Wrestling Opinion: The (Bumpy) Road To WWE WrestleMania 32

Image Source: ProWrestling.com

Written By: Mark Armstrong

For wrestling fans, it must feel like Christmas Eve right now. That’s because we are now only a matter of days away from WrestleMania 32, the biggest wrestling event of the year and possibly the biggest event in WWE history, at least based on the potential live attendance. Later this week, I will make my predictions for Mania match results but, for now, I am going to look back at an unforgettable and at many times undesirable lead-in to WrestleMania 32.

Rumours have been going back years that WWE wanted to hold Mania at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas due to its 100,000+ capacity. In November 2013 (yes, it was that long ago), it was leaked that the 2016 WM would emanate from AT&T Stadium. Once it was officially confirmed in early 2015, both fans and WWE began considering possible mega matches to justify the biggest crowd in WWE history by presenting the company’s biggest and best show, well, ever.

All sorts of incredible potential matches or dream scenarios were drawn up. We’ve heard rumours of Hulk Hogan vs. John Cena, Sting vs. The Undertaker and a Shield 3-way bout. We’ve heard that WWE was planning The Rock vs. Triple H, Ronda Rousey vs. Stephanie McMahon or a tag team combination of the two. Roman Reign’s opponent has at various times ranged from Brock Lesnar to John Cena, who had also been linked with a match against The Undertaker (as was Lesnar before their feud ended at Hell In A Cell). HHH was also linked with Seth Rollins at one point. And let’s not forget Steve Austin briefly (and accidentally) raising hopes of a comeback match against Lesnar, as well as the possibility of return bouts for Batista, Goldberg, Kurt Angle and even Shawn Michaels (all of which were hearsay). Whatever path WWE chose to head down, the final line-up would be worthy of the occasion.

But what nobody was expecting was for the Road To WrestleMania 32 to be filled with so many problems, to the extent that WWE has been described as cursed by some. Previous Manias have suffered from injuries to top stars resulting in their absence, such as Mania 2000 (Undertaker and Steve Austin shelved) and WM 23 (Triple H and Rey Mysterio out hurt). (WM 13 would be on this list if most didn’t believe that Shawn Michaels “losing his smile” wasn’t just a convenient excuse to avoid losing to Bret Hart at said Mania.) However, nothing compares to the frightening injury jinx over the last few months. Randy Orton, Seth Rollins and John Cena were all shelved with long-term injuries. Daniel Bryan had to retire in February due to injury, and rumour has it that the also-shelved Sting will announce his retirement as well at the Hall Of Fame ceremony. Add to that injuries to Cesaro, Neville, Nikki Bella, Tyson Kidd and others (Luke Harper was injured in a post-Raw dark match less than two weeks before the big event), and you have to wonder what has caused so many performers to suffer serious physical problems all at the same time. Whatever the reason, injuries have torn up the proposed Mania card on many occasions.

Making matters worse, it hasn’t just been injuries which have caused upheaval to Mania 32. Film commitments meant that neither Ronda nor Rock could wrestle (Rock will still be on hand at Mania 32, as I will explain). Austin made it clear that while he is open to an appearance, he is simply not willing to wrestle again (and who can blame him at age 51 with previous neck issues, especially if pitted against “The Mayor Of Suplex City” Brock Lesnar?). And Hulk Hogan extinguished hopes of a farewell match after the racism scandal which saw him leave WWE in July 2015. Hogan’s recent nine-figure courtroom victory over Gawker (who published Hogan’s sex tape containing the racist lines) could open the door to an eventual WWE return, but even if he were to resurface, there’s virtually no chance that a 62-year-old with a back that’s totally gone would be cleared to wrestle anyway. And we’ve even lost some legends in the form of Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper (the latter of whom may have hosted a special edition of Piper’s Pit), and other icons are going through their own trials and tribulations, such as Bret Hart who is currently recovering from treatment for prostate cancer.

So, the fact that WWE has booked a respectable card for WrestleMania is something of a triumph. It may be a show consisting of some filler matches and others which have imported names from the past or are being booked in the face of fan adversity, but under the circumstances WWE honestly couldn’t have done much better. And whilst it is far from the dream card that most envisioned last summer before all of the problems began for WWE, it should still be a night to remember at AT&T Stadium.

