WrestleMania Distilled WWE’s Worst Excesses Into Five Glorious Minutes

PHILADELPHIA — WrestleMania came to Philadelphia just seven months after I moved here, and there was little chance that I wouldn’t drop hundreds of dollars to attend at least one night of the two-night flagship behemoth of sports entertainment. I checked out of watching WWE at pretty much the exact moment All Elite Wrestling came around in 2019, but I’m still a sucker for the things I’m a sucker for, and the maximalist spectacle of WrestleMania fits squarely within that category. I scoured ticket reselling sites and slowly came to terms with paying 50 percent over asking price in fees. And then, as I knew I would, my partner and I made our way to the Eagles’ stadium on Sunday for night two of WrestleMania XL, the 40th edition of WWE’s yearly showcase.

Here is another thing I’m a sucker for: being a part of a wrestling crowd, no matter the size. Watching wrestling on TV is often summarized as a soap opera for men, which is amusingly mean but also not exactly right, and ignores quite a large subset of wrestling fans who are not men. Watching it live is not like that; it’s operatic all right, but is tonally more of a gladiator extravaganza. The physicality of wrestling plays up in person; you can see the tremendous physical effort that goes into telling these stories, and the frenzy of a crowd during a particularly good wrestling show is hard to match. There’s the chanting, sure, but also the sense that the next 10 or 20 or 30 minutes may be the wildest and most important of your life.

Admittedly, this is a very silly way to engage with any kind of entertainment, and that doubly so for WWE, especially in 2024. To say that the company is in a transitional period would understate how horrible things have gotten behind the scenes in recent months. Vince McMahon, the man most associated with the biggest wrestling company in history, was ousted from WWE in January after the weight of a lifetime of horrible deeds caught up to him in a meaningful way for the first time in my wrestling-watching life, and McMahon’s.

His replacement as the main creative force of the company is Paul Levesque, who wrestled in WWE as Triple H and is deeply intertwined with the McMahon family. Levesque is married to McMahon’s daughter Stephanie, who opened night two of WrestleMania XL with a strange bit of Triple H mythologizing; Vince McMahon’s stink is still very much on the promotion. And yet, once the matches began in earnest, the pageantry and scale and strange magic of live wrestling took over. This is how it works.

Even, it turns out, when it doesn’t work. Watching wrestling live invariably means sitting through some rancid lows in order to get to the euphoric highs. On TV, I can put up with the shitty matches and WWE’s never-ending commercial grind; it’s not hard to scroll social media on my phone during those parts, only absentmindedly registering what’s going on with mild disgust. In the stadium, though, I lock in even for the worst of the worst, both to get my money’s worth and because it’s hard to not get swept up even in the things I don’t like. (I do have limits, though; on Sunday, I went for a bathroom-concessions double whammy of a journey during the “street fight” between The Pride and Final Testament; Karrion Kross is one of those aforementioned limits.)

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Most of the first half of Sunday’s show was bad. Seth “Freakin’” (ugh) Rollins unsuccessfully defended his irrelevant secondary world title against Drew McIntyre, and though both can be fine wrestlers, the match was a dud, mainly due to Rollins’ inability to play a believable babyface good guy. Newly minted wrestling fan Kelsey McKinney, enjoying her first WrestleMania weekend, called Rollins “an embarrassment” and “an enemy of mine.” (“I freakin’ hate him,” she added. She gets it.)

The aforementioned street fight might have been the best match of all time, or might have been an excuse to get Snoop Dogg some screen time; I missed it, as I mentioned, but based on the crowd reactions I don’t regret my decision. I also fundamentally don’t understand the whole LA Knight fandom, so his match against AJ Styles did nothing for me besides briefly blinding me. Somehow, WWE made the same error as the last time I went to a Mania, which was pointing bright white lights at the crowd; this time, it prompted stadium-wide chants of “fuck these lights.” I don’t think I missed much.

The second half was better. Real life villain and YouTuber-turned-wrestler Logan Paul retained his United States title against Randy Orton and Kevin Owens; it wasn’t a match to seek out for its technical mastery, but it was fun. Bayley, one of my favorite women’s wrestling stars ever, won the women’s title from her former stablemate Iyo Sky in a great semi-main event, to the sounds of the crowd chanting a variation of Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby” the entire time, a nod to the new champion’s stellar NXT run.

And then there was the main event. There was a great deal of context behind the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship bout between Cody Rhodes and Roman Reigns, only some of which is anything you’d need to know to enjoy the match. But, briefly: Rhodes wanted to “finish the story” and win the top title, held by Reigns for a three-and-a-half-year run, in order to finally bring a WWE world title to his family and honor his father, the late and legendary WWE star Dusty Rhodes. Rhodes tried last year, and lost due to interference from Reigns’ cousin Solo Sikoa; almost every match in Reigns’ run over the last couple of years has ended with some variation of that interference. It was one of the most reliable slogs in WWE.

