By Joe Passantino
“We’ve been goin’ hard for too long,” it is said in, “Money in the Power” by Kid Ink, one of the official WrestleMania 31 theme songs. Indeed, this is a fitting description of the pop culture phenomenon known as WrestleMania, the only WWE event named by number rather than by year.
Chairman Vince McMahon has been putting on what many call wrestling’s “Super Bowl” for the last three decades, with each event looking to top the last in both grandeur and excitement.
Certainly, this year’s show at Levi’s Stadium in California was no exception.
The night’s main event featured former UFC Heavyweight Champion and reigning WWE World Heavyweight Champion, Brock Lesnar, defending the title against polarizing upstart Roman Reigns. In a hard-hitting, smash-mouth affair, Lesnar took Reigns to “Suplex City,” to the delight of many in the 76,976 in attendance. This match far exceeded expectations, following criticisms of Reigns not being ring-ready for such a role and the disappointment of popular wrestler Daniel Bryan being denied the opportunity.
The match ended in unique fashion, as Seth Rollins, who had possessed a “Money in the Bank” contract allowing him a title match at any given moment, cashed in his shot amidst the barbarity to turn the match into a three-way. This was a genius move by the writers; it allowed Rollins, who has been WWE’s premier villain since betraying former cohort Reigns in June, to win the championship by pinning his ex-buddy. This meant not damaging one of WWE’s signature attractions in Lesnar. It was the sort of crazy shenanigan that is only possible within a WWE ring, and, given the predictability of Reigns’ rise, was a refreshing way to shake up the title scene.
Lesnar was not the only UFC champion at the event. Cameras spotted UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey in the audience early in the show, but she turned out to be more than just a fan. When Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, WWE’s megalomaniacal on-screen owners, came out to brag about their role in WrestleMania’s success, former star and current action hero Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson confronted them to reaffirm the audience’s true ownership of the event. He invited Rousey into the ring, and in a genre-spanning moment, Rock and Rousey took out the McMahon couple. It remains to be seen if Rousey will have further involvement with WWE, but this was a worthy WrestleMania moment on its own.
Wrestling’s Monday Night Wars also came to life as Sting, stalwart of now-defunct promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW), took on Triple H. Following bold entrances, including a Terminator-themed Triple H entrance (in cross-promotion for Terminator Genisys), the match exploded with interference from popular factions D-Generation X and nWo. This was a dream scenario for anyone who had followed wrestling during its ’90s boom, and the bells and whistles were probably necessary given Sting’s age and limited ring capabilities. In the end, Triple H used his signature weapon, the sledgehammer, to defeat Sting. The “stand up and cheer” moments and closing handshake made this a welcome moment of nostalgia for longtime, devoted wrestling fans.
Another legend returned to the WrestleMania stage, as The Undertaker made his first appearance in a year to face Bray Wyatt. After Brock Lesnar ended The Undertaker’s 21-year undefeated streak at WrestleMania XXX, the story was whether or not “the gunslinger” could still go. Indeed, WWE’s dark superhero prevailed over Wyatt, and The Undertaker improved his WrestleMania record to an astounding 22-1. Given the classics The Undertaker has delivered in the past, this felt a bit underwhelming at points, but the previous year’s heartbreak made his prevail and pyro-enhanced celebration all the sweeter.
These moments are how Vince McMahon built his empire. Wrestling is a rare beast, in that its scripted nature allows for an excitement that is near impossible in legitimate sports. WrestleMania 31 featured the type of unfiltered fun that makes it easy to see why WWE continues to break records and “put smiles on people’s faces” all over the world.