The build to this year’s WrestleMania has been compelling. The two-night main event, plus the title matches that make up most of the card, have been set up so well that for the purposes of this column I’ll forego the usual deep dive into wrestling history and think a bit about the robust, multilayered storytelling WWE has used to drum up interest.

Since Vince McMahon’s alleged departure it seems like WWE is finally growing up.

Weirdly, as good as the storytelling has been, if I were to pick a theme for this year’s WrestleMania and WWE’s title situation it would be “leave well enough alone.”

WWE has done a stellar job of establishing its current group of champions. Fans may complain that titles aren’t defended often enough. That criticism is rooted in the privilege of being a fan during the Monday Night Wars, when the WWF and WCW were compelled to throw marquee matches and frequent title changes at a fickle audience. Long-term babyface WWF/WWE champions from Bruno Sammartino through Hulk Hogan rarely appeared, much less defended their championships on free TV. Bret Hart – one of the last champions of the ‘Federation Years’ was an exception. He regularly defended his championship on WWF syndicated shows and early RAW episodes. There were likely a few reasons for this shift, including the need to more aggressively promote smaller, more athletic wrestlers in the wake of the 1990s steroid scandal, a desire to show more with less risk of exposure, even as house show business suffered, and the fact that Hart himself was a much better wrestler than a talker, at a time when champions were expected to ‘talk fans into the arena’. Traditionally promotions used their TV shows as proto-infomercials to compel fans to their local live shows (or, since the Hulk Hogan era, to big matches airing on pay-per-view).

‘Hitman’ Bret Hart

I get that title changes are often a key part of Mania. To WWE’s former leadership team the need for novelty made them a frequent source for WrestleMania moments. They’re an easy way to pop a crowd and provide some measure of closure — a satisfying end to the chase, if you will — guaranteed to send the fans home happy because they ‘witnessed history’. But if you look for long-term, logical plotting in pro wrestling there doesn’t seem to be much reason to disrupt the championship status quo. In pro wrestling the money lies in the chase.

I’m almost more interested in how various matches will be positioned than in their outcomes. The Rock and Roman Reigns vs. Cody Rhodes and Seth Rollins has been set as Night One’s main event. Logic suggests the heels must win to stack the odds as heavily as possible against Rhodes and his destiny.

I suppose there are plausible alternatives — Reigns’ and Rock’s egos could prove too big to sustain their partnership, resulting in an implosion that costs the heels their match and guarantees a fair(er) fight for Night Two. Damien Priest, seen lurking in the background in discussions with Paul Heyman on RAW, could also try to dethrone Reigns in the aftermath of a particularly brutal Night One contest no matter who wins…or some fans have posited that Rhodes beats Reigns on Night Two, only for Priest to cash in and end Cody’s reign before it begins (which would cut Cody’s championship legs out from under him even worse than a loss to Roman).

Seth Rollins and Cody Rhodes at Monday Night Raw at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX, on April 4, 2022. WWE photo

Any result other than the one I suggested risks dividing the audience and weakening their reaction. A segment of the audience already cheers for Reigns and the Bloodline — especially over the past year or so, as you can see on SmackDown when the grownups in the crowd stand at attention and raise their arms in acknowledgement of their Tribal Chief. These are mainly adult, male fans who may have resented the forced push of the McMahon era but appreciate Reigns’ heel work. Let’s face it, everybody loves a winner.

Conventional booking stacks the odds so heavily against Cody that it makes his victory over Reigns on Night Two less about storytelling and more about legend building…but I’m not convinced that Reigns should lose the title to Rhodes. As Reigns’ reign has run from weeks to months to years, it seems like WWE is determined to have him mentioned among the all-time greats. His current run has eclipsed every male world title reign except for the remaining big three WW(W)F champions: Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan.

