Trying to predict the card for WrestleMania months in advance is generally a fool’s game. I tend to start putting one together mentally around Survivor Series and rarely do I get the bulk or even any of my picks right because a promotion with episodic television multiple times a week plus pay-per-view events (at least) once a month changes course abruptly and often; the days of the big four PPVs and syndicated TV where the big Mania matches were evident by Thanksgiving the year prior are long gone (though I still maintain Chris Jericho vs Shawn Michaels, World title vs career, should have been the main event of WrestleMania XXV, no matter how good that Undertaker-HBK match was).
But while my head knows everything I wrote is true, my heart keeps whispering “Maybe this year is different.”
WWE is on a sustained roll—i.e. of a few weeks rather than months—right now that is drawing some pretty positive reviews from even the most jaded Internet pundits. C.M. Punk is the hottest performer in the business, and whether he came back too soon from his “hiatus” or not, his feud with John Cena keeps my eyes on the TV every week. Christian as World champion is fresh and against all odds his issue with Randy Orton still has heat after over four months. Triple H as the “new Vince McMahon” has all sorts of possibilities (good and bad). The idea of Daniel Bryan in the main event of WrestleMania is intriguing. Faces old and new from Mark Henry to Rey Mysterio to Sheamus to Alex Riley to Cody Rhodes to Alberto Del Rio are all coming into their own nicely. There’s even interest in the Divas division! And of course The Rock still looms as we get closer to his Mania date with Cena.
This kind of momentum can’t help but make you start envisioning what could/should/you’d like to see on the biggest show of the year come April. Of course it’s something of a Catch-22, since if WWE really does their job, they’ll throw us something we never saw coming, but it’s always nice to prognosticate and of course hope there will be some long term logic as we round the corner into winter.
So while I’ve certainly got no idea what the full card of WrestleMania XVIII will look like in eight months, here’s my rough draft of what could be some nice headline matches. Dave Lagana—whose work you should follow at IWantWrestling and tell him I sent you—I’m not, but here goes…
JOHN CENA vs THE ROCK
So barring catastrophe, this is the one match we know is going down, and I would assume will close the show. The only question is how we get from here to there. One detail I’d make sure of: This match should not be for the WWE title. Indeed, John Cena not having the WWE title and Rock making certain of this fact is how I’d focus the next eight months. I don’t think there’s any way you can turn Rock heel going into this, as he’s going to get cheered by a large segment of the fan base even if he runs over an old lady, but you can take advantage of that and push the envelope as far as his actions. The central conceit of the feud is that Cena feels like Rock has abandoned WWE and its fans; Rock counters this by saying he has always cared, but he doesn’t need to earn approval the way he feels Cena is desperate to. Cena feeling like he needs to be WWE Champion to make the match matter and Rock basically saying he doesn’t care about the WWE title because he’s “been there, done that” and has nothing to prove furthers the feud in a logical way. If I have my way, the WWE title gets moved to Alberto Del Rio sooner rather than later—more on that below—and Cena pursues it off and on throughout the fall but gets stopped by The Rock. We know Rock is supposed to be at Survivor Series, so I’d do Cena-Del Rio one-on-one there and have “The Great One” cost his rival the title. Have him screw him out of winning the Royal Rumble too. Let Cena be the wronged party at Rock’s hands, but keep having Rock at the same time push that he doesn’t care about the WWE title and that’s why he’s doing this; you further the value clash of Cena the up and comer who still needs to prove something and requires championships as validation vs Rock the legend who does this because he wants to, not because he has to. Both guys should have their supporters going into the match—I maintain as I did when Rock first came back in February that Cena does not need to turn heel and has more than enough fans to make this work—and it kicks off an Attitude Era vs Today theme I’d keep going through the top of the card…
C.M. PUNK vs TRIPLE H
