World Wrestling Entertainment decided to re-brand their February pay-per-view event Fastlane to play off the fact that they call the long stretch between Royal Rumble and WrestleMania the Road to WrestleMania. In every documentary I’ve seen about the event, the 31st edition of which takes place on March 29, a member of creative or a wrestler, perhaps Triple H or Vince McMahon, even, will claim that the Road to WrestleMania starts the day after the show, when the exhausted crew gathers in the basketball arena adjacent to the stadium they’d just occupied and begins plotting out the next episode of Raw. This was true once, perhaps, before World Wrestling Entertainment was the only game in town, before it had to fill five hours of broadcast television and yet more for their online outlet, but the days of WrestleMania being plotted out a year in advance have been over for some time. If anything, it’s called The Road to WrestleMania because that’s when the pieces for the show really start to fall into place. The fallout from the big show may string things along until SummerSlam, but everything from that August show until about the Royal Rumble is about the promise that WrestleMania will be worthwhile.
This year, unable to promote an Elimination Chamber event because the titular construction is expensive to set up in arenas that can’t easily accommodate it, Fastlane held the promise, due to its punning title, of accelerating the company’s storylines heading into WrestleMania. One problem (the problem) is that the WWE hasn’t had much in the way of success with many of its storylines of late. Really, they’ve been treading water since Daniel Bryan, fresh off his triumphant double header at WrestleMania XXX, suffered an injury that took him out of the picture for nearly a year. There were glimmers of hope, here and there. Brock Lesnar destroying John Cena at SummerSlam. The finish to Team Cena vs. Team Authority at Survivor Series. Daniel Bryan’s emotional return to Raw and his declaration that he would not have to retire. But 2014 was something of a lost year for World Wrestling Entertainment, and the Road to WrestleMania has been a hard one thus far. Last year, Raw was must-see television. This year, one had to pin one’s hopes to this new, generically-titled pay-per-view to kickstart the build necessary of a show that’ll be held at Levi’s Stadium, that glittering beacon of publicly subsidized, corporately overseen athletic carnage. And, on paper, Fastlane looked like a great card, the sort of show that would get lost because it was between Royal Rumble and WrestleMania, but that would be discovered again and again by those curious enough to put in the time on the WWE Network. To be blunt, that’s exactly what this show was not.
The crowd at the FedEx Forum were pumped for Fastlane for about the first three seconds of Dolph Ziggler’s theme song, then dead from the minute Erick Rowan’s theme hit to the closing stretch of the main event. I can get over a bad crowd (the way WWE has paced their shows over the last year, one has to get over a bad crowd), so I settled in for the expected sleeper classic. And the opening six-man tag team match, with a muddled storyline dating back to November, had me hopeful. Ziggler/Ryback/Rowan vs. Big Show/Kane/Rollins looked like it had no reason to be on this (or any) card, despite how much I dig Ziggler, Ryback, and Rollins. After Ziggler’s win at Survivor Series over the Rollins-led Team Authority went nowhere, another meeting between these two teams in any configuration was the last thing I wanted. Ryback, a physical freak who won me over by being a physical freak, may be the most improved wrestler of the calendar year. Erick Rowan, himself a huge man, may prove to be the most surprising. The story of any match involving The Authority is that they always have the numbers advantage and have more of a reason to stay a cohesive unit. Seth Rollins is on another level when it comes to his ability to put together creative, amazing sequences. Early, he rolls out of the way of a Ryback splash and has his curbstomp countered into a big powerbomb. Later, he looks to hit Ryback with a blockbuster, but is caught in the Shellshock. These are big, impressive spots to be landing in what’s essentially a throwaway match to end (hopefully) a long stagnant feud, but Rollins is so good that he’s able to elevate whatever material he’s given. In the end, though, it’s a nice bit of double teaming from Kane and The Big Show that gives The Authority a somewhat surprising win. After the match, a five-on-three assault (J&J Security are involved, of course) is too much for Ziggler, Rowan, and Ryback. Just when things seem hopeless, Randy Orton finally returns, dispatching the majority of The Authority with his RKO. Waaaaaay back in November, Triple H officially chose to back Seth Rollins over Orton, leading The Authority to injure his former Evolution running buddy. This is his revenge, though it’s hardly complete. Rollins was pulled from the ring by Big Show, and he ran at top speed to the parking garage. Orton vs. Rollins seems like a lock for WrestleMania, and it should be a good one. Where it leaves Ziggler, Ryback, Rowan, Kane, and Big Show is a mystery that’ll either be solved over the next five weeks, or during the catch-all battle royal that exists to eat 20-minutes of time at the show.
