Being from Cleveland defines who I am. I love the city, I love the attitude, I will defend its honor until my dying breath. I have to because more often than not when you’re from Cleveland and don’t live there, you find that it’s often the punchline. That being said, for whatever reason, since I left Cleveland five or so years ago, I’ve only been back about 3 times. I’m secretly ashamed. I feel like a phony, like I’m advertising a product I don’t use. About six weeks ago my friend Mike called and told me that Fastlane was going to be in Cleveland, and he was thinking about getting tickets. I couldn’t pass it up.
I actually wrote about Mike in the first column I did for this site. He was one of my most constant wrestling companions throughout my college years. We went to our first WrestleMania together. We went to loads of Indy shows. We watched pay-per-views in bars. It was always great. One of the few times I came back to Cleveland was for his wedding. A couple of months ago he told me that his wife was pregnant, so I knew I had to make this trip as it may not be so simple to drop everything and go see random wrestling shows moving forward.
I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I always get a little worried when I’m about to see someone who I haven’t seen in a while. There’s always that chance that it’s different, or awkward, or that you’ve grown apart in some noticeable way. Those thoughts were going through my mind when I put my bags down to tie my shows after getting off the plane, but I heard my name and looked up to see a bright and familiar smile. We drove to the West side for lunch and caught up and it was like I’d never left. Sure, we were older and different, but it felt like we had grown older in the same way. We laughed over the same stupid stories we always did. We made bad ska puns. I couldn’t have asked for a better stay.
After dinner on Saturday, the true highlight of the weekend began. Mike’s wife Beth went to bed and we split a case of beer and watched the entirety of the new season of Degrassi that they just put on netflix. There is not better show to watch when hammered. It’s amazing and preposterous. I’m pretty sure the writer’s room just has two giant wheels, one with the names of all the characters and one with horrific things that can happen to teenagers. It’s like the “Spin the Wheel, make the Deal” of teen dramas from Canada. Honestly it is taking every ounce of will power I have not to write like 1300 words about Degrassi right now. Oh man, maybe I’ll write a piece comparing the WrestleMania card to Degrassi characters and storylines. Trask and Al are reading this with their heads in their hands.
So this is the part where I normally write a ton of words about one match that I really break down and pick apart, but since the event is so fresh, I figured I’d just give some live thoughts about the things that stood out to me as the night went on. I took some pretty sparse notes, so if I skip something or it looks a little bit off, please forgive me. I guess I’ll just start at the top.
I loved Alberto Del Rio in this first match. He was really engaged and played a ton off of the crowd. It’s odd because on TV a lot of the time I think it comes across as though he is just going through the motions but here everything he did felt really organic. There was a great moment where he started screaming and fighting with the time keeper to ring the bell. I love when heels do this stuff, I think it’s a really important of wrestling villainy that gets lost or taken for granted by the performer. Del Rio concentrating on the timekeeper and yelling at him is the sort of every day pettiness that makes a performer human and accessible. It’s why people hate Dolores Umbridge more than any other Potter antagonist. Del Rio hitting Kalisto with a chair and glowering and such makes him evil in the abstract. We know we should boo him because his behavior is a cue for us to boo. Del Rio yelling at some poor stagehand is something we can relate to. It’s like the asshole dressing down a service worker because he knows there won’t be any repercussions. It makes me hate Del Rio because I have something in the every day I can relate to him. That doesn’t come out on TV for him all that often for whatever reason. It makes me want to go back and rewatch a bunch of his stuff to see if he always does little things like this, or if I just caught him on a good night. The match itself was fine, although the structure of the match seemed geared more toward a Del Rio victory. Once Kalisto kicked out of Del Rio’s last big near fall, everything seemed a bit listless. I wanted the energy to really increase as Kalisto hit his high spots, but they just seemed as though they were being done because that’s what was supposed to happen. I know people probably would have been unhappy with a Del Rio win, but I think the match would have been very good if the last double stomp had ended it and the high spots had come as a hope spot before.
I liked the women’s tag. It was pretty strong, with three solid performers. There was a dude behind me who chanted “we want Sasha” for the whole match. I wanted her to come in to the crowd like Super Dragon and beat the shit out of him. That would’ve been amazing. Anyway, he was distracting, so I can’t think about anything in particular that I liked about this, so I’m going to speak about it in vagaries. When Tamina had that long control segment the match was at its worst, which was still pretty okay. Tamina just doesn’t have that same sense of timing and when to cut things off and when to hit a bomb that the other three have. It’s hard to have a control segment when it feels like everyone else in the match has more control over what’s going on. Sasha’s offense looks awesome live. Many people have written many positive things about Sasha, but it really can’t be overstated how strong a performer she is. I’m not sure there is anyone in the WWE that has a clearer idea of who they are at all times. There isn’t one moment where she isn’t “the boss”. Every choice she makes is in line with what she is performing. It’s commendable. There are so many wrestlers in the world, and most of them wouldn’t be able to articulate who they are beyond “I like to have fun” or “I’ll do anything to be the best”. Sasha has put extra thought in to who she is as a person. It shows in her matches.
