I've harped on and on about how 2003-2004 was an all timer year for me as a fan. The ascension of Eddie and Benoit to the top made it feel like anything was possible.
Flash forward a year. Lots of things are different, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Replace Eddie and Benoit with Cena and Batista, and you've got the same thing. As a young'un, it still felt like anything was possible. But does that magic still hold up? That's the question I seek to answer.
Lillian Garcia sings America the Beautiful: I think I understand why I have such an aversion to celebrities at Mania. Everything WWE did in the mid Ruthless Aggression era was done in house. Case in point, Lillian nailing America the Beautiful with happy footage of troops on the VTR, which works better than the usual stock footage they use for these things.
Opening video package: eh. This depends on if you liked the movie parodies they used to sell this show, and I did... as commercials. But do they belong in the opening video package? Absolutely not. It's even dorkier when you factor in that they tried to work a Cena/JBL staredown into their parody of A Few Good Men, which just...spits all over kayfabe. Austin also gets his bit (an admittedly cool parody of Gladiator) in its entirety as if he's in the main event tonight, and not in a talking segment. While this fits as a goofy advert, it does nothing to tell us why people are fighting, which is rule number 1 for wrestling video packages, especially for Mania.
The story is that Eddie has been losing to Rey in singles competition, and this is a continuation of that, which would eventually balloon into Eddie's amazing heel turn in the summer.
Eddie and Rey put on a crazy lucha stalemate to start which involves Rey bumping out of the ring off of a catapult, which is a completely ridiculous first spot. Eddie fakes tweeking his knee after taking a monkey flip into the ropes (which got me, the bump looked like it sucked to take) and the crowd love it when Rey gets suckered in. The nice thing about the Eddie vs Rey dynamic is that Eddie can hit suplexes like he's Doctor Death. They take a long time to set up the Mexican Surfboard, but between Cole and Tazz breaking down each part of the move and the crowd's genuine awe, it gets a pass from me. The fact that Eddie can have Rey down, Rey works out of it, and they reset instead of teasing a hope spot gives this match a feel like something you'd see in Ring of Honor at the time. Rey hitting a big dive as Eddie did earlier really sells how evenly matched they are. I like how Eddie ends up working the back when he counters Rey's stuff, but not in an intentional heel way, as if he's just defaulting to moves that work the back on instinct. Rey does a split second dodge of the Frog Splash after a Three Amigos that could've gone horribly wrong if they weren't so smooth in the ring. Eddie hits a powerbomb when Rey spends too long post-619 setting up a West Coast Pop for a 2 1/2. Eddie goes for another big back breaker, but Rey counters into a Huricanrana for a 3.
Aside from this being an incredible Mania open before they did those. t he first matches of multi-month WWE angles often suffer because the story is predicated through promos on weekly TV, but not here. The guys told a magnificent, subtle story through air tight in ring work, even down to little details you didn't ever get from American wrestling at this time, and in some cases, still don't in 2021.
Post match: They focus a lot on Eddie's facials, which go from forced smiles to outright disappointment. Taz and Cole basically tell us that Eddie is going to turn on Rey right this second, only for Eddie and Rey to shake hands with no drama. This was awesome. This is when wrestling is at its best, when your expectations are being subverted left and right in believable ways.
The Cabinet, Triple H, and Ric Flair backstage: I used to love segments like these as a young un, because it felt like an event to see two champions interacting. What we get here, however, is JBL saying he's never lost his championship, and chastizing Triple H for being a 10-time champion, while Triple H says being a 10 time champion means he's good, while his one reign is a fluke. While I understand that what this is what the two biggest heels in the company would talk about, I was kind of expecting something a bit more firey, especially from JBL.