Backstage, Dusty Rhodes is with his son Dustin, garbed, as he customarily is, as Goldust. It’s been hard times for the Rhodes family of late, what with Cody going crazy and figuring that he really is the cosmic entity known as Stardust, but Dusty doesn’t want Dustin beating up his youngest son too badly. Love, Dusty Rhodes believes, is what will heal this freshly developed rift. Goldust, however, doesn’t think so. To bring Cody Rhodes back, he’s going to have to beat Stardust out of him. This match, Dustin Rhodes vs. Cody Rhodes or Goldust vs. Stardust, is what I’ve been waiting for since Goldust came back for yet another WWE run, and in the best in-ring shape of his career. It seems to be the one Dustin wants to retire on, too. This match, then, was crushed somewhat by the weight of expectation, as well as by a serious error on the part of referee Rudy Charles. Everything is good, at least in the early going. Stardust’s new gear, essentially his Goldust tribute gear without a top, was a nice, weird twist on his brother’s most famous look, and the psychological aspect of the contest—Stardust getting distracted by “CODY!” chants, Goldust using his experience to outsmart his brother, Stardust taking advantage of Goldust’s reluctance to cause any serious damage to take control—was quite excellent, especially as a first chapter. The WWE’s dead crowd problem plagued it, though, as did the finish, which saw Goldust roll Stardust up and the referee make a two count before calling for the bell. Usually, mistakes that happen during the course of a match can be worked through. The referee forgetting how to count to three, however, is egregious. That’s the function of a referee. The look of confusion on Goldust, Stardust, and even Dusty Rhodes’ face at the end of the match was not good. Stardust was able to redeem things a bit afterwards with another killer promo on his family and how Cody Rhodes died when Dusty sent Goldust to fight Cody’s battle against The Authority. His beatdown of Goldust, complete with one last no-look kick after the promo, saved their night.
The WWE Tag Team Championship, like everything that isn’t the World Heavyweight Championship, are albatrosses, title belts that are spoken highly of on commentary but which doom their owners to the relative obscurity of four or five minute matches on Raw and SmackDown!. The “art” of tag team wrestling has largely been lost (Vince McMahon reportedly isn’t a fan, and most teams don’t stay together long enough to build anything like real chemistry), but The Usos are a solid enough foundation for a division that always seems to be in the midst of a rebuild. Cesaro and Tyson Kidd are “the best new tag team we’ve seen in awhile,” meaning “the tag team we are focusing on this month.” This match stems from the scripted marital drama of Total Divas, where Natalya is seemingly always on the verge of ending things with her husband Tyson Kidd, and Naomi is enjoying her new marriage to Jimmy Uso. Natalya thought it would be fun to have a double date with Jimmy and Naomi, but Tyson Kidd invited Cesaro along (their relationship being an interesting one, too), and the ensuing altercation at a “restaurant” gave us this match. Kidd and Cesaro are still a new team, but they seem to be meshing well. Cesaro’s power and Kidd’s speed are impressive when combined, particularly on moves like Cesaro’s deadlift superplex and Kidd’s slingshot elbow drop. They spend most of the match working on Jimmy’s leg. Cesaro even alters his swing so that he whips Jimmy Uso around by the damaged leg before sinking in a single-leg crab. It’s good stuff, then it falls apart when The Usos go into their comeback. It’s hard to explain why, but it just does. The flying Uso stuff leads to some convoluted action at ringside highlighted by a Samoan drop into the crowd barricade, and then Kidd manages to win once the match moves back inside the ring with a fisherman’s neckbreaker. The Kidd/Cesaro/Natalya character work continues when Cesaro pulls his partner away from a celebratory kiss with Nattie, but it’s tough to say where any of it is going. Tyson and Natalya have been playing a will-they-or-won’t-they game since Kidd re-debuted on Raw last year, and the Cesaro stuff gives the angle the appearance of a love triangle with Kidd being pulled between the affections of his wife and his tag team partner. That can’t be where they’re going with it, though, so we just have this weird angle where one member of a tag team was trying to respect dinner and the other brought his angry, well-dressed friend as a third. Now we enter the period of title feuds where the former champion talks about automatic rematch clauses. How exciting.
