Often WWE’s never-ending tagline-ing and over-branding can miss the mark and end up more off-putting than additive, but with WrestleMania they really have nailed it. ‘The Showcase of the Immortals’. ‘The Grandest Stage of them All.’ When done well, wrestling as a performative art is enhanced by a sense of grandeur, and nothing feels as BIG as WrestleMania. More than any other event, if you nail your performance on this stage then it will be remembered forever. – Robin Reid
Steve Austin vs. The Rock
WWF WrestleMania X-Seven
Watch: WWE Network / Peacock
Testimonial by Rich Kraetsch
Defining eras in wrestling is typically an inexact science. Sometimes the beginning or end of an era is defined by a booking, regime, or ownership change. Sometimes those eras’ start and stop points are determined by a title switch, the culmination of a new star, or a specific show. Even the WWF’s most famous and popular era—The Attitude Era—doesn’t have a clear beginning. Was it the Brian Pillman/Steve Austin home invasion and gun storyline? Was it Bret Hart saying “Bullshit” on RAW? Was it Vince McMahon’s promo on RAW letting fans know the WWF would change?
What is not for debate is when The Attitude Era ended.
The Attitude Era ended on April 1, 2001. It ended when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin shook hands with his long-time rival Vince McMahon, who aided him in defeating The Rock for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania X-Seven.
With one handshake, the WWF’s Attitude Era ended.
And I, a 14-year-old wrestling superfan, was at a crossroads.
In the weeks leading up to WrestleMania X-Seven, WWF’s most popular era ending in an instant didn’t cross any of our minds.
The news of WWF buying out their competitor World Championship Wrestling had the opposite effect on most wrestling fans. Few of us were anticipating an almost-instant business collapse, instead regaling that WWF was about to launch the wrestling business into another stratosphere. WWF owned WCW and, with that, all of WCW’s top stars. WWF now had carte blanche to book all the legendary dream matches written about in Pro Wrestling Illustrated and debated hotly on AOL Chat Rooms and primitive Message Boards. The world was WWF’s oyster.
In the weeks leading up to WrestleMania X-Seven, we had no idea that Austin, after years of feuding with hated rival Mr. McMahon, would turn heel for the first time since early 1997 and, with it, destroy years worth of stories fans had invested in.
In the weeks leading up to WrestleMania X-Seven, we had no idea that this would be the final sustained and regular run for The Rock. Hollywood was sniffing around the 28-year-old, but none of us could have predicted Dwayne Johnson becoming THE biggest movie star in the world. For us watching at the time, The Rock was a wrestling prodigy. He would be wrestling in his third straight WrestleMania main event. When The Rock entered the Houston AstroDome, he was about to wrestle the 744th match of his young but illustrious career. Little did we know, over the next 15 years, The Rock would wrestle only 110 more times. We had no idea that over 87% of The Rock’s career had already happened.
Not all endings are bad, though. While the WWF’s business would take over a decade to recover financially, there was no better, more romantic way for the era to end than with this match, these men, that show, that crowd.
Their WrestleMania X-Seven match is, in many ways, a love letter to The Attitude Era. A No-Disqualification championship match with tons of brawling on the outside, Earl Hebner, a heel turn, and Mr. McMahon interference: it had it all. But, it was the best of all those parts. It was the best of The Attitude Era rolled up into a 28:08 package. All the highs of The Attitude Era, all the things that made The Attitude Era truly great were on full display. None of the Beaver Cleavages, Mae Young giving birth to a hand, Val Venis porn videos, Road Warrior Hawk drunkenly falling off the Titantron, no racism, sexism, or any of that shit.
Even the build to the match desperately tried to veer into the bad parts of The Attitude Era. Thankfully, it couldn’t avoid the gravitational pull of two generationally superstars. Steve Austin had won the Royal Rumble, The Rock had beat Kurt Angle for the WWF Title at No Way Out. The stage was set—Austin vs. Rock, for the title, in the WrestleMania X-Seven main event.
The story writes itself.
But it didn’t.
