Thursday, April 5, 2018

It’s Time for WrestleMania 34

By Jerry Chandler

It’s April, April Fools is now nicely behind us, and, for wrestling fans at least, the real reason April as a month has a special place on the calendar is about to happen this coming weekend. The entire company that is the World Wrestling Entertainment has been building towards this weekend since the Monday Night Raw of April 3, 2017, and some fans have been making their plans for this weekend for almost as long. Welcome to the craziness that is the WrestleMania Weekend.

For those of us not attending the event and the opening festivities live, the WrestleMania weekend officially kicks off Friday night on the WWE Network with the 2018 Hall of Fame ceremony. This year’s Hall of Fame announcements sparked a lot of conversation in the wrestling fan community; not all of it good. The announcement of Goldberg going in for the 2018 class actually created some controversy within the fan community.

Many saw Goldberg as a less than worthy induction simply because he seemed the wrestling equivalent of a one hit wonder. His WCW tenure was marked by a fairly rapid rise to stardom, a brief time on top of the business, and then creative stumbles by the company and extended time on the shelf devaluing Goldberg in many fans’ eyes. With the purchase of WCW by the (then) WWF, Goldberg would stay out of sight longer than some as he was one of the WCW superstars who initially chose to ride out his contract rather than go directly into the WWF. Once in the (by that point) WWE, a largely misused Goldberg never seemed to reach the heights he did in WCW before leaving in a WrestleMania match that saw both him and Brock Lesnar getting booed out of the building by fans.

It wasn’t until a late 2016 return to the WWE that saw Goldberg reach anything close to the highs he had seen in the WCW of the 1990s; returning for a limited program that ultimately saw him once again facing Lesnar at WrestleMania. His entire modern run was just about half a year, and it saw him used in the ring very sparingly. All said and done, Goldberg’s time in wrestling- adding up his WCW, WWE, All Japan, and Legends ring time –was a relative handful of years where he sometimes saw very little time in the ring for extended periods. There are legends out there- living and dead -who spent many more years by far in the business and contributed far more over their time in the business who have not seen an induction and were seen by many to be more deserving.

The other side of that argument was that Goldberg was the biggest thing to come out of WCW during its biggest era in the business. He was one of the few new stars that made it big in WCW, and to this day- almost two full decades after his first World title win over Hogan –one of the first things fans think of when WCW is mentioned is Goldberg, Goldberg’s streak, and Goldberg defeating first Scott Hall and then Hollywood Hogan on the same Nitro to win the WCW title belt. Despite only having had a handful of years in the business, Goldberg had become an iconic figure in wrestling; especially to a certain generation of fans.

As much as people argue that the Hall of Fame should be based more on merit, the fact is that a lot of entries into the Hall of Fame are chosen as much or more for their sizzle factor. For a generation of fans who came of age during the Monday Night Wars, Goldberg was one of the biggest things in wrestling and easily the favorite wrestler of many a fan for a while. Goldberg’s induction is based in part on the fact that his presence in the business for a time earned him an eventual spot in that Hall of Fame even if his induction this year is likely based on having a major name to draw in viewers for the show. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Of course, the announcement that almost made everyone forget to keep arguing about Goldberg going into the Hall of Fame came a month later with the announcement of Jeff Jarrett going in. There were more than just a few fans who thought they would never see Jeff Jarrett’s face on WWE television again unless it was an old clip designed to embarrass him. I don’t think anyone expected to see the Hendersonville, Tennessee native walk back onto a WWE television stage as a WWE Hall of Famer. But, you know what? He’s done a lot in the business- including starting a company that survives to this day (if only barely sometimes) and helped to create some of the biggest stars in the WWE today -and he probably deserves it.

Other inductees include The Dudley Boyz, probably one of the most deserving tag teams of the modern era. Can’t say I have a problem with it, but after last year I was really hoping for a Midnight Express induction. Another inductee is the three-time WWF Women's Champion, one-time GLOW Champion, Ivory. There were a few people that looked at this one almost as they looked at Goldberg, but. In my opinion, she deserves it. She had a great run in the WWF, and she was amazingly entertaining back in the day. Mark Henry likewise deserves his place even if some might argue the timing. Hillbilly Jim will also be a part of this year’s class, and represents the old timer crowd quite well. Kid Rock will also be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, and, despite the comments of many, he wasn’t a bad choice. He was connected to the WWE and to the Undertaker in particular for some time during the WWE’s bigger years.

All in all, this year’s ceremony has a nice balance of big names, deserving names, and sizzle names. It should be a fun show.