The face-to-face meeting between Triple H and Sting existed as a means of setting up their match at WrestleMania. Really, the whole “confrontation” was had on Monday, when Triple H shoved his sad, old mentor Ric Flair to the ground after Flair insinuated that Triple H was perhaps taking Sting too lightly. We got the gist of Triple H’s issue right there: Sting’s a WCW guy. WCW has been dead since the year 2001. But in 2014, Sting finally showed up to a WWE event, temporarily causing Triple H to lose control of a company that he sees as his and his family’s legacy. So he came out to Fastlane not in his suit and tie, but in his tough guy leather jacket, with his hands taped so heavily he could hardly make a fist. He went through those talking points again, which brought out Sting. Without his WCW music and with 18 years between him and his 1997 peak, all silent, “Crow” Sting accomplishes at this point is to give us a match between Sting and Triple H without being given a reason for the guy’s reemergence. WWE is calling him “The Vigilante” because Batman, but really? The injustice Sting chose to fight was the off chance that some big dude in a sheep mask might be fired for losing a wrestling match? Triple H tries to catch Sting off guard, but his play to grab his customary sledgehammer allows Sting to grab his trademark baseball bat, which he backs Triple H up with by sticking it to his throat. Sting says that he wants a match at WrestleMania, which he gets. Triple H’s second attempt at attacking Sting ends with him getting hit in the gut with the bat and dropped with the Scorpion Death Drop. This segment existed to give Sting a reason to point at the great WrestleMania logo in the sky with his baseball bat. Even today, it seems the general consensus is that Sting vs. The Undertaker is the preferred match-up, but this overlooks two crucial facts: Sting’s last great match probably happened in 1994, and The Undertaker wasn’t having great matches until around 1996. Of any “marquee” guy who can still have the occasional match, Triple H, garbed as Ric Flair’s protegé, is the one most able to do something with a 55-year-old man whose shine and mystique were largely wasted through a decade spent in TNA. Of all the “realities” wrestling has to face now, the biggest one is that a name like Sting’s “disappearance” can be explained by Wikipedia. Sting’s “legacy” has long been tarnished, and a match against The Undertaker at WrestleMania, even without The Streak on the line, is not how one rebuilds a legacy. I don’t have much faith that a Sting/Triple H match will be any good, let alone coax Sting into wrestling without wearing his goddamn t-shirt, but Triple H is smart enough and driven enough as he ages and starts to write his own legacy that he’ll get out of Steve Borden whatever he has left.
