I never thought I'd attend WrestleMania. For the uninitiated, WrestleMania is the largest wrestling event of the year and one of the top 5 most valuable sports brands, right alongside events like the World Cup and the college football playoffs. WrestleMania has grown from an ambitious (but still limited) beginning in Madison Square Garden to an entire weekend of events drawing crowds over 70,000 strong from all over the world. I never saw myself attending this mega-event because, truth be told, I don't really like going to big live events.
I don't like going to live event like concerts or major sporting events because I've never understood why I should voluntarily pay a premium to heap hundreds of inconveniences upon myself just to hear a piece of music or watch a sports game that I could get at better quality in my own home. When WrestleMania came to Orlando in 2008, I thought hard about going before deciding to pass on the experience. Unfortunately, I missed out on one of the best WrestleMania's of all-time (there's been 33 in total now) and one of the most emotional and memorable retirement matches in all of wrestling history. I immediately regretted missing the chance to be there for that moment and began to realize what truly separates WrestleMania from stop #53 of a band's world tour; you're watching a story unfold on a giant canvas for the first and only time. I swore I wouldn't miss out the next time they came to Orlando.
A week or so after tickets became available for WrestleMania in Orlando last September, I purchased the cheapest two tickets I could find (my friend, Layne Herdt, and I ended up sitting just two rows from the very top). Since wrestling is pre-determined there is no "fantasy wrestling" leagues like in football and baseball. In its place is what is known as "fantasy booking", which consists of fans passionately laying out how they think the event should take place. Honestly, this is half the fun of being a wrestling fan. From the moment the tickets were purchased until the matches actually began, Layne and I discussed and debated who would fight who, who should fight who, what match would/should open the show, what would close the show, what surprises would be in store...in other words, what stories would be told?
|This is how close to the top of the stadium were were
I'm happy to report that WrestleMania 33 did not disappoint in telling a number of great stories. The setting was epic, the largest and most memorable staging for a live event I've ever seen. The amount of time and effort put into the ring setup, the entrance area featuring a giant globe and a faux steel roller coaster, the giant entrance ramp, the lighting packages all around the stadium, and the abundant and always surprising pyrotechnics (they went off like 20 feet behind us!) were overwhelming.
|A panoramic view of the setup
Layne and I arrived at Camping World Stadium around 2:30pm, paid $50(!) to park in an official lot, and queued up for the opening at 3:30. Walking around the stadium is a people watchers dream as the crowd was incredibly diverse drawing from all parts of societies and walks of life. Nearly everyone was wearing the shirt of their favorite wrestler and lots of people were out in full costume as well. At one point before the show started, a "fight" broke out between people dressed in costume as Ultimate Warrior, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Kalisto, and Ric Flair. The impromptu match was, of course, greeted with loud cheers by wrestling fans.
The show itself was incredibly fun and entertaining. In fact, the single biggest problem was that it was probably a little too entertaining. At 7 hours long (including a 2 hour "preshow"), it was an experience that left me exhausted and my vocal chords nearly shot. I've always felt that a perfect wrestling show is a lot like eating a perfectly balanced meal. You can get full just by eating McDonald's hamburgers, but that's more an experience in filling your stomach than really savoring and enjoying a well prepared meal. A great wrestling show will whet your appetite with tasty and colorful appetizers, blow you away with the substance and flavor of a perfectly grilled steak, and polish off your appetite with a sweet and delicate desert. In other words, you need variety, you need different textures and tastes, and you need to stop when everyone is full. You can't just eat steak, you need other things to balance it out. You also can't replace a steak with something like pork tenderloin, which is great - just not steak, without there being a bit of a disappointment.
|The closest thing to a perfect steak was the Goldberg vs. Lesnar match
The two biggest drawbacks of a show that was an overall smashing success, was that the meal was just so heavy with entrees and none of them were a perfect steak. Sure, we got a lot of great pork tenderloins (AJ vs. Shane, 4 way ladder match, Goldberg vs Lesnar), but none of them were true steaks (you getting the idea that I like steak?). I will remember many of the matches, but none of them will be in my top 10 all-time WrestleMania matches. For my liking, I'd trade a few B+ and A- matches for a single A+ any day.