If Punk really is back full time, this match is the logical endpoint to his current storyline, and I hope they can hold off on it until WrestleMania. As with Rock-Cena, I don’t think you necessarily need either guy to do a full heel turn here as both work with shades of grey, but as Punk has the hot hand at the moment and since we know HHH relishes playing the villain, morphing the latter into Vince McMahon 2.0 isn’t the worst option, and again, if he still gets cheered by people, that’s really not a problem. I think the key here is to keep working the shoot angle of Punk being legitimately angry at what Triple H represents as far as how he got ahead in the company as well as his dissatisfaction with the establishment and “voice of the voiceless” routine. On the flip side, HHH should at least appear to keep his cool and remain professional on the surface, maintaining that Punk is good for business even if personally he can’t stand him, then when the time is right, flip the switch and go into full Cerebral Assassin mode. I’ve seen some impressive conspiracy theories making compelling cases for Triple H as the Raw General Manager or even the original mastermind behind Nexus, but honestly it can be as easy as he re-signed Punk because he felt like he could control the threat he represented if he had him under contract, but somewhere along the way he got frustrated both with his inability to rein the guy in as well as the personal pot shots and started to work against him behind the scenes. Again, I’d have Punk pursuing WWE Champion Alberto Del Rio and being thwarted by Triple H—overtly or not—and maybe also kill some time feuding with an anointed corporate champ like The Miz. Keep HHH out of the ring and in his COO role full time as long as possible then have a violent sledgehammer attack break months of suit-wearing calm and light the fuse for this match.
THE MIZ vs STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN
This one could be a long shot not only because of Austin’s ever-present health issues, but also because I’m not sure if it’s fair or even sensible to plug in Stone Cold as second fiddle to The Rock and possibly even third or fourth behind Triple H and/or The Undertaker. If Austin does have one more match in him—and Tough Enough as well as interviews seem to indicate he does—maybe it makes sense to hold it for WrestleMania XXIX, but do you take the risk that he’ll still want to go then? If Austin does elect to step in the ring in April, The Miz makes sense as an opponent all around: he’s already gotten in Stone Cold’s face during his last two guest appearances, he’s the most pure heel in WWE so he’s the best antagonist for a guy who is now way no how gonna get booed, he’s competent enough to both put on a good match and protect a guy with major injuries that have sidelined him for nearly a decade. It would be a neat special attraction and if any card should be loaded top to bottom, it’s WrestleMania, but again, Steve Austin’s first match in nine years and probably his farewell just doesn’t feel like it should be anything but the main event.
SHEAMUS vs THE UNDERTAKER
It’s very possible we’ll see the last stand of The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXVIII, given that he has not appeared since WrestleMania XXVII at this point, there haven’t been any indications he’ll make his seasonal return at SummerSlam (though I suppose we’ll know better in a week), and all reports indicate he’s so beat up he can manage one amazing match a year and that’s it. That puts tremendous pressure on WWE to find him a suitable opponent for the year The Streak could hit 20-0, not helped by the fact that he’s stolen the show three years running now with the back-to-back Shawn Michaels classics and then this past April against Triple H. The list of guys who would feel right here is not long; John Cena would be the ideal choice, but he’s booked; a Triple H rematch would work, but I prefer him in the Punk spot; Randy Orton doesn’t feel right; Miz would seem overmatched. Of all the options available, I feel like Sheamus is the guy who could get it done, and as he builds momentum as a babyface, I believe that actually enhances his cause. While I don’t think anybody would buy heel Sheamus being the guy who could dethrone The Undertaker, as a rising good guy, there’s that possibility the torch could be passed from one Phenom to the next generation (I’m not advocating Sheamus end The Streak as I’m in the Taker retires undefeated at WrestleMania camp, but you need at least a bit of intrigue). I also think the idea of Undertaker handpicking Sheamus as a guy worthy of facing him based on respect rather than a straight heel going for it makes for a better story. Sheamus has also become tremendously skilled in the ring and has a steep learning curve, so if he’s got time to work with Taker in advance, they may not touch the HBK or HHH matches, but they could come darn close (or even surprise us). Again, in a perfect world, as with Austin, Undertaker should go out as the main event with the best match possible, but time and the inevitability of Rock-Cena may make that impossible.
