WWE needed to hit a homerun this weekend after a year that saw an astonishing 80 wrestlers leave the company due to “budget cuts” and rival promoter AEW grabbing headlines with high-profile signings of former WWE superstars CM Punk and Bryan Danielson. For the first time in many years, fans of the squared circle had options to get their fix of body slams and powerbombs. However, this weekend was a reminder that when it comes to putting on a big show — a stupendous show, no less — very few can match the pomp and showmanship of the WWE. North Texas crowds saw pyro, fireworks, fireballs and surprises galore. The WWE needed to bring it, and the company delivered with one of the most memorable wrestling weekends of the past decade.
It’s easy to get romantic about professional wrestling. Its mythology and legacy stretch even further back than the WWE. There is a great nostalgia to the sport and its fandom can stretch generations. It’s not uncommon to see a full family at a wrestling show, and we saw plenty this weekend. While the kids are cheering for Cody Rhodes’ return to the ring, the parents remember seeing Cody’s father, Dusty Rhodes, lace up his boots.
WWE makes a point to honor its past every WrestleMania weekend with their Hall of Fame ceremony. The headline inductee this year was Mark “The Undertaker” Calaway, who got his wrestling start in Texas. WWE chairman Vince McMahon is usually behind the scenes during these ceremonies and is said to have a strict rule that no inductee or presenter can mention his name during their speech. So it was a rare and special treat that McMahon himself was the man to induct The Undertaker to join other wrestling titans in the hall of fame. In his speech, McMahon said that “even including all holidays, the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony is my favorite night of the year.”
After a five-minute standing ovation that was well deserved for a man who wrestled at the highest level for 30 years, The Undertaker took the stage with a wireless headset microphone and hair braided back in a long ponytail — a look that no wrestling fan was accustomed to seeing. His speech was part TED talk, part trip down wrestling Memory Lane.
He told humorous stories about his colleagues, such as how his former manager Paul Bearer would put cucumbers in his drink if it was left unattended. He spoke about the life lessons he took from his career, like that “perception is reality” and “respect and loyalty go a long way.”
It was a genuine look at the man behind the gimmick, one that was based on intimidation and fear, from a performer who is synonymous with WrestleMania thanks to his 21-match win streak at the event.
WrestleMania kicked off on Saturday night with a match card for the ages. The event switched over to a two-night format from just one in 2020 and will be staying as two nights for a good while. Night 1 may have produced two of the biggest in-ring returns in wrestling history. Cody Rhodes, son of wrestling legend and native Texas Dusty Rhodes, made a shocking return to a WWE ring for the first time in six years. Cody had a very public departure from WWE back in 2016, when he embarked on an odyssey through various wrestling promotions around the globe, until he helped launch All Elite Wrestling (known as AEW) in 2019.
Cody Rhodes was an executive vice president with AEW, and when the news broke earlier this year that his contract had not been renewed, wrestling fans were buzzing trying to anticipate what he would do next.
Adrenaline was running all around through AT&T Stadium Saturday night when Seth Rollins stood in the ring awaiting his mystery opponent. Cody Rhodes’ theme song hit as he rose from the smoke-filled crowd directly in front of the enormous 150-foot WrestleMania logo. The crowd roared in approval at the reveal, which was one of the loudest crowd reactions of the night. Cody Rhodes, the son of a son of a plumber, had returned back to where he got his start.
There were other highlights throughout Night 1 of WrestleMania, including social media celebrity Logan Paul winning his tag match with The Miz against The Mysterios. Charlotte Flair defeated Ronda Rousey, and, in what was the match of the night, Bianca Belair won the RAW Women’s Championship against Becky Lynch. That all paled in comparison to the impromptu main event of WrestleMania: Stone Cold Steve Austin returning to the ring after nearly 20 years to take on Kevin Owens in a no-holds barred match.
“I had my first match in Dallas, Texas, and I could have my last match in Dallas, Texas,” said the “Texas Rattlesnake,” Stone Cold Steve Austin when Owens laid out the challenge to a match.
The story of Austin’s start in Texas and rise to becoming one of the most recognizable names in professional wrestling is well documented. If there were any doubts about his ongoing popularity after 19 years away from in-ring action, they were squashed by the stadium-shaking reaction from the crowd when his music hit.
WrestleMania on Night 2 continued the momentum from the night before, which saw everything from a multi-team women’s tag match, Johnny Knoxville and his Jackass crew pinning a wrestler with a giant mousetrap, and an epic main event between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns.
But by the end of Night 2, wrestling fans were all abuzz about another surprise match between WWE CEO and Chairman Vince McMahon and sports podcaster Pat McAfee. At 76 years old, McMahon is by far the oldest competitor in WrestleMania history and the match did leave a lot to be desired. Thankfully, McMahon’s longtime rival Stone Cold Steve Austin made his second appearance of the weekend and delivered his patented Stone Cold Stunner to McMahon as if it were 1999.
WrestleMania can be seen as both an ending and a beginning to many wrestling storylines. But it’s also a chance for fans to reconnect with their favorite wrestlers, share memories with friends and family, and perhaps remember that in spite of its ridiculousness (and wrestling is ridiculous), wrestling is fun.