Instead, WWF opted to shoehorn a ridiculous story where Mr. McMahon forced Austin’s then-wife Debra to become The Rock’s manager. This uneasy alliance went disastrous immediately when Kurt Angle attacked Debra. In anger, Austin attacked The Rock, which was supposed to be the catalyst for the hatred between these two that would get us to WrestleMania.
The story didn’t need this.
Quickly, WWF pivoted. As seen in the absolutely iconic “My Way” hype video for this match, the final week’s build to WrestleMania had nothing to do with Debra or strange bedfellows or Mr. McMahon puppeteering.
Instead, The Rock and Steve Austin both have beers in the ring. They pretend to not hate one another for a few seconds—lifelong rivals that, despite both being faces, have no love lost for each other. They both toast one another aggressively until they decide, “Fuck This.” All hell breaks loose right when the song kicks into high gear.
It’s a masterful piece of art.
In a sit-down just days before the show, they again keep it simple.
The Rock says, “I will give you every drop of sweat, every drop of blood, every ounce of energy I have; you are going to get the absolute best of The Rock at WrestleMania.”
Austin responds, “I need to beat you, Rock. I need it more than anything you can even imagine. There can only one World Wrestling Federation champion and that will be, Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. With all due respect.”
In an era defined by the ludicrous, the over-the-top, the theatrical, the biggest match in the era’s history and the match that ended the era was Pro Wrestling 101. Two guys, two long-time rivals, squaring off in the ring to determine who is the best and who will walk out of the biggest show of the year as the World Champion. Wrestling is so easy.
The match that followed was perfect. As perfect a match as you can possibly ask for. A match that was rich with history, steeped in hatred, and deep in drama. Two icons of the industry, two of the most giant stars wrestling had ever and would ever see, bloody, battered, and destroyed.
I’ve seen this match dozens of times, but even watching it in anticipation of writing this, I was blown away by the structure and storytelling of the match. Even watching it 22 years later, you can feel the tension and the uneasiness. It’s a match that makes you nervous as it makes you excited. A match that keeps you on the edge of your seat even though you, me, and everyone who has ever watched it before knows precisely where it’s going.
What’s funny about Rock vs. Austin is they are capping off an era that wasn’t defined by in-ring work. Instead, it was an era in which a few slick-talking frauds who ascended to power they should’ve never held convinced the world that wrestling wasn’t about wrestling. That we fans didn’t want wrestling matches on our wrestling shows. That pesky wrestling was just getting in the way of backstage segments and guys getting run over by cars or buried in a desert.
That The Rock and Austin concluded the era by having, far and away, its best pro wrestling match is a beautiful irony.
Still, though, it ends in the most Attitude Era way possible. A swerve. A heel turn.
Desperate to win back the WWF Championship, Austin sells his soul to the devil, his devil, our devil, Mr. McMahon. After using a chair brought to the ring by McMahon, Austin pummels The Rock and pins him. He’s the WWF Champion but, in the process, sold not only his soul but the soul of each and every fan who grew up with The Attitude Era. Austin and McMahon shake in the middle of the ring with 60,000 fans and millions at home looking on.
In an instant, it was over. The hero, the everyman fighting against his boss, just became everything he hated, everything he told the fans he was against. The story is completed. Rarely do you get such an apparent and clear end in pro wrestling. WrestleMania X-Seven was it.
The Attitude Era was done. Austin was a heel, Mr. McMahon and Austin buried the hatchet, The Rock was a Hollywood star, ECW was dead, WCW was dead, and The Attitude Era was dead. WWF wrote the final chapter, slapped “The End.” on the last page, and gave us the opening to close the book.
Some of us couldn’t break away, including the 14-year-old pro wrestling superfan I alluded to earlier. I was far attached to the subjects and the narrative to break away. That book closed, but I immediately opened up the sequel, then the next book, and the other after that, and the next one. I bought every desperate money-grabbing attempt to rekindle the magic of the first book. They had me hook, line, and sinker.
Then those books weren’t enough for me, I needed more, I wanted more, so I read the prequels and sought out similar-style books to appease my desperate appetites. I started hanging around local bookstores, asking for recommendations. Now 22 years later, at 36 years old. I’m still reading the damn books. But I’m a rare survivor of what happened at WrestleMania X-Seven. Millions of others closed the book after WrestleMania X-Seven. Millions put the book on their shelves to collect dust, never to be opened again.
