Wrestlemania weekend has evolved into a huge few days in sports entertainment for every single wrestling promotion. Spearheaded by the “showcase of the immortals”, WWE’s long-running yearly pay-per-view (PPV) draws in plenty of mainstream attention, which other companies such as Ring of Honor (ROH) love to capitalize on. However, WWE’s own “developmental brand”; NXT, has also benefitted hugely from this weekend of wrestling in times gone by, with their own events (usually dubbed ‘Takeovers’) matching and surpassing that of the main roster’s. With so much wrestling happening this weekend (April 2018), it boils down to choice. For me, I’ll always stick with WWE and thus, my interest lies with the NXT event and the Grand Daddy of them all; Wrestlemania.
A plethora of high-quality matches have taken place this past weekend. Shocking turns, twists, and storytelling have been masterfully woven into the physical realm of wrestling and so many matches succeeded in having me thoroughly entertained. Rather than review every single match, here’s my picks from the weekend, beginning with NXT Takeover: New Orleans.
The card had “just” five matches in its three-hour runtime, but that allowed for so much to happen. Each match was given enough time to shine and tell its story and the quality was exceptional. I honestly loved every single bout here and it ranks as one of my favorite PPV’s WWE has ever put out. NXT is heavy metal wrestling, and this was perfectly captured with the opening performance by Cane Hill which was visceral, loud and unapologetically itself. That is NXT.
6 Man Ladder Match
The inaugural North American champion would be crowned this night, but the victor would need to survive a 6 man ladder match and ascend to the top of said instrument in order to claim the title. Big names featured here, both metaphorically and literally. Competitors Killian Dain and Lars Sullivan occupied the roles of big monster destroyers, which you don’t typically see in ladder matches, but they played their part perfectly. The pair had spots outside of the ring where they planted the remaining competitors through two ladders, providing an amazing visual of all the athletes devastated on the floor amongst the debris of twin crippled ladders. It looked like a car crash and is absolutely perfect for a match of this type. Complimenting these behemoths were the athleticism and grace of Velveteen Dream, Adam Cole and twin debutants EC3 and the masterful high-flyer; Ricochet. Both men had a great turnout, EC3 was subject to some brutal spots and certainly earned his crust that match, however, it was Ricochet who really got my attention. When your first move in WWE is a step up shooting star press to the outside, that sets an extraordinarily high bar and one that I’m confident the master of flight will keep up with. I’m very excited to see Ricochet feud with some of my favorites, including the eventual winner; Adam Cole (bay-bay).
Adam Cole is without a shadow of a doubt, a major star. Skipping ahead to the climax of the bout, it was absolutely the correct decision to have Cole win this match; he’s unbelievably over with the crowd, has charisma oozing from every pore and can sell like the best of them, without looking weak as he has a great offense. An example of this came when EC3 attempted to coin his own version of the “bay-bay” chant, to which Mr.Cole took severe umbridge. What followed was a superkick party of epic proportions, concluding with a standing ovation from the crowd and rapturous applause, spurring the man of the moment on to victory (which would come later, not immediately after this spot).
I’m really high on Velveteen Dream. At just 22, he has all the makings of a star; great character work, athletic ability and great in-ring psychology. Like the rest of the superstars in this match, Dream got his chance to shine with an amazing blockbuster elbow drop from the very top of the ladder onto Lars. That’s not all though, he also had a very risky (crowd chants of “please don’t die were apt) spot with Ricochet; a rolling death valley driver onto a horizontal ladder. He executed it flawlessly and provided yet another memorable moment in this amazing encounter.
The aforementioned Dream had a great dance partner in newcomer Ricochet, who probably had the most memorable and jaw-dropping spots in the match. His innovation and creativity were exhibited constantly, one such moment was when he was being toppled off of a ladder and turned it into a moonsault onto the two men outside, outstanding improvisation.
There’s a lot to digest in this match, but the conclusion for me is that this is likely one of my favorite ladder matches of all time; sitting in close proximity to the infamous TLC II of Wrestlemania X7.
NXT Championship Match – Andrade Cien Almas (c) vs Aleister Black
The main event of the show (however not the final match of the night, we’ll get to that) and my anticipation for this was justifiably high. Almas is off the back of one of the best matches in WWE history against Johnny Gargano in an outstanding title defense, and Black never fails to entertain, himself being embroiled in the feud of 2017 with the aforementioned Velveteen Dream. Therefore, combining these two superstars for a clash over the headline strap was a recipe for success, and as expected, they did not disappoint. There’s something about Black that reminds me of a certain CM Punk; perhaps it’s the tattoos, the aura and confidence both men share, or maybe I’m just stretching to be reminded of the former WWE superstar. The point is, I draw the same comparisons as Black had me doing something I rarely do; celebrate a pinfall in a match as if my beloved Newcastle United had just scored the winning goal in the FA Cup Final. Yes, this match had me that invested, that enthralled and entertained, that by the climax, I was out of my seat. Black winning was certainly the correct decision here; he can elevate the title further and provide a different edge to a multitude of feuds in the pipeline, (here’s looking at you, Velveteen).
