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Examining the Paradigm Shift in WWE’s Wrestlemania Philosophy

A bit of a paradigm shift has taken place in recent years on the “Road to Wrestlemania.” In the past, most of the show’s main events started building around Survivor Series or the Royal Rumble. Wrestlemania XXVIII’s main event started its build the night after Wrestlemania XXVII, when John Cena challenged The Rock a full year before the show.

WWE pieced together a “big five” and built towards those five main events beginning in the late fall or early winter. Look at Wrestlemania XX as an example – Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle vs. Eddie Guerrero, Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar, Undertaker vs. Kane, and Evolution vs. The Rock n’ Sock Connection. Wrestlemania XIX is another fine example, and we might as well mention Wrestlemania 22 here as well.

What made Wrestlemania so big during that run between 2001 and 2010 was the emotional payoff after months of storytelling. Now, the focus has shifted from the pure wrestling aspect of Wrestlemania to the overall spectacle of it.

Why? I don’t know – I don’t pretend to be an insider, just a dude offering his analysis. If I had to guess, maybe the WWE wanted to spruce up Wrestlemania season as a whole, from January on, and make it less predictable. This year, we’ve seen a WWE Championship change hands. We’ve seen the WWE give away two of their biggest storytelling tools at Fastlane, when Bayley ended Charlotte Flair’s pay-per-view streak, and Braun Strowman lost clean.

It’s less of a wrestling show, and more of a pop-cultural social event…kind of like the very first Wrestlemania.

No matter the reason, since Wrestlemania XXVI, WWE has centered the show around two or three matches, and thrown the battle royal on the main card or put together a multi-man ladder match to get everyone else on the show.

I’m not necessarily complaining. Wrestlemania XXX is a top five Wrestlemania, and Wrestlemania 31 was exceptional, too. But, it’s more of an observation.

This desire to make one big show with a full cast of characters, storytelling be damned, is what hindered Wrestlemania 32, and made it one of the worst of all time. They had a good plot going with Lesnar and Bray Wyatt, but that was scrapped for the Lesnar-Dean Ambrose match. Undertaker vs. Shane McMahon happened inside Hell in a Cell for control of the WWE, or something, for some reason. Then, they lumped everyone else into the Intercontinental Championship ladder match, battle royal, or the League of Nations (unfortunately).

Triple H vs. Roman Reigns and the Women’s Championship matches were the only ones that truly made sense. I remember thinking, “if this is how they’re putting Wrestlemania together from now on, I don’t know about it…”

But, here we are in 2017. And, the WWE has blurred those philosophies masterfully.

Wrestlemania 33 has all of the feel of a major spectacle. But, it also has some good, old-fashioned, rich wrestling stories on the card. We didn’t even realize it was happening, per se, either. Who knew that Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt’s program was building towards Wrestlemania last Fall? When Goldberg defeated Brock Lesnar in just over a minute at Survivor Series, fans thought that was it for the former WCW legend. When Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho teamed up to wrestle Enzo & Cass at Summerslam, fans got a good laugh. But, I think it’s fair to say no one saw a Universal Championship reign for Owens and the tragedy of the Festival of Friendship coming.

Even the matches that haven’t been building for months have had a fair build (most of them – you’ve got one more show to sell me on Reigns-Undertaker, WWE. Make it count). Dean Ambrose and Baron Corbin’s build has made the Intercontinental Championship feel important – something that’s worth fighting for. The John Cena & Nikki Bella vs. The Miz & Maryse program has been a nice change of pace – it’s equal parts deeply-rooted personal feud and comedic relief. Well, that last bit depends on where you fall on The Miz’s ‘funny’ or ‘annoying’ spectrum. Personally, I dig it. He had a phenomenal 2016, and I’m happy to see it pay off for him in the form of the Cena slot at Wrestlemania.

But, where WWE has been particularly persuasive is the AJ Styles-Shane McMahon feud. Like many other fans, I rolled my eyes when I first started seeing the match rumored on dirt sheets. I thought all of the typical ideas that still seem to be floating around. “Why waste Styles’ spot?” “Does Shane McMahon have to wrestle?” “This match is going to be awful.”

Then, they put the plan into motion. Styles was repeatedly overlooked and nudged out of the WWE Championship match. Week after week, they milked it to the point when Styles lost it and attacked McMahon. Now, I’ve caught up on the latest episode of Smackdown Live, and I cannot wait to see this match at Wrestlemania.

Tip of the cap, crew – bravo.

Ultimately, we obviously have to see the show before we can rank it, but so far, so good. In the last decade, I’ve only turned off my television thinking, “that could be the greatest ‘Mania of all time” once – Wrestlemania XXX. I’m hoping to engage in such thought after April 2.

Stoney Keeley covers the WWE for, the NFL’s Tennessee Titans for Pro Football Spot, and is the Editor of The SoBros Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @StoneyKeeley.

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