After winning the Royal Rumble again this year, Rhodes challenged Reigns once more. The Rock got involved; everything got messy. The original plan, by a bunch of reports, was to have The Rock steal Rhodes’ spot, both in storyline and in reality, so that he could face Reigns, his real-life cousin, in what WWE felt was the biggest possible main event for an anniversary WrestleMania. The crowd hated that, though, and so WWE had to swerve again. The Rock was still at WrestleMania, in a Saturday-night tag team match. It was also Rhodes and Rollins against Reigns and The Rock to decide what type of match Sunday’s main event would be; the latter team won and chose a no-disqualification match.

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That made it obvious what would transpire on Sunday, which was that so many people were going to interfere. WWE loves to overbook its WrestleMania main events, and now had an in-storyline excuse to do so. They did not miss the opportunity; during the main event, a total of seven guys ran in to do their part in turning a simple story—one guy wants to beat another, unbeatable guy to bring glory to his family—into a mess of flying bodies, disjointed entrances, and incoherent chaos.

Which makes it sound like I was annoyed by this, so let me clarify: It was awesome, and exactly what it should have been. I would have felt this way if I had been watching at home, but being in the stadium for the mayhem was like microdosing hard drugs. It started mildly enough, with the Usos, Reigns’ other cousins, coming out, with one fighting on each side of the match. Then Sikoa made his customary appearance; this time, he was fought off by a returning John Cena.

Cena’s entrance to the match was also the turning point for the crowd. Before Cena goober-ran his way to the ring, the main event was just a normal Roman Reigns match—long, plodding, peppered with various members of his large family. Cena’s arrival was completely unannounced, which gave the rest of the match an air of “anything can happen now.” The Rock following Cena down to the ring was not particularly a shock; he’d been involved the night before, and there was no way he wasn’t showing his face again. Did the obviousness of his introduction into the main event dull the roar that followed the start of his theme song and the subsequent face-off with Cena? No, not at all.

After a brief interlude in which Rollins came out to help Rhodes, this time with the Shield attire and theme song from when he and Reigns teamed together—he was immediately punked by Reigns—I was expecting glass to shatter. When glass shatters in WWE, it means Stone Cold Steve Austin, the other pillar of wrestling’s most popular period, and The Rock’s long-time rival. It would have made sense; The Rock had returned as a villain, and Stone Cold is too beloved to be a villain again. That face-off would have been perfect, but even the most meticulously planned chaos can still surprise. Instead of glass shattering, a gong reverberated through the stadium as the Undertaker, taking a break from his right-wing grift of a podcast, showed up to chokeslam The Rock into the shadow realm before immediately disappearing.

This is what WWE can do. No other wrestling company, no matter how good its matches, can compete with WWE on star power, or deliver the spectacle of bringing out some of the biggest names in history for what were essentially cameos. Only in WWE could someone be disappointed that an even bigger star didn’t show, as was the case with Stone Cold’s non-appearance; that’s part of the charm. The story of Rhodes-Reigns didn’t strictly need any of these massive names to be worthy of a main event slot, but also WWE has all those names on its roster, so why not break them out and get everyone to lose their minds?

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The roughly five minutes between the Usos’ interference and the end of the match, in which Rhodes finally won the title he’s been chasing his whole life, were the very best of WWE’s worst impulses.

So many matches are ruined by the company’s fixation on creating capital-M Moments. But also no one else can deliver a moment quite like this. It’s grandiose, indulgent, and completely silly. It’s WWE in its purest form.

On Friday night, I saw a different guy “finish the story.” At Ring of Honor’s Supercard of Honor show, at Temple University’s cozy Liacouras Center, Mark Briscoe fought Eddie Kingston for the company’s top title. Briscoe is not my favorite wrestler, but I can’t hate on him beating Kingston—who actually might be my favorite current wrestler—11 years to the day that his brother and tag team partner Jay won the same title. (Jay Briscoe was killed in a car accident in January of 2023.) As the Ring of Honor locker room emptied out to put the younger Briscoe on their shoulders in celebration, I found myself, it’s fair to say, a little emotional about a guy I have never cared much about. This is the magic of professional wrestling to me, in much the same way that the WrestleMania main event was, even if Ring of Honor could never match the baroque peaks and sprawling scale of WWE. In the surreality of wrestling, even if just for a brief moment, even small things can feel very important.

Briscoe’s win will likely stick with me as long as the clusterfuck that led to Rhodes’s own victory. That resonance was earned, in both cases; these were crowning moments for wrestling lifers and tributes to fallen family members.

Few entertainments so cleanly blend real life with a heightened state of storytelling in the way wrestling does. This is often a knock against it, and not an unfair one, but also that critique misses what makes wrestling powerful. The stories are manufactured and structured, but also these are real people with real lives putting their bodies on the line to entertain. Try telling Briscoe, or Rhodes, or anyone else who achieves something in wrestling that it’s fake. It is, at every level, real to them, dammit. Anyway, you can tell them whatever you want; they won’t be able to hear you over the roar of crowds that live and die by every wild and true fabrication.


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