It was a homecoming for the WWE and WrestleMania, returning to the promotion's New York stomping grounds for the first time since WrestleMania XX back in 2004.
Madison Square Garden has long been the WWE's home when it comes to the New York metropolitan area. It has been since the arena was opened back in 1968 and newly minted Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino regularly competed in front of a packed house.
This year, however, the WWE upped the ante, moving WrestleMania to the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., risking bad weather in an open-air facility in order to attract 80,000-plus fans for the yearly wrestling spectacular.
After an early threat of rain, the weather held out and the risk paid off for the WWE and for fans parting with $69.99 on pay-per-view. It was another good showing for the WWE, a promotion in the middle of an artistic resurgence with three solid shows in succession to start the new year.
John Cena pinned The Rock in the main event, avenging last year's WrestleMania defeat. But the two titans couldn't hope to match the action from earlier in the evening—particularly a classic bout between The Undertaker and CM Punk. Who were the winners and losers on the evening, both in the ring and in fans' hearts? Click on to find out.
What: The Rock vs. John Cena
Result: John Cena pinned the Rock after the Attitude Adjustment to win the WWE title.
Quotable: "These two guys are throwing everything they can at each other. I love it"—JBL. Glad somebody loved it.
This match was a failure, both of execution and design. The Rock and John Cena played "let's trade finishing moves" for almost 15 solid minutes. When they weren't trying to hit their own big moves, they were mimicking the other guy's big spots. It was predictable and a little bit boring.
Done right, a similar match layout can work wonderfully. In the '90s, Japanese wrestlers worked matches based around deadly finishers with great success. So did the Attitude Era superstars, including the Rock.
But this? This was overkill—too much of a good thing, style completely devoid of substance. Cena got his moment, the big win over the Rock that was supposed to make us see him as an equal to men like newly minted Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino. Instead, it just highlighted that his gimmick is completely dead.
It's time for a change. John Cena—bad guy? If that's not where the WWE is headed, and soon, this is going to be a very long year for hardcore wrestling fans.
What: HHH vs. Brock Lesnar
Result: Triple H pinned Lesnar after a Pedigree on the steel ring steps.
Quotable: "Triple H will not stay down, I will guarantee that. But he might should"—JBL, as Lesnar dominated.
To paraphrase George Berkeley, if Brock Lesnar and Triple H have a great match, and no one in the arena reacts to any of it, did it ever happen at all?
I loved this match, even if the crowd of 80,676 was too exhausted from the Undertaker-CM Punk classic that preceded it to share in my joy. The crowd needed a break—a popcorn match to let them unwind before another main-event-level contest. Instead, Lesnar and Triple H came right out and the crowd was too tired to care.
That's a real shame, because this was ridiculously hard-hitting and brutal bout. Bad for both competitors' long-term health? Almost certainly. Hey, it's not my body, right?
Brock Lesnar channeled Chris Benoit, Perry Saturn and shoot-style great Gary Albright, suplexing Triple H all over the arena. Despite marrying into extreme wealth, Triple H is still willing to put it all on the line, sacrificing his body for his art.
Both men paid homage to the great Masahiko Kimura, arguably the greatest judoka of all time, by using the shoulder lock the jiu-jitsu world has named in his honor. At one point Lesnar even locked in the Kimura while sitting on the top rope. I'm not sure why that was supposed to make it hurt more, but that didn't matter.
Not to be one-upped, Triple H locked in several Kimuras of his own. Lesnar made hilarious facial expressions and nearly tapped about 100 times. But it was a more familiar move that felled Triple H's dastardly foe—a Pedigree on the ring steps.
This was a fantastic match. I expect significant disagreement from some of you, because it was far from perfect. At one point, Lesnar even badly botched a Pedigree. You can nitpick any art, and this wasn't a match designed to wow with technical brilliance. This was about raw force—and both men gave all they had to give.
What: CM Punk vs. The Undertaker
Result: Undertaker pins Punk after a Tombstone.
Quotable: "Can you imagine the Undertaker tapping out to CM Punk?"—JBL. Well, I was imagining it. Now I'm not. Thanks for ruining my suspension of disbelief.
"A resurrection at WrestleMania"—Michael Cole, who was at his best in this match.
