For fans of the WWE, the month of March is one of the most exciting times of the year. March is the month that builds toward WrestleMania, the company's biggest event of the year and one of the true spectacles in sports and/or entertainment on par with the Super Bowl or the Final Four. Rather than a one-day show in a standard arena like the TD Garden (as WrestleMania 14 was), WrestleMania has become a weeklong event featuring press conferences, celebrity appearances, jam-packed 70,000 seat stadiums, and great entertainment. All of that will be the case again this year as WrestleMania 28 rolls into Miami's Sun Life Stadium tomorrow night.
This won't be your ordinary WrestleMania, though, as neither of the top two matches on the card will be contested with any type of a championship on the line. The first was announced almost a year ago when the company's most sacred cow, West Newbury, Massachusetts-native John Cena, agreed to a match with one of the living legends of "sports entertainment," The Rock. The second features a battle of two more living legends when The Undertaker, he of the perfect 19-0 record at Wrestlemania, puts that streak on the line for the second consecutive year against longtime WWE frontman Triple H. The match will be contested inside the "Hell in a Cell" steel cage with fellow legend Shawn Michaels serving as the guest referee and has been billed as "The End of an Era" (insert your own jokes about the "Attitude Era" here), as it could well be the swan song for both competitors. Both matches sound great on paper and may well be the best two matches on the show, but they speak to a growing problem within the company: the lack of marketable talent on the roster.
To their credit, the WWE is working very hard to make John Cena that next truly marketable talent. The problem though, is that not enough fans are buying the act. Audible and, at times, overwhelming chants of "Cena sucks!" can be heard ringing throughout arenas from coast to coast, which is not exactly what you want if you're trying to make him your centerpiece going forward. Thus, in an attempt to boost the credibility of a man that they've invested so much time and money in, the WWE has pitted Cena against The Rock. The hope is that, by using the popularity of The Rock to bring in fans, they'll be able to retain them going forward and put them squarely in the corner of Cena and start to drown out the boos and the derogatory chants that follow him around the country.
The Hell in a Cell match between Triple H and the Undertaker is even more disturbing if you're watching from afar. Both men were/are among the biggest names to have ever entered a wrestling ring, but both have also been around the block far too many times. The Undertaker, who started with the WWE back in late 1990, was basically pulled off the operating table to compete in this match and rarely competes more than two or three times a year thanks to his advancing age (he turned 50 this past week). Similarly, Triple H is at the end of his illustrious career thanks to age and injuries (he turns 43 this summer) and has been far less active in recent years thanks to a long string of grisly injuries.
Between the Rock, Triple H, and the Undertaker, they still have fantastic drawing power and are people that fans will line up and pay to see, and as a result, they're all here to fill Sun Life Stadium. The problem? All of it absolutely reeks of desperation.
The WWE is a different place now than it was five or 10 years ago. Beginning in late 1997 and running until about 2005, wrestling began an incredible rise in popularity that saw it go from being a form of entertainment that you would never admit publicly to being a fan of to a mainstream phenomenon. Characters like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, and the Undertaker, coupled with adult themes and storylines, made it cool to be a wrestling fan. TV ratings were through the roof, revenue was off the page, and fan interest was at an all time high, even surpassing the mid-80's when Hulk Hogan told you to say your prayers and eat your vitamins. It was truly a golden age.
But in recent years, many of those stars that made it cool to be wrestling fans either retired due to age and injuries (Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels), expanded out into other areas of interest (The Rock) or greatly reduced their work schedules as age and injuries caught up to them (Triple H, the Undertaker). Unfortunately, there hasn't been anyone to really pick up the mantle left behind by these superstar performers. Coupled with a move back to more "PG"-style storylines, the ratings have dipped (significantly) and overall interest is back to levels not seen since Doink the Clown, Barry Horowitz and the Brooklyn Brawler were seen on Saturday morning TV. This lack of depth and interest is reflected in this year's WrestleMania card.
To see the promotional material for the show, you'd assume that the company's two most prestigious championships (the WWE Title and the World Heavyweight Championship) were not being defended during this show, as there has been hardly a mention of current champions CM Punk and Daniel Bryan (if you're a casual fan, you're forgiven for not knowing who they are). The reason there has been almost no mention of the two is that both of them have very little cache with the casual fans. Both are capable and, at times, terrific talents who are among the best at what they do. The problem is that neither of them can convince someone who wouldn't normally throw down $50 for a WWE pay-per-view event to do so.
As a result, the WWE has had to keep reaching back to the time-tested, but well past their prime, veterans of an era that the WWE has been trying to distance itself from in recent years. In other words, the company NEEDS these guys from a previous era to sell this show rather than have them be secondary attractions. But what happens when they can't go to that well anymore? Assuming both the Undertaker and Triple H hang it up after Sunday night, only the Rock will remain from that great era that ended almost a decade ago, and he's no spring chicken himself (turning 40 in May) and will be returning to the silver screen beginning this summer.
That leaves nothing but Cena, an unpopular frontman, and a cast of talented, but largely irrelevant (at least from a casual fan's perspective) secondary characters. The WWE has tried valiantly to hide this by milking the popularity of that previous era down to the very last drop, but it's about to run out. When that happens, it likely won't be long before you stop telling your friends what you watch on Monday nights at 9 p.m.