I will readily admit that I cannot fairly review a Dolph Ziggler match. He is one of the five worst performers in WWE and has been for years now. It makes me sad, because as a proud son of Cleveland, Ohio, I want nothing more than to cheer hard for a wrestler from Cleveland. Unfortunately, my current choices are Ziggler, Miz and Gargano. Is Danny Doring still active? No offense to those gentlemen, but they do not necessarily represent what I love about wrestling. So please know that I did not go in to this with an open mind. That being said, it wasn’t as awful as it could have been. That’s a compliment, right? Owens is very obviously trying to simplify things right now. He was working very deliberately, and while the pace of the match felt a little disjointed because of it, I think it served to showcase his bombs at the end of the match a little more. Rather than have his moves seem like random things he can do, pulling out bigger and bigger offense actually made Dolph Ziggler seem like a tough out (a herculean task in itself) and it made Owens seem like a dangerous opponent who can outgun just about anyone if he needs to. Owens also was great at really working to the cameras. He has a great sense of how to do cheat and press an advantage so that it’s believable that the ref wouldn’t see but the audience still gets a clear idea of what’s going on. I generally hate sports comparisons, but it sort of fit his character as someone who maybe doesn’t have the game gifts as his peers genetically, so he has spent a lifetime perfecting ways to get an advantage without getting called on it. He’s found a way to project that to big houses, and it’s a nice layer to him as a wrestler.
I’m not sure what to say about the six man tag. I feel like I’m starting to forget what happened and when. The finishing stretch was really great. It’s interesting, because initially, I found this whole feud to be pointless, but I’ve actually come around to thinking this sort of narrative and match is what the WWE needs. It was a really simple, solid narrative for a month of storytelling. Three heels picked apart a couple of faces, another face with a history showed up to even the score, and they had a match at a pay-per-view. The faces won, and the story is essentially over. It was all very self-contained. It’s great when matches and angles have clear winners and losers. I’m not sure that the faces winning was the most interesting choice in a narrative sense, but I’m not the writer and I’m not going to sit here and fantasy book the Wyatts being a dominant force. That’s silly. As it stands, I think it’s great that some mid card stories have a distinct stopping point. I think everything can benefit from that. Granted, now that I’ve gotten on this soap box they’re going to fight like 40 more times in the next three months. What do I know.
All night, there was a kid behind me who must have been about twelve giving running commentary about everything. During the Brie Bella match, he loudly booed Brie the whole time and kept talking about the quality (or lack there of) of her missile dropkick. I didn’t ask, but I assume I was sitting in front of Hollywood Cibernetico. That is a joke that only people who post on DVDVR will get, but I don’t care. It’s hysterical. I’m writing this because I don’t want to say anything mean about this match but I’m struggling to find anything to talk about. I have no idea what the story they wanted to tell in this match was. I’m not sure it would’ve mattered that much because the execution of that story was very poor. I don’t want to be one of those people who just shit on things, and I want to mention that I don’t think this match was poor due to a lack of effort or a lack of care. Charlotte and Brie Bella worked very hard, it just didn’t come together. That happens. Maybe commentary would help this match? I’m not going to go back and rewatch this, but maybe the commentary helped make the story more clear. That seems…..unlikely? Truthfully, I think the whole thing was probably a bit stillborn. Everyone knew Brie wasn’t going to win, and so much time has already been devoted to who will face her at WrestleMania. There wasn’t as much effort put in to planning this and making the audience invested and it showed.
I can’t remember who first said this (maybe Cecil Miller?) and I certainly can’t claim credit, but I have to share: does anyone else listen to the lyrics to AJ Styles WWE theme and think they put it together for the Briscoes and then have sat on it for a few years once they proved to be unemployable? It’s a pretty great theme for them. I was pretty interested in this match. AJ has been a breath of fresh air in WWE, and has been a pretty strong in ring performer thus far. The previous two matches against Jericho have been good. I have found myself firmly in the middle with Jericho recently, as he seems to have become more and more divisive with each return to WWE. I haven’t actively hated much that he’s been in (maybe the Punk stuff? That was pretty awful, although some matches were okay) and his newfound “cool 45 year old” persona isn’t as grating for me as it is for some others. That being said, I certainly don’t miss him when he is not on Raw. I just think Jericho is at a point in his career where he has specific things he wants to do and specific things he can’t do anymore, and when he can’t do the former and does too much of the latter out of hubris his matches suffer. These AJ matches have been so strong because they have allowed Jericho to reuse a formula that was effective for him previously in his matches against HBK from 2007. Like he was against HBK, Jericho was comfortable letting Styles have the flashier offense of the two. Jericho instead concentrated on showing his opponent nothing but derision and disrespect. This works well as it keep Jericho from doing some things he’s not really capable of athletically anymore, and he can instead concentrate on making things look like they hurt. AJ’s offense works really well here because he is practiced enough to keep stuff from looking contrived. Obviously all of his moves are crisp and impressive, but AJ doesn’t get enough credit for projecting that he is constantly thinking and finding ways to hit things to keep his opponent off guard or to take back the advantage. I didn’t even mind that the Styles Clash got kicked out of. I thought AJ sold the shock of it not working well enough, and it actually served to continue to establish the Calf Crusher. As an aside, if you combined AJ Styles hair with Chris Jericho’s tattoos, you would create literally the lamest dude in history.