Before the dramatic finish, the quality of the match itself is of course what drove my interest sky high in the first place. The duo exchanged great strikes throughout that not only look good but sound great. Nothing felt choreographed or “fake”, every attack had a bite to it and looked to inflict pain and damage, which is, of course, the point. Almas plays the heel at present, however one thing that he does to his detriment is a lot of really fantastic moves. A corkscrew to the outside, a moonsault to the mat immediately followed by a standing moonsault are all jaw-dropping maneuvers, but I’d argue ones better suited to a babyface; AJ Styles, for example, can do that and wow us and get us all cheering for him. In my opinion, a heel should be much more methodical and yes, slower. This is something I think Triple H has always excelled at for example.
Speaking of great heel work, Almas has a near perfect manager in his corner in the form of Zelina Vega. She gets involved with the performers, causing distractions, physical damage and essentially, doing anything and everything to protect her client’s title reign. She ran great interference all night, culminating at one moment where she lifted Almas’ foot onto the rope after he was subject to a Black Mass. This would be one of several fantastic near falls, which again drove tension through the roof and kept things unexpected.
The climax, as touched on earlier, was incredible. Further interference from Vega backfired in the worst way, distracting instead her client Almas and thus, allowed Black to deliver an emphatic Black Mass, earning the three count and title. That finisher is one of the most protected in the WWE, more so than a certain ex/current/who knows UFC fighter’s (oh, we’ll get to that) and as a result, marks Black out to be a huge threat. Almas will be a star on the main roster, hopefully, a call-up is in the pipeline, but for now, these two deserve all the plaudits possible for putting on a sensational display.
Unsanctioned Match – Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa
The final match that closed the show was strictly “off the records”, hence the title match between Black and Almas being referred to as the main event. Of course, in reality, this titanic encounter between two former best friends turned bitter rivals was the main event and deservedly so; it had absolutely everything.
Long-term storytelling, brutal spots, emotional in-ring psychology and a real “fight” feel. These are the words to describe what was a sensational closing match, Johnny Wrestling has, in my view, notched up another 5-star match that furthers his standing as one of the best in the business. Ciampa had real heel heat; he entered the bout without ring music, instead; being greeted by a chorus of boos from the capacity crowd. This was an amazing touch and along with the referee being donned in all black attire, added to the “unsanctioned” fight feel.
This is one of those matches where words will fall spectacularly short of living up to what you see on the screen, so I simply implore you to sit back, get out the popcorn and enjoy a masterclass.
With the bar set extremely high the night before, how would the five-hour mega event of Wrestlemania fare?
In short; good, but not great was my overall feeling. I had certain expectations going into this and sadly, some of them were not met. Instinct told me that the Styles vs. Nakamura clash would not live up to the hype and this was true. Lesnar vs. Reigns was another lackluster main event that “The Big Dog” has been shoved into and at this point, I feel pity for the Samoan. He is a good wrestler, with a great look and is improving all the time on the mic, but it seems WWE are toying with pulling the trigger on him being a top guy, and this half-hearted approach has led to fans not accepting him and the position he’s in. I’ll talk more about both matches shortly, but first, let’s examine what I loved.
Triple Threat Match – Intercontinental Championship
Wrestlemania 34 kicked off with a triple threat match involving three of it’s best stars; Finn Balor, Seth Rollins and the champion, Miz. This was one of the matches I was looking forward to and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. What did surprise me, however, was how great the Miz looked. His offense was swift and brutal, his spots executed flawlessly and for the first time in a while, he looked like a true champion.
Seth Rollins, however, has more of a “star presence” about him than the Miz, and thus walked away as the rightful winner of this match. He had amazing spots, including a very high frog splash that looked simply fantastic and furthered the near falls and great back and forth between all of the competitors.
Finn Balor was the final man involved and there was, of course, a lot of history between him and the previously mentioned Seth Rollins. WWE played on this, having Rollins set Balor up for a buckle bomb on the outside, the same move that wrote off Finn’s Universal Title run. Thankfully, this time, Finn escaped, but the spot was nicely done, all the same, much like everything else in this crisp and fluid opening match.
Smackdown Women’s Championship Match – Charlotte (c) vs. Asuka
The undefeated Empress of Tomorrow (Asuka) vs. The Queen – Charlotte. A mouthwatering prospect from the moment it was announced as these two females are easily among the best workers in the company. Charlotte’s grand entrance was a nice callback to Triple H’s from Wrestlemania 30, which also took place in New Orleans and perfectly captured how much of a star she is. In her short time wrestling, Charlotte has really established herself as a superstar and she is building a legendary legacy, which I believe this match will be looked back on as the jumping off point for her ascension to the stratosphere of wrestling royalty.
Streak vs. title was an intriguing plot that ran through the core of this match. I genuinely had no idea who would win, it was really that unpredictable and for me, had shades of AJ Styles vs. John Cena at Summerslam 2016 in terms of not knowing who the winner would be, but with the hope that a great match would ensue. This was definitely true and this match was certainly one of my favorites from the entire card.