Sting and Triple H were going to be a hard act to follow even if the crowd was feeling it, but after a revisionist history of WCW lecture and a 30-second brawl that left two middle-aged men winded, the FexEx Forum was practically somnambulist for both the WWE Diva’s and Intercontinental Championship matches. To be fair, it’s not like they were given much reason to care about either, beyond the cult charisma of Paige, Bad News Barrett, and Dean Ambrose. While I am bone tired of women’s storylines centered around one woman or another not looking like a supermodel, the Bella Twins are rather natural heels, so it makes sense that they’d try to embarrass the pale “Anti Diva” by spray tanning her, stealing her mall punk gear, and so on. Tiresome but sensible is not high praise. The two had a great match on Main Event last year, and Nikki is nose-to-nose with Ryback for most improved wrestler, but nothing clicked here. Just a pile-up of moves until the Raw women’s match finish of a surprise roll-up. They tried to use a GoPro camera to show that Nikki had Paige’s belt, but a) if she cheated, she barely cheated, and b) if you’re going to wear stupid stuff in the ring, expect to have it used against you. Really, 90% of any Paige/Nikki Bella match should be Nikki trying to rip out Paige’s body piercings. Over on the men’s side of inadequate championship matches, Dean Ambrose wanted him some of Bad News Barrett because he thinks that the Intercontinental Championship should be worth something, and Bad News Barrett, on his fifth reign, hasn’t done much to raise that title’s prestige. That’s a fair enough critique, I suppose, though it really doesn’t help the previous few years of booking to point out how poorly the Intercontinental Championship has fared. Barrett’s a talented dude and Ambrose remains one of the more fascinating guys on the roster, but this match had nothing going for it. Nothing. Dean Ambrose is an UNHINGED LOOSE CANNON, but his spots are so routine you could compile a supercut of John Bradshaw Layfield saying that dropping an elbow on a standing opponent is crazy. Rudy Charles, already the goat for his performance during the Goldust/Stardust match, looks pretty bad again when he disqualifies Ambrose for beating Barrett up too much in the corner, ignoring the count which skips from three to five without much drama. That finish, I swear, is the worst thing the WWE has come up with over the past 10 years. What does it accomplish? Ambrose looks about as confused about the disqualification as Goldust was by his victory. He continues to stomp at Barrett, hits him with Dirty Deeds, then leaves with the title. Did he steal it, or did he give it back to Barrett backstage? I guess we’ll find out on Raw. Speaking of which, Bray Wyatt cut a live version of his pre-taped Raw promos on The Undertaker, this time employing the Deadman’s entrance music, druids, and casket motif. I really like Wyatt in the ring, but after a few years of hearing him speak I’m past the gimmick, which is pretty much listening to a sophomore in a dumb hat talk about Nietzsche. That’s not exactly Wyatt’s fault and he does it well, but he’s in a situation where they really need to pull the trigger on his winning a big, meaningful match or two, something to build on the following he’s managed to build and sustain despite every obstacle. A classic against The Undertaker at WrestleMania would help. Whether or not The Undertaker is capable of one at this late stage will remain unknown until March 29.
This was a wasted show until the United States Championship match. I say that as if the title matters, but really, it’s just the garnish to John Cena vs. Rusev, WWE’s spin on Rocky IV where Cena, fifteen time champion of the world, must play Apollo Creed first before he can become Rocky Balboa. John Cena has been the end game for Rusev since the Bulgarian debuted on the main roster during the Royal Rumble, and his rise serves both as a crucial ray of light in an otherwise dark period of WWE storytelling, and as proof that wrestling’s oldest formula’s still work. Cena, throughout this contest, is treated as an aging fighter whose best years may be behind him, as if he roundly crushed every wandering monster who passed his way. That’s not necessarily true, but the thought of Cena as a less than sure bet because he’s an old-model heavyweight against a guy like Rusev is appealing and works very well. Rusev and Cena hurl themselves at each other for nearly twenty minutes—even Rusev’s rest holds look snug enough to cause some damage. Where plenty of Cena matches