Much has been written about the possibility that Reigns will eclipse Hogan’s longest title run. If this is the plan, Reigns needs to hold on to his title until SummerSlam, which means he must beat Rhodes. From Cody’s perspective that would be unfortunate. Rhodes has become WWE’s lead hero. Fans are invested in him beating Reigns, if only for one night. Rhodes’ father Dusty spent most of his career chasing after villainous titleholders like Harley Race and Ric Flair. It was a formula that worked, partly because at various points Rhodes caught up to his rivals and beat them for their titles, making him a constant threat to unseat a champion and a legitimate world-beater. Rhodes Sr. was never champion for very long, but the mere fact of his victories — especially at a time when titles often changed hands at house shows — gave fans hope that maybe, just maybe they might see him win in their hometown (I’ll leave out the ‘Dusty Finish’, where Rhodes would appear to beat the champ almost nightly, only for the decision to be reversed on a technicality after the fact. It’s deadly booking which ultimately hurt Rhodes and the territories he booked, as surely as it did Verne Gagne’s AWA).

Universal Champion Roman Reigns at WWE Friday Night Smackdown at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC, on January 5, 2024. Photo by Josh Ruckstuhl, @IG: joshruckstuhlphotography

Universal Champion Roman Reigns at WWE Friday Night Smackdown at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC, on January 5, 2024. Photo by Josh Ruckstuhl, @IG: joshruckstuhlphotography

In some respects, the current product has been hurt by Reigns’ (and other champions) longer term dominance. It is already harder to see Cody Rhodes as a threat this year than he was at last year’s WrestleMania. Cody had his main event shot and blew it. Cody has fought his way back to the main event but it’s fair to wonder what else he might have to throw at Reigns in his quest for the title, especially since he seems to have his hands full with the returning Rock.

The Rock’s improvised heel turn has been great. Lodged firmly in the PG13 tropes of the Attitude Era he has reintroduced profanity and blood to a product that had grown stale and safe and silly during the latter years of Vince McMahon’s ownership. At over 50 years old, and without having wrestled consistently in decades The Rock also punked out WWE’s top star, which doesn’t make Cody look great.

The Rock making an example of Cody Rhodes.

The Rock making an example of Cody Rhodes. Photo: WWE

Meanwhile, Reigns has mowed through virtually every babyface and a few heels on the WWE roster. It’s been years since he has faced a sustained, credible challenge. WWE business is booming, so it must be working. Flip the script and it’s not so different from Bruno’s endless three-bout series against monster heel after monster heel: count-out or disqualification loss to establish the challenger, inconclusive double-countout/DQ/stoppage due to blood loss to build anticipation, fiery comeback resulting in a decisive victory for the Italian Strongman. But turning everyone from Seth Rollins to Edge to Daniel Bryan to Kevin Owens to Cesaro to Logan Paul, John Cena, AJ Styles and LA Knight into also-rans has made me less interested in all of them. In many cases, Reigns’ opponents leave WWE altogether, their momentum stopped. Reigns has become the ceiling of opportunity.

WWE has managed Rhodes’ return to the Mania main event well … even as the Night One tag team match likely eclipses the Night Two title tilt.

Recycling three quarters of the first night’s main event into the second night’s championship matches seems like a bit of a spoiler… No matter the pyrotechnics, the music will hit and Rhodes/Reigns will emerge from backstage twice in as many days. Forgive me, but before the show even goes on it feels anticlimactic. If Rhodes loses, barring a maniacal heel turn he returns to the middle of the pack, clearly unable to unseat the current champion.

At the same time, I think Reigns needs to defend to eclipse Hogan’s reign. Forty years on from the first WrestleMania, WWE has finally started investing in longer-term, record-breaking reigns for most of its championships. I can appreciate the need to move the yardsticks. Fans love to discuss the ‘best ever’. At some point, there must be new entrants to the conversation. WWE desperately needs to recast itself from the successful vision that Vince McMahon brought, and the problematic nature of parts of that vision and the people who made it ‘real’. The old records and in some cases, the people who held them, have aged badly.

Hulk Hogan

The Honky Tonk Man clung to his Intercontinental Championship as a weak titlist who relied on disqualification or count-out losses. In-ring his character is appreciated as part of internet fandom’s culture of snark. Outside the ring, HTM was an early adopter of shocking shoot interviews. He has kept himself relevant by saying outrageous things (and allegedly poaching other wrestlers’ copyrights). Not a great look for a possible elder statesman.

