By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
God, I hate that phrase.
Anyway, if you subscribe to Al Gore’s Internet, chances are you’ve read a rumor or three about how this year’s WrestleMania card is still up in the air. Who knows how true that really is, but even if it’s only got a little bit of credence to it, it’s newsworthy because … well, because us wrestling nerds can’t quite see a clear picture in front of us.
Which, to be fair, is good. WWE takes a lot of (deserved) criticism for a lot of things and one of those things tends to be the lack of a long view. Scripts are reportedly ripped up 15 minutes before Raw each week, nobody knows who’s going to main event the next pay-per-view, and we’ve all grown to love/hate the phrase, “Plans change, brother.”
Still, what that supposed lack of foresight grants us in this context is an intriguing set of parameters. John Cena said earlier today that there’s no way he could logistically appear at this year’s WrestleMania. Edge won a shot at the world title by winning the Royal Rumble, which wasn’t entirely predictable. Bianca Belair officially has the rocket strapped to her back now as it looks like she’ll walk away from the biggest show of the year with a belt around her waist. The Undertaker is supposed to be retired. Goldberg didn’t sneak in another title run.
It’s all to say that the rinse-wash-repeat feel that looms over a lot of the bigger WWE events these days has subsided. Or, for the time being, at least (don’t forget that Raw kicks off in a handful of hours). And so, while the gettin’ is still fun, I thought I’d share five fantasy bookings for this year’s bound-to-be-weird WrestleMania before news leaks, storylines develop on TV or my eternal optimism about the WWE is ultimately crushed by watching The Fiend burn a wrestling ring to the ground or some such nonsense.
Also worth noting: I have no idea what I’m talking about. There are trillions of proposed insiders grabbing scoops about all the neat stuff the professional wrestling business endures as it evolves backstage. I am not one of them. I do not get text messages telling me that Vince McMahon was not at an episode of Raw. I do not have sources. Shoot, I don’t even really have any friends. I’m just a guy with a laptop and some low-level opinions. So, let’s not get carried away with what I’m about to say. In the end, I think we can all agree that it’ll most likely be nonsense.
But it’s fun! And fun matters. So, let’s go.
First thing’s first. Unify the titles. Each show doesn’t have to have its own champion, and in fact, it would put some much-needed credibility onto the unified title, should something like that actually happen. You have a fighting champion who appears on both brands and takes on only the highest-caliber contenders. If you didn’t want to do it before because Smackdown and Raw were in different cities, that excuse is out the door because you’ve been stuck in Florida for a year and it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to change that anytime soon.
So take advantage of it. Pit Drew McIntyre against Roman Reigns to headline night 1. The winner of that faces Edge on night 2. I suppose you could go with a Triple Threat, but for my money, triple threats never turn out as well as you think they will (and I never really even think they’ll turn out well to begin with). Edge wins the unified title to close WrestleMania, we get a bunch of future documentaries about how cool it all is because he never lost the belt anyway, and the 30,000 people allowed in Raymond James Stadium go home happy.
If you remember, Roman and Drew put on a hell of a show at Survivor Series, so you know the in-ring work would be very good. Plus, the circumstances surrounding the match would be memorable because of the belts being unified, and don’t forget that it’d inject some life into a product that is so far beyond stale, it’s starting to degrade. This could be just the momentum-builder the company’s fanbase needs in order to trust the people behind the curtain again.
The same goes for the women. It’s been like pulling teeth trying to find worthy opponents for Asuka on Raw and while Smackdown is a little better, you’d still be hard-pressed to find a quality secondary women’s program that doesn’t involve a title. And since you’ve already pushed the lift-off button for Bianca Belair, all that’s left is to crown her as champion of both brands. She would immediately have a line of great contenders waiting for a shot, and this all comes as Becky Lynch makes her inevitable return to spice things up, too.
Two champions. One man. One woman. Sometimes, simpler is actually better.
Give Pat McAfee a win. No, really. His team lost at WarGames, and he dropped a singles match to Adam Cole a thousand eons ago. But McAfee did all of that while gallivanting in NXT. Not that there’s anything wrong with NXT, of course – it’s one of the best wrestling shows on television every week. But no matter how you spin it, it’s not WrestleMania. And WrestleMania is the place anyone who’s ever stepped into a ring wants to be, right?
So have NXT represented in its own way by featuring another installment of the McAfee/Adam Cole saga. Stip it up if you want. Last Man Standing. Street Fight. Judy Bagwell On A Pole Match. I don’t care; just make it happen.
I say this because McAfee has become a force and while I understand that Mania is typically reserved for legacy stars who come and collect a big payday (Pete Rose, Donald Trump, Mike Tyson), why not focus on someone current who also happens to be easing his way into the sports wing of popular culture’s mainstream? Plus, well, it beats the hell out of another Bad Bunny performance.
Either way, McAfee can work. He’s proven that, and he’s also not shy about how seriously he takes professional wrestling. Not for a minute has it ever felt like he was trying to cash in on something; nor did it ever feel like he didn’t respect the work. He’s a fan and a good athlete who’s absolutely fantastic on the microphone. Plus, as his brand continues to grow, it’d be free publicity for the event.
Just in case, you know, fans forgot that WrestleMania was coming up.