CM Punk is the best performer in professional wrestling today. Better than that, he's the best in this business since the Rock in his heyday—a combination of wrestling prowess and impeccable instincts for the dramatic.
Despite a physique that would get him laughed out of any Gold's Gym in America, despite a prickly personality, despite a pedigree that includes his fair share of backyard wrestling, Punk has made it to the top of the game.
That, folks, is a credit to pure talent.
For four consecutive years, the Undertaker has wowed the wrestling world. His opponents, Shawn Michaels and Triple H, are first-ballot Hall of Famers. The matches were all unique and legitimate masterpieces, and each among the best matches in WrestleMania history.
For CM Punk, those were huge shoes to fill. It was a task he could have easily failed. Somehow, despite the odds, despite an aging Undertaker, despite his own fatigue, his own aches and pains, Punk lived up to every expectation.
The match was a bona-fide classic. Despite myself, I began to believe that he could actually do it—actually become the man to beat the Streak. That he his shoulders stayed on the mat for three seconds is immaterial—CM Punk was the real winner of WrestleMania 29.
He calls himself the best in the world. Against the Undertaker, he proved that was more than a gimmick. That is a shoot.
What: Jack Swagger vs. Alberto Del Rio
Result: Alberto Del Rio made Swagger tap to the cross armbreaker.
Quotable: "Either you're too afraid to say something or you're too gutless to do anything about it. But real Americans aren't"—Zeb Colter on the "others" who are taking over his America.
Jack Swagger's America died on Feb. 19, 2013.
Before you rush to Wikipedia, that's not the date of any important legislation in Congress. President Obama made no speeches about immigration on that day and no pressure groups twisted the WWE to drop this compelling angle.
But something significant did go down—Jack Swagger was arrested for driving under the influence and possession of marijuana after a WWE event in Biloxi, Miss.
I don't know what plans the WWE had for Swagger before that fateful night. But afterwards? Swagger's America was dead on arrival. No matter how good Colter's promos, no matter how inspired Swagger's wrestling, he was doomed for failure.
Swagger and Colter have spent weeks preaching politics, but they taught the rest of the locker room a lesson that had nothing to do with the immigration debate. If you've had a few, call a cab. Substance abuse and driving is a ticket straight to the undercard—or worse.
What: Chris Jericho vs. Fandango
Result: Fandango pins Chris Jericho with a small package after Jericho hurts his knee.
Quotable: "This is like Buster Douglas facing Mike Tyson if Buster Douglas had never had a boxing match"—JBL on Fandango debuting against a former champion like Jericho.
What a match!
Technically, this was Fandango's debut, though his alter ego Johnny Curtis has been wrestling for years. But make no mistake—this was still a pressure cooker and a live-or-die moment for the rising WWE star. The world, as they say, was watching. And what they saw was a talent ready for prime time.
I hope Fandango bought Jericho a beer or 12 after the match. It would have been easy for Jericho to sleepwalk his way through this feud, pretending to put Fandango over while doing all he could to make sure no one bought into the new superstar.
Plenty of veterans would have done just that; Jericho was himself "put over" by Scott Hall in a way that didn't help him much at all back in his WCW days. But Jericho was all in on Fandango and did his best to make the match work. And work it did. Until CM Punk and the Undertaker stole the show, this was the best match of the night.
I'm still skeptical that the Dancing with the Stars gimmick is going to work. If he's smart, Fandango will immediately look for ways to transcend that dead end. One way to do that is with great wrestling matches. And he's off to a good start.
What: Team Hell No vs. Dolph Ziggler and Big E Langston
Result: Dolph Ziggler is pinned after a Kane chokeslam and Daniel Bryan flying headbutt.
Quotable: "She's been on more manhunts than the FBI"—Jerry Lawler on Ziggler's girlfriend AJ Lee. The oldies are still the goodies sometimes.
Has there ever been a Money in the Bank winner who's gotten a shorter shrift than Dolph Ziggler?Even if he cashes in and wins a WWE title, he's been doing jobs for months. There's no way he can possibly overcome that and have a chance at making it.
Here's how bad it is: Ziggler did the job in this throwaway tag match at WrestleMania so the WWE could protect his bodyguard Big E Langston. That's the definition of giving up. Later in the evening, heads turned after Del Rio defended against Swagger. Fans were expecting Ziggler to cash in. He never walked that aisle, prompting boos.
