It’s that time of year again where WWE press the reset button on their storytelling and begin planning their feuds and rivalries around their biggest event of the year – WrestleMania.
The 32nd annual spectacular will this year be held at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas and is on course to become the record for the highest indoor attendance of all time. For Vince McMahon, therefore, the 2016 offering will be a watershed event, the most important Mania for the company in recent memory.
2015 was a year that held much promise for fans of WWE, but in hindsight was perhaps overall a missed opportunity. Hopefully, though, some of these matches highlight that the company and its fans should still be excited for what 2016 and the biggest WrestleMania of all time has in store. Here’s the Top 5 matches of an up and down year and their impact on the future direction of the company:
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5. Hell in a Cell - Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker
Brock Lesnar shocked the wrestling world by finally breaking the Undertaker’s legendary winning streak at WrestleMania 30. Having advanced to an unprecedented level and likely to remain peerless, 21-0 record, it was natural to expect another win for the aging Taker, leaving the Phenom to retire undefeated. Only after the fact, when the surprise and anger among fans dissipated, was it clear how important a statement it was.
For it was not only an all-time classic moment in its unpredictability but propelled Lesnar to being the main man for the company. Buoyed by the win, Lesnar tore through everybody in the company and built a seemingly invincible aura thereafter. Retained despite an equalising but controversial victory for Taker over the ‘Beast Incarnate’ at SummerSlam, the third, ‘winner takes all’ end to the feud on Taker’s turf within the cell was a classic.
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The build-up and history was further exalted by a brutally physical encounter which left both men bleeding and legitimately hurt. The great rivalry got its decisive winner when Brock hit an F5 to Taker on the exposed wood beneath the ring canvas. A great and believable finish that enhanced Lesnar heading into 2016 and portrays the Deadman as an aging gunslinger with something to prove at what will most likely be his farewell Mania in Texas.
4. Elimination Chamber - Kevin Owens vs. John Cena
Kevin Steen had already wrestled with much success around the world and his performances in NXT under the name Owens had done more than enough to build on the hype. Meanwhile, John Cena in spite of the perennial criticism of his in-ring work had already been putting on consistently brilliant matches all year.
The match itself was perfectly paced; frenetic with near falls, false finishes and both men kicking out of each other’s finishers. After twenty minutes of brilliantly engaging action, WWE and Owens gave the fans exactly what they wanted, but never dared to believe with a pop-up power bomb for a memorable upset victory. For Owens to claim such a huge scalp on his first appearance on the main roster, with a clean win over the biggest star in the company was a remarkable show of faith in the Canadian.
It was also a fine sacrifice by Cena who did his own character no harm either. A landmark moment which instantly placed Owens him among the top tier talent for years to come and reminded fans of John Cena’s value to WWE.
3. WrestleMania 31 - WWE Title Match – Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Roman Reigns
Roman Reigns headed into Mania still humbled from a hugely negative crowd reaction to his Royal Rumble win. With Brock Lesnar expected to take time off after WrestleMania to consider his future, the seeming inevitability of a title win for Reigns had drawn ire and a general lack of enthusiasm about the match. The styles of the two men didn’t promise too much excitement either but what could have been a major discredit to the main event at the year’s biggest event turned out to be a surprise triumph.
Lesnar was booked strong from the outset and barely allowed Reigns any offense whilst delivering a vicious beating that Reigns sold superbly to the crowd. Given this was supposed to be the guy who would supposedly lead the company after Mania, this entire dynamic subverted the script to perfection. By the end, the pure theatre of Reigns’ bloodied facial expression, embracing the assault allowed the WWE fans to get fully behind the curiously unlikely, but set in stone Reigns comeback. But in classic WWE fashion, a rabbit was pulled out of the hat and Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase to rob the exhausted Reigns and Lesnar of their WrestleMania moment.
The match went a long way to repairing the damage done to Reigns by the ill-fated Rumble win. Though somewhat elated at the finish, the sense of injustice was palpable and fans were left at least with a grudging respect for Reigns for coming through such a punishing trial.
In different ways, this was a springboard for both men and with Lesnar having signed a new WWE contract a few days before, for that night at least, the future looked bright again.