lately have made his Attitude Adjustment finish look like an automatic two count until the twenty minute mark, Rusev’s strategy is to effectively avoid the move altogether, to counter out and hit Cena with one of his big, bruising strikes. Cena, meanwhile, needs to avoid Rusev’s Accolade. That a camel clutch works as a finish in 2015 is nigh miraculous, but Rusev and his opponents are able to make it look like a struggle. Mark Henry managed to shed a single tear for America before tapping out to it, and here John Cena pays a tremendous amount of respect to the big stomp Rusev uses to set the move up, rolling away or countering it into his own submission, the STF. John Cena’s character is never going to pull an about face and the boos he gets are never going to be the WWE’s intent, but its interesting to see him grow as a character in other ways. Getting older, for example, or the way he’ll add a new move to his arsenal because he knows everybody expects two shoulder tackles, a power bomb, a five knuckle shuffle, and an Attitude Adjustment. Here, it’s a tornado DDT that catches Rusev off guard, not to mention the rarely seen Crippler Crossface. Rusev is able to break that with his bare hands. He’s actually able to effectively counter or kick out of most of Cena’s bombs. When Cena finally lands the AA late in the match, it’s a triumph. When Rusev kicks out, it’s a surprise. The Accolade that finishes the match is great, due largely to Cena’s positioning and facial expressions. When Cena digs down deep and manages to stand with Rusev on his back, gets into the ring, United States Championship in hand, and argues with the referee. This gives Rusev an opening to kick Cena between the legs, kick him again in the face, and reapply the Accolade. Thus compromised, Cena is unable to fight back, and the referee has to call for the bell. This is a great match, one that leaves a little left in the tank for WrestleMania. I see criticisms of Rusev’s storylines all the time online, usually with the hashtag #RusevIsAFace, that say Rusev is either a bad heel or the folks who book his routine are stupid because he’s a proud immigrant with a smart woman by his side who wins most of his matches cleanly, and so on. That’s a fine argument for a smart fan to make, and there may be some merit to it, but most of the folks packed into a 15,000 seat arena aren’t “smart,” or, if they are, then its in the sense that they know this proud immigrant is a super athlete whose every action is meant to glorify the regime of a political figurehead who has committed a good number of human rights violations. Against John Cena, Rusev has moved beyond the tenants of Cold War wrestling storytelling by attacking the institution of John Cena. He’s a heel all the way, from the lack of respect he shows John Cena at the start of the match to the way he kicks him in the dick at the end. Cena’s Rocky moment is coming, and I can’t wait.
For most, however, the prospect of a good WrestleMania began with and was ended by Fastlane‘s main event, Daniel Bryan vs. Roman Reigns with a shot at Brock Lesnar and his WWE World Heavyweight Championship on the line. During the pre-show, Paul Heyman, interviewed by The Miz, said that his client didn’t care who won the main event. Daniel Bryan has the adulation of the crowd and Roman Reigns has the family pedigree, but Brock Lesnar has an inhuman desire to destroy every human he sees in a wrestling ring. Paul Heyman’s suggestion that the entire WWE roster line up to fight Brock Lesnar for the title was no joke: Lesnar is an otherworldly presence, and he is here to destroy the WWE Universe. It’s been obvious from the start that Roman Reigns would be the one to challenge Lesnar for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, but Bryan was thrown in there to complicate things a bit by insinuating that he deserved a championship rematch, which, considering the circumstances under which he was stripped of the title last year, he certainly does. In my opinion, Daniel Bryan hasn’t been written too well since his return. He was booked poorly during a very bad Royal Rumble match, then came out on Raw as a man who felt so entitled to a championship match that he’d play The Authority’s game just for a shot. Reigns hasn’t been done any favors either, but he needed something to further validate him in the eyes of a die hard audience of Daniel Bryan fans who are never going to cotton to him and will go into WrestleMania chanting “YES!” until they’re blue in the face. So we’re given this match, its outcome dreaded and certain. What happens?
