Night one of WrestleMania 37, WWE’s make-good on last year’s purchase of a bunch of non-returnable pirate gear it didn’t get to wear to last year’s WrestleMania, was the first time fans attended a main roster show since the COVID-19 pandemic moved WWE’s product into its Performance Center last March. WWE’s official attendance number for last night’s show was 25,675—intentionally nowhere near capacity, but enough to make it feel like a WrestleMania.
So of course it rained enough to delay the show.
In a way, that delay was a blessing. I was dreading WrestleMania 37, a lumbering monster of a card spread out over two nights, nestled towards the end of a marathon stretch of television production that may be unequaled in WWE history, a frankly confrontational amount of wrestling from a company that works best in small, carefully chosen doses.
But when Vince McMahon said “Welcome to WrestleMania,” the show we were thrown to was not the Showcase of the Immortals, but a bunch of wrestlers and backstage interviewers going “let’s put on a show!” until the threat of lightning passed. The sequence of interviews before the show felt straight out of a Coliseum Home Video release, and by the time Drew McIntyre was done talking about how he wanted to be the first wrestler the fans saw after he carried the WWE flag in empty buildings for a year, I was sold.
There was a nervous, loose energy about the whole thing, like the circumstances didn’t allow WWE’s writers to overthink it. There’s been enough wrestling with limited capacity crowds that this aspect of WrestleMania 37 held nothing for me, but those promos made it clear how much it mattered to the wrestlers, how hard they’d go to mark the occasion. So I got stoked. Then Hulk Hogan came out to pretend that he was friends with Titus O’Neil. But Hogan got booed, so I felt even better. WrestleMania, y’all. It’s like being home. A home menaced by a gigantic CGI skeleton with an impossibly long sword, sure, but a home nevertheless.
WWE Championship: Bobby Lashley (c) def. Drew McIntyre
Drew McIntyre’s finish is a big boot. Bobby Lashley’s is a full nelson. These being two of the best moves in the history of this great sport, the build to this match could have been incidental, but it was great. Both men had long careers in and out of WWE before winning the title for the first time, and both saw their WWE careers flourish at the weirdest possible time. When called out on how he won/was planning on keeping the title, Lashley dissolved his stable. This was going to be a fight with one of two outcomes—either McIntyre got to relive his dream of becoming champion with a crowd there to witness it, or Lashley cements the coming year as his era.
— WWE WrestleMania (@WrestleMania) April 11, 2021
Rather than throw finishers from the opening bell, both the Claymore and Hurt Lock were protected throughout. McIntyre threw more suplexes than usual while Lashley used his staggering power to keep the champion at bay. McIntyre spent a fair amount of the match focusing on Lashley’s arm, utilizing a kimura at several points to weaken the Hurt Lock, but there wasn’t really a point at which it felt like Lashley was in danger of losing to anything but a Claymore. That’s a good piece of business when what you’re trying to do is establish a dominant heel champion, and Lashley’s being smart enough to avoid an easily-spammed finishing maneuver almost feels novel in WWE’s superheavyweight title fight style.
This was a great opener and title match, a tone-setter that leaves the door open for more, as McIntyre lost by ref stoppage as soon as Lashley took him to the ground with the Hurt Lock. Classic face/heel work from both wrestlers, and good work from MVP at ringside, who was always in the periphery but never so loud or obvious that McIntyre had to have his eye on him at all times. When he did distract Drew, it allowed Bobby to duck a Claymore, which set up the finish.
Tag Team Turmoil: Natalya and Tamina def. The Riott Squad, Carmella and Billie Kay, Mandy Rose and Dana Brooke, and Lana and Naomi
I know that some of these teams have been together for a minute, but I feel like the number of times I just typed the word “and” reveals a crucial lack of depth in the women’s tag team division. Carmella and Kay were the officially thrown together team, but yeah. With Naomi and Lana out in less than three minutes, this “let’s get as many people on the card as we can” showcase was kept afloat by the Riott Squad, who lost to Natalya and Tamina, who are truly the future of the women’s division. Right after the announcers talked about how both women were tired of living in their fathers’ shadows, they utilized Nattie’s family’s Hart Attack, teased a Sharpshooter, went with the Superfly Splash, and exited to the remix of Bret Hart’s theme that Natalya has been using for a decade. By winning this match, they earned a shot at Shayna Baszler and Nya Jax, who were standing perpendicular to a television set in the back, scouting their opponents from the corners of their eyes.
Cesaro def. Seth Rollins
As difficult as this may be to believe, Cesaro wrestled in his first WrestleMania singles match last night, a long journey that was framed on commentary as being the biggest night in a 10-year WWE career marked by stop-start momentum and a general failure to live up to his potential. There are few wrestlers on the WWE’s insane roster of once-in-a-generation talent who I feel a stronger connection to than Cesaro—I’ve seen him wrestle in flea markets, former roller rinks, the ECW Arena, and too many WWE shows to count—so while I got the point of that narrative framing in the context of building a match against someone who has main evented the show and has a reputation as a showstealer otherwise, it’s a narrative about as shitty as the match was good.
— WWE (@WWE) April 11, 2021
Why was it good? Well, it leaned into the singles match Cesaro that fans have theoretically been behind for close to a decade now, big runs of European uppercuts, massive power displays, and the big swing. That swing was a big factor early in the match, as Cesaro went for it early and had to deal with Rollins’ ability to counter it and target the limbs that make that move go—the match’s first swing, which the crowd was unglued for, only went nine rotations. I wouldn’t call myself a Seth Rollins fan, but over the past two years he’s built a persona that’s fun to watch so long as he’s getting embarrassed, and they did a very good job of putting over how embarrassing the swing was. The closing sequence, which saw Cesaro bust out the UFO, get a 23 rotation swing, and a Neutralizer for the win, needs to be the start of a sustained Cesaro push. Not to the Intercontinental Championship, either. Dude belongs at the top of the card, especially given the current makeup of SmackDown’s main event.
