Surprises and new trends in sports have a way of sneaking up on everyone.
WrestleMania is always criticized. Fans of World Wrestling Entertainment are notorious for, as grappler Chris Jericho once put it, “never liking anything we give them.”
This year feels a little different. WrestleMania 35 has not happened yet. But it’s already being criticized in very harsh terms.
Roman Reigns, a main-event WWE wrestler, is getting torched once again. Except it’s not really the former Georgia Tech athlete named Leati Joseph Anoaʻi who is taking heat. “Roman Reigns” is taking the heat. Wrestling is weird that way. People aren’t criticizing the actor playing the role, just the role itself.
That doesn’t make the carping any less vicious. In fact, many commentators feel free “reign” to bash the WWE because we don’t always get to know the people in the circus. Vince McMahon’s promotional machine turns athletes into action figures, and it’s easy to forget that they’re not made of plastic.
John Oliver excoriated McMahon (and Reigns) in a monologue this week. Then again, Oliver is a mainstream Democrat and the McMahons are famously Republican, so he’s coming from a biased POV. Former WWE announcer Jim Ross has no such axe to grind, but even J.R. is in a bad mood about the upcoming WrestleMania in East Rutherford on Sunday night.
Ross believes that too many matches are being thrown together quickly, with grapplers focused on showing-off their aerial skills instead of giving the fans a personal drama to care about, or maybe even, you know, applying some wrestling holds.
“The announcers sound like bad porno,” J.R. said on a recent podcast.
“All they can do is react to the high spots, ‘Oh, yeah, oh, yeah.’ The performers are not giving them anything else to talk about.”
As a fan of old-time TV wrestling and (some) current TV wrestling, I share J.R.’s frustrations. If punching, kicking, and jumping off the top rope were prohibited as they once were, some of 2019’s so-called “Superstars” would have 90-second matches because they’d have no idea what else to do.
But not all is lost. In fact, the men of World Wrestling Entertainment could be about to take part in a watershed WrestleMania.
And they’ll have the women of the company to thank for it.
WrestleMania 35: History for Real in the Main Event
The WWE loves to tell its fans how every main event is “making history” even when the matches are routine and unremarkable.
On Sunday night in New Jersey, the announcers can say it and mean it.
WrestleMania 35 will feature women in the main event for the first time ever. Former MMA world champion Ronda Rousey will compete against Charlotte Flair (woo!) and Becky Lynch for an “undisputed” or “double” women’s title in both the Raw and Smackdown brands.
McMahon usually dips his toes in the water before diving into a brave new genre. For years, female Superstars (or “WWE Divas”) were degraded by half-naked stunts and touchy-feely matches meant to entertain with sex appeal only. Meanwhile, any serious women’s bouts were given so little airtime that the wrestlers appeared to be performing in fast-forward.
Excellent wrestlers like Mickey James and Paige have toiled for decades to earn respect for the women’s division. But when Rousey signed a contract with WWE in 2018, the Divas got a shot in the arm like none other. The former UFC Bantamweight champ brought an element of genuine sports-athleticism into the promotion, and despite her inexperience working “fixed” bouts, put on a classic tag team match at WrestleMania 34 with the help of Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, and Kurt Angle.
Rumor has it “Rowdy” was roughly reprimanded for doing more than punch and kick at WrestleMania, and promised to forget all of her scientific holds and do better next time.
The best match at WrestleMania 34 involved only women. In fact, the bout between Charlotte Flair and the Japanese wrestler Asuka may have quietly revolutionized sports-entertainment.
“Quietly” refers to the media’s reaction and not the crowd in New Orleans, who went bonkers from start to finish.
Charlotte Flair is a kingly physical specimen known as “The Queen.” She inherits her father Ric Flair’s unique ability to create comedy and drama in the ring. Asuka is simply one of the world’s most talented and polished athletes. But the match wasn’t just special because of what the Divas could do. The bout was also noteworthy for what they didn’t do.
Flair and Asuka didn’t throw one punch. They rarely kicked. Outside of a few MMA-style forearm strikes, the women wrestled for 20 straight minutes and brought the house down. That wasn’t thought to be possible with a modern WWE audience…at least not as of 13 months ago.
One of Ric Flair’s favorite slogans has always been “the name on the marquee says ‘wrestling.’” It sounds like his daughter got the message.
