This year was supposed to be the first Wrestlemania in the post-Undertaker era—a time for new faces to step up and long-standing workers to finally bask under the spotlight. But as John Cena continues to badger an absentee deadman into returning viewers may have started to accept what longtime fans have long suspected—WWE just can’t over its past.
WWE’s current Universal Champion is Brock Lesnar, a 40-year-old, 18-year wrestling vet who operates part-time and is rumored to be returning to the UFC for another shot at MMA. Triple H, now 48, is heavily featured for Wrestlemania 34 along with his wife and WWE executive Stephanie McMahon, in an attempt to get a fresh-faced Ronda Rousey over its audience. Shane McMahon slowly killing himself in high-spot doses and daredevil drops is still a thing in 2018.
Nostalgia may be an inextricable part of sports entertainment, and our longtime heroes may simply end up as fodder for the incumbent generation, but as many wrestling addicts can tell you, the WWE’s glory days weren’t the only significant wrestling moments that have changed the industry.
Hiding backstage, in plain sight, are a group of talents that have been earmarked for greatness for a while now. And April 8 might finally signal the takeover of these once-overlooked but never forgotten workers who toiled from humble origins to end up in the grandest stage of them all.
STYLES VS. NAKAMURA – THE REMATCH
Bret “The Hitman” Hart once said that AJ Styles was the best wrestler on the planet. This was way before his days in WWE. Styles was still a high-flying athlete leading the TNA brand through its glory years, headlining several epic battles against now WWE superstars Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle.
But as Styles’ athleticism slowed and as TNA’s ratings sank, it looked more likely that WWE would pass him by. His eventual move to New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) in 2014 proved to be the biggest catalyst in reviving his career. He produced several Match of the Year (MOTY) contenders within a year and opened up the West to a harder-hitting form of wrestling than many were accustomed to.
Styles perfected his match psychology and grounded offense in NJPW, making him effective without subjecting himself daily to serious injuries. Japan gave Styles a chance, and more importantly, a stable, The Bullet Club, then the biggest group outside the U.S. But Styles couldn’t have cemented his status as one of the best without a proper rival. This came in the form of the King of Strong Style Shinsuke Nakamura.
Nakamura was arguably one of the biggest stars in Japan in the mid-2010’s, and certainly one of the most charismatic characters to ever grace TV. He combined the eccentricities of Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson and mixed it with real MMA experience and a penchant for painful knees, elbow strikes, and submissions. There was no one remotely like him then, in Japan or anywhere else.
But Nakamura was also at the tail-end of his successful career, and he needed a feud that could extend his legacy to legendary status.
In January 2016, Styles challenged Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship in NJPW’s biggest annual event: Wrestle Kingdom IX. In a 20-minute barnburner, both engaged in a deadly ballet of feints, hard strikes, and counters that would make even the most hardcore MMA fans fawn in admiration. Both had wildly different yet completely complementary styles, and the clash ended up garnering with praise and clamors for a rematch.
But Nakamura and Styles both signified their intentions to leave NJPW for the WWE immediately after the bout. What happened next is history: Styles debuted at the #3 spot in the 2016 Royal Rumble, and Nakamura debuted shortly after in another MOTY against NXT icon Sami Zayn.
Wrestlemania 34 will give fans one more chance to see these two international icons set the ring on fire. Here’s hoping that they’re given enough time to display their natural talents on screen. After all, Styles and Nakamura have never failed to impress since they entered the WWE.
DANIEL BRYAN: THE RETURN OF THE VALKYRIE
The recent medical clearing of Daniel Bryan means much more than most fans realize. Bryan was the biggest babyface in the WWE before his injury, but his success was indicative of something more meaningful. Bryan, then known as Bryan Danielson in the indies, was the poster-child for the successful translation of independent wrestlers into the mainstream, and the missing link in a line of wrestling geniuses that were long hidden from airtime and media coverage.
Bryan’s contemporaries had held important spots in wrestling’s history too, albeit briefly. CM Punk was, for a while, the biggest Superstar WWE had. Bryan had brief bouts with a younger AJ Styles, a healthy Nigel McGuiness (a former ROH champion turned NXT commentator), Austin Aries (current Impact Wrestling champion), a younger Kenny Omega (now NJPW’s hottest ticket stateside), and a dynamic Claudio Castagnoli (now known as the “Swiss Superman” Cesaro in the WWE). Bryan was at the center of an indie revolution that saw significant mainstream burn, but was ultimately held back by his concussion history.