- Steve Austin vs. The Rock – Their prior huge WrestleMania match.
- Steve Austin vs. The Rock – Their subsequent huge WrestleMania match.
- Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair – An interesting parallel from WCW that produced one of their last good buy numbers.
Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart
WWF WrestleMania X
Watch: WWE Network / Peacock
Testimonial by Jeff Martin
Storytelling in pro wrestling is, at its core, a series of conflicts that escalate until there is a victor. This principle structures feuds, pushes, and the individual matches they encompass. The sports element of pro wrestling dictates that the competitors, as characters, want to win fights, climb the ranks, and become World Champion. Everyone wants to win, because that’s the core of sports. The WHY comes from the realm of the theatrical. The embrace of the theatrical is able to imbue the action with differing tones, mood, and emotion to modify the ever-present kayfabe stakes of desire for victory.
The heightened emotional states that result from blending the athletic and theatrical become the treasured memories of wrestling fans. Creating these memories would come to be marketed as “WrestleMania Moments.” Our story takes place well before that phrase entered ubiquity. Our story is the opening contest of WrestleMania X, with “The Rocket” Owen Hart taking on older brother Bret “Hitman” Hart prior to Bret challenging the winner of Lex Luger and Yokozuna’s WWF Championship match later that night. Our story begins with one participant who doesn’t want to be there.
The seeds for one of the best singles matches in WrestleMania history were planted at the 1993 Survivor Series. Bret Hart enlisted the aid of brothers Owen, Bruce, and Keith to battle a team selected by perennial rival Jerry “The King” Lawler. The Hart Brothers easily handled Lawler’s goons, but a fateful collision between Bret and Owen resulted in the youngest Hart brother being the only member of his team eliminated. Owen felt his had brother made him look like a fool, but things were smoothed over in time for Bret and Owen to join forces and challenge for the WWF Tag Team Titles two months later at the 1994 Royal Rumble. During that match, Bret was isolated, injured, and defeated. He offered his apologies to Owen, but “the Rocket” took the loss personally, and blasted his brother’s injured leg before spouting one of the funnier botched promo lines of all time.
Entering WrestleMania X, Owen Hart is driven by an obsessive need to prove he’s better than his big brother. Bret, on the other hand, doesn’t want this match to be happening at all. He’s upset that he’s become embroiled in this feud with his brother. When the bell rings, though, Bret’s competitive instincts take over, stoked by Owen celebrating every exchange of holds as if he’s just won the World Title. Owen is aggressively provoking his brother to escalate their conflict. Mat-work escalates to brawling which escalates to the Hart brothers throwing bombs at each other – both devastate the other with a piledriver and go for the Sharpshooter. Bret Hart is no longer an unwilling participant, and tries to beat Owen with moves that have earned him past glories: the roll-through pin counter to a sleeper hold, applying the Sharpshooter from a double-down, and the victory roll. Owen is wise to his older brother’s tricks, though, and is finally able to show him up, sitting down on the victory roll for a decisive win.
Owen Hart has not only beaten his older brother, he’s done it on the biggest stage. He’s elated, and obnoxiously so. Bret, meanwhile, sits despondent. The audience in Madison Square Garden is shocked. They didn’t think it possible. Neither did Bret. The Excellence of Execution, out-executed? Not just beaten, but by superior technique? Owen was better, and if he was right about that, is it possible he was right before?
Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart, on action alone, would still be a lauded match today – it feels at home with what you see on display in high profile American singles matches now, despite taking place nearly 30 years ago. What pushes it to the level of being included as foundational wrestling knowledge is the way that it leverages all of wrestling’s strengths into a complete package. The wrestlers have distinct and clear motivations and emotional states going into the match, then use their physical performance to escalate their feud. Both men have reached greater levels of competitiveness, violence, and hostility over the course of 20 minutes of battle, while also changing their characters’ views of themselves going into the next phase of their story. Owen Hart is now truly convinced of his own pre-match argument that he’s better than his brother, and wears that confidence as armour. Bret Hart’s confidence, on the other hand, is shaken. He will go on to win the WWF Title in a few short hours, only to look into his brother’s eyes and see a relationship that can never be the same again.
- Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart – The two brothers would face off in a cage match later in the year.
- Steiner Brothers vs. Hart Brothers – Yo dawg I heard you like brothers, so we put a tag team of brothers up against another tag team of brothers, brother.
- Cody Rhodes vs. Dustin Rhodes – One of the best matches of 2019 features another younger brother looking to prove he can beat his elder, this time in a bloody, emotional brawl.
Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon Ladder Match
WWF WrestleMania X
Watch: WWE Network / Peacock
Testimonial by Joey O’Doherty
When I was 10 years old in 1994, I was already a full-blooded member of the professional wrestling fandom. I remember clearly watching WWF Superstars each week as the stories rolled on post Hulk Hogan. After the Royal Rumble, I was all set to see either Lex Lugar or Bret Hart topple the seemingly unbeatable Yokozuna in the famous Madison Square Garden.
I was a huge Bret Hart fan; who didn’t want a leather jacket and those Hitman shades in 1994? I was so excited about the show when I eventually got my hands on a VHS of the show a week later. I was savvy; I avoided any spoilers or results of the show, wanting to be surprised by the outcome no matter what happened.
My pal, who taped it, for me gave me one piece of advice before watching: “The ladder match was deadly [an Irish term for awesome], watch the ladder match”. And boy, was he right!
The ladder match in question was Shawn Michaels taking on Razor Ramon for the Intercontinental championship. You can’t talk about WrestleMania without talking about this iconic ladder match. By this time in 1994, Shawn Michaels had really been on a whirlwind journey. He went from one half of everyone’s favorite tag team to midcard heel. In late 93 he was stripped of the Intercontinental championship due to alleged wellness violations in the aftermath of the well-publicized steroid trial. Michaels denied these claims but was suspended and the title was relinquished.
Razor Ramon, however, was on the rise. WCW didn’t really work out for him and, while he was used much better in WWF as the Tony Montana-inspired Bad Guy, he wasn’t really connecting with the audience. But in late 1993, Razor went from being an underwhelming heel to a stylish, fearsome hero. Everything just began to click for Ramon and when ol’ HBK was stripped of the IC strap, it was Ramon that benefited. Everyone loved Razor, myself included.
By the time Mania came round, Michaels was back on the scene, proclaiming himself to be the real Intercontinental champion. Michaels would bring the title he never returned with him, and he rightly pointed out that he was never beaten for the title. The scene was set for these two to clash.
But then, someone threw in the stipulation of a ladder match.
At the time, WWE had only used this gimmick once previously when Shawn and Bret Hart tangled in a lesser-known match in the end of 93. The wider audience had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn’t. For little 10-year-old me and probably everyone else, this was a fresh stipulation. A never seen before spectacle, and it had two of the coolest wrestlers in WWF involved.
The match itself was nothing short of breathtaking in 1994. An innovative exhibition of professional wrestling at its finest. Before the match even begins, it’s gave me unexpected chills. The visual of the ladder in the entranceway enticed me more from the get-go. Watching both Shawn and Razor make their entrances, both opting to navigate past the ladder differently still stays with me to this day. The cocky pretty boy Michaels versus the greased-up monster that was Scott Hall. At the time, it felt like the beginning of something special. It was.
Both men had tremendous chemistry; they complimented each other so well as not only characters, but as in-ring dance partners. Then you add the inclusion of a ladder, which was so unknown at the time, and this match had me hooked from the first bell.
We take for granted ladder matches these days. In 2023, I believe the concept of a ladder match is stale, and rarely exciting. But in 1994, Shawn and Razor had the advantage of mystery and creativity to bring this match to life. Every use of the ladder was brand new; every spot was something novel and inventive. It was captivating stuff on a different level of suspense from most offerings WWF served up around this time.
