It has often been said that all is well that ends well, and there are many walks of life in which a maxim such as this would seem both logical and, in many ways, hopeful. As Undertaker took a moment to reflect on the perpetuation of his unprecedented Wrestlemania winning streak and the fireworks exploded, I’m sure many of you felt a surge of elation and even contentment. Doubtless, this sensation only intensified when Shawn Michaels rose with tears in his eyes and soaked up the richly deserved applause of the assembled throng.
It was all damned bracing stuff – that’s for certain – as Wrestlemania concluded in melancholy but nevertheless uplifting fashion. It is with a heavy heart then that with a few notable exceptions, this writer felt Wrestlemania XXVI in Phoenix was an almost unforgivable disappointment.
Every wrestling fan’s favourite booker – Vince Russo – tends to writes such incomprehensible gibberish because of a rather grating inability to grasp a very basic idea. In order for someone to follow an episodic storyline, said saga must be logical and make sense. “Shocking” the audience via swerves and illogical plot developments is a cheap tactic that diminishes the long-term potential of any developing story. If you missed even one edition of Russo’s WCW Nitro you were left with a confusing blur that made even less sense than when you previously witnessed it. It was hardly surprising then that fans rapidly gave up on WCW and are fast doing the same with TNA, another Russo-penned show that suffers from a similar lack of continuity.
At Wrestlemania XXVI, the decision was made by certain parties to figuratively castrate Edge. It didn’t matter one jot to said persons that Edge had been booked to win the Royal Rumble as a vengeance-seeking babyface. Apparently it was also irrelevant that Chris Jericho was portraying a cowardly heel whom everyone knew would receive his comeuppance at ‘Mania, as the story and the time-honoured rules of babyfaces and heels demanded. Instead, Edge’s triumphant return to the summit and inevitable victory over the scheming villain was shelved in favour of some sort of twilight zone reality. Rather than deploying a classic format i.e. the overmatched bad guy is beaten from pillar to post and then scores a cheap (but clever) victory over the hero, the cowardly heel was instead booked to dominate, outsmart and then finally cleanly defeat the avenging crusader.
It was storytelling so utterly retarded only a total moron could have conceived of it; it broke every single rule of wrestling storytelling for the sake of shock and awe, and it was plainly astonishing. Edge – the most over and reliable main eventer in WWE – was booked as a complete loser who wasn’t cheated or outmanoeuvred by his opponent, he was simply inferior. This was done purely and simply to bedevil the fee paying public, all of whom had correctly surmised that logically speaking, Edge had to defeat Jericho at ‘Mania. When logic and the big picture is abandoned in favour of a totally inverted attempt to work your audience, you wonder just who is making the decisions in this company. Whoever they are, they clearly don’t have the best interests of WWE or the audience at heart.
Though Edge/Jericho was by far the worst example of the endemic myopia that plagued the Phoenix supershow, it was by no means the only example available. The aura and numbers advantage of Legacy was shelved in favour of a short and ill-conceived triple threat match that portrayed Ted Dibiase and Cody Rhodes as squabbling weaklings. They were easily despatched by the matches’ real star (Randy Orton) and sent packing in very short order. In this respect the match achieved its stated aims, as Randy Orton was put over strongly and convincingly at the expense of two men WWE is apparently counting on for its long-term future. It is worrying that the concept of a feud between Legacy and Orton has been essentially destroyed by some utterly mindless booking. Ted and Cody couldn’t have been showcased more poorly if they’d worn dresses and lipstick to the ring.
Moving swiftly on, the opening Unified Tag Team Championship match was insultingly short and only existed to showcase and elevate the reigning champions; another hammer blow to wrestling’s most useless tag title. The latest “Money In The Bank” stunt convention was an entertaining yet overbooked (and overcrowded) mishmash of expendables. Once again, WWE showed customary respect for its audience by ignoring the men the fans cared about (Christian and Kofi Kingston) and booked glorified jabroni Jack Swagger to claim the title shot.
Fittingly, Swagger provided his most entertaining contribution to WWE to date (as he prepared to take victory) by apparently failing to grasp the concept of a briefcase suspended on a hook. Fans howled with laughter as the muscle-bound clown took a figurative sledgehammer to the match and his own credibility and looked every inch the unworthy greenhorn he truly is. Naturally, WWE saw fit to punctuate this sorry state of affairs by placing the once prestigious World Heavyweight Championship on Swagger in the latest desperate attempt to turn cardboard into solid gold via a sudden championship elevation. Just like the Sheamus title reign, WWE fans will not give a toss about an individual in whom they have neither interest nor investment and in their eyes, isn’t a credible performer. This truth was underlined perfectly by the non-reaction Sheamus received when he marched out to gleefully job to his friend and “mentor” Triple H in a mid-card match fans generally used as an opportunity to pass water. The outcome of the “contest” was as predictable as Republican foreign policy.
Considering the enormous potential their feud possessed prior to this match, the Rey Mysterio versus CM Punk match was somewhat disappointing. It was predictably short and presented Punk as inferior to his unnecessarily plucky opponent who, I swear, should be fined twenty-five thousand dollars every single time he mimics the mannerisms and/or greedily references the name and legacy of Eddie Guerrero. Please, for God’s sake, let the late, great “Latino Heat” rest in peace. Presumably, Rey isn’t deaf and he can hear the deafening abuse that pours forth every time he uses his “friends” name to put himself over. This why I personally recommend fining the craven midget whenever he does it. That way, Rey Mysterio would be punished in the way we all know matters most to him: his wallet. To wit, why do you think Rey deferred his latest knee surgery and subsequent summer holiday- To bag his six figure Wrestlemania appearance cheque, of course, for a match that should have been a barnburner but was instead a wasteful exercise in prioritisation. No surprises there.
