WrestleMania is probably the most famous event in the history of professional wrestling, and almost serves as a State of the Union address for the company that hosts it, World Wrestling Entertainment. It represents where the company, the most prominent business in its industry for the last few decades, is, and where it aims to go. And if Sunday night’s WrestleMania 39 is any indication, it aims to go much, much bigger and flashier, even if the ingredients that make it worth watching at all are right there doing their best in front of us.
Looming over the event from the onset is Vince McMahon, executive chairman of the WWE and its majority owner. In the early summer of 2022, he’d “retired” from the role amid a storm of controversy and an investigation into alleged hush-money payments he’d made. Then, in January 2023, he’d inserted himself back into the job, and revealed he’d signed a contract to lock him in for the next two years. McMahon, previously the final say in all creative decisions in the WWE, is said to have given his son-in-law and WWE chief content officer Paul Levesque (the retired grappler Triple H) the reins. But allowing another person to run his baby has never been McMahon’s style, and so rumors run rampant that he casts a large shadow in that regard, too.
Meanwhile, as the WWE seems to edge closer and closer to a potential buyer (CNBC recently reported UFC parent company Endeavor Group was close to a deal), increased attention is paid to a wider presence in pop culture. This year’s theme is WrestleMania Goes Hollywood (the second time it’s used that, having previously adopted the tagline in 2005’s Show of Shows), and there’s a cavalcade of the closest thing WWE can muster to star power. To name a few celebrities that stopped by in some form: Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, Maria Menounos, Stephen A. Smith, Greg Miller, Kevin Hart, Becky G, Jimmie Allen, Bad Bunny, Snoop Dogg, Russell Crowe, George Kittle, Lil Uzi Vert, and Pat McAfee. Of course, the most attention was paid to infamous YouTuber turned actually OK wrestler Logan Paul and his high-profile match (which featured interference by fellow YouTuber KSI).
As a side note, WWE was in full public relations mode with regard to Paul, with the broadcast team barely stopping to breathe in their nonstop barrage of praise for him and his accomplishments. Paul, no stranger to very costly backlashes against his content, is a natural heel, but one can tell WWE is pulling double duty to get him over as a talented bad guy in the family-oriented WWE universe while also not reminding people of the dude that filmed a suicide victim for a YouTube stunt just a few years ago.
While WrestleMania has always stuck out thanks to its inclusion of guest stars, this year was particularly noticeable in WWE’s eternal effort to not just be known as a giant wrestling company, but as an entertainment mainstay. Hammering on the “Goes Hollywood” aspect pushes a wider audience to view it as more than just the largest name in its niche (“See! Celebrities adore us, too. Not just a ton of wrasslin’ fans”), even if it achieves little more than goofy camp. Of course, this hollow glitz is forced to coincide with the thing pro wrestling is most known for, aside from the actual wrestling: labyrinthine storylines and the culmination they tend to find at WrestleMania.
Luckily for fans of the company, a few of the marquee matches actually had solid buildup and were rooted in a handful of long-running storylines: The main events of Saturday and Sunday night built upon the implosion of The Bloodline, a powerhouse stable and family of wrestlers that’s the closest thing the WWE has gotten to a cohesive and compelling unit in almost a decade.
Saturday’s event saw Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, longtime friends/rivals/frenemies who (in a rare WWE occurrence) are allowed to build upon their pre-WWE pasts, taking on the Bloodline’s Usos for both top tag-team titles. And Sunday’s had Bloodline leader Roman Reigns (a former member of The Shield, that last cohesive and compelling unit) defeated Cody Rhodes to retain both top WWE singles titles. Everyone has history with one another here, and allowing Sami, WWE’s best modern underdog character, a heartwarming win with Owens lets WWE bask in the glowing adoration of their hardcore fans for once. It also temporarily lets us ignore the fact that, from an emotional standpoint, Zayn’s story of bonding and betrayal with The Bloodline would’ve found a much greater conclusion with him unseating Reigns as champion.
One of WWE’s most unsteady stables is the villainous Judgment Day, a group of wrestlers the WWE is unsure how to handle. The threat they pose to the wider roster seems to change by the minute, but once again, the WWE has clued in on outcomes that at least allow for some semblance of emotional satisfaction. Judgment Day member Rhea “the internet wants me to step on their face” Ripley took the Smackdown Women’s Champion from Charlotte “I’m usually the champion” Flair.
Rey Mysterio very literally spanked his whining son Dominik for his trespasses against their family (Dominik had been lured into joining The Judgment Day by Rhea), all while a bright Cinnamon Toast Crunch ad threatened to blind anyone that looked at the ring barricade. And current Judgment Day leader Finn Balor lost to WWE veteran and former Judgment Day leader Edge in a Hell in a Cell match. That last one is a pretty disappointing outcome, but on paper, it was a prime matchup of two guys that have spent so much of their career nailing a horror/goth aesthetic.
Look, if you’ve never watched WWE or a WrestleMania before, but do know what basic storytelling in fiction is, all of this sounds like I’m patronizing you. “Be amazed! A narrative that had buildup… has a conclusion! Ooooh! Ahhhh!” But WWE has a grand habit of dropping the ball on these things, or making bizarre choices in the eleventh hour. Bobby Lashley and Brock Lesnar, both accomplished MMA fighters and main-eventers, have traded questionable wins for a while, but instead of a blow-off contest at Mania, Lesnar was left to get an uninspiring win against the colossal Omos. (It’s hard to take Brock seriously as the “little guy” when he’s an actual former UFC champion.)
Lashley was haphazardly put into a feud with Bray Wyatt, but Wyatt was abruptly dropped off the card for unexplained reasons. So Lashley was left to celebrate a win he’d had on an entirely different show by standing on the stage while the audience clapped in slight confusion. Wrestler The Miz lost to podcast host Pat McAfee and Snoop Dogg on separate nights. John Cena lost to ambitious heel Austin Theory (which was expected, but a little odd after Cena emerged with a group of Make-A-Wish kids to cheer him on from the stage).
There was some very solid wrestling on the card that didn’t have the long-form storytelling oomph: Bianca Belair and Asuka proved why they’re some of the best female wrestlers of all time, and a three-way bout between Gunther, Drew McIntyre, and Sheamus turned their chests into raw hamburger. But classic WWE style meant that regular viewers are constantly waiting for the backlash, with every good thing sandwiched between some utterly dubious stuff. It’s a weird way to enjoy something.
Selling people on pro wrestling can be difficult. If someone isn’t into it, it’s very hard to sway them even with the most ardent proclamation of “No, but this match is, like, REALLY good.” WWE seems to know this, and as such, on the cusp of a purchase that will secure McMahon’s future but could mean anything for his talent, it’s overloaded with desperate appeals for the mainstream. How much of that is Vince’s doing is unclear right now, but it does no favors to the wrestlers, the people who deserve the spotlight the most.