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 Evolution / Rock 'n' Sock (WrestleMania XX)
The popular rRock 'n' Sock Connection team reformed for WrestleMania XX after very different paths away from the ring. Mick Foley left the WWE in 2000 after his retirement match (not counting his stip rip off WrestleMania 2000 match) to much fanfare. The Rock, however, slipped away without sendoff following his loss to Goldberg in April 2003. In June 2003, Foley was attacked by Randy Orton. The feud between the two, never in the ring, saw Orton aided by Evolution (Flair and Batista normally) come out on top. So, when WrestleMania rolled around in spring 2004, fans were ready for Foley to return to the ring to get his revenge. But alone? No, enter The Rock to no one’s surprise and everyone’s delight. The two on three handicap match kept the Foley and Orton storyline alive for another month, leading to a money match in Backlash.
14 Shawn Michaels / Ric Flair (WrestleMania XXIV)
While Flair and Michaels didn’t make the poster for the event, their storyline – actually Flair’s retirement storyline – was one of the pushed matches. Even with the awkward “Old Yeller” interview cut by Michaels, the storyline worked even thought everybody knew the outcome of the match. This one wasn’t about the finish, but the finish (oh, if only it had been) of a great career. After months of a Flair loss meaning he lost his job building the story, interjecting well-known Flair fan/friend Shawn Michaels into the mix made fans eager to see the match, in particular those who value work-rate. It pitted Flair the greatest of his generation in the ring, against Michaels, the greatest of his. They’d been in the ring before, but this was special. A high stakes stipulation. A personal issue. The best vs the best. No titles, all respect.
13 Hulk Hogan / Roddy Piper (WrestleMania I)
In 1996, when Piper made his surprise entrance into WCW, he called out Hogan saying, “they only loved you because they hated me.” As always, the rowdy one told the truth. Yes, the angle involved Cindy Lauper, Mr. T. and Lou Albano. Yes, it was a tag match and not for the title. Yes, Hogan had fought Piper on MTV’s “War to Settle the Score” a month earlier in a terrible match ending with Mr. T. entering the ring and Piper kicking Lauper in the head. However, even with all the distractions, the storyline asked one simple question: could the hero Hogan shut up the loud mouth heel in Piper? A basic formula for building heat that seems lost in the haze of history, even though it was the dynamic which created the success of WrestleMania and launched the McMahon empire.
12 Triple H / Randy Orton (WrestleMania XXV)
Despite having feuded before, the dynamic between Orton and Triple H intensified heading into WrestleMania XXV. While it was more McMahon family soap opera, the rules had changed with Orton playing the role not of legend killer, but family destroyer. One by one he took out the McMahon family, including Vince getting punted in the head and carted out on a stretcher. The skits with the men attacking each other in their homes ramped up the heat leading to the high point. On the go home Raw show, Orton attacked Triple H, handcuffed him to the ropes and made him watch helplessly as The Viper kissed his wife Stephanie. The war between the men built on a personal issue involving “civilians” along with the backstory of HHH holding Orton back in Evolution, as well as Orton’s quest to take Hunter’s title, made this a one of more deeply layered WrestleMania storylines
11 T10. Hulk Hogan / The Ultimate Warrior (WrestleMania VI)
Some WrestleMania storylines take many twists and turns, while some are direct. This was a simple as could be, although hardly original, dating back to Bruno vs Pedro decades before. Two baby faces with different fan followings met in the ring for their first confrontation. A tag match against a heel team leads to misunderstanding and a heated chest against chest disagreement. Add title (IC) against title (WWE) on top of Little Warriors against Hulkamanics to create an easy to follow story heading into WrestleMania VI. With Warrior’s odd interview skills and Hogan’s aging shtick, McMahon’s connect the dots storyline (“The Ultimate Challenge”) was strong enough to fill up the Skydome.
10 T10. The Rock / John Cena (WrestleMania XXVIII)
This match was a year in the making, literally as The Rock challenged Cena to the main event at WrestleMania XXVIII the day after WrestleMania XXVII. There would be a few physical confrontations but the war between the two was mostly fought on the mic; a place both men were quite comfortable. While their teaming at Survivor Series might have cut interest in the match – spoiling The Rock’s return to the ring after years – their few back and forth segments returned interest to the “once in a lifetime” battle of “icon against “icon.” Even though it was business, it appeared to showcase some backstage truth about Cena’s less than warm fuzzy feelings about The People’s Champion, which furthered the storyline. With no title at stake, the match became a personal issue playing the generation against generation, fan favorite against fan favorite card which had worked for McMahon in the past.
9 Bret Hart / Steve Austin (WrestleMania 13)
Despite appearing in several WrestleMania main events and featured matches, Hart had never had a compelling storyline until WrestleMania 13 squaring off against Steve Austin. The match wasn’t new, as they’d been feuding since Austin started calling out the then inactive Hart in the summer of 1996. They’d been in the ring against other since the fall with Hart almost always winning, yet the fans started to turn against him and root for Mr 3:16. Transforming Bret slowly from beloved baby face to whining heel during the spring of 1997 was masterful. If the story didn’t have enough drama, the submission match stipulation and special ref Ken Shamrock ensured the battle between the two men would be more brutal than the average WWE match because the feud was personal.