Edge vs Chris Benoit vs Christian (w/ Tyson Tomko) vs Chris Jericho vs Kane vs Shelton Benjamin
Everyone jumps Kane on the ramp, and jump Kane again when he gets the better and teases going for a ladder. Christian gets a ladder, and Jericho basically Olympic sprints to get into position for the old see-saw ladder spot. The bell rings, when in reality it should've rung once everyone jumped Kane. Jericho, Benjamin and Kane get big dives to the outside. Lawler freaking out about the latter seems suspect to me, as the flying clothesline is a big part of Kane's moveset still. Kane, Jericho and Benoit basically demo using the ladder in multi-man matches in cool ways for everyone. Now we're oh so slowly introducing ladder spots. Benoit countering an off-the ladder chokeslam with a crossface here, a Dragon Whip into the ladder there. Edge getting his big move countered into a ladder but Shelton getting his off just fine gives Shelton a HUGE rub when the crowd was already chanting for him, which as a plus in this match's favor. We get the big "Everybody on the ladder spot) except Kane isn't there for some reason, and instead of a big calamity fall off the ladder we get people falling in pairs. This ends with a T-bone off the ladder for Shelton and Edge which looks like it sucks ass to take. Even the "Ladder playset" setup which lets Benjamin do his legendary running clothesline is organic in nature. Kane nearly kills Shelton to get a "foot stuck in the ropes" spot going on. Tomko shows up in a manner of lawlessness I wish we saw in ladder matches more often. Tomko sets up for a clothesline over the ropes bump before Kane even hits him. I'd take Jericho's no-selling from a back bump off the ladder and his goofy overselling over that any day. We get Jericho eliminated from participation as he takes a bump off a ladder out of the ring. Benoit's back, and we get the only real contrived spot of the match, a headbutt off the ladder. It's down to the guys that have been in the match the least, which I like, and Edge sneaks in a chairshot after Benoit takes out Kane, which Benoit sells like he's been stabbed, and Edge is Mister Money in the Bank.
This was a GREAT match, and one that should be higher up there in the "Greatest Ladder Matches of all time" conversation. It had enough old school logic mixed with memorable spots that it wasn't overwhelming or unbelievable. While, as I said, it made technical sense that Benoit and Kane, two guys who had been in the match the least would be the last two dudes to be eliminated, it felt like the "having Roman Reigns sell a table bump for half of Royal Rumble 2016". For all the psychology related failings of earlier ladder matches, at least nobody's on the outside selling all match.
Eugene, Hassan, Daivari, and Hulk Hogan segment: Decent. Eugene comes down to the ring. His music hits about halfway down the ramp, which makes it look unplanned. Eugene marks out like a little kid, which the fans seem to be into, even as he starts talking about the Bundy midget match. Hassan and Daivari come down to bitch about being excluded off of Mania despite being undefeated. They jump Eugene, and Hulk Hogan runs down to make the save. Normally I hate legends segments like this, but at least Hogan has programs for Backlash and Summerslam, so it gets a pass from me. Hogan gets a bigger exit than some people get entrances tonight.
Randy Orton vs Undertaker video package: AWESOME! Randy slapping Taker, and the lights and tron going apeshit like Gandalf found out Bilbo was bogarding the ring for himself, and the added sociopathy of Randy taking out girlfriend Stacy Kiebler and the assholery of Bob Orton make this one of Taker's best mania feuds.
Randy Orton vs The Undertaker
It's all Undertaker early. Orton tries a sneaky school boy and an RKO, both of which are blocked, and Undertaker resumes the asskicking. Taker gets put on the apron after a missed corner boot. Orton gets to show off his dropkick and Taker bumps like a champ for it. Orton gets in some pot shots but Taker fights back before you know it. Again, Orton gets the momentum off of a sudden burst of offense. They get a botchy clothesline which puts momentum back in Taker's corner. Taker locks in the Dragon Sleeper and Orton counters out with a DDT. The guys go hold for hold. Orton gets put in position for a Last Ride but he shifts his weight. The ref also got bumped off an RKO attempt, so Cowboy Bob runs interference for a 2 1/2 count. Taker eliminates Bob, and Orton gets a sweet RKO counter off a chokeslam. That only warrants a 2 1/2 count. Orton goes for a Tombstone, but his back gives, and so Taker gets a tombstone of his own for a 3.
