Friday, March 30, 2012

MAMBINO's Wrestlemania XXVIII Preview

Much to the chagrin of some of you snobs, the average hardcore WWE fan isn't that much different than your average American professional sports fan. Clean up, vomit spill on aisle Que-Ese.

There's just a certain level of particular, isolted psychosis you have to have to follow a sport, or in my case sports entertainment, with enough fervor that you could call yourself something more than just "avid". There's the casual observer, who just likes to be momentarily entertained with movement on the screen and the occasional thrill associated with the clock winding down.

We are not those people. The hardcore sports fan knows the type of minutae usually reserved for people pacing busily in sanitariums, reciting that Piazza had a 1.012 OPS in his 2000 season, and that Pete Rose had 3,358 hits...just as a Red.

The WWE fan knows that the Iron Sheik surprisingly beat the World Champion Bob Backlund in 1983, only to lose the title to young superstar Hulk Hogan in January of 1984. Recalling ridiculous facts like John Cena has been champion 11 times, and yet the combined days with the strap don't add up to Bruno Sammartino's first reign back in the 60's and 70's. Knowing that Wrestlemania took place in New York, LA, Chicago, New York, Detroit, Atlantic City, Toronto, LA, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and New York again for the first 10 editions.

I am a crazy WWE fan. And I just summoned all that information up by pure memory.

So as you can see, we have a lot in common with the average MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL aficionado. We memorize our stats, whether they're manufactured or not, take mental photographs of the great moments and idolize those that best exemplify greatness.

John Cena and the Rock are two of those legendary figures that resemble the Alex Rodriguez and Cal Ripken of their sport. Just like in baseball or basketball, there's constantly the comparisons of who had the better career, the more dominant title reigns, could talk the best trash or in a fantasy situation, who could beat who. Fans love to pit favorite against favorite, regardless of if they fought in a different era with completely different styles in completely different circumstances. It's just the way the sports world works. Just as basketball historians would define this era as LeBron's, or the one before it as Kobe's, and Jordan before him, and so forth and so forth, WWE historians (...nerds like you and me), do the very same obsessive matching game.

Hulk Hogan, the alpha dog of the 1980's, was the first professional wrestler in Vince McMahons' now national World Wrestling Federation to break out into the mainstream American media. His reign, title or no title, lasted throughout the early nineties, when Vince decided to go in a different direction with a young Canadian star named Bret Hart. Bret's time came and went, and infamously passed the torch (unwillingly) to Shawn Michaels. After Michaels, the "Attitude" era was born, with Stone Cold Steve Austin being the first man to break in the new, edgier WWF. But as Austin's body broke down, the first colored face to ascend the mountain was Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Rocky remained at the top of the WWF card for a couple years, but before Hollywood came calling, a couple men tried to break through to the mainstream much like Hogan and the Rock did, but with so little success. That is, until John Cena became the top draw in the company.

I gave this little history lesson because with a couple inconsistencies, eras don't just end and begin metaphorically in wrestling, as maybe they do in the NBA or MLB. I mean, Kobe didn't beat Jordan in the Finals, did he? Did Pujols take out Bonds in the NLCS? No, in real competition, this doesn't happen. But in Vince McMahon's choreographed soap opera, it happens consistently, dramatically and fantastically with a physical confrontation.

Every era ends with a match, with the new leader pinning or submitting the last. This happened at Wrestlemania III when Hulk Hogan defeated Andre the Giant and 8 years later when Shawn Michaels defeated Bret Hart at Wrestlemania XII. Shawn's era ended at Wrestlemania XIV when Steve Austin pinned him after a Stone Cold Stunner, and then, even in defeat, The Rock became the signature attraction at Wrestlemania XVII when he lost to the champion Austin. As both men left the federation a couple years after XVII, Triple H tried to hold the torch high, only to submit to a young, hungry John Cena at Wrestlemania XXII.

This is what happens in the WWE. Champions that define their era phase in and out in the way that conflicts are resolved in the wild; one man beats the other (of course, Hulk Hogan breaks the chain here because he never would lay down for a smaller guy like Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels).This Sunday, that's what we're going to see. That's what we should see.

