THE GREAT PPVs: WRESTLEMANIA XXX

By Justin Ballard – ENUFFA.COM – March 23, 2018


Welcome to the 7th installment of our series called The Great PPVs, here at Enuffa.com and TheGorillaPosition.com, where I take a look back on an all-time favorite wrestling show.

With the bombshell announcement this week that one of the most beloved stars of the last decade is returning to the ring after a two-year “retirement,” and considering this year’s WrestleMania will emanate from the same venue, I thought I’d revisit the event unofficially dubbed “Yes-tleMania.” That’s right, I’m talkin’ about WrestleMania XXX!

3633059_origAnyone who’s been a frequenter of Enuffa.com should know two things about me. #1 I’m a massive Daniel Bryan fan. Have been since I first stumbled onto his Ring of Honor work in 2007, when he quickly became my favorite wrestler on the planet (If you’ve only seen his WWE stuff you’re missing some absolutely stellar matches). #2 I have been less than excited about the last three WrestleManias, feeling that the company had more or less dumped fans like me by the wayside and failed to offer us any must-see matches on the biggest show of the year.

But in 2014 WrestleMania felt like it belonged to the diehard fans, whom Vince had begun to ignore every January to April, preferring instead to cater to the casual audience with celebrity appearances and old-timer returns. By contrast this WrestleMania was all about “our guy” – a plucky little workhorse from Aberdeen, WA who’d defied WWE’s intention to plant him firmly in the middle of the card as a “solid B+ player” (If you think Stephanie wasn’t using Vince’s words in that infamous promo you’re kidding yourself). At WrestleMania 30, Daniel Bryan would take down the entire machine and for the time being emerge as the new face of the company. We all knew it had to happen, and it was rewarding beyond belief when it did.

But the show wasn’t even supposed to go that way originally. Vince had his heart set on ‘Mania 30 being headlined by Brock Lesnar vs. The Rock (one of several 2002-04 matchups he’d inexplicably decided to recycle around this time). Only problem was The Rock, who’d main evented the previous two ‘Manias, got hurt a year earlier and subsequently agreed to a Hollywood contract clause that he wouldn’t wrestle again until after his current film project was completed, lest another injury derail production. So Dwayne Johnson was out of WrestleMania 30. Enter Vince’s substitute, Dave Bautista.

Big Dave had left the company in 2010 to pursue MMA and later movies, and was tapped to play Drax the Destroyer in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film. Vince saw dollar signs in having Batista return, win the Royal Rumble, win the WWE Title at WrestleMania, and parade around the Hollywood circuit as the company’s top champion. Little problem there: the fans weren’t having any of it. No one even wanted to see Dave as a babyface, much less the conquering champion who’d obviously been put in that position to cash in on publicity from a Marvel superhero film.

So Batista’s 2014 Royal Rumble win backfired enormously, both because the fans rejected him and because their actual favorite guy Daniel Bryan wasn’t even included in the match. The way his feud against The Authority was booked the previous fall, it only made sense for Bryan to win the Rumble and earn himself a guaranteed WrestleMania title match, thus defying the odds and taking his place as the fans’ underdog champion. Instead Vince stuck to his guns and booked a heel vs. de facto heel main event for ‘Mania, recycling another match from the early 2000s, Randy Orton vs. Batista. For Daniel Bryan, Vince envisioned yet another ‘Mania bout against Sheamus, despite the company failing to deliver that match in earnest at two prior consecutive WrestleManias. WM30 it seemed would be another tone-deaf offering from a company becoming increasingly detached from its core audience, if not for a key player walking out.

One of the top ‘Mania matches that year was slated to be Triple H facing CM Punk. To this day I’m baffled that this was ever on the table, being that Triple H’s onscreen beef at the time was so clearly with Daniel Bryan, not Punk. This felt like a slapped-together idea just to placate the increasingly frustrated Punk, giving him a big ‘Mania win in the hopes that he’d re-sign that summer when his contract expired. And Punk saw right through the sham, refusing to wrestle Hunter, and citing his declining health as an urgent reason to take a sabbatical (Unbeknownst to him and WWE’s doctors, Punk had been wrestling for 2-3 months with an undiagnosed staph infection that could’ve been life-threatening). Punk went home the night after the Rumble and would be fired by the company five months later (on his wedding day no less), leaving Triple H without a ‘Mania opponent.