Unlike many superstars in the WWE who either found a way due to family (Cody Rhodes), the developmental platform (Bray Wyatt), or simply due to their physique (Braun Strowman), Bryan utilized his superior technical skills and incredible improvisation to add nuance and sophistication in professional wrestling. Known as the American Dragon in the indies, Bryan was one of the first wrestlers to embrace his Japanese learnings by maximizing his knees and kicks.
Bryan can do everything and can adapt to anyone. His no-compromise offense was partly what contributed to his medical condition: the man just had to give it all every chance he had, which is why fans love him so much.
Bryan is slated to compete against Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, but it’s the future bouts that remain most exciting for hardcore fans: a revenge match with Roman Reigns, a meeting with former NJPW standout Finn Balor, a David vs Goliath matchup with Braun Strowman, and a kick-off with Shinsuke Nakamura. Bryan will be the bridge that brings these newer talents into the fold, completing this generation’s quest of legitimizing the indies as a proper developmental platform, and finally becoming the ultimate underdog in kayfabe and in real life.
THE STROWMAN COMETH
It's disappointing that Braun Strowman was booked to fight for the Tag Team Championship. It’s strange that a person of that size and ferocity would need a partner to legitimize his character. Regardless, Strowman is still a person to look out for due to a simple reason: He is by far the most successful organic product the PG-era WWE has produced. Halfway between “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Game of Thrones’ The Mountain, Strowman was recruited as a professional weightlifter with no prior wrestling training.
By all accounts, most large, “hoss”-type wrestlers are usually seen as limited, but that hasn’t stopped the WWE faithful from loving Strowman’s Ambulance flips, 500-lbs power slams, commentator assaults, and table-crashing.
It will be interesting to see who Strowman will partner with: it could be the crowd favorite Elias and his strangely entrancing guitar, or it could be Bobby Lashley, another physical powerhouse who is rumored to be WWE-bound soon. Either way, a Strowman-Cesaro-Sheamus tango would be a sight to behold, even if Strowman ends up having no partner at all.
Wrestlemania 34 is merely a bus stop for the meteoric Strowman, who is virtually a lock to win the Heavyweight title sooner than later.
THE WOMENS REVOLUTION CONTINUES
The women’s circuit is also undergoing an interesting change. A transition, if you will, that will surge through Wrestlemania 34 and hopefully beyond it. The so-called women’s revolution has come and gone, and the four horsewomen of the WWE have found themselves unable to reinvent their NXT characters. Becky Lynch has been sitting in midcard limbo in Smackdown Live, Bayley and Sasha are intertwined in a remix of their NXT Takeover feud from last year, and Charlotte finds herself without a worthy opponent—until now.
Unbeaten Japanese sensation Asuka finds herself on a collision course with the Queen, and it will be interesting to see where WWE takes these characters. Asuka may still end up being unbeaten, but will likely make Charlotte lose some luster and legitimacy, and doubly so vice-versa. But the logical setup would be for Asuka to cement herself as the biggest wrestling threat in the company so that seeds for a Ronda Rousey vs. Asuka match can be immediately sown.
The problem with pushing Rousey immediately is similar to WWE’s problem with Brock Lesnar. They made him too powerful and made it harder to find convincing contenders to his crown. Rousey winning would delegitimize pro wrestling and undermine what Sasha, Bayley, Becky, and Charlotte have achieved so far, and Asuka winning would do the same for MMA. It will be interesting to see how WWE maneuvers around this, but it certainly has two of the most convincing female performers in its history, let’s just hope they don’t waste it.
Of course, Charlotte winning would be an interesting twist, immediately creating three potential contenders to the crown outside of Nia Jax (who is still a bit raw at this stage) and Alexa Bliss (an excellent talker but still a developing talent).
Regardless of the outcome, it’s great to see how far the WWE has gone in maximizing its female in-ring talent. Rousey herself is also bound to manhandle both Trips and Steph in the ring. Look for the women to keep kicking ass in 2018 and beyond.
There will still be moments where the WWE will leverage its heritage and heyday, but this is just a reminder that they need not look far to get promising talent. Some of them are already there, waiting for the right matchups and the right situations—and it’s looking like the conditions are primed for an explosive Wrestlemania that may shatter the boundaries of hardcore independents and mainstream fans alike.