Now, the steak event to go with the sizzle that will be some of the Hall of Fame and many of the matches on Sunday’s WrestleMania card will be Saturday’s NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. The Saturday before WrestleMania has been becoming the night to beat on the WrestleMania weekend for fans of ring action for some few years now. The WWE Network exclusive show may not have the pomp and circumstance and pyro that WrestleMania has, but the WWE’s developmental territory/third brand has made it a point of tearing the house down on the Saturday before WrestleMania for some few years now; maybe even putting on better shows on a purely in-ring action level. This year looks to keep up the tradition.

NXT Tag Team Championship: Undisputed Era (c) vs. Authors of Pain vs. Roderick Strong & Pete Dunne

The NXT tag titles will be up for grabs in a match that’s a hard one to call. A lot of people feel the Authors of Pain are due for a move to the main roster, and, if true, this could be their NXT swan song. There are even a few people that feel that The Undisputed Era may already be getting eyed for the main roster, but I think that might be a tad premature; especially with one of the trio on the shelf and Adam Cole pulling double duty on the show Saturday night. I’d call the match for the Undisputed Era, but I don’t think they’ll put two belts on Cole with the limited size of the performing NXT roster.

Winners: Roderick Strong & Pete Dunne

Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa (Unsanctioned Match)

Before the PG era of the WWE, this would be an absolute bloodbath of a match. Even though we’ve seen a few cracks in the PG era’s prohibition on blood in the ring, this one won’t end the match looking the way the feud has built it up to end. But, damn, these two will still probably put on a match that will be hard for some of the other wrestlers on Saturday night or Sunday night to beat. This should be a technically wonderful match to see, but also a brutally ugly one. Don’t expect it to end clean, or end the feud. Both men may be getting eyed for the main roster, but I’m expecting some storytelling symmetry here with a continuation of the feud on the regular NXT show building to the blow-off on June’s NXT TakeOver: Chicago. Chicago was where the team saw its brutal breakup with Ciampa’s betrayal of and beat down on Gargano, so I expect a couple more months of their feud leading to that and then a main roster call up for one or both after that.

Winner: Tommaso Ciampa

NXT Women's Championship: Ember Moon (c) vs. Shayna Baszler

This is another hard call to make. Ember moon is easily one of the best women to recently walk through the NXT door. Judging by past runs by women in NXT, Moon could be champ for another few months at least. But a part of my gut keeps telling me that they need her on the main roster with the expansion of the women’s division. They have also, even while having her on the losing end of their feud so far, been doing a good job of building Baszler up. Any other time, I’d go with Moon, but I think she gets her big WrestleMania Weekend moment on Sunday night.

Winner and New Champion: Shayna Baszler (with some cheating)

NXT North American Championship (Ladder Match): Adam Cole vs. Velveteen Dream vs. Killian Dane vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Ricochet vs. EC3

Not just a ladder match, but the introduction of a new NXT title belt. Expect this match to be the one that sets the highest bar Saturday night, because it’s stacked with talent, it’s got the crazy factor of being a ladder match, and everyone involved will likely be looking to put their stamp on the match that introduces a new belt on a WWE branded event show. When the smoke clears, I expect Adam Cole to be the man holding the new NXT North American Championship in his hand.

Winner and FIRST NXT North American Champion: Adam Cole

NXT Championship: Andrade "Cien" Almas (c) vs. Aleister Black

Not even a full year ago, had you told me that Almas would be a credible champion I might have laughed. Since taking that ball and running with it, Almas has worked hard to be a credible champion. It’s the kind of work that should get rewarded, but I don’t think his reward will be retaining the championship. NXT has been building Black to be something special, and I think they intend to pull the trigger on making him the guy in NXT. Whether that means a continuing feud with Almas or Almas going up to the main roster I’m not sure, but I fully expect to see Aleister Black as the new champion on NXT for the foreseeable future.

Winner and New Champion: Aleister Black

Women's WrestleMania Battle Royal

The inaugural (and initially controversial) WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal match seems to be getting a bit of a short shrift by the WWE for all the noise the company has been making about a women’s revolution in the business. The “historic” match is on the pre-show, so only WWE Network subscribers will get to see it this weekend. It’s also getting filled with women who have storylines with each other on the main roster; see the Bayley and Banks issue as an example. Actually, that one has been getting so much talk that many think the ending of the Women’s Battle Royal will come down to Bayley and Banks getting a big moment here to push their feud. Me? I’m thinking we get a win to act as the launch of a new main roster star.

Winner: Ember Moon

Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal

This one is also a tough call. It’s not being given that much of a big deal treatment. We’ve seen it used in recent years to launch NXT talent onto the big stage, but I think this year sees an old hand win his second Andre trophy.

