern era, it is to WWE what a Conor McGregor fight is to the UFC. The viewing figures swell massively, and in terms of storylines, the destination becomes infinitely more important than the journey. Do you think someone who only tunes in once a year cared about the mess that was Bianca and Sasha’s feud? Absolutely not; they were only here for the finale, which happened to be excellent. That’s what gets remembered.
In a fair world, a bad build should lead to a bad outcome - and it usually does, even for the most reliable of wrestling promotions. This was proven last year, as the horrorshow of 2020 took its toll on New Japan Pro Wrestling, the critics’ darling of the past decade. The pandemic forced NJPW to rush its plans, change direction, and occasionally even improvise, three things the conservatively-booked company hates doing. As a result, there is far less enthusiasm about most of its big shows at present. A lack of planning can kill anyone.
WrestleMania is the exception though. A slapdash build means that every other wrestling show is at risk of a bad reception; in the case of ‘Mania, all bets are off.
But that doesn’t mean it’s right. Good planning might not be needed to have a good WrestleMania, but surely it would result in an even better one. Who’s saying we don’t deserve that as fans? Why are we congratulating WWE for turning in a good show, when they easily have the talent to put on an outstanding one with just a little more planning?
A dramatic, coherent build can pay dividends in spectacular fashion - but at the moment, WWE aren’t in the business of dramatic, coherent builds. And in the case of WrestleMania at least, they’ll continue to get away with it as long as we let them.