Having addressed the elephant in the room (the injuries and other issues plaguing WWE), it’s now time to preview the matches themselves but, just before we get to that, it’s worth discussing the potential non-wrestling appearances. The Rock announced months ago that he will appear in some form or fashion at Mania, but we still don’t know what that will be. That might be a good thing since it gives Rock the opportunity to surprise people on the night, but it still feels weird. Methinks that Rock will be involved in a talking segment with one or more legends; based on the rumoured or likely names to attend, this could range from a Rock ‘N’ Sock Connection reunion with Mick Foley to a(nother) face-to-face promo with Steve Austin to an unexpected verbal showdown opposite Shawn Michaels. Perhaps John Cena will make a non-wrestling return while recovering from injury to exchange barbs with Rock. Or might Rock’s involvement lead to that most entirely unexpected of occurrences, a Hulk Hogan return?

One thing is for sure: several big-name legends (those above and possibly others) will be there, and their cameos will probably be amongst the highlights of the night. It isn’t quite what WWE hoped for when initially planning possible matches for Mania 32 last summer involving its former icons, nor will their participation on Sunday likely provoke the same excitement as the Hogan-Austin-Rock opening promo at Mania XXX – but it’s better than nothing. Incidentally, whilst Batista and Shawn Michaels were both allegedly offered special guest referee roles and turned them down, I am unsure as to why WWE hasn’t inserted another legend into that role for one of its top matches, unless of course it has something bigger planned for its former Mania headliners.

Sting will definitely be at Mania as he is this year’s star inductee into the Hall Of Fame. Also being inducted are The Godfather, The Fabulous Freebirds, Big Boss Man, Jacqueline, Stan Hansen, Joan Lunden (Warrior award winner, and a breast cancer survivor) and Snoop Dogg (celebrity inductee). It isn’t exactly the strongest HOF line-up ever, but people said that last year and the 2015 ceremony was thoroughly entertaining. As stated, there are whispers that Sting will address his future at the ceremony and/or at Mania, by likely announcing his retirement. If for some reason his induction DOESN’T spell the end of his in-ring career, expect him to have one final match at Mania 33 in 2017. And if WWE doesn’t choose The Undertaker to be Sting’s opponent for that match (if it were to happen), then they have truly lost their minds.

Back to WM 32, then, beginning with the pre-show bouts: once again, the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal will be held on the Kick-Off show. In contrast to the original bout which was designed to honour Andre’s memory, the use of the match this year and last as a warm-up for the crowd, and the virtual lack of build-up for this year’s incarnation, make it a match with very little reason to exist. Even the winner has nothing to gain, really; in the long-run, winning the ATGMBR did nothing for 2014 victors Cesaro and Big Show. It will be a way to get the Dallas crowd ready for Mania, which is good, but I think that WWE should drop the match next year or even revert to its previously unannounced dark match battle royal; at least that way, a legend’s name isn’t being used with minimal purpose.

Also moved to the Kick-Off show is The Usos vs. The Dudleyz. This began in February when Bubba Ray and D-Von unexpectedly turned heel on Jimmy and Jey, and having since denounced their use of tables (despite villainously teasing use of the wood at various points; that sounds dirty, I know). I was looking forward to seeing both teams get a chance to have a good match on the main card, so it’s disappointing that these four are now on the KO preview event. It should still be fun to watch, especially if a Tables stipulation is added, but all four must feel slighted at the positioning of this bout on the card, especially The Usos who are about to compete in their FIFTH Mania preview match without having ever appeared on the actual PPV. The Usos may also be frustrated that the hate towards Roman Reigns has been passed onto his cousins, as The Usos are now occasionally receiving boos and hearing claims that they suck, despite having been one of WWE’s very best teams since their 2010 arrival.

Also rumoured for the pre-show is a 10-Diva tag match. There isn’t much to say about this one other than at least it gives most of the female roster a Mania pay-day outside of the Divas Title match, especially for Brie Bella whose retirement is said to be imminent. There has been a mini-feud to set this up, although much of it has taken place on Main Event (which, I’ll be honest, I don’t watch), so I can’t comment a lot about it. It’s a spot for them, I suppose.

Three matches in, and only now will the actual WrestleMania 32 event begin! Well, after Fifth Harmony perform America The Beautiful, anyway. The New Day should kick off the in-ring portion of Mania on a high, with rumours of an extravagant entrance (the trio HAS to enter via a trombone band, surely). Their opponents The League Of Nations have built momentum in recent weeks, making this handicap match more appealing than when it was first hinted at back at Fast Lane. WWE doesn’t seem to have decided whether this handicap match will be for the WWE Tag Team Titles or not, although I think it wouldn’t be a smart decision to dethrone New Day so soon after their long-awaited babyface turn. As an opener (which I think it will be, and should be), it’ll be fine, but I wouldn’t expect anything too memorable outside of ring entrances from this one.

