Around the Loop: The Road to TakeOver and WrestleMania

With Fastlane, the final pit stop on the road to WrestleMania, in the rearview mirror, the WWE is putting the pedal to the metal for the major angles and matches that will be featured at this year’s celebration of all things spandex and suplex.

For an NXT mark like me, the Mania weekend is as much about the Friday night TakeOver event as it is the Sunday night mega-show that is WrestleMania… possibly even more so. Sadly, though I still expect an outstanding card from the black and yellow brand, the main event that has been building between Tomasso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano is looking unlikely, with Ciampa undergoing a serious neck surgery that will sideline him for several months to come. That leaves the NXT title up in the air (unless you read the spoilers, which I don’t). Nonetheless, I am sure that HBK, HHH, and NXT creative members that don’t have a three-letter name starting in “H” will craft an exciting story leading to a great match.

Still, it’s got to be really tough for Ciampa. He was coming off a career year on top of NXT and looking to end the night with a big win (if I booked it) against his most heated rival/best friend, Johnny Gargano. The time and care that has gone into this story, including the recent #DIY reunion in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, has been longform wrestling storytelling at its absolute best. It really stinks that we won’t get to see the payoff for this epic, but I am really grateful for a WWE climate where Ciampa is getting fixed up and taking the time he needs to recover, rather than powering through, as he might have in days gone by.

The rest of the TakeOver card is looking to be excellent, with War Raiders facing the winner of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. A women’s title match featuring the scariest person on the roster, Shayna Baszler, is on the card. Velveteen Dream will defend the North American title, with Matt Riddle looking to be the challenger. Look for at least one or two other feature matches.

Over on the main roster, we are seeing a lot of matches take shape. The top of the card features Brock Lesnar vs Seth Rollins, Batista vs HHH, Becky “The Man” Lynch vs Ronda Rousey vs Charlotte Flair, and the rise of Kofimania (fingers crossed) as Kofi Kingston battles Daniel Bryan.

We can also expect AJ Styles vs RandyOrton, The Miz vs Shane McMahon, and some sort of multi-man match for the US or IC (or both) titles. Both sets of tag belts will be defended, as will the women’s tag titles. There will also be Kurt Angle’s retirement match, Roman Reigns vs Drew McIntyre, and Asuka will defend her SmackDown women’s championship against…. someone.

There will also be two battle royals, Elias doing a comedy thing with a possible interruption by The Undertaker, Braun Strowman breaking stuff and chasing around SNL‘s Colin Jost and Michael Che, Alexa Bliss smirking her way through hosting and, at that point, I hope nothing else.

The takeaway from that last bit is that anyone hoping we weren’t getting a seven-hour Mania this year is going to be in for a disappointment. I think if it’s only seven hours, we will be getting off easy.

The length of the show aside, it is an interesting lineup that highlights the incredible depth and diversity of the WWE main roster. It also lacks any huge, long form, must-see matches.

I know, I know… what about “The Man?” Unpopular opinion: I’m not excited about this match.

Ronda, Charlotte, and Becky are all great. They have put in work that makes them deserving of all the fuss around their match, but I’m just not that into it. The “Man” thing has been done to death, in my opinion. What started as a clever thumb in the eye of Charlotte, being the daughter of Ric “To be the man… you have to beat the man” Flair, has become one of those things that Michael Cole shouts when he is making sure we know what hashtag to use while talking about the show. It’s planted sign and merchandising for a phrase Becky drops way too often. Becky is great, but so is pizza until you tuck into that third slice of your second stuffed crust. Then, it’s a problem.

If I can gripe about this match a bit more, having Ronda “shoot” on how wrestling is fake carny stuff is really not something I like hearing from someone about to main event the biggest wrestling show of the year. I see where they are going with it, but can you just let me believe, please?

I felt the same way when Hunter, who should know way better, made jokes about Batista “playing” a wrestling villain and how their match at Mania would not be “in character.”

Look, I get it. We are all smartened up. But you don’t catch Thanos breaking character on screen during Avengers to call Iron Man “Robert” and talk about his acting. We have made an agreement with WWE and wrestling in general as a concept. We will believe it as long as it is believable. Anytime you airlift me out of that world and remind me that I’m watching characters performing a show, you’ve given me a reason to play some more Red Dead Redemption. The cowboys in there never stop to point out that they are video game characters, after all.

It says interesting things about the nature of the business when two top storylines going into WrestleMania involve talents promising that this match, this fight, is going to be real. Kinda shits on the other matches doesn’t it? Couldn’t these fights be framed as being more intense, more personal, more brutal than others without drawing attention to what we all know about sports entertainment?

Those complaints aside, I think that WWE is entering a transitional phase where they are preparing for the move to Fox Sports. They’re moving on from having The Undertaker as a Mania attraction, establishing new top talents, and exploring in-house cross-brand stories and matchups. The company is also keeping tabs on AEW while preparing for Vince McMahon to take a more active role in the XFL. That will leave Hunter and Stephanie McMahon with more control over the main roster product.

WrestleMania is the end of a year in WWE continuity. The past year had two Saudi Arabia shows, Roman’s cancer battle, Women’s Evolution, a DX reunion, and much more Baron Corbin than I ever want to see on TV again. There have been some creative lows this year. But the WWE is a neverending, ever-growing world of entertainment, so that is to be expected.  There has also been some great stuff, some surprises and all the things in between that make pro wrasslin’ what it is.

Whether its TakeOver, WrestleMania, or both, the next “season” of WWE is right around the corner and that is exciting in and of itself.

Til next time, see you around the loop.

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