WWE Champion ALBERTO DEL RIO vs JOHN MORRISON
As a guy who has been watching this for awhile, one aspect of WrestleMania from my youth that I miss is the popular young babyface culminating the first part of their career—however long it took—by capturing their first WWE or World title at the big dance. I think we still remember Shawn Michaels or Steve Austin’s wins at XII and XIV because they were examples of this scenario playing out, but we haven’t seen a really great climb to the top culminate at WrestleMania since John Cena and Batista in 2005 at XXI—or technically Rey Mysterio a year later, but that felt somewhat unfortunately abrupt due to the Eddie Guerrero factor—mostly because the same guys keep winning the titles back ala Hulk Hogan in the 80’s and early 90’s. If he can keep his mouth shut between now and April, John Morrison is a prime example of the type of guy fans would go nuts to see win the WWE title for the first time at WrestleMania and who could be a legitimate star of tomorrow. I also think WWE’s got a great heel in Alberto Del Rio who if they get the title on him stat, he can ride out a reign from here until April that folks will be jonesing to see ended the way they did Randy Savage in 1989 or JBL in 2005. I’d have ADR cash in Money in the Bank next week at SummerSlam on either Cena or Punk—preferably Punk so you can reveal HHH was behind it down the line—then hold onto it in a multi-man match at Night of Champions, and then combos of Punk, Cena, Rey Mysterio and maybe Kofi Kingston through the fall and early winter. Let Morrison win either the Royal Rumble or at Elimination Chamber and send him into WrestleMania as the chosen one to finally get take down Del Rio.
World Champion WADE BARRETT vs RANDY ORTON vs DANIEL BRYAN
I dig the idea of Daniel Bryan holding onto his Money in the Bank briefcase through WrestleMania and cashing in there as it’s unlike anything that’s been done before and both his character and skills make him the perfect guy to build fan support for the storyline. At the same time, I don’t think there’s any way WWE gives Daniel Bryan a one-on-one World title match on the biggest show of the year when he’s not yet a proven commodity on that stage; I’m a fan of the guy, but I don’t fault that logic. The solution? Go the WrestleMania XX route and plug in one of your proven commodities to make it a Triple Threat and bank on the crowd still supporting the little guy. You accomplish this by having Randy Orton win either the Royal Rumble or an Elimination Chamber match and thus giving him equal right to a match with Bryan. The trickiest part for me here was figuring out the heel champion. It would be awesome if Christian could hold out another eight months, but I don’t see that happening. If I could clone Miz, I’d move one to SmackDown and have him get the title after Survivor Series as he adds the element of his past with Bryan; if Austin doesn’t come back, I’d say Miz is the optimal choice here. I thought about R-Truth, but as much as the guy entertains me, I don’t buy him as a WrestleMania-level heel World champion. Ditto for Mark Henry. Wade Barrett isn’t perfect, but he’s great on the mic and solid in the ring; I think he could pull it off. He’s also got the issue with Bryan and they could even up the ante by having their current feud culminate with a series of Barrett wins so he can claim one of his challengers can’t beat him. Orton doesn’t really need any sort of personal ties as he’s just the guy trying to win back his title. Sentimentality would book a Bryan win, but you could just as easily have Orton snatch a victory or Barrett sneak out with the title.
CHRISTIAN vs REY MYSTERIO
No real logic here aside from the fact that Rey seems to have settled into a WrestleMania role as the guy blowing off a personal feud not involving championships with a solid match, plus he and Christian have never had a one-on-one PPV encounter before, so giving them 15 minutes or so would be a nice treat for the fans and salute to two great veterans.