In the end, I realize it's a bit of a first-world problem to complain you've gotten too much of a good thing. Still, when you've seen 33 of these shows and you're watching for 7 hours, you've got to find reasons to discriminate between them. I'd give the overall show a B+ and rank it at #6 all-time right behind the likes of 21, 24, 17, 20, and 19. I'm glad I didn't make the same mistake for this event as I did for WrestleMania 24, I'm so thankful I got to go and experience this event, and even more thankful I got to do it alongside one of my best friends Layne Herdt. Layne rated the show an "A" and summed up his experience by saying:
I had no idea what to expect seeing a WrestleMania in person. I have to say it exceeded all of my expectations. The spectacle itself was at times magnificent and unlike past years, there were no awful matches. I'm so glad I had the chance to experience this in person and will remember this forever."
WrestleMania 33 Overall Rating: B+
Below is a rating for each match, my quick thoughts on it, and some video I took of the event.
KICKOFF SHOW (5-7pm)
Kickoff Match: Austin Aries vs. Neville (W) for the Cruiserweight Championship
Thoughts: The best technical wrestling match of the evening and a heck of a first match for the crowd. Both guys gave it their all and the crowd really got into it. Glad to see Neville win and I think we all would like to see this feud continue.
|Austin Aries vs Neville
Kickoff Match: Andre the Giant Battle Royal (Winner: Mojo Rawley)
Thoughts: The ending with Gronkowski and Mojo Rawley (no, I'm not hyped Mojo) was a nice bit of business for the highlight reels and Sportscenter, but it was a bit sad to see Big Show and Strowman (who never showed up again during the night!) tossed out of the ring so early in this match. I like the concept of this match and how it gives many performers the chance to be on the show and the fans a chance to see them, but the prize of the trophy and a faux push feels condescending. Layne and I both felt throwing more NXT and free agents in there with a shot at a contract for main roster would make it more interesting and if a main roster guy wins, he gets an IC or US title shot. I think this could become a great staple of the Mania preshow that fans look forward to, if they just add some stakes beyond that trophy.
|Strowman entering the ring
Kickoff Match: Baron Corbin vs. Dean Ambrose (W) for the Intercontinental Championshop
Thoughts: This is a great example of the show being filled with a few too many entrees and not enough appetizers. At any other event this would a lead-up match to the main event, deserving a main spot in the show. Seeing the intercontinental title holder who was a previous WWE champion just months ago relegated to the preshow was underwhelming. I'm not sure how WWE alleviates this problem going forward as the the two brands are packed with top talent and there just isn't enough room on a single show to showcase them all appropriately without hurting the show itself. The match itself was alright with both performers going hard, just not really clicking with the crowd.
MAIN SHOW (7pm - 12:15am)
Match 1: AJ Styles (W) vs Shane McMahon
Thoughts: AJ Styles is the one wrestler on the WWE roster most likely to give a true five star classic match and his pairing with Shane McMahon really felt underwhelming and a betrayal of that possibility. Despite the pairing, the match was well laid out and well performed; about as good a match as we all could have hoped for. Everyone in the stadium was fresh, excited for the start of the show, and the match kept everyone engaged the entire time. Sure, Shane did his familiar spots (excepting a daredevil dive off of something tall), but it's a brand new one that was spot of the night for me - Styles' 450 splash into a hell's gate that was countered into a Styles clash. I'll never forget it, one of the most memorable sequences I've ever seen.
Match 2: Chris Jericho vs. Kevin Owens (W) for the U.S. Championship
Thoughts: Layne and I both agreed that this match had the best potential for being the overall best match of the night; mixing storytelling with athleticism. The story for this match was over six months in the making and was the most entertaining storyline on RAW week after week, including this all-time great wrestling moment in February. The match itself was very good and included some great back and forth sequences, and even a wonderful "finger of Kevin" save that I'll never, "eeeeeeeeeeeevvvver" forget. Unfortunately, this match was hurt by going on second in the night, right after the high flying opener. This match needed to go on later and be given a bit of breathing room to see its true potential reached.
Match 3: Bayley (W) vs. Nia Jax vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks for the RAW Women's Championship
Thoughts: The first half of this match was booked perfectly and had every indication of stealing the show, as the women's title match did last year at WrestleMania. However, a botch of a turnbuckle spot by Charlotte lead to a rather anti-climactic pin of Sasha Banks that led the entire stadium (who didn't see the botched spot up close) to confusion. Layne and I even wondered if she got hurt or Bayley missed a save opportunity. Further, the pin of Charlotte by Bayley felt a little anti-climactic as well due to the botched turnbuckle and kinda marred an incredible (up 'til then) performance by the women. This match played much better on television than it did in the stadium.