Then there is the moment I will never forget: the visual of Shawn standing on top of the ladder before splashing Razor from above. This is one of the most iconic moments in WWF history. It’s been replayed countless times in the past three decades. The danger felt real, the shock was genuine, and daredevil-like guts from Shawn had everyone watching on in disbelief. Nowadays, a Komander or a Rey Fenix take these bumps and nobody bats an eyelid, but back then it was nothing short of incredible.
From that point on, this match grabbed me like no other before it. At that time, it was the angles in WWF that grabbed my attention. It was stories like Jake Roberts and his cobra attack on Randy Savage or Warrior and his freak sickness at the hands of Papa Shango’s curse appealed to me more than Steamboat vs Savage or even the aforementioned Owen and Bret which kicked off the show. This match changed that.
This match had it all – crazy drama and suspense, insane danger and devil-may-care action, and unbelievable harmony between Razor, Shawn, and the 3rd man: the ladder. This match put both Razor and Shawn on the map. Both men got over with the viewer, and solidified themselves as two new stars of the post-Hogan era.
As far as Mania moments go, this is arguably the most memorable. It symbolizes exactly what a great wrestling match needs to succeed: a hot crowd, talented performers at the top of their game, originality, passion and a heart-stopping spectacle set piece you will never forget. The perfect storm. It would be years before WWF/E beat this gimmick match into the ground, but this is the match that made it famous.
- Razor Ramon vs. Shawn Michaels – The first received such critical acclaim that they ran it back at the SummerSlam, this time with added petulance.
- Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Jericho – Almost a decade and a half later, Michaels had another of the best one-on-one ladder matches ever.
- Dudley Boyz vs. Hardy Boyz – A super-fun match that brought the tables match to a wider audience.
Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker
WWE WrestleMania 25
Watch: WWE Network / Peacock
Testimonial by Kevin Hare
History. The one advantage that WWE has on almost any other wrestling promotion in the world. The company has existed in some form for 70 years. Parents watched it with their children who then grew up and took their children to live events. A kid can watch a rookie wrestler progress through their entire career through retirement. We can grow up with these wrestlers, share experiences with our own families over them, grow old with them.
At its absolute best, this is what WWE can do better than anyone. It can exploit these emotions and feelings, creating spectacle and event in a way that it absolutely impossible for anyone else. And no spectacle is bigger than the keynote event of the WWE calendar: WrestleMania.
The Undertaker’s Streak was the absolute pinnacle of WWE story, spectacle and the ability for fans to experience an entire wrestler’s career from beginning to end. The Undertaker debuted with major acclaim and push, but the Streak didn’t. For years, it was purely coincidence. Of course, the Undertaker should beat Jimmy Snuka at WrestleMania VII. He was the new pushed monster, defeating the old guard. Of course he should beat Giant Gonzalez at WrestleMania IX. Gonzalez was the new monster of month, while Undertaker was becoming the undead version of Hulk Hogan. Of course his brother Kane should have been vanquished at WrestleMania XIV. Kane had been tormenting Taker for months and months on end.
But at some point, people realized what was going on. He never lost. Circumstance never led to it. The Streak was never broken. 10 wins. 11 wins. 12 wins. He kept going and going. He beat Randy Orton, himself a young prospect with a Legend Killer gimmick. He beat Batista, a legitimate top star in the company. The list went on and on. His career started to reach the end of that tunnel. He appeared less and less, making WrestleMania one of his few stops of the year.
Shawn Michaels, though, never lost to the Undertaker. Debuting in the company even earlier than the Undertaker, he had his own ups and downs leading to WrestleMania. Forced to retire in 1998, he came back in 2002 almost a new wrestler. He focused on big spots and big, dramatic moments. The two also had history. In 1997, they competed in the first Hell in a Cell Match. In 2007, they were the final two entrants in the Royal Rumble. But they had never met at the biggest stage, WrestleMania.
Big WWE matches have their own style. They are long. They have long pauses to milk the drama. There are major kickouts. They are overdramatic, with overexaggerated facial expressions, stunts, interference, ref bumps, you name it. Sometimes, this can spoil a match. The matches can be boring, or the overbooking can get in everyone’s way. But when it works perfectly, it works in a way that no other company in the world can represent.
