Just five weeks from WrestleMania 31, the actual 30th anniversary of WrestleMania, the WWE was still working on setting the stage for their big annual show. They were scrambling to make up for the underwhelming and nearly riot inducing Royal Rumble by putting Roman Reigns’ hated WrestleMania title shot up for grabs in a match against Daniel Bryan. They pretended the US Title mattered by having John Cena challenge for it. And… Nothing much else worth hyping. But the Uppercats were on the card. They’re cool.
But the first WWE Fastlane pay-per-view was something closer to a go-home show for WrestleMania 31. Getting on the fast lane to WrestleMania seems to have meant fast tracking the creative for WrestleMania too.
Seth Rollins, Big Show & Kane vs. Dolph Ziggler, Erick Rowan & Ryback
The opening match wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great. They double-dipped on face in peril and they weren’t really interesting in cheering the first time they pulled it off but there was some heat for the second one with Ryback. When people aren’t treated like chumps, they care about them.
It’s just too bad that they proceeded to make Ziggler look like a jobber for the second straight pay-per-view. After Kane and Big Show slowed the match to a crawl, Ziggler came in like a bat out of hell and lit up everyone. It was all going well until he went for a ten-punch in the corner and ate a Knockout Punch and a Chokeslam to take the loss.
One of the funny things about this match was the crowd was hot for it but was ice-cold for the rest of the night. While Rowan played face in peril, there were duelling chants of “We want Ziggler” and “Feed me more.” The faces were so over that they got duelling chants for the hot tag. Granted Rowan looked like a loser for hurting himself on a spin-kick that Big Show, the slowest man on the roster, dodged so no wonder why he didn’t get any heat himself. So rather than have Rowan take the fall, they had Ziggler take it because why not have the second-most over guy in the match put over two guys that are months away from retiring.
And the ending spoils an otherwise average match for me. When they let Ziggler and Rollins go, you saw the makings of a classic. The problem is that there were four other guys in there that you wish would go away. Ziggler’s heat comes from the fact that he is one of the best and most exciting workers in the Fed but that heat will die if they keep killing him so that he looks like he’ll always lose and never matter. He went from hero at Survivor Series to this. The first part is a push. This is course correction.
Making this match worse was the fact that this was just a vehicle for Randy Orton to return from injury (I can’t be arsed to figure out if that’s a legit or kayfabe injury). He showed up after the faces were beaten down to save the day. At least the crowd popped for that.
Goldust vs. Stardust
Why do I keep bringing up the crowd? Because they all took a piss break in this match and didn’t return for the next two-and-a-half hours.
Ahead of the match, Goldust and Dusty Rhodes had a backstage vignette. Dusty didn’t want anyone hurt while Dustin said he would beat Stardust so bad that Cody wouldn’t put paint pack on. Dustin never really went the pummel his brother route. He wrestled something more of a wrestling match. Cody was the more aggressive and unhinged of the Rhodes boys.
I often talk about stories in matches but they’re what hold the moves together. Goldust isn’t trying to hurt Cody because he just wants his brother back and it shows in what he does in-ring. Cody, through his Stardust persona, is trying to beat his way out of both Dusty and Dustin’s shadows and stand on his own rather than being a part of the Rhodes family. He was trying to do so by beating Goldust into retirement. The in-ring execution of this story was fantastic. The problem was that the crowd didn’t care.
The match had two major low points besides the crowd. First, JBL made a Godfather reference that Cole tried to “correct” into a Lord of the Rings reference. Second, former TNA senior official Rudy Charles botched the finish. Goldie rolled up Cody with a crucifix pin and Charles brain farted on the finish. He counted to two, stopped before three as if he was expecting a kickout because a crucifix hasn’t won a WWE PPV match since the 80s and then called for the bell. That one will live on in Botchamania infamy.
WWE Tag Team Championship: The Usos vs. Tyson Kidd and Cesaro
Going through the card, this match was one of the better ones because it was one of two without botched or dirty finishes. Okay. Gold/Stardust’s finish wasn’t their fault because the ref screwed it up but it’s amazing how you can get people over and get the crowd to care when someone goes over someone else.
Without a botched finish or interference or a screwed up finish, Kidd hit the Fisherman’s Neckbreaker to score the clean three. The match was a great bit of back-and-forth action with the teams trading control and innovative double-team moves but it would have been for naught if there was a disqualification or a distraction. You can build Kidd and Cesaro with that clean finish without having to worry about the Usos. They aren’t going to lose their heat by losing the titles, clean or not. If they get the titles back at Mania, it’ll kill everyone’s heat because hotshotting the title around does no one any good.
