'WrestleMania' Plans Starting to Come Into Focus, but WWE Still Has a Long Way to Go

The Week in Wrestling: Examining WWE’s 'WrestleMania' plans, AEW builds to a must-see pay-per-view of its own and more.
Author:
Publish date:

SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath-the-surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

WrestleMania 36 still seeking definition

WrestleMania is only 53 days away, and plenty of questions still surround surrounding WWE’s signature show.

Let’s start with what we know. 

Drew McIntyre will challenge Brock Lesnar for the WWE championship. 

Rhea Ripley will get the most high-profile moment of her career against Charlotte Flair, not only defending her NXT women’s championship but also attempting to elevate herself to a whole new tier of stardom with a captivating performance. 

Edge facing Randy Orton in his first WrestleMania match since 2011 adds a lot to the card and should be an emotional moment.

Another title match will be Shayna Baszler's challenging Becky Lynch for the Raw women’s title. Although Lynch helped headline WrestleMania 35 in a match with Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair, it does not appear she will close out this year’s show. For the first time since their match at Survivor Series in November, the Baszler-Lynch program resumed Monday on Raw. The segment included a groan-inducing spot where Baszler bit Lynch’s neck. I wish the focus had been built around Baszler’s tremendous ability as a wrestler instead of her decision to bite Lynch.

Though we have a good idea of what the top matches on the card will be, other booking decisions are still unclear. 

McIntyre seeks to become the ninth man to win his first WWE world championship at WrestleMania. He has the potential to accomplish that feat against a rejuvenated Lesnar, who no longer has one foot out the door toward the UFC, but instead is as fully committed to WWE as he has been in a long time.

And the timing is ripe for a double turn in the McIntyre-Lesnar match.

We have witnessed the double turn before at WrestleMania, most famously in the Steve Austin–Bret Hart submission match at WrestleMania 13. That was the most important and well-executed double turn ever in wrestling, as Hart entered the match as the babyface and Austin the heel, with the roles entirely reversed by the end of their bloody affair.

Lesnar is coming off a tremendous Royal Rumble appearance, and his cheers from the crowd have been growing louder. Especially following John Cena’s recent comments, this could be a perfect time to turn Lesnar into a babyface. And McIntyre would benefit from a run with the belt as a heel, where he could reaffirm himself as “The Chosen One.”

A wrinkle in the plans for WrestleMania is the upcoming Saudi Arabia show, which takes place on Feb. 27. Is it possible that Vince McMahon wants Bill Goldberg to win the Universal title from Bray Wyatt and enter WrestleMania as champ? That would open the door for a Goldberg-Roman Reigns affair, which would be a unique attraction for ’Mania. Plus, it feels like Wyatt’s “Fiend” character is much more suited to serve as an attraction rather than champion.

If McMahon throws a curveball and gives us Goldberg-Reigns, then that opens up Wyatt for a new opponent—or a third match against Daniel Bryan. Otherwise, it appears the plan would be Wyatt-Reigns, though that match would benefit tremendously by including Bryan.

The looming specter of All Elite Wrestling will be felt throughout WrestleMania, particularly during Edge’s match with Orton.

There were discussions between Edge and AEW executives dating back to last fall regarding a surprise appearance, akin to Lex Luger showing up on the first Nitro in 1995, with Edge's appearing on the first edition of Dynamite this past October. McMahon obviously did not allow that to happen and secured Edge’s services. Now, he is set to play a major role at WrestleMania.

From everything I have been told by contacts within WWE, the recently suspended Andrade’s days as the United States champion are numbered. (His 30-day wellness policy suspension expires on Feb. 27.) A hair-vs.-mask match against Rey Mysterio would have been special, but the more pressing question is whether he will even make it to WrestleMania as the United States champion.

Plenty of other talent still need a role, and that includes Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe, Intercontinental champ Braun Strowman, Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Ricochet, Rusev, Bobby Lashley, Sasha Banks, Asuka, the Usos, Kofi Kingston, Big E, John Morrison and the Miz.

And what about John Cena, who is set to return on the Feb. 28 edition of SmackDown? Will The Undertaker miss a second straight WrestleMania? Shouldn’t Aleister Black have something more special than a battle royal?