The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 25 is the best and greatest example of WWE style in company history. It is not the cleanest match. Parts are sloppy, or don’t look good. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the history. The crowd understood the gravity of the match. These two men, more than any other, became larger than life. This was two WWE deities that could not be killed by simple moves. During their entrances, HBK descended from the rafters bathed in white. The Undertaker rose from the depths of hell drenched in black. Each knew that they’d need to risk absolute life and limb to defeat the other. And that, they did.
The crowd gasped when the 43-year-old Shawn Michaels awkwardly moonsaulted off the top rope to the outside and landed on his shoulder. The audibly shrieked when the Undertaker followed it up a few minutes later by doing his patented Undertaker headfirst dive over the top rope, the 7-footer majestically flying through the air like a kid diving into a swimming pool. However, there was no pool here, just the cold hard thump of the ground below. It felt like he’d never get up, each second adding to the drama. Finally, he did, beating the most dramatic 10-count in company history just to meet a Sweet Chin Music attempt that he was able to counter into a chokeslam. From here, the crowd lived and died on every move.
This was where years of history really paid off. Every Last Ride, every Sweet Chin Music, every Tombstone setup. The crowd was hooked, living and dying with every single move, every minute. This match was wrestling drama at it’s best. Would the Streak end? Would HBK even survive? Both were in serious doubt.
The Undertaker Tombstoned Michaels, the move that almost every single time was the absolute end of any match. But it didn’t work. HBK lay lifeless in the ring, drool pooling from his mouth. The Undertaker picked up his lifeless body for another Tombstone, but Michaels haphazardly countered it into a DDT. Two lesser wrestlers couldn’t pull off this match. On an indie show, it would be overindulgence in the worse way. But here, in WWE, at the 25th WrestleMania, it was the absolute perfect match.
HBK hit a Sweet Chin Music, his own Tombstone. The crowd went absolutely silent. They knew that this time, this was was it. But it wasn’t. They absolutely exploded when the Deadman’s shoulder rose. Finally in the 30th minute, Shawn Michaels threw a hail mary. He desperately climbed to the top rope. He didn’t learn from the moonsault that was almost his demise 20 minutes early. He tried it again. This time, caught in midair, the Undertaker drove the old man’s head into the mat and secured his 17th WrestleMania victory.
Both men lay on the mat. The crowd was just as exhausted. This is what 70 years does. This is why we watch. On April 5th, 2009, the Undertaker and HBK rose to the occasion and delivered what may be the greatest WWE match of all time.
- Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker – Their rematch with Michaels’ career on the line the following year captures a lot of the same magic.
- Edge vs. The Undertaker – Another epic Undertaker WrestleMania match where people felt the streak was in real jeopardy.
- Chris Hero vs. Bryan Danielson – Danielson’s final PWG match before signing for the WWE.
Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns (vs. Seth Rollins)
WWE WrestleMania 31
Watch: WWE Network / Peacock
Testimonial by Andrew Sinclair
I have been writing about wrestling since 2017. Over those six years, I’ve seen my fair share of three-way, or Triple Threat to use WWE parlance, matches in Impact Wrestling and various other places that I’ve reviewed matches from.
Almost without fail, I feel as though I’ve subconsciously analyzed all of those matches through the prism of the tropes associated with the format; How much of the match felt like a deliberate pattern of two people in and one person out? Was there a Tower of Doom spot? Was the original booking and/or finish a cop out designed to protect someone? In the end, my assessment is always driven by them either being good in spite of that stuff or bad because they were full of them.
WrestleMania main events are very much, in my mind, bound by a similarly pre-ordained frame of reference. As the main event of the biggest show of any given year, the main event is typically the most seen match of the year. Factor in that it has normally got a months-long build from the Royal Rumble and there’s a burden of expectation going in. Even if it’s not a bell-to-bell classic, it should be at the very least memorable. That has meant that I’ve typically been underwhelmed by Mania main events because I’m expecting an intangible sense of something more.