And since I’m pointing out botches, early on, Cesaro hit an Uso with a chop block to the right knee and immediately switched focus to the left knee. But I’ll give points right back for the single-leg giant swing into the single-leg Boston Crab. It just seemed like Cesaro was lost at points in time. He randomly entered the ring before an early hot tag but maybe the ref wasn’t going for the distraction so that may not have been his fault. He also rolled the illegal Uso into the ring before the finish that I thought was supposed to lead to a distraction flash finish but I wouldn’t call it a distraction finish.
Segment: Triple H confronts Sting
That was immediately followed by a segment to hype Triple H vs. Sting for WrestleMania 31. Well, it was supposed to hype that but it turned out to be a better angle for the Invasion of 2001 than it did for a pay-per-view some 14 years later.
I don’t know whether it’s creative as a whole or Vince or Hunter himself that’s calling the shots on Triple H’s promos but they’re hyping the man who killed WCW (Hunter) against the man who was the franchise of WCW. The WWE has spent the last decade revising history to make WCW sound like the villain of the Monday Night Wars and Hunter is framing Sting as a bitter veteran pushed out of the industry when the good guys won and is out for revenge. Basically, it almost seems as though Triple H has gone into business for himself in this feud to make himself seem like the face when it should be Sting.
Somehow, throughout the whole feud, Sting hasn’t gotten a word in. Having watched WCW, I know that Sting is the moral paragon that always fought for what is right and good. I think that his interference with The Authority’s plans would tell viewers that have been along for the ride that too. However, casual fans seeing Sting on WWE TV for the time thanks to the free month of the WWE Network wouldn’t realize that. If Hunter wasn’t a heel, they might buy what H is selling. I’m a little worried that this feud will miss the mark because the promos are missing the mark.
WWE Divas Championship: Nikki Bella vs. Paige
This show had this pattern of good then bad throughout most of the show and certain through the next match. This was a good part of the night. It wasn’t the Women’s Championship four-way at NXT Takeover: Rival but it wasn’t too bad either.
Say what you will about the Bellas but Nikki is completely believable as a hoss in the Divas division. Granted, her Alabama Slam and Powerbomb looked brutally stiff and I wouldn’t want to take those moves. She’s not as good as Paige at bumping but at least she pull off believable power moves. As for Paige, it sounded like she was leading this match so fair play to her.
The problem, again, was the finish. Nikki tripped Paige into the second turnbuckle and rolled her up for the win. It was supposed to be a roll-up with a handful of tights but Nikki couldn’t grab any tights so she just groped Paige’s posterior while the pin was being counted. They even replayed the screwed up finish which didn’t help matters. It looked like Paige just got out wrestled and Nikki went over clean.
And the announcers could have saved the roll-up with no tights. Paige hitting the second turnbuckle was replayed from a camera embedded in the second turnbuckle. I said to a friend that it should have been kayfabed off as a turnbuckle blow hurts but hitting a camera and turnbuckle at the same time will most certainly stun you more than normal. Nikki knew and took advantage for the win. It adds an environmental factor that normally isn’t there to help Paige a bit but that would assume that Cole, King and JBL could think on their feet like that.
WWE Intercontinental Championship: Bad News Barrett vs. Dean Ambrose
And here’s a bad match. Well, it told a basic story. Barrett kept running from Ambrose so Dean pummelled BNB to the point that former TNA senior official Rudy Charles had no choice but to disqualify Ambrose. The part of the crowd that still cared booed. It’s a shame because until Ambrose hit the pendulum clothesline, it was a pretty good, hard-hitting matchup. Oh well. It was more of an angle to set up a Mania rematch than an actual PPV match.
The highlight or lowlight was Cole saying “avoiding like the plague” (a phrase I use regularly) and JBL and Lawler debating about the current existence of plagues. Cole says yes while the other two said no. I suppose Cole is thinking Ebola but I could be wrong.
Segment: Bray Wyatt calls out The Undertaker
The crowd did come to life for some torch-bearing druids and a loud gong. And when they wheeled out a casket, the crowd died because they instantly realized that there was no way that Taker would come out like that.
And despite the fact that the crowd got suckered, I think the Fed made the right call, even if I fell asleep watching the promo a second time. They can’t just send Taker out by himself to cut a promo because he has to address Brock beating him at WrestleMania 30 straight away. There’s no getting around that. So the logical thing is for Taker to challenge Brock to a title match at Mania to avenge himself and the streak.
The problem is that he can’t do that with Reigns getting the shot at Lesnar. So if Taker initiates his return, he has to do so with WM30 in mind. If Wyatt starts the feud, whether you think he’s a jobber or not, Taker should answer him first and move onto Brock second. Unless this is building to a Taker title match at Mania 32 against Brock, they’re just pissing away Undertaker appearances.