This was a bit botchy but still a great match, especially in the closing moments.
Christy Hemme vs Trish Stratus video package: Trish is jealous that Christy's Playboy cover calls her a champion. Christy, meanwhile, has been trained by Lita and wants to challenge Trish. Trish heelishly accepts not knowing who's training her. I mean, considering women's matches at Mania pre-Mickie James, this is as good as you're going to get.
Trish Stratus (c) vs Christy Hemme w/ Lita
Christy can move well, but you can tell she's never done any physical combat so everything she did looked super goofy. The Trish/Lita posturing that went nowhere also didn't help matters either. This would've probably been a 4.25/10, but the finish was so eggregious I have to knock it down.
Kurt Angle vs Shawn Micheals video package: I remember sleeping on this feud as a kid because A it was an "eliminated each other from the Rumble" feud, and the fact that people would come up to an OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST and go "Well actually Bret vs Shawn was more interesting" struck me as preposterous. However, now having interacted with wrestling fans, I can totally see that as reality.
That aside, they did the old school match build, where Shawn's stuff was mostly predicated on promos, while meanwhile Angle goes on the world's pettiest warpath, making Marty Jannetty and Sherri Martel tap.
We get an amateur wrestling exchange, and then reset. Lots of headlocks and rest holds to start, which Jim and Jerry time to philosophize on how the match will go, and compare/contrast the two people in the ring, which is fantastic. We get a German Suplex tease, reversing the wasitlock, and back to the mat we go. Kurt gets to channel his inner Alexander Karelin, lifting Micheals out of a leg lock, and we get a nearfall when Micheals counters into a Victory Roll. After we go back to the side headlock takeover, Ross makes mention of the fact that Angle has slapped the mat in frustration. Man, they're really working overtime to make this feel like a mat classic. The guys are in the corner now, a nd they're scrapping and pulling hair. When the ref breaks it up, Angle just slugs Micheals in the back of the head and locks in the Ankle Lock, simple, yet an amazing way to get into that. Micheals reverses, and we get a Cactus Clothesline to the outside because both men are furious. Angle works the back after a crazy-innovative Angle Slam into the corner. Micheals fights back, but defiantly slaps Kurt mid come back, so we get a big lariat and we're back to where we started. Angle goes for a big superplex because he's angry but Micheals knocks him off. Micheals misses an elbow. Kurt nearly 450s himself taking a bump out of the ring, and Micheals hits a big ole dive. Micheals breaks the count, but in the process, sets himself up for an apron German Suplex tease. Micheals low blows his way out of it, which is obscured by the referee's positioning. Angle also takes the most organic bump onto a table I've ever seen, and Micheals hits a Vadersault that doesn't break the table. Lawler expertly covers by saying announce table breaks happen so often that these are reinforced with steel. Both guys break the 10 count with miliseconds to spare, from opposite sides of the ring, which leads to the most organic strike exchange in history. Micheals goes through his comeback, but the Sweet Chin music is blocked, which leads to, again, a few of the most believably desperate, and anger fueled, sequences in history. Micheals peels off a Chin Music when Angle talks too much trash, but Micheals takes too much time after a long two count, and Angle picks the leg for the Ankle Lock. More amazing dramatics, and Micheals taps!
This felt like a PPV main event in 2021, but sold by two old school commentators who can walk you through the emotions everyone is expressing, in ways that make some of the more contrived spots believable, without hammering the ideas into your head. This is must watch wrestling
Piper's Pit with Stone Cold Steve Austin: AWESOME! Piper talks about hearing how Austin is the baddest man in WWE, so, having never met him, he has to see for himself. The transition to the still shot on Piper to the ramp for Austin's entrance gets a goofy glass break transition, but I guess if it was a planned entrance it's feasible. Piper and Austin slap each other and earn each other's respect, Piper starts going off about how he was the big rebel rouser before Austin was even out of diapers (Piper was 10 when Austin was born, but I genuinely believe Piper believes this, if that makes sense). Carlito interrupts, and Austin and Piper bicker about whether this was planned, which rules. Carlito tries to evict Austin and Piper from the ring despite being emasculated. Carlito teases spitting in the face of people who don't want to be cool, but Piper steals it and does it himself! Carlito takes down Piper, but Austin intervenes. Mudhole stomp, Piper eye poke, stunner. Piper also gets stunned in the insuing beer bash, but it's not given the reverence of a usual mid beer bash Stunner. Oh well, All three guys have such amazing charisma this was awesome.