WrestleMania: Bet on the Match Booker, Not the Superstar
Long-shot gamblers were also thrilled by the outcome. The amazing women’s match in the Big Easy turned into the best underdog pick of the night, as (predicted here at LegitGamblingSites.com) Flair defended her title belt on a (+700) moneyline, winning a 7-to-1 payoff for happy speculators.
Why did online betting sites offer such a payoff on The Queen to remain champion? Mostly because Asuka was booked as an “unstoppable” master of submission holds and enjoyed a long unbeaten streak headed into the April gala.
Flair, according to standard handicapping logic, would be used to “job out,” or lose to the Rising Sun phenom in such as way as to build the latter’s reputation.
My prediction of Flair in an upset was based on a few factors, not the least of which is knowing the wares of Vince, Stephanie, and Triple H.
The WWE has gotten better over the years at not “burying” new talent imported from other promotions.. But as wonderful as Asuka is in the ring, she doesn’t speak fluent English (or at least her character pretends to not speak fluent English) and her interviews at the time consisted of tiny catch-phrases.
WWE wants WrestleMania champions who can cut promos. Full promos. In English. I’m absolutely sure there was no racial or promotion-prejudice involved in letting Flair keep her belt. It was just the most practical and wise decision the WWE could have made at the time, and so it happened.
WrestleMania betting can play tricks on the mind. Bookers rarely make a decision based on athletic talent alone. Chris Jericho might feel like a great wager in a particular match because he’s so good at wrestling. But if the company happened to decide that a stick figure with zero skills could somehow out-draw Jericho as a champion, then a title-holding Y2J would be obliged to job-out at a Pay-Per-View.
Finally, remember that a “DQ” finish in which the disqualified wrestler puts a bloody beating on the “winner” still counts as a betting outcome in favor of the “unconscious” grappler.
When King Kong Bundy famously crushed Hulk Hogan’s ribs (or pretended to crush Hulk Hogan’s ribs) on Saturday Night’s Main Event after cheating through outside interference, gamblers who had picked Hogan won their bets on the “DQ,” even as Hulk was hauled off in an ambulance.
Let’s examine the WrestleMania 35 card along with the gambling odds at MyBookie. Maybe there’s another terrific underdog pick hiding in the weeds…or under the ring with a crowbar.
Smackdown Singles Match: Randy Orton (-160) vs A.J. Styles (+120)
The son of old-time wrestler “Cowboy” Bob Orton, Randy Orton is an oft-pushed WWE veteran who has been booked to “go over,” or defeat A.J. Styles in the recent past.
McMahon’s office won’t sit on Styles’ talent forever. “The Phenomenal” is indeed a phenomenal performer who captivates adult fans, and it’s hard for young boys to relate to Orton has he grows older. That could make a Styles upset the proper booking as he’s more likely to get over (while “go over” means win, “get over” means to please the audience) in the long run.
Raw Intercontinental Championship: Finn Balor (-500) vs Bobby Lashley (+350)
I recall reading a funny bit in a wrestling magazine about the origin of the “Intercontinental” championship. If the word Intercontinental means “champion on more than one continent,” then what’s the difference between a World title and an Intercontinental title?
Finn Balor is the challenger for the belt, but insiders expect the “Demon” to beat Lashley anyway.
Remember, if Lashley cheats and is disqualified, therefore keeping the Intercontinental title, the favorite’s moneyline still wins even if Balor is bailed into a roll of hay and dumped into the nearby Atlantic Ocean. No championship belt – but still a payoff good on multiple continents.
Raw Singles Match: Kurt Angle (-200) vs Baron Corbin (+280)
The aging veteran and former Olympic gold medalist Angle is expected to go over against Corbin, a rival whom Angle requested for his “farewell match” at WrestleMania.
Corbin is a popular talent and could potentially be booked to win or DQ in a surprise. However, there is more than one dynamic at work in handicapping this one.
Wrestlers usually don’t retire on-screen. When a WWE Superstar fights in a so-called retirement bout, it’s often just a gimmick to give him or her time off or to pivot to the next storyline.
If Kurt Angle was really, truly wrestling his last match of all time, there’s no way WWE bookers wouldn’t give him the clean pinfall or submission victory. The gaps between what fans are told on TV, what wrestlers say in interviews, and what actually happens backstage are yawning.
No one in the New Jersey crowd will be yawning on Sunday night when Angle locks-in his patented “Ankle lock” though.