WWE United States Championship: Rusev vs. John Cena
The crowd finally woke up for this match. Cena has this way of polarizing a crowd just solely based on his very existence. It’s not a good situation for the #1 babyface but at least he gets a reaction which was more than most of the card. Also helping is the fact that this match was treated like it matters. It’s Cena challenging for a secondary title with Charles Robinson refereeing and the main event match style of ring announcing (even if the ring announcer did an awkward job of saying “YOU…nitedstates Championship”).
Not only was the crowd loud in this match but so was Cena. He was practically putting together Botchamania 268 for Maffew in this match. I think the first five rows could have wrestled this match with how loud Cena was calling spots. But if he talked loud enough to spare us the announce team, it would have been forgivable.
One odd trend for the final two matches that started here was wrestlers realizing it’s all fake and just deciding they didn’t want to be in submission holds any more. Rusev just decided to pull Cena’s hands off during a crossface while Cena just decided he had enough of Rusev’s camel clutch by moving his arms off Rusev’s knees.
There was an interesting dynamic that saw Rusev wrestle and Cena brawl. Granted, Cena isn’t a technical wrestler so it shouldn’t be a surprise but I digress. Anyway, the finish came when Cena decided not to be in the camel clutch anymore. Then a distraction allowed Rusev to knockout Cena with a kick to the balls, slap him in the camel clutch and win via knockout.
Okay, so the ball shot didn’t actually directly knockout Cena because there was a followup superkick that actually knocked Cena out but I like my interpretation more. I also didn’t understand why Little Naitch let Cena sit in the camel clutch unconscious for 30 seconds without stopping the match. Poor officiating.
What I didn’t understand was that Rusev doesn’t get over by getting a distraction win over Cena. What’s the purpose of letting him win if he gets no heat? He just looks like a chump. If Cena got a visual victory followed by a clean Rusev win, he gets the heat and Cena loses none. Hell, without that Cena doesn’t get hurt. He was annihilated by Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam and was still top of the card so it’s not like it hurts him to lose. Sometimes, I don’t get this 50/50 booking.
Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan
The match featured the announcers trying to make Reigns looking like the big face hero which I’m sure only serves to further turn the fans against him. Not to mention that Lawler asked if there was ever a match with as much on the line. Well, there are title matches (including the WWE Title match at WM31 that they’re fighting to be a part of) and retirement matches and even mask and hair matches have more on the line than a #1 contender match.
To a greater extent than the last match, this was about a technical wrestler against a power brawler. Reigns hit a bunch of power punches and strikes, screaming before nearly each one. When he tried doing some ugly German suplexes, Roman suplexed Bryan on top of his own head. At least Bryan looked like he was trying some targeted strikes and submission holds on Reigns which made him look like he knew what he was doing.
The fans realized that this was roughly equivalent to Bryan wrestling the proverbial broom. Reigns suddenly went from maybe a 3-star singles wrestler to getting a “this is awesome” chant. It’s not like he’s magically learned how to wrestle a four-star match overnight. So the crowd went from about 50/50 at match start to well in Bryan’s corner by the end of the match because they could seem him carrying Reigns to a great match.
My issue was that the outcome never seemed in doubt. Even when Bryan was calling for the second running knee, I knew Reigns was about to get up to deliver a spear for the win. Reigns was made to make look strong at every turn. He got to deliver strong strikes. He had a counter to everything. He even got to make a comeback from injury. And you thought CM Punk made him look strong.
So Reigns won and maybe a quarter of the crowd cared. If the idea was to pass the torch, so to speak, it didn’t work. The crowd didn’t seem likely to riot as give up after resigning themselves to this fate. It wasn’t even a case of liking what Vince tells them to like. It was a case of the crowd giving up.
So after watching this pay-per-view and I’m already seeing likely rematches on the WrestleMania 31 card. There will be a Goldust vs. Stardust/Cody Rhodes rematch. Nikki and Paige are likely to have a rematch. Barrett and Ambrose looked geared to have a rematch until the multi-man ladder match was announced. And Rusev and Cena is certain to have a rematch. And there are three more matches (Brock vs. Roman, Sting vs. Triple H and Wyatt vs. Taker) that we haven’t seen but are official.
I haven’t seen anything that particularly excites me about the Mania card yet. Maybe Sting can pull out at great match at 55. Maybe Taker isn’t about to fall apart. Maybe the crowd won’t shit on Brock vs. Roman. That’s a lot of maybes and nothing certain for WrestleMania. It doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence for the biggest show of the year.