The major storylines leading into WrestleMania 32 seem to be among the weakest in history. In the modern era, that may not matter since the WrestleMania brand itself sells out the stadium and gets people to sign up for the network. Back in the day, the main event – or other pushed matches – had to put butts in the seats and fingers pressing the “order” button of the TV remote. They were matches fans felt they could not miss because something big was at stake between (normally) the two men with a score to settle. The match climaxed a storyline – angles, matches, interviews, and skits – that may have lasted a year, or maybe just since January’s Royal Rumble.
So what makes a great WrestleMania storyline? Looking over the top fifteen below, but also learning from those that didn’t work, such as Cena v Miz (27) and Hogan v Slaughter (7), it appears there are five important elements which create a great WrestleMania storyline.
First, both of the performers have to be over with the fans, certainly something lacking in WrestleMania 32’s build up with most of the fan base being underwhelmed by Roman Reigns. Most of the best storylines featured super over wrestlers, sometimes because of a dramatic heel or face turn. Sometimes, the storyline’s timing coincides with a wrestler’s popularity, like Daniel Bryan’s at 30, cresting just as the WrestleMania season kicks into high gear. A great story needs characters in which the audience cares about their fate.
Second, there has to be an intense personal issue at stake, again lacking this year. Often this issue stems from a turn with one friend stabbing another in a back, that was the Hogan playbook with Andre and Savage, both which drew huge money. Other times the personal issues stem from attacks on family or brutal beat downs as in Orton v HHH at 25. A great WrestleMania storyline builds to what seems like blood feud even if the blade is now banned. The tagline should always be "this time, it's personal."
Third, the stakes need to be high. Once that meant the WWF, then WWE or World, now Unified Title was on the line. But as championships mean less, a title match alone isn’t the heart of the storyline. Sometimes the stakes are even higher, such as Flair and Michaels' retirement matches. Before that, The Battle of the Billionaires showed even old school stipulations could draw interest if they were believable. Nobody buys the “control of the company” / McMahon family drama storyline line serving as the foundation of Shane McMahon vs. The Undertaker at 32.
Fourth and an almost impossible element in the modern era, but once was a storyline success, would be for the WrestleMania match to be the first in-ring one-on-one meeting of two wrestlers. Sometimes, like Hogan v Andre at III, it is billed that way even if it is not the truth, while in some cases, like Cena v Rock at 28, that is part of the sell that the match is historic in nature (once in a lifetime, well, until next year’s WrestleMania). Sometimes, like Cena v Rock or Hogan v Warrior at 6, the circumstance occurs because both wrestlers are faces.
Fifth, a great WrestleMania storyline is one that peeks at exactly the right time. Before the match, the face has not achieved his revenge and the heel has not fully vanquished. The outcome of the forthcoming match is an unknown; all that is known is that the audience wants to see it.
Thus, a great storyline including almost all of these elements: over performers meeting for the first time at the right time with personal issues competing for high stakes. That’s everything the WrestleMania 32 storyline is not; everything these 15 represent.
15 15. Evolution / Rock 'n' Sock (WrestleMania XX)
14 14. Shawn Michaels / Ric Flair (WrestleMania XXIV)
13 13. Hulk Hogan / Roddy Piper (WrestleMania I)
12 12. Triple H / Randy Orton (WrestleMania XXV)
11 T10. Hulk Hogan / The Ultimate Warrior (WrestleMania VI)
10 T10. The Rock / John Cena (WrestleMania XXVIII)
9 9. Bret Hart / Steve Austin (WrestleMania 13)
8 8. The Undertaker / Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XXVI)
7 7. Daniel Bryan / Batista / Randy Orton (WrestleMania XXX)
6 6. Batista / Triple H (WrestleMania 21)
5 5. Andre the Giant / Hulk Hogan (WrestleMania III)
4 4. Steve Austin / Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XIV)
3 3. Vince McMahon / Donald Trump (WrestleMania 23)
2 2. Steve Austin / The Rock (WrestleMania XV)
1 1. Hulk Hogan / Randy Savage (WrestleMania V)
This kind of storyline is impossible today as McMahon showed patience to build it through an entire year. From one off look by Savage at Hogan at WrestleMania IV to a more obvious glare at Summer Slam 1988 through the Savage turn on the prime-time Main Event special, this match drew money. While Savage and Hogan had met before – the matches were even shown on MSG cable and included on those early Coliseum video releases – Savage's turn on Hogan obliterated that history. The intensity of Savage’s performance accusing Hogan of having “lust in his eyes for Elizabeth” and beating him down made the match “must see.” Throw in the “who is Liz loyal to” sub-plot and have the WWE title at stake, and this was the greatest WrestleMania storyline ever. Sadly, while the match itself was great, the finish with the typical Hogan leg drop finish cooled the heat way too fast for a storyline.
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