Demolition have now been knocked to the third-longest reigning tag team champions behind the New Day and the Usos. I’m surprised it took this long. Ax and Smash (and Crush, I guess) fans have long clamored for their induction into WWE’s Hall of Fame. Even without Vince’s Ax to grind it’s unlikely to happen given Bill ‘Ax’ Eadie’s acrimonious relationship with WWE, which goes back decades. Any celebration of Demolition’s run is made even less likely by the tag team’s participation in a failed concussion-based class action suit against the promotion. I know some fans wish that WWE would ignore that suit — and for the talents’ sake I wish it had never been raised. WWE has on occasion gone on to do business with wrestlers who have sued it (Ultimate Warrior and Jesse Ventura spring to mind), but the concussion suit was in my view dirty business with zero chance of success. Eadie and Barry ‘Smash’ Darsow are prime examples of why it failed. Eadie wrestled professionally from 1973 to 2017, for a 44-year career. He spent the first 13 years of that career outside the WWF. Between runs as a Mongol, a Masked Superstar, a Machine and a walking disaster he totalled seven years with the WWF, less than a quarter of his total career, with thousands of unaccounted-for head shots. Darsow started his career in 1983 and joined the WWF in 1987 to become the second Smash. Between that role and the Repo Man (which I’ve grown to appreciate as an adult) he spent six years with the Federation and continued to wrestle for almost 25 years after he left. The class action was initiated in 2016 and finally shut down in 2020. If there had been discussion about inducting Demolition during that time, it would have been stopped. Lawyers routinely warn their clients against having anything to do with parties suing them. WWE didn’t and doesn’t need Demolition in the Hall of Fame, especially if inducting them means handing aggrieved former employees a live microphone.


Which brings us back to Hogan and the fact that his place in WWE’s history has become especially problematic. Pro wrestling fans can and will excuse all kinds of bad behavior to preserve the image of their heroes. Hogan’s part in building WWE and his starring role in at least a quarter of WrestleManias to date (especially if you include his later returns against The Rock, Vince McMahon, and a ring-clearing brawl with Muhammad Hassan) warrants mention. His growing list of scandals and the dubious background to much of his run make me less inclined to celebrate him.

Hogan has survived a series of scandals, generally by offloading responsibility. At the height of the Rock ’n’ Wrestling connection during the 1980s, wrestler Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, seeing the windfall wrestling created for the McMahons, took preliminary steps to try to unionize the locker room. That was an unprecedented step for wrestling but one which has paid off and provided more secure retirement and health benefits for every major organized sport. Ventura found out in 1991 that Hogan caught wind of the plan and went straight to Vince McMahon, who made an example of Ventura and scuttled the attempt to unionize (Hogan is alleged to have buried many wrestlers whom he perceived as a threat to his top spot in the WWF and later in WCW). In 1994 after years of publicly denying his use of steroids, Hogan admitted it during Vince McMahon’s federal trial. Hogan’s admission came in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Several family scandals followed, including allegations that he cheated on then-wife Linda with one of his daughter’s friends, an attempt to run interference for son Nick after a 2007 car accident in which one of Nick’s friends was permanently paralyzed, and a series of bizarre publicity stunts alongside daughter Brooke. In 2015 the ‘Real American’ came crashing down when racist comments made in a leaked sex tape were made public. That sentence alone contains all kinds of words that should never go together. Hogan has also been caught on-air saying homophobic slurs (the likes of which blacklisted the Ultimate Warrior, for a while anyway). Hogan has consistently tried to portray himself as a victim rather than immediately acknowledging the damage his words caused — no matter how they surfaced. In a speech to the WWE locker room following the racism incident, it seemed like the lesson Hogan took from the experience was to be careful about the presence of media rather than the words he chose. Not one to learn from his mistakes, in January 2022 Hogan propagated anti-vaccination COVID conspiracy theories on his social media accounts. The posts have since been deleted.

Hogan retains a degree of pop culture visibility. In recent years WWE has trotted him out for promotional appearances on RAW or SmackDown, but fans have largely rejected him. One would expect that as part of the 40th anniversary Mania there will be some kind of retrospective video package which would necessarily include Hogan (what they do with Vince McMahon or recent champion Brock Lesnar is a more interesting question, given current allegations against them and WWE’s early attempts to erase them in response). WWE has always had an ambivalent relationship with its history, but as the company grows up it has become part of a larger, publicly traded sports conglomerate. WWE now has to navigate monetizing this rich past and decades-deep fan base with the reality that some parts of it’s history are best forgotten.