As the bout drew on, the hard-hitting strikes, reversals and unique spots (Charlotte moonsaulting directly into a submission hold was sheer excellence on behalf of both performers) were keeping me on the edge of my seat and I was shocked at the outcome. Charlotte Flair has ended the streak. Perhaps, in hindsight, we should have seen it coming. Afterall, this is the city where Undertaker lost his streak and WWE does, after all, love continuity and themes in its storytelling. Time will, of course, tell if this was the right result, but my initial reaction is that I’m pleased with this as it now gives Asuka’s matches more tension as we now know she can be beaten.
Mixed Tag Team Match – Triple H and Stephanie McMahon vs. Kurt Angle and Ronda Rousey
When Ronda Rousey turned up at the climax of the Royal Rumble in January, fans (including myself) went berserk. This is a legitimate megastar who is a complete badass to boot and now here she is, in the squared circle, mixing it with the likes of Triple H. Talk about mind-blowing. However, my excitement started to dwindle once Rousey got to Raw and cut some underwhelming promos, mixed with less than convincing throws. I was actually quite nervous for this match, as I definitely want to see Ronda succeed, but feared the Mania crowd would turn on her pretty quickly if she wasn’t up to par.
I needn’t have worried. Before she was even in the match officially, Ronda was playing her part perfectly. Outraged by the blatant cheating and corruption on display that fed into the storyline woven in the promo package before the match (Stephanie saying that Ronda doesn’t know the rules and that it’s Stephanie’s ring) it helped portray Ronda as a likeable babyface, who I was rooting for to get in and open up a can of whoop-ass on both Steph and Triple H.
As expected, Angle and Hunter opened the match with some standard grappling and strikes, but the drama was building and the crowd was anticipating the moment when Ronda would be tagged in and when it came, the roof came off and for good reason. Rousey dashed across the ring and dragged Steph in by her hair and then proceeded to storm into a powerful clothesline that was followed by a forward roll. This unique addition to an otherwise standard attack got me immediately invested in her and helped her stand out from the crowd. Immediately, all my doubts and fears were washed away and I was fully swept up in the action taking place.
A surprise, but a welcome one, was seeing Ronda interact with Triple H in the best way possible; fighting. It’s been a long time since WWE have messed with intergender fights (for good reason) but this return was timely and in good taste; Ronda is a badass and Stephanie getting put in an ankle lock is just desserts for her actions as Raw commissioner. The back and forth between the couples was fascinating and to me, it was one of the most entertaining tag matches I’ve seen and without a doubt, my favorite match on the card.
Throughout the bout, Ronda had been trying in vain to fully lock in her patented armbar on Steph. There was never a doubt though, that it would finish the match and when the moment came, it was simply awesome. Great in ring charisma from both women really helped sell the moment and established Ronda as a dangerous foe that will only go on to serve her as she ascends the roster and gets her chances to shine. I’m very excited to see what’s next for Ronda, and she’s now one of the superstars I can’t wait to see in action. Never would have predicted that before the match!
Final Points on Wrestlemania
As previously mentioned, I was let down a little with this event. It was so near to perfection, yet couldn’t grasp the last vital piece of the puzzle and after the matches, I described above, it never got to the same levels of fun and hype for me. Seeing Undertaker squash Cena was fantastic, yes, but that was a short match that didn’t serve a purpose apart from showing us fans that the Deadman can still go for a little while at least. Daniel Bryan’s return to in-ring action was nice to see, but I’m far more interested to see what the future holds for him. A fairly obvious dream match would be a triple threat between him, AJ and Shinsuke.
Speaking of the latter duo, I knew their match would let me down, I just knew it. However, it was still good, but I expected a lot more. Perhaps time constraints hampered them, but I do have hope that their feud will ignite fully soon, especially now that Shinsuke has turned heel, which was unexpected and a nice plot twist by WWE. This was another match that I didn’t mind who won, as I’m a fan of both performers, but I must admit AJ winning via a reversal into a styles clash was immensely satisfying, particularly when most of his wins come via the Phemomenal forearm. Good change of pace and keeps that move legitimate as a finisher, rather than just a transitional signature.
Finally, the main event. I, like many of you I’m sure, had pinned this match as Roman’s coronation. Brock Lesnar is likely leaving to go back to UFC and therefore, Roman dethroning the beast here would open up the exit for the beast incarnate. However, WWE swerved us and gave us a victorious Lesnar, who was very visibly annoyed. Why so? Well, having Roman kick out of SIX F5’s (Lesnar’s “finisher) had something to do with it. The crowd also were perplexed by this and very clear chants of “this is awful” were ringing around the arena. Once again, Roman in the main event was not working and WWE had seemingly shot themselves in the foot. However, the atmosphere noticeably shifted once Lesnar busted open Roman the hard way, with sharp elbows to the head. What followed was an iconic visual of Roman, drenched in blood, screaming at Brock. This could have set up an amazing, visceral final shot, Roman finally defeating the beast, drenched in blood and proudly holding the Universal Title aloft. Sadly, in this PG era, that was always unlikely and instead, WWE will likely crown Roman at their event in Saudi Arabia, as Roman will get far more cheers there. Can’t wait.