Match 4: The Hardyz (W) vs. Cesaro/Sheamus vs. Gallows/Anderson vs. Enzo/Cass for the RAW Tag Team Championship
Thoughts: The surprise announcement of the Hardyz was easily the biggest pop of the night and I was screaming right along with everyone else. This was my first chance to witness a ladder match in person and while it felt like a great match (it was), I never realized how much multi-person ladder matches are helped by camera editing that allows you to focus on particular spots and lose track of other wrestlers. Watching the match with a constant overview perspective you get being there live does detract a little from the intricate booking and sequencing that went into this performance. Although the actual ladder match was great (but not all-time), the surprise announcement and entry of the Hardyz culminating in their victory made this a classic WrestleMania moment.
Match 5: John Cena/Nicki Bella (W) vs. Miz/Maryse
Thoughts: An entertaining match designed to give Cena and Miz something to do while also allowing Cena/Bella a great WrestleMania. It didn't overstay its welcome and both Cena and Miz make it passable by their charisma alone.
Match 6: Seth Rollins (W) vs. HHH
Thoughts: After full engagement for five matches already, the crowd was really tired for this match and the plodding nature of the first 2/3rds of it didn't help. Still, as they entered the final act of the match we were back in it and cheering on a beautiful Phoenix splash, Stephanie table bump, and Rollins victory. I wish this match would have been about 10 minutes shorter, as it could've told the same story without losing anything in particular.
Match 7: Randy Orton (W) vs. Bray Wyatt for the WWE Championship
Thoughts: This wasn't as bad live as it was when I watched it back on TV. First, Wyatt's firefly entrance is just incredible to witness first hand, especially in a setting as large as Camping World Stadium. It was easily the most fun entrance of the night. Second, although he is not a bad wrestler, I just can't stand Orton. His matches always seem to just plod on and he never seems to care all the way through to the end. Third, the idea of Wyatt trying to creep Orton out by projecting odd things on the mat is interesting and might have worked, if Orton actually sold it. It never really helped Wyatt and just made the whole thing silly and cheesy. Orton going over here for his 13th (!) title win also felt like the wrong decision. This is easily the worst part of the entire show.
Match 8: Brock Lesnar (W) vs. Bill Goldberg for the Universal Championship
Thoughts: Say what you will about both men, but you cannot deny how BIG this matchup felt. It is the closest thing the WWE has to giving off the feel you get before a Tyson boxing match or a McGregor UFC match; it just feels big time. The entire buildup beginning with their Survivor Series squash has been strong and gave the match an aura of mystery: can Goldberg go longer than 30 sec? What if they stink like at WM20? Both men delivered a match with four minutes of power and intensity that had the crowd and me in the palm of their hands. It completed their story perfectly without anything lacking or anything extraneous. It's short, but its the closest thing to a complete masterpiece that WM33 produced. (BTW - that Lesnar leap frog over a Goldberg spear had me jump for joy in the stands)
Match 9: Natalya vs. Carmella vs. Becky Lynch vs. Alexa Bliss vs. Mickie James vs. Naomi (W) for the Smackdown Women's Championship
Thoughts: They were short on time and inherited an exhausted crowd, but this group of women provided a nice change of pace before the highly anticipated final matchup between Undertaker and Roman Reigns. Nothing too special to note here except the double sharpshooter, but it was nice for Naomi to get the moment to shine before the downer of a sendoff.
Match 10: Roman Reigns (W) vs. The Undertaker
Thoughts: From a storytelling perspective, this match succeeded. The Undertaker is old and on his last legs and the young golden boy (who fans, like me, love to hate) is going to put him down for his own good. Two key dramatic notes stood out to me: Undertaker doing his classic sit-up only to succumb to pain and fall back down and Undertaker leaving all of his ring gear behind as he exited the match. Both served to tell the story that Roman Reigns has inherited the spot once held by Undertaker and both are non-wrestling moments. From an athletic wrestling perspective, this match was shaky. Although game and trying, Undertaker was just not able to physically accomplish what the match called for, going long stretches of needing rest. One botched reversal of a tombstone was particularly painful to watch. Still, the story was told and on that note, it was exactly what it needed to be.
|"Thank You Taker" chants as Undertaker stands in the ring after his defeat
VIDEO: The sights and sounds from WrestleMania 33
VIDEO: The sights and sounds from WrestleMania 33
12. Wyatt vs. Orton
11. Andre the Giant Battle Royal
10. Smackdown Women's Title Match
9. Cena/Bella vs. Miz/Maryse
8. HHH vs. Rollins
7. Reigns vs. Undertaker
6. Raw Women's Title Match
5. Aries vs. Neville
4. Jericho vs. KO
3. Tag Team Ladder Match
2. AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon
1. Goldberg vs. Lesnar