As a hockey fan, part of me wishes that WWE would borrow the Montreal Canadiens’ traditional passing of the torch ceremony. Until recently the first home game of the year saw surviving team captains pass a literal torch from one to the next until they reached the current captain. The most famous iteration took place in 1996 for the last game at the Montreal Forum, which involved every living captain, including the likes of Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau, who set aside longstanding feuds with the club to celebrate with their fans. A similar ceremony before the main event at WrestleMania 40 would be great … but for the reminder of how many champions have been lost, work elsewhere or have sabotaged their careers in other ways.

Between the event’s taking place in Philadelphia and Paul Heyman’s induction into WWE’s Hall of Fame I would also like to see an ECW retrospective, but that promotion’s track record and body count are worse.

Maybe at some point WWE will do a better job of taking care of it’s past by taking care of its talent.

Maybe I should just be happy that Vince is unlikely to botch a Stone Cold Stunner in an unnecessary ‘comedy’ segment and if Johnny Knoxville attends he’ll leave the Carrot Top prop comedy at home. In any case, WWE’s path is forward — and a new entry into the championship record books will help.

Sami Zayn vs. Johnny Knoxville (and his Jackass pals) at WrestleMania 38 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday, April 3, 2022. WWE photo

Sami Zayn vs. Johnny Knoxville (and his Jackass pals) at WrestleMania 38 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday, April 3, 2022. WWE photo

Speaking of Reigns’ place in wrestling history, I could be wrong, but I think that Sammartino and Backlund are untouchable. WWE has gone to great lengths in asterisking accomplishments that took place before WrestleMania and national expansion.

Old school fans object, but sports and entertainment evolve. It’s not unreasonable to put these things in context. Major League Baseball was transformed by the advent of night games and the designated hitter rule. The NBA once prohibited dunking and introduced the three-point shot during the 1979-80 season. The NHL outlawed the defensive purgatory of the neutral zone trap and can’t seem to resist tinkering with the size of the goal crease or players’ padding. The NFL changes rules every year. These leagues continually look for ways to speed up games, encourage decisive outcomes and expand their playoff brackets to maximize revenue. And those are just the changes handed down by the front office. Teams and players continually innovate as well, inside and outside the scope of the rules.

I can’t imagine a modern wrestler, even working an abridged ‘big fight’ schedule like Reigns now does, staying healthy and productive in-ring for long enough to unseat Sammartino or Backlund. I would also question whether a modern audience, in its continuous quest for novelty, would keep tuning in. Despite Vince McMahon Sr.’s continued faith in Backlund, fans turned against him, especially during the latter part of his reign. Bruno Sammartino had effectively retired after losing his title to Ivan Koloff, who was used as a transitional champion to put the belt on Pedro Morales. Audiences grew bored of Pedro, who still held the title for almost two years (and was made to drop the title to Stan Stasiak in preparation for a second Sammartino run).

WWWF World champion Bruno Sammartino heads to the ring. Photo by Brad McFarlin

WWWF World champion Bruno Sammartino heading to the ring. Photo by Brad McFarlin

Some critics are quick to note how few defenses Reigns has made. I agree. Still, Reigns has put in his time and is deeper into his career as a long-reigning champion than Sammartino in his first, seven-year run or Backlund. While Sammartino and Backlund wrestled way more often, they also worked a tighter loop of towns than Reigns. The WW(W)F captured some of America’s biggest media markets. Madison Square Gardens was part of the federation’s turf. The WW(W)F was still a regional promotion that ran the same armories and high school gyms as any other. Sammartino and Backlund both stayed as long as they did because the WW(W)F’s circuit allowed them to sleep at home in their own beds most nights. At points both men were allegedly offered the more prestigious and better-paying NWA strap and refused it because they would have had to tour constantly across the US and overseas. When wrestlers complain (which they do often, increasingly in public) it’s the travel that’s the problem.