Thus Vince and the WWE were forced to listen to the audience, and not only book the logical Triple vs. Daniel Bryan match (after Bryan and a host of fans “occupied RAW”), but include a stipulation that the winner would be added to the Randy Orton-Batista main event. WrestleMania XXX would be built around this central storyline, delivering two excellent bookends to the show, and multiple quality supporting bouts.

The show opened, oddly, with an elongated promo segment featuring the show’s “host”hvaDRqYTE6Z18y3qzfbM6JOljb4ReCjA Hulk Hogan basically shilling WWE and WrestleMania with The Rock and Steve Austin. While seeing these three in the same ring was mildly cool, this segment ran an agonizing 25 minutes (which could’ve been better utilized by the pretty darn good pre-show 4-way Tag Team Title match) and mostly consisted of the three legends trying to hype up the audience for a show they’d already purchased. I’ll never understand WWE’s insistence on so many non-wrestling segments.

After that though, the PPV kicked into high gear with the long-awaited Triple H-Daniel Bryan showdown. These two delivered an absolute pro wrestling clinic, with Bryan playing the resilient underdog to Triple H’s sadistic bully. Like the Bret-Owen match two decades earlier, this gritty, dramatic grudge match stole the show and set the stage for a truly special evening. Bryan stayed one step ahead of his imposing foe, finishing the COO off with a running knee (To this day I don’t understand why Bryan’s finisher wasn’t officially called the Knee-Plus) and catapulting him into the main event. And the rabid New Orleans crowd, predictably, ate it up with a spoon.

Next up was a brief but mildly entertaining six-man showcase for WWE’s best-booked new act in years, The Shield. Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns had debuted 18 months earlier and taken the company by storm, annihilating nearly everyone in their path in a tremendously effective star-building endeavor that proved WWE could still make new headliners when they tried. This match was slated to get eight minutes but had to be trimmed to three due to time constraints (further proof that the interminable opening promo was completely unnecessary), and ended up a glorified squash, with The Shield making short work of Kane and the New Age Outlaws and moving on to bigger fish.

One unexpected highlight of the show was the inaugural Andre the Giant Battle Royal, something I was expecting to be a total throwaway but turned out quite entertaining. The 20-man match didn’t even have a full roster of announced participants going in so I had no idea what to expect, aside from guys like Sheamus, Dolph Ziggler and Big Show obviously being involved. But it was the surprise double duty appearance of the increasingly popular Cesaro that made this match what it was. Cesaro turned in what should’ve been a star-making performance, climaxing with him bodyslamming Big Show over the top rope to win the trophy. This seemed the logical time to turn him babyface, but the company inexplicably made him a “Paul Heyman guy” instead, with lukewarm results, and his career floundered for a couple years before he and Sheamus formed one of the company’s best teams. Still this Andre Battle Royal remains the most successful of the series thus far and served as a great moment for Cesaro.

CenaAnother marquee match was next, as John Cena faced the company’s hottest new heel (who at this point was still a serious threat), Bray Wyatt. Wyatt had been built up quite well over the previous eight months, defeating Kane and Daniel Bryan in back-to-back feuds. Unfortunately this match and feud proved to be the first step in undoing all that work, as Cena would defeat Wyatt cleanly here and win two of their three PPV matches together. Still this was a very solid 22-minute brawl where Wyatt attempted to turn Cena to the dark side, while Cena resisted the temptation to use chairs and ring steps, thwarting Harper & Rowan’s interference to win the match. These two would top this match by a wide margin two months later with their Last Man Standing blowoff, but this was a fine start to the feud, aside from the wrong man winning.

The most shocking moment of the night (and possibly ever on a wrestling PPV) occurred in match #5. The Undertaker returned for his annual ‘Mania build a month earlier to challenge Brock Lesnar, who’d been denied a WWE Title match and threatened to boycott the show. The build for this match was very pedestrian and Brock was made to look like a pretty ineffectual threat to Taker’s Streak. But this was all a red herring, as Brock would become the first man to defeat the Undertaker at WrestleMania, absolutely stunning the live crowd. The match wasn’t the epic it should have been, as Taker got a concussion early on and had to run on fumes for the final 15 minutes or so. It’s a shame really, they’d put together a pretty good bout in terms of layouts and sequences, but it was clear Taker wasn’t all there. Taker’s concussion was so severe in fact that he was rushed to the hospital immediately after the match. This feud would be rekindled in 2015 with much better results, but for now the shock ending would have to serve as their big moment. Not a terrible match, but nowhere near what they were capable of.