Kalisto vs. Ryback is a card-filler. Simple as that. Kalisto is an exciting performer and a good choice to hold the United States Title, but Ryback is such a completely different type of opponent in a their-styles-don’t-mesh-well kind of way that I can’t understand why this match is happening at all. That Ryback is only a semi-heel hasn’t really helped; the match has no heat, and I can’t see many people watching WM on the WWE Network to see this one. Plus, flying in the face of the “bigger is better” theme of this match, didn’t Kalisto, like, pin Ryback last November in a big upset on SmackDown? It’s a way to get both men on the card, but nothing more. It probably isn’t a good sign that this is the fourth (or possibly fifth) match which could be moved to the Kick-Off show with no major complaints.

Although Ladder matches rarely disappoint, it was a slight let-down when a Ladder bout was confirmed for Kevin Owens’ Intercontinental Title at Mania, largely because it’s a blatant rehash of the same stipulation last year with an inferior cast. It’s obvious that the United States Title bout should have been the Ladder match and that KO is the one who should have defended his prize in singles action (against Sami Zayn, most likely). An Owens vs. Zayn feud is still probably going to happen after Mania, but as of right now this unfortunately feels like a card-filler. The good news is that everyone involved will be going all-out to try and kick off Mania with a bang (it’s almost certain to be the first match on the main card), so despite the odd feel of the match, it’s entirely possible that this year’s multi-man Ladder showcase could eclipse the opener to WM 31, and it should be one of the best matches at AT&T Stadium on Sunday.

The Divas three-way between Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch has had the best build-up, partly because WWE was right to do what many fans were angry about months ago; saving Sasha until WrestleMania season before giving The Boss a Divas Title shot, while also continuing the feud between Charlotte and Becky. All three women have the chance to deliver the best female match ever on main-stage WWE television if given suitable time, marking the apex of a revolution in women’s wrestling which began on NXT, despite what some people on Raw and SmackDown will tell you. It shows how much women’s wrestling has evolved that this match could genuinely steal the show on April 3. This also seems to be the only match-up completely unaffected by the injury crisis (Nikki’s neck issues had no bearing on this bout), and one which in hindsight has had a build-up stretching back to the debut of all three women on Raw last July.

Chris Jericho vs. AJ Styles is the fourth meeting of their feud, but the first since Y2J turned heel on AJ. Rather than slowly building to a first-time meeting at Mania, we got their initial match on Raw, a rematch on SmackDown and a decider at Fast Lane, before Y2J going heel meant one final battle in AT&T Stadium. Some have speculated whether this was the best option for Styles at his first WrestleMania. I personally don’t think it’s a bad position for AJ to be in, and if they are given 20 minutes or more, these two could give us a Match Of The Year contender at Mania. Fans will probably be more than satisfied with this bout, assuming that Styles is victorious (it will be 2016’s answer to Sting losing to HHH at WM 31 if he isn’t).

Brock Lesnar’s Mania opponent has undergone all sorts of changes. At one point, we expected a Lesnar vs. Reigns rematch, interrupted by speculation that the final Lesnar-Undertaker showdown would be saved for April 3 instead. Once neither bout became a likelihood, there was mild speculation that Sheamus might be mega-pushed for Brock to steamroll through, before the events at Royal Rumble foreshadowed Brock vs. Bray Wyatt. But on Raw the night after Fast Lane, it was finally announced that Lesnar, somewhat out of the blue, would be facing Dean Ambrose in a No Holds Barred Street Fight (one of those sub-titles would have sufficed).

Why are we getting Ambrose-Lesnar? Well, WWE is rewarding Dean for his great efforts in getting even more over during the build-up to Fast Lane, which succeeded so much that many believed he should have defeated HHH for the WWE Title at Roadblock. That should be remembered next time WWE is accused of sabotaging a wrestler from entering the main event club. That being said, Wyatt vs. Lesnar had already been set up, leaving that story weirdly unresolved considering that Bray cost Brock the Royal Rumble match and, at the same time, the WWE Title. This is likely to be resumed after WM, but it still feels odd. Wyatt must be furious at this booking change.

Although Dean being granted this opportunity is a positive, Ambrose isn’t quite on Lesnar’s level, meaning that Brock’s WM match feels a little bit anticlimactic. In addition, it’s hard to believe that Brock will lose to Ambrose even in this environment (Lesnar’s image has already been damaged throughout 2016 so far, so another loss at this point could destroy his image for good), but Dean’s momentum would be halted if he doesn’t win, especially if rumours of a Reigns-Ambrose feud after Mania are true. And whilst the prospect of Ambrose using a barbed wire baseball bat and a chainsaw, as handed to him by Mick Foley and Terry Funk, are both exciting, can one really expect a violent match like those held in the past in the PG world of WWE in 2016?