Big Show vs Akebono
This is giving a tone of reverence, and Tazz and Cole are shockingly shooting off facts about Akebono and Sumo. Show lifts Akebono, but Akebono does a quick takedown, and Big Show is out of the circle.
In terms of celebrity appearances, I would take this 1000 times over Snooki or Mickey Rourke. At least it was an atheletic contest by two athletes, and Big Show's quick loss will subplant him in the midcard while the new babyfaces of 2005 and 2004 take the top sots.
No rating, good segment
Post match: Akebono and Big Show laugh about the match, walking to the back together. Makes sense enough for a fun, giant midcarder I guess.
Cena vs JBL video package: Bad. They rip off Austin vs Rock (destroying the custom belt) and Triple H vs Austin (the no contact rule). At least they have Cena spraypaint JBL's suit to provoke him , and JBL implying Cena's mom had to sleep around to afford groceries was entertaining. The only thing Cena has going for him is his street thug stuff, which they would more or less take away from him.
John Cena vs JBL (c)
Cena runs into a stiff big boot less than a minute in. Cena sells, sells, and sells, hits a backdrop, sells some more, hits the 5 Moves of Doom, and wins. This is a bad sign for the rest of his reign.
2005 Hall of Fame video package and parade: This was the "Hulk Hogan and friends" class, so a pretty banging class all thing said. This was also the Iron Sheik speech that put him on the map for a new generation. Mean Gene does the announcements for the live presentation, but it feels...weird. Like, Orndorff and Jimmy Hart come out to generic music, despite having super famous songs tied to them. Anyway, this is probably one of the most star studded class.
Batista vs Triple H video package: Good. Ever since Evolution turned on Orton on the Raw after Summerslam 2005, Batista has been slowly realizing Triple H has been manipulating him into helping him retain his title. And so, after winning the Royal Rumble he turns on them. Batista looks crazy strong , while Trips is the manipulative heel in the build.
Triple H (c) w/ (Ric Flair vs Batista)
Motorhead is doing Triple H's entrance, and, like X7, Lenny gets dragged through the song kicking and screaming, messing up lyrics. Batista's entrance on the other hand feels incomplete, as he's still rocking his generic monster theme, and more or less does the machine gun entrance thing without the pyro, which is super weird for a guy about to main event Wrestlemania.
The first half of this match sees Triple H being wormy heel Ric Flair, Batista is Sting, the big and strong babyface, and Ric Flair is JJ Dillon, the heel manager on the outside. Trips introduces the steel stairs for a Pedigree on the outside, gets catapulted, and is busted open. Now, it's a WWE Championship match straight out of 2000. Blood, Interference, low blows, weapons, a ref bump, all of which Batista perseveres against, warding off Triple and Flair to win.
I don't think history looks back on Batista on having the better WM21, because the other guy is John freakin' Cena, but they made Batista look like Superman, and Batista actually got to look big and strong and back that up. While most of the undercard went way harder, this was one hell of a way to close the show.
Post match: Weird. Triple H gets up to his feet unassisted, and Batista roars because he is the Animal, and he and Flair just kind of...leave. Was this supposed to be a Dr.Claw "I'll get you Gadget" moment? Could Triple H really not afford to sell the beating?
Much like X7, the wrestling was spectacular more ofthen than not, and even the stuff that was bad didn't overstay its welcome enough to drag the show down. All in all, it was a super tight, watchable 3 hour show that I can recommend any day.