I am not a proponent of making WrestleMania a two-night affair like New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom was this year. I would actually go the other way, tightening the card and shortening the show to four hours, making it the most exclusive, high-profile card in the wrestling world. In the current seven-hour structure, there is an overload of talent that makes it impossible to please everyone.

WrestleMania should be great, as it will be filled with the most talented roster in wrestling, but WWE has a lot to accomplish in the buildup between now and April 5.

Cody Rhodes and MJF craft a great story on the road to AEW Revolution

Another upcoming, must-see pay-per-view is AEW’s Revolution, which takes place on Saturday, Feb. 29.

Revolution is headlined by AEW champ Chris Jericho vs. Jon Moxley, but the most emotionally charged match will be Cody Rhodes's seeking revenge against MJF.

MJF cost Rhodes his shot at the AEW world title in November at Full Gear, and then turned on him following the match.

The ensuing story line has been brilliant, with MJF only accepting to wrestle Rhodes if he first meets all of his outlandish stipulations. Last week, Rhodes had to get on his knees and take 10 lashes from MJF, which was an outrageous visual and made for very unique content.

Rhodes faces MJF’s heater, Wardlow, next week in a cage match as AEW performs in front of a hot crowd in Atlanta as the program continues to intensify. The pay-per-view match is a perfect time for Arn Anderson to turn on Rhodes, costing him the match and aligning with MJF. A potential pairing of MJF with Shawn Spears would also allow Anderson to reunite with fellow Horseman Tully Blanchard.

MJF has played his role perfectly, and he needs the win at Revolution. Rhodes is already a made man in wrestling, on his way to an eventual world title run in AEW, and a win for MJF should put him in a world title program with Jon Moxley, who is likely to defeat Chris Jericho in the show’s main event.

The Big Show: The best two wrestlers in WWE are Seth Rollins and Randy Orton

WWE wrestler Paul “Big Show” Wight in the ring on Raw

The Big Show has been wrestling for the past 26 years, sharing the ring with four different generations of stars.

His experience has provided him with a unique lens on the business, especially toward the in-ring performers. Even though injuries have limited him over the past three years, he still watches—and he knows exactly who the best two wrestlers are.

“Seth Rollins and Randy Orton are the two best in the business,” said Paul Wight, better known to the world as the Big Show. “Seth Rollins can do it all. He’s incredibly talented, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Randy Orton makes everything he does in the ring look easy. He’s got such a fluidity to his movements.”

Rollins has been the backbone of Raw for years, a feat he continues to accomplish as the “Monday Night Messiah.” Orton is building toward a match at WrestleMania against Edge, which should lead to an incredibly emotional moment at WWE’s signature pay-per-view.

“Randy always gets mad when I say this, but he makes it look easy and pretty,” said Wight. “And Seth can literally do it all at a top level. Not do it all at a medium level, Seth can do it all at a top level.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Matt Hardy did a magnificent job connecting his history with Edge in the segment on Raw, making Randy Orton appear even more ruthless. But it also opens up the possibility of writing Hardy off the show or completely altering his character after taking a chair shot from Orton. 
  • The Dark Order is definitely playing to the idea that Hardy could join AEW. 
  • In terms of Goldberg vs. the Fiend, the smart move would be to have Goldberg get squashed … but WWE still has a lot of money invested in Bill Goldberg, which gives reason to think there are plans beyond this match.
  • EC3 would be a tremendous asset for AEW. 
  • New Japan star Minoru Suzuki offered some fascinating insight in his interview on the NJPW website, including his thoughts on Jon Moxley and even WWE: “That unique Japanese wrestling is something that Rikidozan made, 50, 60 years ago. It used to be about two massive giants throwing hands, made into a show. But the basis of everything, absolutely everything is combat. Fight. Martial arts. That’s Japanese pro wrestling. That’s something only Japan has been able to maintain and protect. Now, you look at NJPW today. There’s guys that fly. Tag teams with elaborate combinations. Guys with female managers. Guys who are fair, guys who cheat, but they all, all represent Japanese professional wrestling. You can try and deny that, but I think it will always be true. The moment it stops being true, WWE will swallow everything up here.”
  • New Japan had its New Beginning show in Osaka this past weekend, and there were plenty of highlights. Jon Moxley defeated Minoru Suzuki in an excellent match, then was laid out by Zack Sabre Jr. 
  • New Beginning also featured a phenomenal bout between Hiromu Takahashi and Dragon Lee. 
  • Finally, New Beginning also saw the setup for a match between Tetsuya Naito, who is the reigning IWGP heavyweight and intercontinental champion, and IWGP junior heavyweight champion takahashi, which is set to take place at New Japan’s 48th Anniversary Event on March 3. 
  • Brandi Rhodes shared some fantastic insight about the end of the Nightmare Collective story line in her interview with The Wrestling Observer
  • Simone Johnson, who is the daughter of the Rock, looks to carry on her family’s legacy in wrestling. 