Heading into WrestleMania XL, I don’t think WWE’s view of titles as props has ever been clearer. I’m betraying my own biases here. I’ve listened to enough podcasts to understand that titles have always been viewed internally as props. I went through a Something to Wrestle With phase and was often surprised by how little regard wrestling promotions have for their titles and how often they try to project value to the wrestlers they employ, holding out title runs as inducements, as though they hold actual value to the talent if not the business.

If you’re still reading, you likely agree with me that the Rhodes-Rollins-Rock-Reigns storyline has taken up almost all of WWE’s promotional hype. There are plenty of other matches that I want to see, even if they’ve been drawn into Planet Rock’s gravitational pull.

RAW has lately been positioned as the ‘workhorse champion’ brand with semi-regular defenses by Seth Rollins and Gunther. This is to their credit, but as mentioned above neither has worked a schedule comparable to the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan or Bret Hart — or even later champs like The Rock, Steve Austin or John Cena.

Rollins is defending his World Championship against Drew McIntyre. Rollins and McIntyre have feuded extensively. This match isn’t new but it is compelling due to McIntyre’s fabulous heel work. Fate has repeatedly made McIntyre a championship bridesmaid. A few years ago he had a tremendous babyface run from the Royal Rumble to WrestleMania, beating a then-unstoppable Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship. But for a blip of a title reign by Randy Orton, McIntyre held that title for almost a year before losing it to The Miz to transition the belt to Bobby Lashley (who beat McIntyre at the next Mania in front of a pandemic-induced micro-audience). McIntyre spent his entire reign in COVID quarantine, a fact which he has referenced throughout his recent heel turn. Without the live crowds, his title runs always felt less than real.

Seth Rollins celebrates another successful title defense

With life back to semi-normal, McIntyre has chased the title but come up short, often due to outside interference. He has seen lesser wrestlers get opportunities he deserves before full houses. He has seen fans welcome unpopular wrestlers like Jey Uso or CM Punk because they pander to the audience. He has become bitter, but his anger is justified. He is the best kind of heel because in his mind he’s the hero of the story… and objectively he’s not wrong. The idea that even the most evil, destructive character carries a wound in his heart is a fundamental literary trope. Read Milton’s Paradise Lost and its account of Lucifer’s fall from grace. As CM Punk would put it, his arms were also ‘too short to box with God’.

Drew McIntyre at WWE Monday Night Raw at the MVP Arena, in Albany, NY, on December 4, 2023. Photo by George Tahinos,

Drew McIntyre at WWE Monday Night Raw at the MVP Arena, in Albany, NY. Photo by George Tahinos,

Speaking of Punk, he was supposed to have fought Rollins for the title, with McIntyre off to the side. Instead he has been relegated to the commentary booth for this match — which seems meaningless to the live audience although fun for those of us who appreciate Punk’s work on the microphone. I imagine the point of the exercise is for Punk to interfere in the outcome of the match and set up a program with whoever emerges as champion. Poetic justice would be for Rollins to retain, even though McIntyre ‘deserves’ the win. I suspect that at some point during the match we’ll see a ref bump and Punk will rise from the commentary table to reveal a referee’s jersey under his suit. Punk is an avid fan of Roddy Piper and Steve Austin, both of whom have used their deliberately poor refereeing skills in WrestleMania matches.

When Punk first left WWE almost a decade ago, one of his reasons was the promotions’ failure to feature him in a main event Mania spot. If that spot involves a championship match, I don’t know how much of a horizon Punk has. He’s older now, and WWE has been inconsistent in its treatment of talent victory laps (see Adam ‘Edge’ Copeland, whom I do miss, even if I don’t think he should be in a main event). But especially with the format shift to a two-night event, I think Punk could manage a solid main event away from the title picture. My hope for him would be that he inserts himself into Rollins vs. McIntyre and once healthy, engages in feuds with each man in turn… then maybe a series with Kevin Owens (or even Logan Paul), leading up to next year’s WrestleMania and the match that he — and many of us — have long desired: Steve Austin in a suitably safe feud with lots of great promos, tons of plunder and a run-in or two that retires them both in-ring.

Punk adresses his injury. Credit: WWE

I’m getting ahead of myself.

