Slow Burn: The build to Reigns vs Lesnar at Wrestlemania 34

With an estimated seven hour running time, Wrestlemania 34, live from New Orleans, looks to be the biggest, longest version of the sports-entertainment spectacle WWE has ever mounted. Within those seven hours are any number of matches worthy of a really good look:

Asuka vs Charlotte.
Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs Stephanie McMahon and her husband, Triple H.
The return of Daniel Bryan.

Yes, this card is stacked. And within that stacked card are all the stories that have brought us here this year. The angles, the swerves, the “Shakespeare” of pro-wrestling. For the year-round fan, it’s these stories that keep us tuning in and following along. It’s the stories that we follow and critique, that perplex and entertain, that give a reason for the contest that we see played out on the grandest stage of them all.

Of all the stories this year, there is none quite as unique and long in the making as the WWE Universal Championship match between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar. This one has been a long time coming and is, for better or worse, an example of the WWE booking a long term story line and seeing it through to its expected end – the crowning of Roman Reigns as WWE Universal Champion.

The journey to this match begins with Wrestlemania 30, which also took place in New Orleans, and the conquering of The Undertaker’s legendary 21-0 undefeated streak by Brock Lesnar. It’s a night most fans will never forget. It was a huge move by WWE to end the streak and it placed incredible stock in Lesnar as a WWE performer. He was the guy that ended the longest running streak in sports entertainment.  You can debate wether it was the right move or not, but it happened and it happened for a reason -to make Brock a dragon for someone to slay.

That same year, Roman Reigns, the perceived break out star of the three-man outfit The Shield (along with Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins), worked a six-man tag against the new age outlaws and “corporate” Kane. The match wasn’t a big deal, but it was the beginning of the end for The Shield and the start of Roman’s push toward being the face of the WWE.

The following year, at Wrestlemania 31, Brock entered the night as WWE champion. His opponent: Royal Rumble winner, Roman Reigns. Far from the babyface hero you might expect in this match, Reigns carried with him the stench of not being Daniel Bryan in that year’s Royal Rumble match. The fans didn’t want Roman, not like this. They felt like he was the guy chosen by the company and not by them. They resented his success, his attitude, his looks, his appeal with kids. He pushed many of the buttons John Cena had been pushing in them for the past several years. Just the same, Brock and Roman had a very physical contest, with both guys working hard. The match ended with one of the great Money in the Bank cash-ins, when briefcase holder and former Reigns partner Seth Rollins made the run-in and got the win to close the show.

The next year saw the title bounce around a bit, with Roman always in the mix. He went on to win the belt from Triple H in the main event of Wrestlemania 32, a match where the audible sounds of thunderous boos were muted from TV by the WWE to protect Reigns as their guy. Lesnar appeared earlier on the card and battled Dean Ambrose in a street fight. It wasn’t a banner year for either guy, but they both won their matches.

The road to this year’s Wrestlemania really picked up steam with the build to Wrestlemania 33. That year saw the return of Goldberg and his shocking Survivor Series victory over Brock Lesnar that led to them competing for the Universal title at Mania (which Goldberg has won a month earlier from Kevin Owens).  Lesnar decisively won his third encounter with his rival, when he kicked out of the Goldberg’s patented spear and jack-hammer and nailed him with the F-5 for the win.

That same year saw Roman Reigns take on the man Brock had defeated back at Wrestlemania 30, The Undertaker. In an emotional, physical match, Reigns beat the Deadman, leading many to believe that he had retired him. This win led to one of the most remarkable moments ever the next night on RAW, where Reigns endured a seven minute long booing by fans who felt even more like Reigns had been favoured by the company. Reigns said only one thing in response: “This is my yard now.”

Over the year since that moment, Lesnar has held onto the Universal championship while facing opponents such as Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman and Kane. He even picked up a win over AJ Styles in a champion versus champion match. Yes, he worked a part time schedule and never once wrestled a match on RAW, but he looked strong and so did his finishing move: the F-5. In an era where guys kick out of finishes all the time, nobody has gotten up from the F-5 this year. Even the monster among men, Braun Strowman, was felled by a single F-5, proving it to be the most devastating finish in the business.

Roman, on the other hand, has worked a full time schedule, won the Intercontinental title, had a short lived Shield reunion and won the Elimination Chamber match, all the while staying just outside of the Universal title hunt.

Until now.

Now, Reigns is the hard working full time guy that wants to bring the title back to the show. He’s the guy that fights every night, that takes pictures, that shrugs off boos. He’s the guy that all the kids dress like, he’s the guy that ended The Undertakers career (or did he..?), not just the streak. He’s a knight in need of a dragon to slay.

From what we’ve seen from their interactions on RAW, Roman can’t put Brock away with the Superman punch, but one F-5 and Roman is down for the count. You don’t have to be a great booker to see the set up here: the match is tough, both guys are giving and taking, Reigns hits the punch! Once, twice, three times! But Brock kicks out. Reigns goes for the spear, Lesnar counters and gets Reigns up for the F-5! He plants him with it! Nobody has gotten up from this move in over a year, a lifetime in WWE years, but, at the last possible second… Roman kicks out at 2!

Will the place come unglued with cheers? With boos? Will they sit on their hands, exhausted from a long show and a predictable outcome? It’s a meta moment, within a moment, where the reality and fiction of wrestling crash into each other.  It’s the moment that both these guys have been headed toward for the past four years.

For those of us that love wrestling, that love to talk about it, to fantasy book it, Wrestlmania is our Stanley Cup, our World Series and also our Oscars. Its the night where WWE superstars compete with each other, themselves and with history to create their Wrestlemania moment. We can dissect it, analyze it, predict it, but at the end of the night, we are all just guests at WWE chairman Vince McMahon’s table, and he is going to serve us the dish he thinks we will want to eat.

In the case of Lesnar vs Reigns however, the question is, are we going to bite?

I can’t say for sure that I know what is going to happen this Sunday at Wrestlemania. The smart money is on Reigns capturing the title, ending this story and starting a new one. Is it predicatable? Sure. Is it what the fans want? Maybe. But is it the right end to the story that began with Brock Lesnar ending the Undertaker’s streak at Wrestlemania 30? If I were writing it, I’d have to say yes.

See you in Gorilla, guys. Happy Mania.

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