The buffer slot went to the Divas Championship match (Thank god they did away with that term two years later), as basically the entire division was crammed into a 14-woman scramble. AJ Lee defended against Aksana, Alicia Fox, Brie Bella, Nikki Bella, Cameron, Emma, Eva Marie, Layla, Naomi, Natalya, Rosa Mendes, Summer Rae and Tamina Snuka. This got a scant seven minutes and didn’t have much structure, but AJ came out of it looking strong and resourceful, tapping out Naomi with her Black Widow submission (by forcibly making Naomi’s hand tap the mat repeatedly, which I thought was a nice touch). This was short but inoffensive. AJ would drop the title the next night on RAW to the debuting Paige, thus planting the seeds for the new women’s era.

Courtesy-of-WWE.com_Finally we arrived at the main event, an epic, dramatic Triple Threat involving two former (and future) Evolution members and the fans’ unlikely hero Daniel Bryan. Bryan played up his exhaustion from the Triple H bout, just barely scraping by and taking brutal sums of punishment that included a 3D/RKO through an announce table (after Triple H and Stephanie had interfered in the match). The final third of the match was rife with suspense and near-falls, as both Orton and Batista seemed on the verge of spoiling everyone’s evening by pinning each other while EMTs attempted to cart Bryan away on a stretcher. Bryan defiantly returned to the ring, trading finishers with both opponents until Batista landed a Batista Bomb on Orton only to be trapped in the Yes Lock for the well-earned submission. The sight and sound of 70,000 fans erupting as Bryan finally vanquished his opponents was chill-inducing; Bryan led the entire stadium in an extended YES chant to close the show, as streamers fell from the ceiling. This was a fantastic main event, the culmination of an inspiring, improbable journey for a true underdog hero, and for me an all-time treasured WrestleMania moment.

As so often happens in WWE, the followup was pretty disappointing, due to both their booking and circumstances beyond their control. The next night on RAW Triple H booked himself to challenge Bryan for the belt, and the reformed Evolution attacked him before the bell, seemingly setting up an easy win for Hunter. But The Shield came to Bryan’s rescue, suggesting that some sort of eight-man tag was in the works – Bryan and The Shield against Evolution and Kane. This could’ve been incredibly exciting, particularly in a WarGames match (which I thought would be fitting since the feud resembled Dusty Rhodes and the Road Warriors vs. The Four Horsemen), but instead The Shield would face Evolution while Bryan was stuck defending against the less-than-relevant Kane. It didn’t help that Bryan’s initial momentum as Champion was halted by his honeymoon one week and his father’s untimely death the next, but it seemed like the company was deliberately trying to cool his push by keeping him away from the red-hot Shield-Evolution feud.

Bryan would defeat Kane in an Extreme Rules match a month later but was booked to face him AGAIN at Payback. But that dead-end match was scrapped when a nagging neck injury forced him to the sidelines. Hoping for a quick recovery, Bryan wasn’t forced to relinquish the title just yet, but his injury proved more serious than expected and by June the belt was vacated, preventing the planned Bryan vs. Lesnar main event at SummerSlam (a match we still haven’t seen). Bryan would remain on the shelf until January 2015, when the fans would once again turn on the Royal Rumble winner in response to Bryan being slighted. After being moved out of the WWE Title picture, Bryan instead won the Intercontinental Title at WrestleMania in the hopes that his credibility would restore prestige to that belt. But a concussion only weeks later put Bryan out of action permanently (until now).

Regardless of its aftermath and other extenuating circumstances, WrestleMania 30 is for me the most recent (I won’t say last) great WrestleMania, where the stars aligned and the company gave us a story to be emotionally invested in. It’s far from perfect, but this PPV put so much emphasis on the two big matches that delivered and for once gave the fans exactly what they wanted, that it elevated the show far beyond the sum of its parts. At a time when Vince et al had become so tragically tone-deaf, that is in itself quite significant. Now that Daniel Bryan will be back in action, perhaps we’ll finally get the appropriate followup we hoped to see at the time…

Thanks for reading!


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