In any case, the World championship program has been a stealthy slow burn going back to Punk’s return at the 2023 Survivor Series. Recall, as Punk came out to greet the crowd after the main event cameras were trained specifically on Rollins’ and McIntyre’s particularly hostile reactions. Now we have all three men in the prelude to a feud where there are no clear good guys or bad guys. As fans we just line up behind whoever we like most. I don’t love Rollins’ wacky, overdressed babyface character. A friend pointed out that his constant wardrobe reinventions and silly cadence which he drops when he has to make a serious point sound like Rollins is attempting to become ‘Macho Man 2.0.’ But dude can still go in the ring, and when he does treat his promo time seriously — as in the worked shoot segments leading up to next week — he’s much more interesting. It’s a shame this program is overshadowed by Rollins’ involvement in Rhodes and his story but I think the match itself, if given time, will be better. I mentioned that I think Rollins should win, providing more righteous indignation for McIntyre. If McIntyre wins, then complains about his victory in the main event that wasn’t he’ll be right about that too.

Outside the crowded main event scene, there are other titles up for grabs and, in most cases, I see little reason beyond novelty and a cheap pop to change them.

RAW is also the home of women’s titlist Rhea Ripley, who has held her championship for almost a full calendar year and defended it less than a dozen times. She’s still a more active champion than both of SmackDown’s male champions. WWE Universal champion Roman Reigns has infamously slowed his schedule to the point where he made a grand total of five (count ’em) defenses in 2023.

Rhea Ripley in a post-broadcast match at WWE Friday Night Smackdown at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC, on January 5, 2024. Photo by Josh Ruckstuhl, @IG: joshruckstuhlphotography

Rhea Ripley in a post-broadcast match at WWE Friday Night Smackdown at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC. Photo by Josh Ruckstuhl, @IG: joshruckstuhlphotography

Ripley’s reign has been defined by her charisma. WWE may try to move the title back to Becky Lynch, but their reliance on the remaining Three Horsewomen (Lynch, Charlotte Flair and Bayley) has made the division feel stale. I hope Ripley retains. She’s an improbable babyface for being a total, natural heel paired with nuclear heat source Dominik Mysterio. A win over Lynch gives Ripley additional credibility. A loss makes her an afterthought in a division which has long had trouble creating new stars. By contrast, just about the only title I think needs to change hands is the SmackDown women’s belt, currently held by Iyo Sky. WWE has done great work with the implosion of Damage CTRL, thanks mainly to Bayley. Without Bayley we’re left with Dakota Kai’s rushed promos and a trio of great wrestlers who suffer from a perceived lack of fluent English. Sky is a great high-flyer and a non-entity as champion whom WWE rarely lets in front of a microphone. I don’t imagine a lengthy reign for Bayley. The future of the division lies with Bianca Belair whenever she turns heel — and Jade Cargill. That’s a women’s feud deserving of a WrestleMania main event.

Damage CTRL (Bayley, Iyo Sky, & Dakota Kai) at Night 1 of WrestleMania 39 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Photo by Steve Argintaru, Twitter: @stevetsn Instagram: @stevetsn

After last year’s Night One main event, it says something that the unified Tag Team titles are up for grabs in a mid-card multi-person ladder match. The titles are devalued to the extent that I would understand if Judgment Day retains, but would rather see the faction start to split up. Priest is long overdue to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase. Ripley has long since outgrown her running buddies. Dominik could find a natural home in WWE’s growing luchador contingent (as teased by his teaming with Santos Escobar and courting Andrade to join forces with Judgment Day), and Balor and his real life former protégé JD McDonagh would be a natural tag team. I would be happy if the Judgment Day crumbles, with a belt each taken by DIY (Tomasso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano) and the Awesome Truth (a resurgent Miz and R-Truth, who are hilarious separately and better together and deserve a run however late they are in their careers). This would allow the tag titles to be split again between shows. It would also give us some champions to cheer for since most titles are held by heels these days.

