By Tony Inglis
Wrestlemania is a phenomenon that, to many people, evades understanding. The annual festival of wrestling, the 33rd instalment of which was hosted in Orlando, Florida on Sunday night, whips up extreme passion in its most dedicated of fans and even attracts curious glances from its detractors.
This year’s event, billed as “the ultimate thrill ride”, was a spectacle of peak opulence and extravagance. The show, like the Superbowl, typified American sporting events, with an opening rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ by R&B singer Tinashe, a flyover and a camp comedy routine from popular tag team the New Day before any of the official action began.
Even before this, the seven-hour marathon of sports entertainment had demonstrated its unique ability for cartoonish excess in the best possible way. During the now yearly Andre the Giant battle royal, a match created in memory of its eponymous titanic competitor, underdog Mojo Rawley was aided to an unlikely victory by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Wrestling, and Wrestlemania in particular, has a long and storied history of celebrity crossovers and appearances from other sporting personalities, such as Mike Tyson and Shaquille O’Neal. This was no different and made sure the show got off to a surprising and uplifting start.
As the action began in earnest, faces old and new walked the 80 yards from stage to squared circle (the longest entrance ramp in Wrestlemania history) to take on their foe, draw the cheers and boos of the crowd and, hopefully, make their own Wrestlemania moment.
The opening bout between Shane McMahon, Smackdown general manager and son of wrestling tycoon Vince, and indie darling AJ Styles had been approached with much trepidation. Some fans insisted that the latter deserved an opponent more in line with his skills and achievements.
In the end, this was a wild match that ramped up the intensity and got the show off to an ambitious pace (one that, arguably, it struggled to maintain). Shane O’Mac pulled off some crazy spots and high flying manoeuvres but Styles ultimately left as the victor.
Orlando’s Citrus Bowl was packed, with fans high up in the rafters probably squinting to take in the action. But that didn’t dampen their enthusiasm, nor did the unpredictable east coast wind as it whipped against the faces of the competitors.
Next up was a grudge match between former best friends, perhaps the most entertaining duo in the company in recent months, Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens. The tussle over the US Championship exemplified the intimate chemistry between the two fighters.
The match provided some wonderful drama – Owens grabbing the rope with a solitary finger to break a pin being a highlight. Eventually, Owens won the title, sending the veteran packing.
Following this was the Fatal Four Way for the Raw Women’s Championship. Women’s wrestling has seen a leap in quality and importance in recent years thanks to a concerted effort by the company, as well as the integrationof some top class female competitors to its roster. This match contained four of those at the very top, with the champion Bayley retaining. Women’s matches are no longer the bathroom break that many fans once considered them.
The rest of the card was high on star quality. The mixed tag team match between John Cena and The Miz, alongside their female partners Nikki Bella and Maryse respectively, provided light relief and Cena’s proposal to his girlfriend was a touching moment.
This was juxtaposed with the supposedly “unsanctioned match” between Triple H and his former protégé Seth Rollins, which provided extreme violence, epic entrances and a feel good moment as The Game received his comeuppance.
The main events were in the end overshadowed by the moments and the stories told by the undercard. The World Championship match between Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt attempted to add a supernatural element that didn’t quite come off as Wyatt’s momentum was undercut by an Orton victory.
Brock Lesnar faced Goldberg for the Universal Championship in a battle of brutish part-timers, a slow and plodding match with a predictable outcome. For some fans it represented the culmination of a long running feud between two stars. For others, it was a missed opportunity to give a more deserving superstar to topple the seemingly immoveable object of Goldberg.
The show was closed by perhaps its most iconic figure, The Undertaker, previously a representation of immortality after a long unbeaten run at the wrestling showcase, sulking off in defeat, and into retirement, after being thwarted by the polarising Roman Reigns. Fans took to social media to thank him for his impressive run.
In the end, it was the return, and clinching of the tag titles, by old fan favourites Matt and Jeff Hardy, otherwise known as The Hardy Boys. Their inclusion not only inspired the biggest mark out reaction from the crowd, but their entrance into the match made it even more high octane and entertaining. This was the moment most fans will cherish.