By the way, “Baron” Corbin is misspelled “Aron” Corbin on MyBookie’s moneyline board for WrestleMania 35.
John Cena has also been rumored to take Corbin’s place in a plot twist during the show. That would make every bet on the match a “push,” so we’ll see.
Falls Count Anywhere Match: The Miz (-400) vs Shane McMahon (+250)
2 of my favorite modern wrestlers prepare for a jostle that could end in a Jack in the Box.
Shane McMahon’s specialty is getting his butt kicked in an exciting fashion. He’s fought violent gimmick matches against The Undertaker and Kurt Angle, and can perform a high spot like nobody’s business.
Shane’s “money” dance – bound to hilariously pop up in the middle of his regular stride – reminds a few viewers of Shemp Howard from The Three Stooges.
The Miz is another “high spot” wrestler whose grappling skills are sound, and in my opinion, vastly underrated along with his vibrant interviews. But as we talked about earlier, the WWE is not a purely athletic competition, and the better technical hand doesn’t always get booked to win.
We have to think like promoters and not sports handicappers.
Shane is always a good candidate to “job out” because his status with fans is stitched in stone. He can lose at WrestleMania and come back just as strong next year. The Miz, on the other hand, has run the gamut from announcer to comedy wrestler to mid-carder to main event and back again.
If the company has any serious plans for Miz in the ring in 2019, they’re wise to let him win this time. It won’t hurt the McMahon brand at all.
Too bad MyBookie doesn’t have a prop betting line on how many different rooms, buildings, bars and junkyards the match could wind up taking place in. There likely won’t be an upset victory, but it will be a lot of fun to watch.
Smackdown United States Championship: Samoa Joe (-260) vs Rey Mysterio (+180)
Another meeting of outstanding veterans. This match is my “moneyline favorite lock” of the evening, since Rey Mysterio has traditionally been booked to lose big title matches on marquee cards.
Triple H and Stephanie are often as old-fashioned as her father is. WWE has never been comfortable putting Heavyweight title belts on smaller wrestlers.
Why? Because they don’t think it’s “realistic” enough. Yep.
Samoa Joe can match Mysterio hold-for-hold and spot-for-spot. But Joe is a much bigger wrestler and a more-believable champion for casual fans to buy into, meaning that he’ll almost certainly hold on to the United States title against the high-flying Luchador.
Raw Singles Match: Roman Reigns (-400) vs Drew McIntyre (+250)
Roman Reigns is the “John Cena of 2019.” Cena’s career has gone through phases in which the Superstar simply couldn’t get the fans to cheer and boo when he wanted them to, but the McMahons liked him and kept pushing him.
Reigns is promoted as a fan favorite and gets booed out of half the arenas he wrestles in. He’s still booed despite coming back from leukemia to wrestle in WWE. That’s serious heat…and not the “good” kind of heat that “heel” wrestlers relish.
Mainstream opinion has it that the former gridiron standout is another failed WWE project that the company just won’t give up on. David Shoemaker of The Ringer argues that the promotion doesn’t care if people like or dislike Roman Reigns as long as they keep watching and rooting for an outcome. “WWE has harnessed fan angst into a potent drug,” writes Shoemaker. “People’s complaints are based on the fear that the story won’t go the way they want. That’s exactly what pro wrestling is built on.”
Yeah – but the promoters used to essentially tell the fans where they wanted the story to go. It’s a free-for-all now.
Reigns is likely to beat McIntyre and might even get a few limp cheers as a cancer survivor in 2019.
Smackdown WWE Championship: Kofi Kingston (-320) vs Daniel Bryan (+240)
Bryan is the “anti-Roman Reigns,” a wrestler whom fans adore but WWE has failed to push with victories key moments.
Meanwhile, Kofi Kingston has spent much of his career as a one-dimensional acrobatic flyer, the type Jim Ross criticized as putting announcers in the “bad porno” mold while failing to tell fans a story.
So why would Kingston be booked to go over, as Las Vegas clearly expects?
For one, the Jamaican grappler has improved leaps and bounds. He has wrestled 60-minute matches and fought in well-reviewed singles and tag-team storylines over the past few years.
Second, and probably more importantly, the kids love him. Kingston has become one of the most popular fan favorites in the industry, and Bryan has been at-least-temporarily turned into a heel title-holder whom “Mr. McMahon” (Vince’s on-screen character and usually a real jerk) favors.