Not to be too negative, since many are looking forward to the match, but it does raise some eyebrows. Fortunately, it should be a great brawl, as it includes two strong workers and will be given plenty of time and a plethora of weapons, and the fan reactions to their interactions suggest a lively atmosphere when the match takes place. Some believe that the match could make Ambrose’s career in the same way that Steve Austin became a true superstar from his WM 13 showdown with Bret Hart. Whatever happens, this is Ambrose’s biggest match to date, and hopefully a springboard to even bigger and better things for come. As for Lesnar, the injury situation meant that he will have to be satisfied in a relatively big match for this event, although I believe that he would have been better served either concluding his feud with The Undertaker here instead of at Hell In A Cell, or entering the big cage as Vince McMahon’s “instrument of destruction” against Shane McMahon. And that conveniently brings us to Taker vs. Shane.

The Undertaker vs. Shane McMahon is an intriguing clash in many ways, although it remains a head-scratcher at the same time. On the one hand, Taker needed a special opponent, and whilst a strong mid-carder could have filled that void, it simply could have felt like just another match, in the manner of Taker-Wyatt at Mania 31. For Undertaker’s bout to stand out, it had to seem unique, and choosing Shane to face Taker definitely provided that. In addition, had a Kevin Owens or even a Dean Ambrose faced Taker, they almost certainly would have been defeated, which could have harmed their careers momentum-wise, something which wouldn’t apply to Shane. Once Sting was injured and Cena followed him on the shelf (with Vince McMahon said to be devastated about the latter), the phone number entitled “Plan C” was dialled, and so Shane McMahon shockingly returned to Raw on February 22 to a huge ovation, in WWE’s best moment of 2016 so far. Once the match was announced, though, my reaction was “Wow, Shane’s going to fight Undertaker … wait, SHANE’s going to fight Undertaker?”

Yes, there are downsides to the match-up. Shane wasn’t a main event-level talent even during the Attitude Era, and doesn’t boast the name value of Vince (who is 70 now, admittedly). He’s also a non-wrestler, making him a baffling portrayal of a threatening opponent for Undertaker. The addition of Hell In A Cell provides a chance to disguise Shane’s weaknesses, although it makes the match feel like a second-rate version of UT vs. HHH inside HIAC from WM XXVIII. Most baffingly, though, is how Taker has essentially been inserted into this bout as Vince’s representative with virtually no explanation whatsoever.

At the time, we were advised to wait as the storyline developed, with Taker’s involvement explained and the potential for Shane to have a representative of his own. Instead, WWE hasn’t explained anything, with both McMahon males describing Taker as “Vince’s bitch”. Taker is in the match because he’s been told to, presumably, which is something that the Undertaker of old wouldn’t have tolerated. Perhaps the pre-Mania Raw will finally shed some light, because Taker’s role in the bout has created a story lacking a certain amount of logic, thus harming the anticipation for said match. Taker has made it clear that he isn’t satisfied representing Vince, but surely he should have declined first only for Vince to then find a way to force him to fight?

That brings us to the stakes, which on the bright side do add to the intrigue. Shane is fighting because, if he wins, he gets control of Raw, which essentially means control of WWE (nice way to make SmackDown seem irrelevant). A loss for Shane prevents the mass change he has promised, including the ousting of the Authority (which some fans have mistaken for WWE promising genuine change, since Shane is still a WWE character in the world of kayfabe; those fans may be in for a disappointment). But now if Undertaker loses, his career is over (well, Vince said it’d be his last Mania which is effectively saying that). So, fans are torn between wanting Shane to win against all the odds and not wanting Taker to lose.

This has made the match result unpredictable, which should create a great atmosphere on the night. The HIAC structure promises some notable spots, one of which will probably see Shane (even at age 46 and in his first match since 2009) risking his wellbeing in a crazy fashion. It’s also virtually guaranteed that there will be McMahon interference, and I suspect that some faces from the past will also be involved (Shawn Michaels and Mick Foley spring to mind, and possibly Steve Austin too). They’ll need all the help they can get because, for a match likely to last 25-30 minutes, Undertaker vs. Shane definitely won’t be a straight-up wrestling match.

I will discuss potential outcomes when I provide my predictions later this week, but needless to say, despite the plot holes, Taker vs. Shane will be a major reason why a lot of fans are going to watch WrestleMania. I will simply add that, in hindsight, WWE really should have saved the Taker-Brock Lesnar rubber match, also inside HIAC, for this Mania card, and they still could have had the McMahon involvement by having Vince and Shane manage one adversary with control of WWE at stake.