Raw Tag Team Championships: AJ Styles and Omos def. The New Day (c)
Look, there’s not a lot to dig into here—built around the in-ring debut of Omos, the only open question, narratively speaking, was whether or not The New Day could overcome this Really Tall Man. The answer was no, and they really had themselves to blame: Styles was in the ring, cut off from Omos for half the match, but they kept toying with Styles, never firing their best shots, until AJ tagged in Omos. Dude tore the New Day up, no-selling like an 80s big man and busting out 80s big man weapons like his backbreaker submission/iron claw combo. He treated Woods and Kingston like they were 90s b-show fodder, winning in extremely convincing fashion, which had Styles celebrating like he didn’t just get his ass kicked. Not bad, not great, but fun while it lasted.
Steel Cage Match: Braun Strowman def. Shane McMahon
Pegged by many, myself included, as the match most likely to be total garbage, this annual check-in on Shane McMahon’s ability to take stupid bumps was fine. Don’t get me wrong, “boss’ son tells everybody’s least favorite employee that he’s stupid” is thin soup even by WWE’s standards, and the main event vocalizing was off the charts, with Braun screaming “this is for everybody that’s ever been called stupid!” while the camera focused on fans, but he peeled back a panel of the cage like a Fruit Roll-up from cellophane, and I am not immune to the charms of freakshow strength. Shane can still take stupid bumps, for the record. That and a running powerslam are how he lost. All aboard the Strowman express, choo choooooo.
Bad Bunny and Damien Priest def. The Miz and John Morrison
Bad Bunny’s promo on Raw whipped, Bad Bunny’s entrance atop a semi-truck whipped, and Bad Bunny’s in-ring debut whipped. Like, if he felt any pressure going into this match, he didn’t show it—outside of his elaborate entrance he was all business, just a dude looking to beat up some other dudes with his friend who dresses like an extra in a Joel Schumacher Batman movie that curiously has a scene in a leather bar. The Miz is secretly very adept at this kind of special attraction match—he and R-Truth were The Rock’s reintroduction to in-ring action—and between his being a long-tenured veteran and Morrison’s assurances that they’re the best tag team of the 21st century, the duo made for a great foil to Bunny and Priest, oscillating between annoyance, shock, and cruelty.
— WWE (@WWE) April 11, 2021
I don’t want to take anything away from Priest, who acquitted himself well on the biggest stage of his career, but this match was all Bad Bunny. It was no secret that he’d been training hard for this match, but it’s hard to think of a celebrity wrestler in recent memory who put in more work from bell to bell than he did. He started small with arm drags and drop toe holds, the kind of “Hulk Hogan was a good wrestler in Japan” offence that honestly would have been enough, but went nuts from there. Drew Gulak and Adam Pearce reportedly worked with him at the Performance Center, and the idea of the three of them negotiating spots like the satellite headscissors and Canadian Destroyer (now known as the Bunny Destroyer) has delighted me for a day now, almost as much as the spots themselves. He looked great, and I will support him wholeheartedly should he choose to win every championship in WWE between now and WrestleMania 38.
SmackDown Women’s Championship: Bianca Belair def. Sasha Banks (c)
Before the show, John Bradshaw Layfield (whose WWE Hall of Fame speech devoted time to pissing off “snowflakes”) tried to say that this match wasn’t women’s history or Black History, just regular history. Well, fuck that and fuck him: This was the first time a women’s singles match headlined WrestleMania. This was the first time since WrestleMania 29 that a Black person headlined WrestleMania, the first since WrestleMania 11 where that headliner wasn’t The Rock, the eighth time in thirty-seven WrestleManias. This was the first WrestleMania headlined by two Black people, by two Black women. It is not my place to delve into how and why this match was an historic occasion, but it was, it will be remembered as such, and acknowledging that history is important.
— WWE (@WWE) April 11, 2021
That sense of history was palpable before Banks and Belair tied up, as the former acknowledged the crowd’s cheers despite being the de facto heel and the later was near tears. This was classic WWE main event storytelling from the start, observed through the lens of Banks’ willingness to kill herself in the ring and Belair’s unreal combination of strength and agility. The two met at interesting points in their careers, with Banks seeing this match as an opportunity to establish herself as the best woman to ever grace a WWE ring, and Belair attempting to establish herself as being unquestionably on that level.
It worked, y’all. Like, extremely well. On Twitter, I called this match smooth, and that’s still the best word that I have for it. There was a seamless flow to this match, Belair’s WCW Cruiserweight/guy who hucks WCW Cruiserweights around hybrid style creating just as many spectacular moments as Banks’ calculated recklessness, perhaps no better exemplified than a spot where Belair rolled through on a Banks suicide dive, deadlift gorilla pressed her, walked her up the ringsteps and onto the apron before throwing her into the ring. Banks’ status as the veteran was established by her willingness to use Belair’s braid as a weapon whenever she was in a tight spot. This backfired, as Belair whipped her so hard with the braid at the end of the match that she had a visible welt within seconds, which led to her picking up the win.
— WWE (@WWE) April 11, 2021
This ruled, and was, in retrospect (assuming you had doubts), the only match that could have main evented WWE’s first show in front of a large audience in over a year. It felt like a celebration—of Banks, of Belair, of wrestling. The best modern WrestleMania main events, at least to me, manage to merge the excessive spectacle of WWE with the basic fundamentals of wrestling as a storytelling engine. It began with a woman crying in appreciation for the opportunity and concluded with the same woman crying because she made good on her dreams. So no, the match wasn’t just history. It was good history, a year into an era that’s provided us with precious little in that regard.