WWE hypes WrestleMania as “the greatest event in live entertainment”, and if this year’s edition has reminded us anything, it is never to doubt The Showcase of the Immortals. The build-up to the grand spectacle was heavily criticized, with a negative reception to the Royal Rumble arguably jeopardizing Roman Reigns’ main event push. With memories of the Yes Movement’s hijack of The Road to WrestleMania XXX still fresh, the company was under immense pressure to prove the haters wrong. The 31st instalment of the annual extravaganza featured great storytelling, entertaining matches and, perhaps most importantly, a plethora of memorable moments, proving once again at WrestleMania, WWE pulls out all the stops and performers take their work to the next level. Now that the event is in the books, it is time for a large portion of casual viewers to resume lives largely devoid of wrestling. For dedicated fans, however, the months following WrestleMania can be a fascinating time.
The Raw after WrestleMania is traditionally a much anticipated night as well, because it sets the tone for future programming, introducing new characters and planting the seeds for new storylines. In the absence of several big part-timers, there are plenty of gaps which WWE’s creative team has to fill. The March 30th episode of Raw featured a number of important developments, from the indefinite suspension of former WWE World Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar to the return of Sheamus and the main roster debuts of Neville and Kalisto. While these adjustments to the talent pool may seem cosmetic, they are certain to contribute to the product’s fresher feel over the next few months. Nevertheless, other creative decisions might have a deeper impact on WWE programming in what, as far-fetched as it may sound in this day and age, appears to be a long-term plan.
On March 29 at a packed Levi’s Stadium in California, all three singles titles of the main roster changed hands. The opening match of WrestleMania saw Daniel Bryan defeat six other men in a Ladder Match to win the Intercontinental Championship. Despite complaints that Bryan’s booking was a downgrade compared to his position as the WWE World Heavyweight Champion around the same time last year, it was great to see The Submission Specialist have his hand raised in victory after the turbulent year he has had. Furthermore, a backstage segment later on in the night showed Bryan get congratulated by the likes of Roddy Piper, Ricky Steamboat, Ric Flair and Bret Hart in an indication that WWE sees Bryan’s reign as a rejuvenation of the Intercontinental Championship’s prestige.
Another bout on WrestleMania 31’s card saw the undefeated United States Champion Rusev suffer his first loss since debuting on the main roster to none other than household name John Cena. The most attractive thing about the match was that it had a story which a lot of screen time and effort had actually been invested in since Fastlane in February, a rare occurrence for the largely neglected United States Championship. The rivalry between Cena and Rusev told the story of a Russian disrespecting the American nation, and despite a number of clichéd and at times manipulative plot devices, that story fit in with the intended emotional weight of the title. For the first time in recent memory, the United States Championship had significance when it came to the country’s representation, and the man who came out on top was none other than the business’ biggest name at the moment.
While John Cena and Daniel Bryan, two definite main-eventers and former WWE World Heavyweight Champions, came out of Santa Clara with secondary belts around their waists, the most important title in the company was given to a somewhat less established superstar. Even though Seth Rollins had been climbing the metaphorical ladder of success with rapid speed ever since breaking away from The Shield, it was at the biggest stage of them all that he took the final step which cemented him as a main-eventer and one of the top names in the business. The booking of WrestleMania 31 was received well by fans all over social media, because it was bold and it went against what was typically seen as the company’s established hierarchy.
There has been a dramatic change in philosophy in terms of secondary titles, which have usually been seen as stepping stones on WWE characters’ paths to immortality. By placing performers of main-event status in the roles of the three champions, the company has effectively solved an issue which goes back to the end of the “brand extension” in 2011, what Richard Gray has referred to as the shrinking of the main event scene. The reputations and past accomplishments of the titleholders have automatically added prestige to championships which, for a long time, had little to no impact on important on-going storylines. As of April 2015, WWE’s secondary titles have turned from props to respectable accomplishments, because defeating Daniel Bryan or John Cena for any title is an achievement to be admired. The only way to go from here on is to have other superstars step up as worthy contenders for the championships. This is a bona fide restructuring of the roster and an implementation of the concept that “the worker makes the title”.
Surprisingly or not, building new stars seems to be a top priority at the moment. The last two episodes of Raw had John Cena defending the United States Championship against Dean Ambrose and Stardust, as well as Dolph Ziggler challenging Daniel Bryan for the Intercontinental Championship, all in competitive contests. The most pleasant surprise, however, was the decision to have newcomer Neville face WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins in his second match on Raw. Not only did it show high confidence in the NXT standout’s in-ring ability, but the Brit was immediately thrown in an environment where he could benefit from Rollins’ heel persona. In a matter of minutes, WWE told a multi-layered story of achiever vs. debutante, while bolstering the latter as a fan-favorite via a cheap beatdown. Two weeks have arguably done more for Neville’s character than what months of squashes did for Ryback when he made his debut in 2012.
The layout of the current champions allows for multiple paths to success for up-and-comers, and WWE seems focused on advancing characters as opposed to simply presenting contests. It is great to see the company going beyond their comfort zone to shuffle their hierarchy and resurrect secondary titles, placing them almost on par with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. If executed correctly, this method has the potential to decrease the amount of filler on weekly episodes of Raw and provide the audience with multiple compelling stories, as well as a pool of rising stars.