”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
The general consensus is that the Road to WrestleMania 34 has been paved with a pretty mundane creative process, highlighted extraordinarily well by this week’s Monday Night Raw and perhaps best exemplified by the total lack of effort in developing a story arc for Nakamura vs. Styles on Smackdown. Nevertheless, there is also a general feeling among diehard enthusiasts that the card for the New Orleans Show of Shows has immense potential; from top to bottom, Mania 34 does indeed feature a stacked line-up.
So, I ask, does the build to WrestleMania even matter that much anymore?
I would argue that WrestleMania 33 was the best Road to Mania, creatively, in the five years since the monstrous trio of Rock-Cena, Triple H-Taker, and Jericho-Punk all had very engaging builds ahead of Mania XXVIII. Though certainly not perfect, it was diverse as could be last January through March, from the off-the-wall Wyatt-Orton saga (which remember was largely well-received before that God-awful exercise in production ineptitude at Mania) to Styles completely nailing it in his short but sweet feud with Shane to Seth Rollins’ reality-based struggle to make it to the grandest stage while Triple H verbally tore him apart to the marvelous peaks of the Jericho-Owens break-up to the very well-scripted Goldberg-Lesnar rivalry. All the while, there were a lot of critics of the card’s construction, with its ridiculous dependence on part-time talent. It was a case of giving credit where due to a much more effort-fueled Mania Season, but at the same time rightfully being disappointed that yet another Showcase of the Immortals this decade would insist on resisting a high profile one-on-one match (or two or three or more) featuring only the best talents on the current roster; “Then is Now…Forever” was never more prominent.
This year’s build, by comparison, has been a miserable old bastard and a steaming pile of cow dung. Royal Rumble was a fantastic show, but the television leading up to it was terrifyingly boring, one of those instances of the Tasmanian Devil being let loose inside the mind of Vince McMahon, who was apparently distracted by delusions of grandeur revolving around professional football. It has never gotten any better. Some of it is bad, like John Cena asking us to pretend for two months that he might not have a match at WrestleMania and then more recently calling out Undertaker for being a coward – it’s as if the guy with the fake Hacksaw Jim Duggan Twitter account has been writing his lame, over-the-top promos in a comedic tone and Cena is delivering them like they were supposed to be dramatic – and most of the build has just been plain MEH. None of the top matches have strong build in my opinion.
Interestingly, the poor build has not much affected my enthusiasm for this year’s card, which looks great on paper and is highlighted by WWE’s decision to use the roster much better than in recent years (see the pair of one-on-one matches for the Women’s titles, a WWE Title match featuring two modern era stars, a triple threat for the IC Championship featuring probably the three most consistently even-keeled pushes of the year to date). Importantly, the poor build has not been able to offset with its requisite yearly vitriol the genuine excitement surrounding Nakamura becoming the first contemporary talent to win a Rumble since 2012, Asuka winning the first-ever all-female Rumble to set-up the biggest women’s wrestling match arguably ever, or the impending return to action of Daniel Bryan.
Unlike WrestleManias 31-33, which were undermined from the start by a philosophical line being drawn in the sand by Vince and Co. that disengaged a massive portion of the diehard fanbase, relegating WrestleMania to something to get through instead of something to build the first quarter of your wrestling enthusiasm around, this year’s event made key early choices (see Nakamura vs. Styles) that have built a stronger foundational investment in fans like us; I honestly think it has rendered the creatively mundane Road to Mania pretty irrelevant.
The idealist in me still champions the concept that WWE is fully capable of putting together both a great card and a stimulating march from January through early April, but the sample size is vast and there is little evidence to suggest that WWE has much in the way of desire to put together the complete package anymore. I asked on social media earlier in the week what the people thought the greatest five year stretch run of WrestleManias to be and the most common answer was (and I concur) 17-21; the best of those shows had lousy builds and the worst had much better builds. As I sit here, I struggle to recall a WrestleMania that had both an awesome build and delivered an incredible show on the night. Perhaps our standards are too high or maybe the great builds create expectations that are too much to live up to, which would mean that by comparison the lesser builds lower expectations and make the show more likely to critically succeed. It is an interesting conversation…
Recently, I’ve been strongly advocating for diehard fans to stop watching the WWE television shows and to just watch highlights or only tune in for pay-per-views. I think the TV shows do a better job of killing (or at least downgrading) interest than sparking it. You can catch a great promo here and there in the highlights WWE displays at the top of its website after each Raw and Smackdown, you can watch any particular TV match that intrigues you on a digital platform, and frankly all the best matches for two decades now have happened on pay-per-views anyway (205 Live is the exception). Thus, if you love wrestling, but get very little out of WWE’s wrestling-centric TV shows anymore, then ax them from your regular viewing habits; those nifty little video productions before the major matches on PPVs do a better job of relaying the story that they’re trying to tell than six weeks of hype on TV.
The reason I brought up the above is to simply illustrate the general lack of necessity in putting much into the build. The main thing that we need, as diehard fans, is investment in the characters, and considering that the intrigue behind Bryan’s story, for instance, has almost entirely been shaped by things that have little to do with quality television and much more to do with the perception of how he’s viewed by WWE higher-ups, it is safe to say that the manner in which we generally become invested in characters is different today than it was even ten years ago.
Here is what I know: philosophically, this year’s Mania jives much more with me than any in recent memory and feels like it could segue in the near future into a Show of Shows that embraces prioritizing the current roster and deemphasizes the part-timers. I’ll gladly take that over last year’s stronger build and more blatant part-time dependency.