This match is special because it subverts both of the issues I’ve outlined above. It eschews all of the multi-person baggage by virtue of being, for 90% of its run time, a traditional one-on-one match. As for the Mania pressure, this is beyond memorable for me and firmly sits in the pantheon of the show’s best matches in its four-decade history.
Driving the intrigue of that singles portion is Brock Lesnar. Few things in wrestling have ever excited me as a fan as much as the opening exchanges of big-time Lesnar matches do. They feel like a fight for survival. You get that here, with Lesnar almost horizontal as he drives Reigns into the corner at speed.
Within the opening 30 seconds, they’ve clashed in the middle of the ring, leaving Brock with a bloody cheek, and Brock has driven Reigns into the corner, hit a German suplex and then an F5.
As the match progresses, Lesnar is perhaps best compared to an alpha male animal that you see in wildlife documentaries. There will always be challengers to his throne, challengers who think they see a fleck of weakness and have the ability to capitalize. It’s only when the battle begins that they realize what they’re contending with – you see it in Reigns as he lands three or four shots in succession to get Lesnar on the back foot, only to then be cut off with one move and immediately find himself back at square one.
The pacing of the Lesnar-Reigns exchanges are deliberate but not in a way that makes you think they’re waiting for something. Instead, the image that’s conveyed is one of Lesnar enjoying the dissection of his opponent. Enjoying inflicting pain and proving that he’s the dominant force. There’s a dismissive nature to his performance, taking his gloves off and berating Reigns with openhand slaps, but also the sense that he enjoys being pushed, that he thrives on competition.
2015 Roman Reigns was not someone you’d describe as having a tremendous offensive arsenal but he doesn’t need one in this match. Instead, it’s about surviving long enough to create an opportunity and that comes when Lesnar gets busted open hard on the ring post.
From there, the playing field is leveled, with Lesnar staggering around the ring like a wounded animal, relying on the ropes to keep him in a vertical position. Reigns lands headbutts, several of them, and now he’s not cut off. He gets off Spears and Superman punches and while only nearfalls follow, a victory for the next golden boy seems inevitable.
That is, until the strains of Seth Rollins’ entrance music play and he runs down the ramp at Levi’s Stadium to cash in his Money in the Bank Contract.
Money in the Bank as a concept is flawed and that’s something other people have already addressed more astutely than I will here. The crux of the issue is that it doesn’t help to make a star – either the title win is cheapened by an opportunistic cash-in after another title match or the contract holder looks like a fool for cashing it in in advance.
Here, the first time they cashed it in during a match, it made all the sense in the world. Lesnar, this dominant, monstrous champion, was as weak as any challenger was ever going to make him. Reigns, his former stable mate, had almost had the fight snuffed out of him. A couple of Curb Stomps later and you’ve got a new champion, just not the one anyone expected. I remember being left with feelings of shock and awe when I saw it the first time because the Money in the Bank pivot didn’t leave a sour taste but instead felt cool for perhaps the last time. It was the same on a recent rewatch for this project.
For a company obsessed with ‘moments’, particularly those on the grandest stage of them all, this is undoubtedly one of their best.
- The Shield vs. Big Show, Orton & Sheamus – Reigns and Rollins make their WrestleMania debuts two years before this infamous main event.
- John Cena vs. Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar – A few months prior at the Rumble a similar configuration produced a very different yet still stellar encounter.
- Takeshi Morishima vs. Bryan Danielson – An unstoppable monster and a valiant heart-driven force collide in epic fashion.
The Wrestling 101
- An Introduction to the Project & Match #1
- Unique Spectacles: Matches #2-6
- Multi-Man Magic: Matches #7-11
- What Could Have Been?: Matches #12-16
- Clashes of the 80s: Matches #17-21
- Paving the Road of Kings: Matches #22-26
- The Giant Legacies of Junior Heavyweights: Matches #27-31
- Immortal Matches of WrestleMania: Matches #32-36
The Wrestling 101 is a Voices of Wrestling group project headed up by Kevin Hare and Robin Reid. You can discuss the series with them on twitter @stan__hansen (Kevin) and @TheRDouble (Robin) or join the conversation over in the Voices of Wrestling Discord.