After nearly a year of build, the Rock will finally face John Cena at Wrestlemania XXVIII. For weeks now, I've been begging for these two to delineate their reasons for wanting to have this match beyond the simplistic reasons of "I don't like you, you don't like me". And on Monday, maybe 3 weeks later than I would have thought, they finally did it.

Cena looked at the Rock and said that if he doesn't beat the "visiting" Johnson who's wrestling as a side gig, his career is a joke. The Rock retorted that he needs to beat Cena because after beating Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania XVIII and then Austin the very next year, in beating Cena he'll become the greatest wrestler ever to live. We can argue how dubious either claim is, but the issues have been crystalized, and after months of zero physicality, we're all ready for these two incredibly well-conditioned athletes to tear the house down.

Cena HAS to win this match. If not for the logical reason that he's the every day wrestler and the Rock is yes, a moonlighter with the WWE, for the reason that the Rock and Cena have to fulfill their obligations to the age-old industry tradition. "Doing business", as they say, is what has sustained the professional wrestling and this particular company, for over 30 years now. Without the match with the last leader to put the new one over, you can argue that no man has ever led his era with the same effectiveness as the men who had the match; Triple H never beat the Rock or Austin in a marquee match, and for reasons previously stated, neither did Hulk Hogan put over Bret Hart.

The Rock keeps on saying that this is the biggest match of all time. It's a bit of an exagerration. Hogan-Andre will always be the biggest match of all time, followed closely by Hogan-Rock and Rock-Austin II. However, this isn't far behind any of those bouts, and with a fantasy 30 minutes on Sunday, could surpass nearly all of them. I will get goosebumps and Sun Life Stadium will go bonkers. This is the fantasy match we all wanted. I fully expect a Cena victory, but not without making the Rock look fantastic. Let's do business boys.

Triple H vs. Undertaker (Hell in a Cell)

The story is complicated and yet so simple. A year ago, these two fought at WM XXVII, with the Undertaker coming out on top and maintaining his flawless 19-0 win streak at Wrestlemania, even though Triple H was the one who dominated the match physically. While Hunter walked out under his own power, the Undertaker was carted out of the ring and hasn't wrestled since.

Now Taker wants his "revenge" and Triple H still wants to break the streak. The stakes have been upped signifcantly last year, with the match taking place in the auspices of a gigantic steel cage known as Hell in a Cell.

What's fascinating about this match is that it could very well be both men's last; the Undertaker's body has been breaking down for years now, and Triple H actually has more important obligations with the inner workings of the company. The Undertaker will obviously win here, but the trick is to get us to think just for a second that he could possibly lose. If they do that, the match did what it's supposed to. I am fired UP.

The Upside: It's one of the greatest matches of all-time.
The Downside: The ring rust is apparent, especially with the Undertaker. Not having wrestled a televised match in a year, even one of the greatest of all time looks a little out of place in the ring. The cell, while a great gimmick, becomes just that; a gimmick and a distraction from the real drama in the ring. Still solid because of the crowd heat and the magnitude of the match, but not a classic.
The Expectation: Not one of Wrestlemania's greatest matches, and not even better than their match last year, but still one of the best of 2012.

CM Punk (C) vs. Chris Jericho (WWE Championship)

I wrote last week that the most authentic feud in the WWE had turned oddly inauthentic when the writing team started having Jericho fire real life scandal Punk's way. In Y2J spitting that the straight edge CM Punk's father was an alcoholic (true fact) and that a loss to Jericho would "drive Punk to the bottle" felt silly, even when rooted in reality. However, the greatness of the two performers has almost overcome the limitations that their on-screen rivalry has taken.

The Upside: Overcomes the two top card matches' mainstream star power and becomes the best match of the night. Win or lose, Punk becomes an even bigger star for carrying himself like the most important person in the company.
The Downside: After weeks of saying they're going to "steal the show", the hype can't quite match the actuality. Much like Randy Orton vs. Triple H at WM 25, a great build is rendered meaningless when the two performers don't click. A giant disappointment.
The Expectation: One of the best matches of the night, and even though it won't be able to stand up in intensity and crowd insanity as the other two main events, it's the best wrestling match of the night by two of the best wrestlers in the world. Also, I end up bringing shame to my family with how excited I am for this particular fight even as a 27 year-old.