8 The Undertaker / Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XXVI)
In many ways, this was a successful storyline which broke almost all the rules. Not only had Undertaker and Michael tangled before –they’d had a run of three pay per view matches in 1997 / 98 – but this was a rematch from the previous year’s WrestleMania. There wasn’t a clear heel vs. face dynamic, nor was there a title at stake, instead the stakes were even higher. The streak vs the career was even better than champion vs challenger. With the build-up of The Undertaker refusing the match, Michaels obsessing over it and causing Taker to lose his title, the stage was set for them to tangle in the main event. It would be the first time since WrestleMania XI that the main event wouldn’t be for a title. A true “mark out” storyline because everybody knew Michaels would lose, yet it was still a must see match building on the match quality from the year before.
7 Daniel Bryan / Batista / Randy Orton (WrestleMania XXX)
While McMahon used to plan his WrestleMania main events months in advance, things sure have changed in recent years. Sometimes sticking with a storyline, even if it is not working shows patience, other times it demonstrates arrogance and stubbornness. The rise of Daniel Bryan into the main event at WrestleMania XXX showed McMahon seemingly bending to the will of the fans. Bryan’s undersized underdog role wasn’t new, but few played it better due to his great in ring work and greater catchphrase. Even though the main event also involved a returning superstar in Batista and an established star in Randy Orton, the match was about whether the little guy could win the big prize. This was a variation of the “boyhood dream” used at WrestleMania XII but with greater success, at least for one night. What is most amazing about this storyline is not only that it was a triple threat -- which deluted the heat -- but that one of the participants in the main event wasn't (Batista) wasn't over in 2014, unlike he was in ...
6 Batista / Triple H (WrestleMania 21)
The purpose of factions in wrestling is simple: to create new stars. Sometimes it works, most often it doesn't, but the Evolution faction gave us two huge ones in Randy Orton and Batista. Orton left the faction too quickly and it took time for him to return to the main event picture. But with Batista winning the Royal Rumble and having the choice of champions to face in the brand split era, every fan wanted Big Dave to finally turn face. The angle where he gave HHH the thumbs down (playing off Orton’s beat-down exit for the group) made the match. Other angles, interviews, and intrigued followed, but they were redundant. Most great main events ask a simple storytelling question used forever – because it works –and 21 was no different: would the upstart defeat the establishment?
5 Andre the Giant / Hulk Hogan (WrestleMania III)
Unlike modern storylines which involve the wrestlers beating each other down before the WrestleMania match, the Hogan v Andre storyline was built mostly on non-ring action. When Andre emerged with hated heel manager Bobby Heenan at Piper’s Pit, the fire was lit. It stayed hot through the “contract signing” where Heenan demanded the champion's belt be remade to fit a giant. The false fact that the two had never met before – though most WWE fans hadn’t seen the earlier matches – added intrigue. The stakes were high with the WWE title at risk, but something else was at work, the passing of the torch from Andre’s generation to the Hogan era. Yet, perhaps the biggest draw centered on the untrue claim that Andre had never lost a match. Could Hogan not only slam him, another subplot, but beat the unbeatable giant was the question that made the WWE on pay-per-view.
4 Steve Austin / Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XIV)
With his back against the wall in the Monday Night War and WrestleMania 13 drawing a terrible buy rate, McMahon needed a miracle for his 14th edition. In Austin, he had his star of the future, so he reached into his past to put a celebrity tough guy at the center of his storyline. Unlike with Mr. T. however, the role of Tyson wasn’t clearly defined, which created a storyline filled with question marks. While Austin’s in-ring foe Shawn Michaels backed by DX drew some interest, it was Tyson’s involvement that made the story click. The heat during the Tyson v Austin stare down turned brawl during Raw was incredible and led to the mainstream coverage which McMahon needed to get more eyes on his product. Tyson’s ring side enforcer role seemed to disappoint until the storyline twist placed Tyson (seemingly) as part of DX. The Texas born babyface Austin thus went into WrestleMania with all the odds against him, a classic Western storyline which propelled the Attitude / Austin era.
3 Vince McMahon / Donald Trump (WrestleMania 23)
The match that drew the sell out crowd was the blow-off for a long building feud and was the real main event for WrestleMania 23, even if it didn’t go on last. The “Battle of the Billionaires” storyline pitting Donald Trump against Mr. McMahon was good to begin with, but both men’s hair being at stake made it great. McMahon was smart enough not to put himself or Trump in the ring, instead each man using surrogates (Bobby Lashley and Umaga). While there were angles between the two wrestlers, the story wasn’t about them or the ECW title, but which billionaire would be shaved bald. Adding Steve Austin as special ref seemed to stack the odds against McMahon, but a McMahon led beat-down of Lashley made Trump’s wrestler appear vulnerable. The match helped sell out Ford Field, bumped the buy rate from the previous year’s event, and prepared Trump for his 2016 WWE inspired run for President, channeling in his not so inner heel.
2 Steve Austin / The Rock (WrestleMania XV)
While the first of the three main events between The Rock and Steve Austin wouldn’t be their finest in ring match, the storyline leading into was one of the best ever. Unlike their later meetings, the heel vs. face dynamic at XV was clear. The Rock, in representing Mr. McMahon, and fresh off a run of matches against Mankind which turned the crowd against him, was never hotter as a heel. Stone Cold, almost a year into his feud with McMahon, was at his baby-face apex. Great interviews by both men, along with McMahon adding fuel to the fire, coupled with even better angles – the classic “beer truck” skit – added heat. At stake was the WWE title with The Rock holding the belt that Austin had never really lost, but instead was screwed out of by McMahon. While the tagline for the event, “The Ragin' Climax,” demonstrated full on Attitude Era sexual innuendo, it also represented the truth: a perfect storyline peeking at the right time and promising the audience a cathartic release.
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.