OK, so maybe that doesn’t matter as much. But still, this would be a good get for WWE and you’d have to know that McAfee would be up for the challenge. Kick it off Wednesday night with a motionless Adam Cole on the floor and follow it up with a promo on McAfee’s Thursday morning show. On this stage, the sky might not even be the limit.
It’s been discussed ad nauseam for a year now. Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley had arguably the best match at all of WrestleMania last year. It felt like Ripley’s coming out moment and the next 12 months would be awfully fruitful for her career. Title reigns were imminent. Super-stardom was a lock.
And then … well, I don’t really quite know what happened, but boy, did WWE screw that up.
Here’s the company’s chance to make it right. Run the Charlotte match back if you have to. If you aren’t unifying belts, have her make a run at Asuka and then we go into the summer with two new, fresh women’s champions in Ripley and Belair (assuming Belair opts to face Sasha Banks). Turn Ripley heel after the Belair win and have those two work their way to SummerSlam for a showdown.
I don’t care how you do it, just do it. Ripley is one of the most talented people on the WWE roster, and both Raw and Smackdown are in dire need of new leaders who become the faces of the brands. If a knock on the company is that they don’t do a good job establishing young talent, this is its chance to prove those detractors wrong.
Besides, above all else, Ripley deserves it. I don’t know what happened or how it happened or why it happened, but if you’re willing to just chalk this up as a lost year for her, WWE, we can look the other way and agree to move forward with you. She deserves better, and maybe WrestleMania can be the beginning of a rebirth for a star in need of a next chapter.
I’m no wrestler, and I don’t claim to know much, but I gotta think that there can’t be anything more magical than retiring at WrestleMania. Now, with that said, retirements in wrestling are dumb, and we all know that. People say they’re going to go away, but then a few years later, when the checkbook opens and the opportunity presents itself … well, let’s just say I never needed to see Shawn Michaels wrestle with a bald head.
But I did. So here we are.
Still, I wonder about how WWE plans to use its legends, if at all, this year. Jason Powell astutely pointed out in his live review of the Royal Rumble that perhaps this will be the Mania where Goldberg says goodbye. It would make sense if it’s true that his deal is for two matches a year, and we’ve already seen one of them. But who does he dance with? HHH? Seth Rollins? Keith Lee? It’d be nice to see a younger star get the chance, but something tells me that probably wouldn’t be an option.
Speaking of retirement, though, what do we think about the Undertaker? There have been a bunch of reports that the WWE brass wants to go hard for this year’s event, and we all know how much Vince McMahon adores the Dead Man. It sure would be awkward to reappear after the company essentially dedicated an entire month to you as your going away present, but hell, it wouldn’t be the stupidest thing WWE has ever done (cough, Retribution).
And what about Rey Mysterio? When he came back, he looked great, and even now, it feels like he has more than a little left in him. But WWE got to the end of that Buddy Murphy/Seth Rollins program and didn’t appear to know what to do next. Even his son seems to be lost in the shuffle, which is sad, considering how heavily pushed that program was. Who’s to say we can’t fire up Rey one last time for a send-off? I mean, my God. The last thing I want to see is his name pop up on the preview for an episode of “Main Event.”
I say that, why? Because that actually happened with Jeff Hardy, who, come to think of it, could do well by a similar scenario. They can still be with the company, of course; just allow them to have a moment to shine one more time rather than be relegated to C-shows and irrelevant stories. Jeff has more bumps on his bump card than the average bear and Rey accomplished getting his son a job in WWE, so what’s lefT?
One final meaningful match.
BEST OF THE REST
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t use at least some of this space to advocate for matches I know have no shot at happening. Like, for instance, a 60-minute iron man match between AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan (hey, the thing is two nights, so it’s not like they don’t have room for it; let a boy dream). Also, wouldn’t it be fun to see Braun Strowman and Omos get into it for, like, 45 seconds or something? Every major card needs a battle of the big men.
One of my favorite wrestlers in all the land is Asuka, and despite having multiple belts at once, it hasn’t felt like she’s done anything meaningful in ages. Change that with the build to WrestleMania. If you don’t like her working with Rhea Ripley – though, I would be fascinated to see how that would work – a showdown with Io Shirai sounds like a lock for Match Of The Night contender.
Then, if we aren’t getting The Rock this year, and if WWE isn’t keen on McIntyre/Reigns, what if we saw Seth Rollins battle his former stablemate for the belt? That has potential to go deep in storyline. Oh, and let’s try to speak into existence a Retribution/Hurt Business tag-match where the loser has to disband immediately. Hey, it’d be the first time I’d ever openly cheer for The Hurt Business to win anything (nothing against those guys; I just think they could be booked better).
Half the fun of WrestleMania season is putting the pieces of the puzzle together in our own warped minds. As reality begins to snap the pieces of the puzzle in place, it takes away just a little more fun each time, all the way up until the show actually happens, at which point, we don’t really care all that much anymore.
Such is why looking at it now, as a blank canvass, is such an imperative task as a wrestling fan – if we don’t do it, we’re robbing ourselves of some of the most creative joy we’re allowed to have all year. We’re all usually wrong by the time the thing rolls around anyway. We need to soak it up while we can, before the plans get solid and the stories take shape.
Now, if only we could get that Vince McMahon/Ryback match on the card …