Splitting up the tag titles also leads to natural rivalries on both brands, especially if DIY eventually turns heel (Gargano’s wife, Candice LeRae is already turning, and WWE seems to like its married couples on the same page). The most exciting prospect here involves the Creed Brothers, who didn’t make the cut for the Mania match. If Chad Gable is evolving into more of a formal coach role, then let’s have him manage the Creeds, Gable Steveson and whoever else looks good in an amateur-style singlet but can’t talk to save their lives in a slightly less weird version of Kevin Sullivan’s old Varsity Club. I’ve always liked the ‘evil shooter’ gimmick and Gable has shown he can play the part. He’s an impressive wrestler and doesn’t offend my rule that a manager should never be bigger than his charges. Bonus points if Shelton Benjamin comes back in an enforcer-style role. More bonus points for Kurt Angle Skyping in the occasional Curtis Iaukea style ‘master’ promo. Triple bonus points for Backlund chewing the scenery along with a fistful of raw baby spinach. A Sullivan run in WWE is probably too much to ask, though I wouldn’t mind seeing him in a slap fight with Paul Ellering for control of the Final Testament.

Kevin Owens will have one of the most challenging jobs at WrestleMania. He’s been booked with Randy Orton and Logan Paul in a match for Paul’s US Title. This means Owens will have to navigate one opponent who’s only recently come back from a serious, career-threatening injury and another opponent who is still ‘great for a non-wrestler’ and has shown in bouts against the likes of Rey Mysterio, Ricochet and the Miz that he needs a talented ring general to help him through a longer match. Paul has been champion for almost five months and defended his title once — a disqualification victory over Kevin Owens at the Royal Rumble.

Kevin Owens vs Grayson Waller at WWE Smackdown on Friday, December 1, 2023, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, ny. Photo by George Tahinos,

Kevin Owens vs Grayson Waller at WWE Smackdown on Friday, December 1, 2023, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, ny. Photo by George Tahinos,

Paul has acquitted himself well in chaotic multi-person matches like the Rumble and Elimination Chamber, but he still makes mistakes which skilled opponents must cover. Working around Orton’s back issues may be a challenge that exposes him. If Paul wants to develop as a wrestler, he needs to be more than a particularly talented celebrity. All that said, if Paul’s schedule allows him to make a few SmackDown episodes and the occasional pay-per-view I’d rather see him continue as champion: Orton has won every title there is to win in WWE multiple times, including the US belt. I don’t think that at this stage of career a win over Paul helps him. The same goes for Owens, who by virtue of his experience and relative health seems like the likeliest candidate for any over-the-top spots needed to pop the crowd. Owens has held plenty of secondary championships in WWE. I would have preferred he be programmed into the main event for a run with Rollins’ World title. He’s a former Universal champion. At one point he was a serial Royal Rumble challenger against Reigns. Owens’ tag team program against the Usos was strong enough to main event the first night of last year’s WrestleMania and two years ago Owens main evented against a returning Steve Austin in a match that was better than it had any business being. His tag title win was a genuine feel-good moment that was squandered, then cut short when Owens’ team lost to the Judgment Day in a matter of months. Owens was shipped off to SmackDown to make way for Cody Rhodes (I still think that will be the germ for an eventual Rhodes heel turn, but then I’m probably thinking like Drew McIntyre again), and has been entertaining but aimless given Reigns’ unimpeachability. I’m glad that Owens is on the card but his role feels thankless; at almost 40 I don’t know how many more WrestleManias he will see. A run against Punk might help in the meantime, but I’d rather not see him in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal or returning to a Khan-trolled Ring of Honor promotion to revisit his epic ladder match in middle age.

US champion Logan Paul at WWE Friday Night Smackdown at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC, on January 5, 2024. Photo by Josh Ruckstuhl, @IG: joshruckstuhlphotography

US champion Logan Paul at WWE Friday Night Smackdown at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC, on January 5, 2024. Photo by Josh Ruckstuhl, @IG: joshruckstuhlphotography

Owens’ former tag team partner is fighting Gunther for the Intercontinental championship on night one. As with Reigns and Paul (and maybe Rollins; he’s been a great champ but McIntyre is undeniable if he sticks around), I see no reason to take the belt of Gunther. Gunther has not only enjoyed the longest IC title run in history, he has dominated his opponents. It makes no sense to see him lose to someone who has held the title before playing a sniveling, conspiracy-addled coward, and whose hallmark since his face turn has been his lack of self-confidence. On RAW he was the subject of an extended Rocky III homage of a skit — the best part of which is its tie-in to WrestleMania’s host city of Philadelphia and the possibility that Sylvester Stallone might show up. Or the Kelces.