Well, first off, Daniel Bryan returns to the throne he abdicated to Seth Rollins as the best overall wrestler in WWE. Seriously. This is his first match of true consequence since returning, and he kills it, leading Reigns to what will likely stand as one of his best matches at the end of his career, but that probably isn’t even top 20 for Bryan. Too many times in “wrestling” matches, the competitors go through the motions of chain wrestling, working through wristlocks and hammerlocks and headlocks until some dude in the crowd yells “WRESTLING!” to get the crowd clapping politely. From the start, this is a fight. Daniel Bryan is the wrestler. Roman Reigns is the brawler. Bryan can and does outwrestle Reigns, but the Royal Rumble winner makes the former champion fight for everything. Daniel Bryan claims to have mastered over 100 submission moves. Focusing on Reigns’ legs, he breaks out more than a few, but those often bring him close enough to Reigns that one or two stiff shots are enough to cause a break. Reigns can live with Bryan that close, but needs space so that he can land his big moves, the spear and the Superman punch. The first time he goes for the punch, Bryan is able to sidestep Reigns and kick him in the stomach. This staggers Reigns for the rest of the match, as Bryan’s more pronounced mean streak comes out and his kicks move from trying to charlie-horse a leg to trying to make a man vomit. Reigns stays on his power game, though, powerbombing Bryan after blocking an attempted top rope rana and stopping a suicide dive with a belly-to-belly suplex. Despite that, Bryan is always a step ahead, always the veteran wrestler. He moves just in time to avoid a spear, sending Reigns into the ring steps. He counters a spear with a small package after being knocked for a loop by the Superman punch. Bryan seems to clinch the match with the running knee, but Reigns is the first to kick out of it. From there, the two take it into another gear. Daniel Bryan kicks Reigns in the face until Reigns catches the foot and dares Bryan to do something. Bryan responds with a number of slaps, but Reigns is having none of it until Bryan goes for a cross armbreaker. When that doesn’t work, Bryan transitions into the YES! Lock, which Reigns manages to slip before laying Bryan out with some nasty forearms. The sequence gets even better from there, with Reigns over a seemingly prone Bryan, as the wrestler manages to surprise the brawler with a triangle choke attempt. Reigns uses his overwhelming power advantage to pick Bryan up off the canvas with a sit-out powerbomb. After an eight count, they exchange punches and kicks from the ground until Bryan gets the advantage and hits his big kick to Reigns’ temple. This is the set-up for a second attempt at the running knee, but Reigns recovers while Bryan is mid-sprint and manages a spear, which sends him to WrestleMania. Nobody is happy about this finish, but that does nothing to diminish what is a great effort on the part of two men. One found his footing again and is in good position for another chase at the championship depending on what his WrestleMania program is. The other pulled his weight, too, so much that any doubt about his ability to perform at a high level on a big stage should be assuaged. Should be, but who knows. Reigns is still wrestling with the crutch of The Shield supporting him. He’s still got their music, their entrance, and their gear. What he doesn’t have, even at the end of the night, is the crowd’s support as a WrestleMania main eventer. The WWE has five weeks to make that happen. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you see it), every move the WWE has made since WrestleMania XXX goes to show that, in wrestling, even just one week can feel like an eternity.
- Seth Rollins, Kane, and Big Show def. Dolph Ziggler, Ryback, and Erick Rowan via pinfall. GRADE: B-
Goldust def. Stardust via pinfall. GRADE: C
WWE Tag Team Championship Match: Tyson Kidd and Cesaro (w/Natalya) def. The Usos (Jimmy and Jey, w/Naomi, Champions) via pinfall to win the titles. GRADE: C+
WWE Diva’s Championship: Nikki Bella (w/Brie Bella, Champion) def. Paige via pinfall. GRADE: C-
WWE Intercontinental Championship: Bad News Barrett (Champion) def. Dean Ambrose via disqualification. GRADE: C-
WWE United States Championship: Rusev (w/Lana, Champion) def. John Cena via referee stoppage. GRADE: A-
Roman Reigns def. Daniel Bryan via pinfall. GRADE: A