Winner: Big Show

Cruiserweight Championship: Cedric Alexander vs. Mustafa Ali

The revitalized 205 show’s belt is getting the undercard treatment. A pity as they’ve really been improving the show of late. Expect this to be a fantastic match.

Winner: Cedric Alexander

Welcome to the main show. It’s time for WrestleMania!

United States Championship: Randy Orton (c) vs. Bobby Roode vs. Jinder Mahal vs. Rusev

For all of the hate he’s gotten over the years from some quarters of the IWC, Orton has been far more over the last few months than I expected. He’s going into Mania fairly strong, and a four-way dance works well for him when it comes to keeping the belt. However, the dynamic here doesn’t feel like Orton retains. Mahal could have great heel heat as champ, but I don’t think they’ll go that way because of recent events. I’d personally love to see Roode walk out with the belt, but I think the rather over with the crowds Rusev walks out with a win here. The only question is who gets pinned and how. I’d prefer to see him pin Orton cleanly so that he can enter into a feud with Roode or Mahal and Orton can start up an angle with someone else.

Winner and New Champion: Rusev

Raw Tag Team Championship: The Bar (c) vs. Braun Strowman & TBA

A lot of people seem to be hoping for “TBA” to be Elias. Some seem to think (somewhat improbably if the injury reports are all accurate) we’ll being hearing the 619 theme. I’d personally love to see a return for Neville. The really crazy pick being thrown around out there is CM Punk. Big Show and Kane have also had their names mentioned. I’m not sure that it matters. Strowman may very well have to have a partner, but he doesn’t have to tag the partner in. Strowman as he’s being booked right now could clean house on his own, and they could easily go that way with the match. Where they go from there (Authors of Pain?) is anyone’s guess.

Winners and New Champions: Strowman & TBA

SmackDown Tag Team Championship: The Usos (c) vs. The New Day vs. The Bludgeon Brothers

The smart pick here is the Usos retaining the titles, but I think they’re going to go for pushing the Bludgeon Brothers to the top of the SmackDown tag team scene. The team has a good aura going right now, and the best way to use them is to put them on top now before the eventual downgrading of their status due to the 50/50 booking that plagues WWE creative decisions so much these days takes its toll. Expect them to walk out as the new champs (likely by pinning a New Day member) to play monster heel champs until one of several monster teams gets the call up from NXT.

Winners and New Champions: The Bludgeon Brothers

Raw Women's Championship: Alexa Bliss (c) vs. Nia Jax

Nia Jax should have been getting booked like a monster on the women’s roster, but so far they’ve dropped that ball. They’ve been building this as a no brainer win for Jax, but they’ve also been building this in a way that allows Jax to become the monster on the women’s division by handing Bliss a devastating defeat here. But, if they do that, the question becomes whether or not they can build her as a monster and a face going forward. That hasn’t really been something the WWE creative team has exceled at in recent years.

Winner and New Champion: Nia Jax

Intercontinental Championship: The Miz (c) vs. Seth Rollins vs. Finn Balor

They’ve been building Finn Balor up strong on Raw as they’ve gotten closer to WrestleMania; largely with wins over Rollins. Unfortunately (especially for my son) I have a gut feeling this is something of a swerve. Expect the rivalry between Rollins and Balor to blow up during the match and the Miz to take advantage of the situation. As much as I want to see The Demon appear at WrestleMania and win the title, I think they keep it on Miz.

Winner and Still Champion: The Miz

Daniel Bryan & Shane McMahon vs. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn

Barring a swerve that I don’t see happening, the winners are Bryan and McMahon. There’s some speculation that Bryan does McMahon dirty by joining with KO and Zayn (and even some crazy talk of McMahon betraying Bryan) and forming a new faction, but my gut says no. I don’t think they’ll throw away the fan buzz around supporting as a face the return of Daniel Bryan to the WWE ring, and I don’t think they’ll kill the fan buzz at the WrestleMania arena by having Bryan in a losing effort with his first match back after what many thought would be a permanent retirement.

Losers and New WWE Monday Night Raw Superstars: Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn

SmackDown Women's Championship: Charlotte Flair (c) vs. Asuka

I loved Asuka in NXT, and (blasphemy) I’ve never been as high on Charlotte as many other wrestling fans I know. Given that, you’d think I would want Asuka to win, but I’m actually rooting for Charlotte here. Still, I’m not booking the match. They’ve made a huge deal about Asuka and her win/loss record. I don’t think they waste it on a losing effort to win the title. At this point (learning from the Ghost of WCW’s Past Goldberg Mistakes) the best use of that is to keep it intact to elevate the next big star in the Women’s Division when the time comes.