“The Man Scout” Jake Manning brings a different character to pro wrestling

Portrait of pro wrestler “The Man Scout” Jake Manning

The intersection between wrestling and comedy is a hard line to navigate, but one who does it extremely well on the indies is “The Man Scout” Jake Manning.

Manning, who is 37-year-old Jacob Feuerbach, always had an affinity toward WWE’s over-the-top characters of the 1990s, and he originally fashioned the “Man Scout” character after watching Kurt Angle’s early work in WWE.

“People were supposed to be disgusted by the character, but it has slowly become a fan favorite,” said Manning, who is also a stand-up comic. “Originally it started as a dark and seedy character. It’s evolved and it’s much more fascinating for me to make people laugh. And people have started to like me and root for me.”

A 17-year wrestling veteran, Manning was first trained by George South, but he has also been trained by the likes of Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, and Bobby Eaton. He takes immense pride in his craft, especially as a comedy wrestler—and he used his creativity to develop a memorable character in “The Man Scout.”

“I was an Eagle Scout, so I already had the outfit,” said Manning, who also helps manage the Highspots Wrestling Network. “I loved the big, outlandish characters, and the ones with the weird occupational gimmicks always appealed to me. I loved this ‘Man Scout’ character and this idea of someone that based his entire life off his achievements as a Boy Scout, but was forced out of the Boy Scouts of America at 18.”

Manning wrestles “King” Brian Anthony in a “Career vs. Crown” match this Saturday at Northeast Wrestling’s show in Bethany, Connecticut.

“You can’t write the history of Northeast Wrestling over the last 10 years without me and Brian,” said Manning. “He’s a multi-time Northeast Champion, and I’ve wrestled just about every name that’s come through, everybody from Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler to Cedric Alexander. I was on a 10-year losing streak until recently, and everything is coming to a head with Brian Anthony.

“This is special for me, I’m usually first or second on the card. But I’m in the main event, and I’m going to deliver a main-event caliber match. The fans of Northeast Wrestling have been very good to me, and I’m hoping to return the favor this Saturday.”

The NEW show is sandwiched in the middle of an eventful weekend for Manning. He will perform at Wrestling Revolver’s show in Dayton on Friday, tagging with Jon Murray against Danhausen and Warhorse, and then serve as the opening act in “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan’s comedy show on Sunday in Charlotte.

And his Saturday NEW match against “King” Brian Anthony, which will air on Highspots Wrestling Network, is extremely meaningful, as it allows him the chance to present a different side to his character.

“I’ll either make history or be history,” said Manning. “I’ve never beaten Brian Anthony before. I’ve never pinned his shoulders to the mat or made him submit. If I lose, I will be history. So I can say, for sure, that history will be made this Saturday. That’s a promise—Scout’s honor.”

Conrad Thompson previews this week’s edition of Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard

Conrad Thompson and Bruce Prichard will reunite for this week’s Something to Wrestle podcast to deliver a show originally intended for last week.

“Bruce wasn’t able to find the time last week with all of responsibilities in WWE, but we’re going to make sure it gets done this week,” said Thompson. “And we are really looking forward to examining the career of Sherri Martel.”

The late Martel had an incredible career, both as an in-ring performer and more famously as a manager, especially during her pairing with the “Macho King” Randy Savage.

“There was all kinds of paranoia surrounding Randy being overprotective of Liz, so we’ll dig into whether that was something that occurred with Sherri. And we’ll look at how she helped younger, developing talent like Shawn Michaels. Bruce is going to give us a little insight into the real-life Sherri Martel.”

Tweet of the week

30 years ago, Jack Tunney electrified the wrestling world with this announcement … but, looking back, can you believe that he didn’t announce the match was for the world title?

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.