It's likely the last time anyone will care. The WWE doesn't believe in Ziggler. Why should fans?
What: Ryback vs. Mark Henry
Result: Mark Henry pinned Ryback after reversing the Shell Shock with a splash.
Quotable: "There's no way. Absolutely no way"—JBL on Ryback's chances of lifting Henry for the Shell Shock. You can guess what happened next.
Poor Ryback, his star has dimmed remarkably since he burst onto the scene as a main eventer last year. At this point, his catchphrase, "Feed me more," is really over. Much more over, frankly, than he is.
Fans like chanting it. Watching him wrestle? They could take it or leave it.
This match was built as an epic clash of two titans—men who both "shattered" the NFL combine bench press record. Assuming you want to suspend your disbelief and take that as given, it's a pretty impressive feat.
Too bad the actual match wasn't nearly as interesting as the build. That's the problem with Ryback. You can shine a turd all day and give him a memorable and chantable catchphrase. But, at the end of the day, he's still a giant turd. I'm not judging Ryback quite yet, but I do smell an unpleasant whiff of something foul in the air.
The finish, mercifully, came out of nowhere. Ryback managed to lift the gargantuan Henry on his shoulders for the Shell Shock, but Henry managed to reverse things and flatten him for a quick pinfall. Ryback got his heat back after the match, which means, unfortunately, we'll likely have to watch this again.
I guess that makes the fans the real losers?
What: The Shield vs. Sheamus/Randy Orton/Big Show
Result: Dean Ambrose pins Randy Orton after Roman Reigns hit him with a spear.
Quotable: "Three big egos are not going to work together"—JBL, on Team WWE.
The action was fast and furious in this six-man tag match. Yet another pay-per-view success for the Shield. There has never been a three-man team this exciting in recent WWE history. The only team that compares in my lifetime are the immortal Fabulous Freebirds.
It wasn't all Shield, though. Across the ring were three serious players—former champions who were capable of competing with anyone in the world. And they showed it. Things were going well for Team WWE for a time, highlighted by Big Show stripping the Kevlar vest off of Dean Ambrose and hitting him with some jaw-droppingly hard chops.
But things fell apart when Randy Orton took a hot tag that the Big Show thought should have gone to him instead. Orton cleaned house as Big Show steamed.
Orton caught Seth Rollins coming off the top rope with an incredible RKO, but numbers got the better of him and Orton was blindsided. Roman Reigns flattened him with a spear. Big Show could have come to his rescue, but instead stood motionless as Ambrose got the win.
After the bout, Big Show sprang across the ring and knocked out Sheamus with a big punch, then gave Orton a smack for good measure. The Shield claimed they would win because of their coherence and chemistry. It turns out they were right.
What: Wade Barrett vs. The Miz
Result: The Miz wins the Intercontinental title with the Figure Four Leglock.
Quotable: "I've never seen the Figure Four applied that way"—Matt Striker on Miz's unique counter.
Credit to the Miz. I made quite a bit of fun of him for his complete and utter failure to master the Figure Four earlier this year. But at WrestleMania, on the grandest stage of them all, Miz got it right.
Imagine, if you will, inheriting the single most iconic finishing hold in the last 30 years—a hold millions of kids in the South could all apply with their eyes closed. Now imagine the world's best wrestler giving you the nod, passing the hold on to you...and then you botching it multiple times on national television.
If it was anyone but the Miz, I would have felt horrible for the guy. But it was Miz, so I just laughed and pointed.
I'm a big believer, however, in giving credit where due. And Miz came up with a really cool setup for the Figure Four—about the only thing anyone will remember about a tepid WrestleMania opener.
There are some songs you can never tire of no matter how many times you hear it. I won't attempt to single out a song—after all, our individual tastes differ so dramatically that no song in the world will fit the bill for everyone.
While we can't come together to agree on the perfect song, I think we can all agree that it's not the 2010 P Diddy hit "Coming Home."
It's not the worst song in the history of the world. In fact, objectively, there's nothing wrong with it at all. It's the kind of saccharine sweet pop rap song that could have just as easily been a hit for Will Smith or Nelly. It's your father's rap—the perfect song for a crossover re-purposing.
But roughly 700 times in a single night? My eardrums, and my tenuous grasp on sanity, will never be the same.