I spoke earlier about WWE needing to move on from problematic champions. Given Gunther’s challenger’s promotion of antisemitic conspiracy theories on his social media despite warnings from WWE’s head office, I think he qualifies no matter how sympathetically he may be portrayed. Like other aspects of reality, international politics have often made unwelcome intrusions into pro wrestling. I don’t begrudge people their positions. These things are complicated and it’s fair for individuals to have their own opinions. Reasonable people may disagree. They don’t get to make up their own facts or rely on sources that are untrue and racist, and that seek to do harm to an entire community.

Back to wrestling.

Gunther is a rare, unreconstructed calculating monster heel who lords his vaguely Teutonic superiority over his opponents. If we are really going to look for someone to beat him, I suggest that we first look to the past for inspiration. The man that Gunther displaced as longest-reigning Intercontinental Champion, the Honky Tonk Man, lost his title in stunning fashion to the Ultimate Warrior at the first SummerSlam. The match was simple, effective and brutal. HTM’s original opponent, Brutus Beefcake, was scratched out and HTM arrogantly issued an open challenge. Warrior charged to the ring, shoulder-blocked HTM and splashed him into oblivion before he could remove his jumpsuit. I don’t think Gunther is the kind of cowardly heel who would get blown out so easily, but I do think if he’s going to lose it needs to be to a new star, not a retread. Some fans have called for Chad Gable to cost Gunther’s opponent the match and take the title himself-shifting into a role that’s more Rocky and less Mickey — but I think this is a mistake and sacrifices Gunther’s strong run (which should set him up as a World title contender, if not champion) for a transitional champion. We need someone who can carry the title for a while, not just chase after it. Safe money to dethrone Gunther should be on Bron Breakker since he already beat Gunther in a banger of a match back when Bron was the NXT champion.

Zayn is set to take on Gunther at WrestleMania. Credit: WWE

As the Mania card has filled out there are several recent NXT call ups like Breakker, Jade Cargill (just announced for a six-woman tag match with Naomi and Bianca Belair against Damage CTRL) and Dragon Lee (who joined the LWO to team with Rey Mysterio against Santos Escobar and Dominik Mysterio… and who will likely get waffled by Carlito) who have all made ‘soft opening’ appearances on SmackDown but have yet to set themselves apart.

Once upon a time these wrestlers would have been held back to pop the crowd at Mania itself or the following RAW. Many of my favorite WrestleMania moments have less to do with the matches and more to do with the shock that comes with a superstar’s debut. That kind of surprise is harder to pull off these days (though not impossible). Between the rise of the Internet Wrestling Community and WWE’s insistence on funneling new talent through NXT to get them acclimated to working their style, there just doesn’t seem to be room for a grand entrance. AEW protected Jade Cargill during her lengthy streak as TNT champion, but after signing with WWE it was clear her act needed work. Breakker is a second generation genetic freak, but he joined WWE straight out of his football career, as Roman Reigns and The Rock did before him. NXT is essential in building each of these performers’ skill sets, but in getting them ready for the big time so publicly, it spoils a lot of surprises.

So I think Gunther should retain at Mania, and continue to ward off challenges until someone new pops up… someone who may or may not currently be the subject of a bidding war between promotions (I know, but play along).

How great would it be for Gunther to hold his title until SummerSlam, when the music hits and a certain former champion shows up decked out in real Burberry plaid instead of the fake stuff. Someone who’s promo skills allow him to get under Gunther’s skin and lead to an impromptu title loss and a cunning win.

MJF speaks his mind clad in his Burberry scarf in Albany, New York, on Wednesday, September 14, 2022. Photo by George Tahinos,

Someone better than us… and we know it.

Taken together, WWE’s title scene suggests that the promotion is in fact growing up. Title programs emphasize patience and longer-term storytelling, leading to better matches and hotter crowds.

For the first time in a while, I’m genuinely looking forward to WrestleMania and even more to its fallout.

TOP PHOTO: The Rock and Roman Reigns end Raw on April 1, 2024. WWE photo