Winner and New Champion: Asuka

Ronda Rousey & Kurt Angle vs. Stephanie McMahon & HHH

Expect a mixed bag with some solid action from Angle and HHH vs some not so solid action from Rousey and Steph. Rousey is still extremely green in the ring, and her in ring action moments leading up to WrestleMania have looked a bit like a video game having some poorly rendered combat with bad clipping issues. No offense to Rousey, she’s still new and may well become a top level pro wrestler. Hey, a lot of us felt that Trish was horrible early in her career and she not only improved fast but became great. But she’s green as hell now and the WWE is putting her in a featured match on the biggest show of the year. Expect this to be a lot of Angle vs HHH. Ultimately, the program is geared to the feel good moment of Rousey and Angle winning, so I expect that here rather than a swerve.

Winners: Ronda Rousey & Kurt Angle

WWE Championship: AJ Styles (c) vs. Shinsuke Nakamura

THIS is the match I’m most looking forward to. I freely admit that any match on the show has the potential to be the surprise best of the evening, but this is the match I expect to blow the roof off the building and tear the joint down. AJ Styles has since his WWE debut (and even before that) been proving that he is one of the best pro wrestlers in the world today. Shinsuke Nakamura is probably one of the best main roster dance partners they could give AJ right now. These two have a great history (that the creative team have largely failed to play up) and the two have only gotten better as wrestlers over time. I almost don’t care who wins this match, I just want to see what these two will do to steal the show on The Grandest Stage of them All.

Based on some recent creative directions, I can see them giving Nakamura the win in part for the history it would make as much as WWE creative seeing him as a deserving candidate. I could also see it happening if the plans are already in the works to have AJ moved over to Monday Night Raw. But, my money is on AJ retaining.

Winner: The fans. Oh… You want the wrestler pick…
Winner and Still Champion: AJ Styles

John Cena vs. The (American Badass) Undertaker?

If this happens, expect the placement here to cool the crowd back down a bit after AJ and Nakamura. I don’t want to see it, but if it happens I don’t expect the Deadman to appear. He left that persona (despite the anniversary Raw appearance) in the ring last year. With Kid Rock on hand, expect the American Badass to answer Cena’s challenge and (possibly) give Taker a WrestleMania win to finish out his career.

Winner: The American Badass

Universal Championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Roman Reigns

And now we get to that match. For many, the outcome here is an absolute forgone conclusion. Most expect the yearlong build of Roman Reigns and his road to WrestleMania to see its conclusion here with the title win outcome that’s seen by many as Vince’s greatest desire. So, baring having an outcome in doubt in many minds, what are we tuning in for? In this case, the spectacle.

Despite the criticisms leveled at Reigns, he’s not the worst worker in the WWE by far. He might not be the best, and he may still have a lot to be desired when it comes to being a total package as champion, but the fact is that he is beyond being just a solid worker. Roman Reigns rarely puts on bad matches these days, and given an opponent that’s better than just average eliminates the possibility of a bad match almost entirely. Say what you will about Brock, and many are of late, he can put on a great match when he’s both motivated and has a capable opponent. We may see a few too many German Suplexes from Brock and a few too many Superman Punches from Reigns, but everything in between should be solid and entertaining. Whether you like the ending or not will likely be dependent on if you can just let go of the idea of the behind the scenes politics and creative pushes and just get into the story told in the ring Sunday night. Plus, well, I’m hoping for a bonus.

Winner and New Champion: Roman Reigns

That bonus I’m hoping for? They have to know from past experience that a win by Reigns will get a mixed reaction from the crowd. So how could they create a WrestleMania moment and send the fans home talking excitedly about the last thing they saw at Mania? Don’t wait until Monday Night Raw to start the next story for Roman Reigns. Take advantage of those big, pomp and circumstance entrances to sneak a guy under the ring, and have that guy pop out and blindside Reigns as he celebrates his win, belt held high in the ring. Have him beat Reigns into oblivion and leave people at home with the last image the see in that ring of Samoa Joe standing over Reigns with the belt in his hands. Joe is supposedly close to being able to come back, so a quick attack on an already battered and tired Reigns could be done with little risk and a few weeks of stalling by Joe on Raw would only make people mad hot for a match at the next Raw PPV.

At least that’s how I’d end the show.

--- My Pick for the likely Match of the Night ---

Seriously, you were expecting me to pick anything else?

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Nerdy Laser. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.

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