The November 9 Raw in Manchester, England proved to be the first step towards the WM 32 main event, with the WWE Title at stake, between Triple H and Roman Reigns. On paper, HHH vs. Reigns had a WrestleMania feel to it, being a first-time collision between a well-established top heel and the supposed next top babyface of the company. And the structure of the feud itself has largely been handled well, with key moments at Survivor Series, TLC and Royal Rumble before Reigns earned the title shot at Fast Lane (the way in which Roman was placed into that particular match was illogical, but that’s another story). The heated brawls at TLC and on several episodes of Raw since Fast Lane would normally have fans excited about what could go down at Mania.

And yet it is a match that hardcore fans are dreading. Whilst Reigns was booed from Royal Rumble 2015-Mania 31 and throughout much of 2015, Roman seemed to have gotten over the worst of the negative reactions after TLC. But Reigns has been booed out of the building almost constantly from Royal Rumble onwards, peaking at Rumble when HHH eliminated him to wild cheers, and on the post-Fast Lane edition of Raw when HHH’s brutal beatdown of Reigns resulted in a huge babyface reaction. HHH has been accused, once again, of using subtle tactics to have the fans cheering him despite the face-heel dynamic in this feud. Reigns is back to square one when it comes to audience reactions, having seemingly found a way to eliminate the jeers between TLC and Royal Rumble.

Certainly, WWE’s creative team are to blame for fans being angry at Reigns’ push and his character (moments like Reigns missing much of the Rumble match while his WWE Title was on the line have been the flaws in this rivalry). Incidentally, why are fans booing a guy for doing what he’s been told to do? Although some may disagree, Reigns did feature in some of the most memorable PPV encounters in 2015, so we know the guy can wrestle to some degree. But the reasons for and against booing Reigns are to be addressed another time; the point is that he is being consistently booed now, and probably will be on Sunday. And then there’s the predictability of the main event; namely, the inevitable outcome of Reigns vanquishing HHH to regain the WWE Title.

As a result, this is a match that fans are already writing off. The same applied to Reigns vs. Lesnar at WM 31, but on that occasion, Brock resigning with WWE boosted fan optimism in the bout, and WWE had a back-up plan with Seth Rollins and the Money In The Bank briefcase. Neither applies this time, and while HHH is a strong brawler, he isn’t quite as intense as Lesnar. All of which means that we are approaching a WrestleMania main event which will either be ignored, jeered or feature crowd reactions contrary to those that WWE would like, with an outcome guaranteed to offend (even if HHH wins, fans will complain about him holding down talent once more, and a draw isn’t feasible in this spot either). The match itself should be watchable, but after what happened at TLC when the Boston crowd refused to give Reigns and Sheamus a chance, will the entertainment factor of the bout be tarnished by the audience?

This is a predicament that WWE has found itself in for numerous reasons, but it’s one that the company needs to find a way out of, and quickly. The most popular climax to Mania, ironically, would see Reigns turning heel and HHH perhaps going babyface, either after Reigns turns heel to win the title or as a reaction to losing this main event. But with all of the time that WWE has invested into Roman’s big babyface push, that simply isn’t going to happen.

It will be very interesting to see how WWE handles this match on the night. If Reigns is truly going to become the next major face of WWE, then surely the company can’t just ignore the thunderous boos being aimed at Reigns week after week. We’ve already been through a decade-plus of that with John Cena; if another top babyface is consistently greeted by jeers, then people will be questioning WWE’s sanity, if they haven’t already. If they do decide to ignore the boos, then we are going to have another Mania top-liner that is memorable for the wrong reasons, something that won’t seem right for what is meant to be WWE’s biggest show in history. Something has got to give, and if it doesn’t, then Mania could end on a bum note.

It’s clear that WrestleMania 32 has been plagued by many problems, from scandals to injuries to retirements to awkward crowd reactions to questionable booking decisions. One can only wonder what WM 32 would provide had all of these issues not occurred; perhaps we’ll find that out next year as WrestleMania 33 approaches. Nevertheless, WM 32 will still be the most memorable night of the year in WWE, and the card is guaranteed to provide plenty of talking points, and hopefully a huge amount of entertainment to rival the last few Manias. I personally am looking forward to the card, and I’ll bet that once the show is over, we will be talking about another unforgettable Mania event.

I will provide my predictions for the entire card later this week, but hopefully for now you enjoyed this look at a very bumpy road to WrestleMania 32.