Daniel Bryan (C) vs. Sheamus (World Heavyweight Championship)

I wrote in my Little More Than Halfway Point Preview that Daniel Bryan and Sheamus needed to do something, anything, to breathe a little more life into this feud. I'm not sure that they did that, and in fact, Bryan's continuing greatness might have exposed Sheamus as perhaps not ready for this type of scrutiny and pressure.

The Upside: Even with 8 to 10 minutes, they put on an entertaining match that I'll always remember as being "great for what it was". Even with so many matches, and so many big, long main event matches, we'll all be asking "why didn't those two get more time?"

The Downside: Sheamus is just not ready for the spotlight and becomes the just another guy in Miami to freeze up when the ball's in his hands.

The Expectation: I suspect that we'll see that Daniel Bryan carrying Sheamus and showing everyone that he's ready for more than just 8 to 10 minutes on the biggest PPV of the year.

Randy Orton vs. Kane

The Upside: The brawl spills all over the stadium, eventually leading to Orton throwing Kane into Dan Marino's lap. It's messy, but it's meant to be that way. The match. Not Dan Marino's lap. 
The Downside: Orton's technical talent in the ring is wasted on a wrestler who's attribute is being a big, strong brawler. They can't adapt to each other and the match is borderline unwatchable and plodding. 
The Expectation: A messy, brutal brawl that gets messy at times, but is otherwise an acceptable use of 10 minutes.

Team Teddy (Santino Marella, Kofi Kingston, R-Truth, The Great Khali, Zack Ryder and Booker T) vs. Team Johnny (David Otunga, Mark Henry, Dolph Ziggler, Jack Swagger, The Miz and Drew McIntyre) 

Also known as the "Oh Shit, We Have 12 More Guys We Need to Fit on the Card" match. I'll spare you the entire storyline, but basically, the two "General Managers" of Smackdown (Teddy Long) and Raw (John Laurinitis) have assembled two teams, with the winning GM getting control of BOTH shows. 

The Upside: A frenetic spotfest with non-stop action for the duration. Fun, quick and memorable for it's insanity, a la the Hardcore Battle Royal at WM 2000.
The Downside: Too many cooks in speedos in a kitchen with ropes surrounding it. The match quickly morphs in a busy cluster-eff, and the crowd tunes out in anticipation of the Rock's next backstage promo.
The Expectation: Every participant does his finishing move in succession, in a fun, quick match that I probably won't remember next year.

Cody Rhodes vs. The Big Show

The Upside: Cody Rhodes gets almost as much crowd hatred as any performer in the night. He carries himself like a star, and even in wrestling a style clash in the Big Show, comes out looking like he'll be headlining WM 29.
The Downside: Rhodes can't handle himself on his first one-on-one WM match, and blows up his own spot. The match is a forgettable car crash, and Rhodes is shunted back down to the bottom of the card.
The Expectation: As one of the better, and more defined feuds on the card, the match is able to more easily build and tell a story. Rhodes looks like a main eventer in waiting.

Kelly Kelly and Maria Menounos (yes, seriously) vs. Beth Phoenix and Eve Torres

The Upside: Menounos provides some sort of interesting sideshow-like aspect to the match, and Phoenix shows she's the only competent female wrestler on the roster.

The Downside: These four set women's wrestling back 80 years and make me want to set myself on fire.

The Expectation: These four set women's wrestling back 80 years and make me want to set myself on fire.

Looking at the top matches on the card, and the potential for well-wrestled battles building up to them, I think WM 28 has the potential to be one of the best ever. It's not just that the matches will range from technically sound to well-executed; it's how much we care. We care about The Streak and Hell in a Cell, and the historic significance of the Rock fighting John Cena.  CM Punk is arguably the most popular wrestler in the company, which will be reflected on how much a concrete stadium will shake during his entrance on Sunday. Daniel Bryan and Sheamus know what's against them, and will have to use every trick to their advantage to make a crowd amped for Cena and the Rock to care about their match. Even the silliness of Team Johnny versus Team Teddy and a seemingly forgettable Cody Rhodes-Big Show bout still have been getting fantastic crowd heat on television. This could be an all-timer. I'm ready. Are you?

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