I wonder if WWE won’t throw yet another curve-ball at Bryan and Kingston fans alike with this finish.
Raw Singles Match: Triple H (-300) vs Batista (+220)
Dave Batista is a fine bodybuilder and a veteran grappler who has often been booked into main events only to lose to a brand-name Superstar.
His match against The Undertaker at WrestleMania 23 is a good example. Batista received a huge TV push from the company, arrived in Detroit like a house afire, and stormed to the ring with an intensity never before seen. Ring introductions are often an important clue as to who is booked to win the bout, for instance when Glen “Kane” Jacobs calls for pyrotechnics before a match, he’s planning to lose. Batista did not appear to be planning to lose.
Then the lights in the venue went out. Lines of chanting Pagan druids formed out of nowhere.
Bettors were under the impression that Batista was going to fight an aging Superstar in a trench coat.
But from a WWE-universe point of view, he was fighting God.
Triple H is not God, though he might as well be, given his power in the WWE office. But what long-term good would really come from having Hunter Hearst Helmsley go over in a non-title match? Fans will always buy Triple H as a contender, but Batista has just come back to the fold after a long absence and would benefit from a win or suffer from a loss.
Raw WWE Universal Championship: Seth Rollins (-160) vs Brock Lesnar (+120)
We’ll keep this prediction short and sweet. Former freestyle wrestler Lesnar is a solid underdog pick, not because he’s incredibly over with the fans, not because he’s supremely talented, and certainly not because he’s always loyal to WWE.
Lesnar will be booked to win because none of those factors ever seem to matter to the McMahons. They think a card grows more believable or exciting when Lesnar wins his match. He was even booked to end The Undertaker’s legendary winning streak at WrestleMania.
There’s every logical reason why Rollins should be booked to win. I’m going with the historical trend in saying that the McMahons will stupidly push a bodybuilder with weak microphone skills on the viewing public, all over again.
Main Event: Becky Lynch (-260) vs Ronda Rousey (+300) vs Charlotte Flair (+1000)
The news story is that Vince McMahon (likely with Steph and HHH’s prodding) chose to schedule the first women’s main event in the history of WrestleMania.
The wrestling storyline? It’s a little more complicated.
Gone are the days of White Hat vs Black Hat. Each of the 3 Diva/Superstars have taken turns thrilling and upsetting fans on the road to WrestleMania. Lynch sneak-attacked Flair after a title match on Smackdown in 2018. That would usually make The Queen into a “face” in the story, but she cheated with foreign objects in a follow-up match against Rousey. “Rowdy” Ronda will always draw cheers because of her real-life-sports accomplishments and popularity in the Octagon. But she interfered with a Flair-Lynch match in December, attacking an injured Lynch in a fashion associated with heels.
The lack of a clear-cut morality play might suggest an anything-goes booking scenario. But handicappers seem convinced Lynch has already been booked win both belts.
Flair is expected to be a wild-card, affecting the outcome without scoring a pinfall or submission to win the titles herself. Lynch is a strong and balanced grappler who fans can buy as an athletic competitor against Rousey, and her popularity is reaching a Flair-like level. (Shoemaker writes in The Ringer that there will be a riot at MetLife Stadium if “The Man” (Becky) loses the match.)
Could there be another swerve? What if Ronda Rousey – the grappler who doesn’t need to cheat, ever, given her immense skill-set – finally breaks from the frustration and clobbers Lynch with one of Triple H’s sledgehammers that always seem to wind up around the ring?
A cheat-and-win for Rowdy would make her the top heel in the business, and turn The Man into a no-grey-area face who’s over like a Zeppelin for the next 6-12 months.
It’s the “logical” booking vs a potentially even more-lucrative surprise. Money and drawing power is the name of the game. I’m taking Ronda Rousey to pull off a devilish upset win.
WrestleMania 35: Best Picks and Moneyline Bets
I’m given readers a lot to chew on here, so let’s be concise and recap leans and predictions for MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.
Ronda Rousey and Dave Batista are terrific underdog bets.
So is Brock Lesnar…for all the wrong reasons.
Kurt Angle could lose or be cheated out of a clean win, only to return at a later date and beat the heck out of Baron Corbin.
Samoa Joe is the moneyline lock among the favorites.