On paper, Bret Hart versus Vince McMahon didn’t look a classic and so it proved as the hugely disappointing, thirteen years in the making feud ended in an anti-climactic, one-sided drubbing of Vince that bored the audience senseless and proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you should be careful what you wish for because sometimes you get it. Judging from Vince’s failure to land even a glancing blow, the deal that WWE brokered with Lloyds of London Insurers presumably prohibited Bret from taking any proper punishment and as such, the “match” should have been scrapped in favour of a tag match (where Bret’s one dimensional contributions would have been more effective) or reworked into a shorter angle.
The attempt to cast the Hart Family as having been paid off by Vince might have worked if they’d strung it out for longer that ten seconds, but in any event no one was fooled, so failure was inevitable. Naturally, the crowd popped when Bret locked on the Sharpshooter, but this was as much to do with the match being over as anything else. All things considered, this was a major disappointment and for Bret’s sake – after all these years – I hope it was worth it.
Growing up I was always taught to leave the best until last, and with this adage in mind I would like to praise WWE for the simple yet adroitly constructed build-up to the Batista versus John Cena WWE Championship match. By limiting the physical contact between the two men and cleverly playing up Batista’s apparent psychological advantage, WWE very capably established Cena as a heroic underdog fighting for his pride. Also, given Cena’s untouchable status as WWE kingpin, there was never any danger of him receiving the same misguided treatment as befell Edge earlier on the card.
The two men assembled a basic but hard-hitting contest that played to each man’s strengths and wasn’t criminal in length, which handily assisted both performers. True, there were some ugly exchanges and the fans still played hard to get with Cena, but this was a heated and rewarding match with a logical finish, as Batista joined the likes of Shawn Michaels and Triple H in tapping cleanly to Cena’s still unconvincing STF. I firmly expected these two limited and inconsistent performers to make a statement at Wrestlemania, and that they did. It must be noted though, that regardless of the quality of the match or feud, Cena versus Batista provides no long-term purpose – or benefit – to WWE.
This writer hasn’t always been convinced that the old Shawn Michaels was truly gone. Little incidents like sanctimoniously refusing to participate in some relatively tame skits with DX, or the senseless, ego-driven burial of the Spirit Squad served to muddy the waters of Shawn’s perceived sincerity. It was for this reason I was convinced Shawn wouldn’t be prepared to lose cleanly – and twice in succession – to Undertaker. Even though such a scenario would not vaguely harm Shawn’s legacy, I just wasn’t convinced he would proceed in this fashion.
I’m delighted to admit I was wrong, as the Showstopper entered his now typical, selfless performance and alongside the Deadman, assembled another marvellous encounter which, given their respective injuries, was nothing short of miraculous. True, the match lacked the spontaneity and near-flawless magic of last year’s encounter, but it was still match of the night by a country mile and a consummate lesson in physical and emotional storytelling. The very well emphasised and constructed “Streak versus Career” stipulation was a necessary attempt by WWE to leave the outcome in doubt, and it worked as fans were utterly absorbed from bell to bell. Shawn tasted (and survived) the full scope of ‘Taker’s arsenal and very nearly claimed victory for himself with his explosive forays and extraordinary timing. Sadly for HBK, it was not to be.
In the end, as the bewildered Phenom implored Shawn to stay down and accept his fate, Michaels defiantly rejected ‘Taker’s request with a good, hard slap and was finally vanquished after a jumping Tombstone, and sent into a well-earned retirement. When you take into consideration his longevity, legacy, enduring popularity and mercurial defiance of father time, Undertaker must be considered the biggest and most successful star in the history of WWE, and no doubt when the time comes he will be suitably venerated. Nevertheless, ‘Taker very quickly acknowledged his opponent with a handshake and selflessly vacated the spotlight to allow Shawn to bask in the adulation and respect he so richly deserved.
It was a beautiful moment that left me warm and appreciative, but also pensive. The skills and standing of these two legends is such that nothing else at the disposal of WWE even comes close, and this is a major concern. As Shawn Michaels retires (for a little while at least) and Undertaker reduces his already miniscule schedule still further, the fact of the matter is WWE must be very fearful indeed. You simply don’t replace men like this at the drop of a hat, and thus far all attempts to address this issue have failed, owing to the myriad flaws the rest of ‘Mania served to emphasise. WWE has largely abandoned its previously sound fundamentals and creatively, is a total mess. The marquee matches are fine, but the future is beckoning like a runaway train and WWE simply isn’t ready. I don’t know about the “WWE Universe” but watching Undertaker and Shawn Michaels once again steal the show, it is clear they were in another universe to the rest of the show. As such, their contributions and a few others aside, Wrestlemania XXVI in Phoenix, Arizona was a monumental disappointment.
Daniel R. Browne
Writer’s Note: Just before this piece was transmitted, news broke concerning the untimely demise of Chris Klucsaritis, known professionally as Chris Kanyon. A phenomenally gifted yet personally troubled individual, Kanyon’s passing is an enormous tragedy that I will address in detail next week, alongside a tribute to arguably the most underrated in-ring performer in the history of the business. Until then, my thoughts and deepest sympathies are with all those affected by the untimely death of Chris Klucsaritis. RIP.