There are certain things in this world that need to be experienced in a specific environment. Horror movies are fun, but they’re way better when you have a few adult beverages and friends that think if yell at the screen the movie might turn out differently. This is true for Brock Lesnar. You can enjoy watching Brock Lesnar wrestle, but you haven’t gotten the full Brock experience until you’re directly surrounded by dozens of screaming eight to twelve year olds. He’s like a real life Jason Vorhees, this unstoppable monster that appears out of nowhere and can’t be stopped but can be slowed down. This match was great live because of this and how it was seemingly worked with this in mind. Ambrose and Reigns teaming up just to get some respite from the force of nature that is Brock Lesnar created true investment in the match from the audience. I’m not really enamored with Brock throwing a bunch of suplexes thing as I think it’s a bit on the lazy side, but I felt like all of the spots that involved all three wrestlers were really well done. That’s a rarity in a triple threat match. I liked the finish because it reinforced the idea that a flash pin was basically the only way that Lesnar wouldn’t win the match. Reigns knew that the stakes were high and he would only have a few chances to throw his bombs, so he went in looking to use the spear and the punch at every opportunity. I thought everything he did made sense, and I think from an in ring standpoint, Reigns is the best choice for a WrestleMania main event against HHH. We’ve already seen HHH and Brock fight with diminishing returns and I have zero confidence that an Ambrose/HHH would be good. I’m sure the weeks leading up to WrestleMania would be good, but the match itself I’m not so sure. I like Ambrose and I think he’s a strong part of Raw every week. I would even say that he generally has a good idea of what his role should be in any given match. That being said, I don’t think anything he does actually looks impactful. He was pretty fun on the indies when he had some chain wrestling spots mixed in with his brawling. Now he seems like he is trying to wrestle to his character, and it comes across as really inorganic. I remember turning to Mike at one point and saying how much better the match would be if you replaced Ambrose with Necro Butcher. Granted that would be true for basically any wrestling match ever, but I think the point is a valid one.
Mike and I got back to his house and had a couple of beers and talked about the show. Overall our thoughts were positive. I’m not sure this is an event that will be remembered as particularly important or noteworthy, but I’ve certainly been to way worse WWE events. Mike joked that the last time he went to a pay-per-view, there were three separate scramble matches for various championships. I think seeing Brock Lesnar probably feels more special than watching The Brian Kendrick become a multi-time Interim World Champion. At any rate, the show certainly could have been worse. The main event, even if you feel the wrong man won, was better for not having some lame interference based finish. Ambrose will fight Lesnar at WrestleMania, which is great for both because Lesnar should win but Ambrose will end up better off just by getting a special attraction match. Kevin Owens can theoretically move on from Ziggler and face someone else. AJ Styles looks as though he will continue to climb. Even the trios match with New Day and the League of Nations could be fun. I don’t think anyone will claim that this Wrestlemania is great on paper, but it could certainly be worse. Sometimes, a night to just tie up a few loose ends and keep moving forward along the chosen path is the right move, even if it would have been cooler in the moment to have some shocking twists or whatnot. Sometimes, the simple and self-contained is the way to go.
I’m on a plane back to Philly right now and I have to admit I’m tired. I’ve written so much lately about those shows and times in my twenties when I drove a million years and then drank half the night but made it to work bright and early Monday morning. I’ll be shocked tonight if I make it through the overrun on Raw. There were so many weekends I spent with Mike, laughing and joking and listening to music. Dancing in the car to pass the time. We would always wake up late the day before we had to go back and grab lunch, waiting for the hangover to go down a little bit, both a bit too proud to admit we felt like garbage. Today we woke up late and laughed about how old we felt. We went to a diner for lunch and ordered food, but we saved a spot as his wife joined us midway through. We hugged when I got to the airport and I got sad thinking that I probably won’t see him for a few years. As we get older, the gaps get longer. The gaps in time between visits and the gaps in conversation as your lives start to belong to other people. It’s wonderful having something like this to fill in those gaps. We can talk and joke, and when the well runs dry, we can simply cheer or boo. I had an amazing time at WWE Fastlane. I would have had an amazing time no matter what happened at the show. It was being there that mattered.