2. Royal Rumble - WWE Title Match – Brock Lesnar (c) vs. John Cena vs. Seth Rollins
Lesnar entered the Rumble having annihilated everyone in his path on the way to undoubtedly the most one-sided WWE title win in history against Cena at SummerSlam 2014. Just as Cena looked set to redeem himself with a much better showing in the rematch at Night of Champions, Seth Rollins interrupted the match to hand him a DQ win, but no title. WWE then left the underlying friction simmer for months whilst Rollins excelled in his self-proclaimed “undisputed future of the WWE” gimmick and Cena battled the authority in the absence of the champ, Brock Lesnar. With a third and decisive match in the offing, Rollins was added to the mix.
Any doubts that may have lingered about whether it was better to see Cena and Lesnar go at it one more time one- on-one were comprehensively put aside by what was one of, if not the best triple threat matches ever.
The chemistry and timing of the three with differing styles was something to behold. the flow of the match ebbed between Lesnar dominating to Cena’s comebacks to the smaller, quicker Rollins holding his own via some classic underhanded tactics in a relentless ballet. Every single high spot advanced the story telling and after a thirty-minute clinic, Lesnar was left lying out of commission outside of the ring as Rollins looked set to beat the odds with spectacular phoenix splash to Cena, only for Brock to regain his senses and sneak a victory with an F5 to Rollins. Breath-taking stuff!
From a technical standpoint, it was nearly perfect, everyone came through the match with flying colours. From a storyline perspective, it made perfect sense and nearly a year hence it continues to set the tone for WWE in its character development.
Rollins, though fully deserving of the spot may not have got his big chance if it wasn’t for WWE’s desire to keep Cena and Lesnar’s characters looking strong. Smart fans knew it would be Rollins who would take the loss, but what he did in this match cemented his place at the top of the card. Cena once again showed his ability to be involved in a genuine match of the year contender and nothing between him and the Beast was fully resolved that night. Lesnar, this
Lesnar, this time,escaped with the title leaving him suddenly fallible in his defence against Rumble Winner Reigns at WrestleMania 31…the story goes on.
Definite claim to the best worked match of the year, bar the equally excellent but with arguably a greater lasting impact of…
1. NXT Takeover Brooklyn - NXT Women’s Title Match – Sasha Banks (c) vs. Bayley
This was a match that completely turned a male dominated sport on its head. Such was the intensity, athleticism, aggression and skill in storytelling, to frame it in the context of one of the best women’s matches of our time is to arguably discredit it.
The story had grown steadily and organically on NXT programming as Bayley had in turn been held down, overlooked and failed in her lifelong dream of being champion amidst a uniquely competitive women’s division. Booked for months as the weak link in the four horsewomen of Becky Lynch, Charlotte and Banks herself, the stage was well set. The timing, with Bayley seemingly left behind by her peers, who had all been transplanted into the Raw roster as a hastily packaged ‘Diva’s revolution’ was perfect, but the match made it all work.
Sasha Banks in her self-styled boss persona against plucky underdog Bayley not only breathed new life into a well-worn gimmick but in delivering a match of this calibre, practically stripped layers of lethargy and cynicism away from disbelieving viewers, with each swing of momentum. Not only were they upstaging nearly everything we’d seen from their male counterparts in recent years but making a hackneyed narrative seem suddenly relevant again by simply, (and whisper it quietly) wrestling with a demonstrable passion to prove who was the best and who was the most deserving to be called the NXT women’s champion.
It was almost a lightbulb moment in many fans’ heads, the substance over the style that most old school wrestling fans craved. Simple nuances such as the heel gaining heat through cheating, each trading holds, working a body part, or the Banks stamp to the hand of Bayley gave it a shoot feel that meshed perfectly with the pantomime. It all built the sort of finish that felt meaningful when a clearly emotional Bayley finally won the title. It showed what was possible by placing trust in your best workers to freely express themselves and redefined long-held notions that great, pure wrestling matches weren’t to be had under the restrictive banner of sport entertainment.
The greatest credit of all should perhaps be reserved for the fact that it was a women’s wrestling match that achieved all this in just under twenty minutes on the undercard. It felt special, it was special, an historically important match. WWE could do worse than revisit its genesis and the elements that made it so good as a benchmark for what for can be achieved in any great main event can going forward.