By Chuck Carroll
For WWE, this year’s road to WrestleMania has been unlike any other in the event’s 34-year history. Traditionally, the fireworks are saved for the actual show, but bombshells have already been going off for more than a month, and there is still more than two weeks before tens of thousands pack the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The biggest bang came earlier this week, when WWE shocked the wrestling world by announcing Daniel Bryan had been medically cleared to return to the ring two years after being forced into retirement. More on that in a moment.
January’s historic Royal Rumble led to the creation of two dream matches with major international implications on this year’s WrestleMania card. When Shinsuke Nakamura dumped Roman Reigns over the top rope to earn his first Rumble crown, the stage was set for a dream rematch with AJ Styles. Their first clash two years earlier at Wrestle Kingdom 10, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s equivalent of WrestleMania, became an instant classic, and devout fans have been crying out for a second battle ever since.
On the women’s side, Asuka earned the right to challenge the champion of her choosing after becoming the first-ever winner of the WWE Women’s Royal Rumble. Plans for who she would face at WrestleMania have fluctuated seemingly week-to-week. At times, it was said that she would square off against Alexa Bliss for the RAW Women’s Championship. But then contradictory statements were made that there had been no decision. Ultimately, WWE pulled the trigger on the better of the two matches and one that pits the exotic Japanese Superstar against second-generation SmackDown Women’s Champion, Charlotte Flair. There is little doubt their meeting could be a match-of-the-year candidate. To WWE’s credit, the division has made such strides in recent years that the match is viewed on the same level as Styles and Nakamura.
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Without question the biggest headlines generated surround the debut of Ronda Rousey. Following her surprise appearance at the Royal Rumble, which garnered major mainstream media attention, the ultra-famous former UFC Champion told ESPN “this is my life now,” when referring to her future in WWE. Unlike Brock Lesnar, whose contract is reportedly nearing an end and has been making overtures about returning to the octagon, Rousey remains firm that her battleground will only have four sides.
Because a 30-man over-the-top-rope battle royal just isn’t enough, WWE will be throwing an additional 20 men into the ring for what is being billed as the first-ever 50-man Greatest Royal Rumble match. The April 27th event will be held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and was created to solidify a decade-long partnership between the Stamford, Connecticut-based company and the Saudi social and economic program. WWE has previously streamed major international events on their over-the-top streaming platform, but it’s unclear whether this event will air live or via tape delay on the WWE Network. Seven championship matches are planned for the show, with every title being defended except for the women’s championships. Nearly every major name on the roster is expected to be booked on the event with John Cena, Triple H, Roman Reigns, AJ Styles, Braun Strowman, The New Day, Randy Orton, Bray Wyatt and Shinsuke Nakamura being specifically mentioned in promotional material. The Undertaker has also been booked on the show, according to PWInsider, although it’s not yet known whether he will be wrestling.
Speaking of The Dead Man, all signs point to a match against John Cena at WrestleMania. Plans have reportedly been in the works for months, but after they leaked out, WWE attempted to swerve fans by having Cena deny the rumors and say flat out that the match wouldn’t take place during a promo on RAW. The “free agent” then had a cup of coffee on SmackDown in an attempt to pave his road to WrestleMania. After the attempt failed, he returned to RAW and indeed issued a challenge to The Undertaker, who has yet to make an appearance on TV.
Daniel Bryan’s return is about the only thing that could trump everything, including the huge splash made by Rousey. The surprise announcement came Tuesday afternoon, and hours later he would deliver an impassioned speech at the beginning of SmackDown documenting his battle back to the ring. By many miles, Bryan had the longest road to WrestleMania. For the first time in two years, he was able to get physical in the ring and was beaten down by Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn to set up an apparent match against the two, where he will team with Shane McMahon in New Orleans. Of all the matches on the card, this one is the most anticipated, and I expect Bryan will receive the loudest pop of the night.
Bryan’s frustrations over his retirement have been well documented. Since first being pulled from the ring and told he would never wrestle for WWE again, he researched and visited a myriad of doctors who have all cleared him to resume his wrestling career. The only snafu appears to be a single test that revealed he had what was termed as a lesion on his brain that ultimately forced his retirement. After a period of dark depression, and with the encouragement of his wife, Brie Bella, he launched an all-out blitz to receive medical clearance and traversed the country to get it. After stacks of reassurances from other doctors, WWE physicians finally relented this week and gave him a green light.
His future with the company is still up in the air, as he has publicly stated that his contract expires September 1. All signs pointed to Bryan walking away from WWE at that point to resume wrestling elsewhere, with Ring of Honor and New Japan seemingly the most likely landing points. How serious either promotion — or any other — is about adding Bryan to the roster is hard to say. Any talks would have had to have been internal. Because he is still under contract with WWE, actually reaching out to Bryan would constitute contract tampering and open them up to potential legal ramifications.
A return to other promotions anytime soon now appears unlikely. It’s hard to envision Bryan not re-signing with WWE at this point. And who knows? The two sides may already be discussing a contract extension.
All of this begs the question, has the road to WrestleMania already topped the event itself?
NEWS AND NOTES
Following a long hiatus away from the town where they’re based, ROH is returning to Baltimore. The more than year-long absence stemmed from the promotion’s unhappiness with the old facility they had been running. Despite solid attendance, following the last round of TV tapings at the William J. Myers Pavilion in 2016, a decision was made not to run the venue again. A company source tells me that the search for an alternative, other than the 11,000-seat Royal Farms Arena, was challenging. Ultimately, they opted to wait for the opening of a new event center on the campus of The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which will also serve as the home court for the NCAA Tournament darling basketball team. ROH will hold the Best In The World pay-per-view there on June 29.
Chuck Carroll is a former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality who now interviews the biggest names in wrestling. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.