Wrestlemania 35 preview: Ranking all 16 matches from most compelling to whatever Baron Corbin’s doing

Wrestlemania is a lot of wrestling. Too much wrestling for one night, really.

The WWE’s flagship night of sports entertainment — the jewel around which tens of independent and WWE-affiliated promotions stage their top events — is a seven-plus hour slog that pads out its hours with its attempts to please everyone from elementary school devotees to jaded adults to the lapsed fans who only check in once a year to see who they still recognize. On Sunday, Wrestlemania 35 will drop no fewer than 16 matches into our laps like a Great Dane settling in on the couch, seemingly oblivious to its own bulky discomfort.

And, much like dealing with the big, slobbery dog pinning you to your seat, parts of it are going to be pretty great. Daniel Bryan’s comeback and Kofi Kingston’s renaissance come to their illogical crossroad Sunday night. Seth Rollins will spin the wheel and see if he gets to face a motivated, compelling Brock Lesnar or a hulking heavyweight who’s just there for a paycheck. Two different battles royal will determine absolutely nothing but will be an extremely fun way to do so.

And three competitors — Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch — will do what no women have ever done in the event’s previous 34 years; headline Wrestlemania.

To prep for a full school day of wrestling, let’s break down each of Sunday’s 15 matches — oh hey, as of Thursday night it’s 16 — listed in order of least compelling to most.

16. Kurt Angle vs. Baron Corbin

Angle ends his illustrious in-ring career with a match against the Applebee’s of wrestlers. In a fair and just world, Corbin would be attacked on the entrance ramp, Asuka-locked into the netherworld, and replaced by the Empress of Tomorrow for a truly memorable sendoff.

That won’t happen, but we should at least get some great “YOU SUCK” chants out of this.

15. RAW tag team championship match: The Revival (c) vs. Curt Hawkins and Zack Ryder

This match was added to Sunday’s card on Thursday. Good on Hawkins/Ryder for getting a Wrestlemania check. Let’s hope they don’t get trounced by Mojo Rawley and Rob Gronkowski on the way to the ring.

14. Intercontinental championship match: Bobby Lashley (c) vs. Finn Balor

Lashley is fine as a big muscled doof. Balor is occasionally great, but typically gets left in neutral for a company that apparently has no plans for his character besides “ABS (sometimes tongue).” He’ll break out his demon persona, crawl through 150-odd feet of entrance ramp, and beat up the loudmouth child Lashley can’t find daycare for (Lio Rush).

13. Cruiserweight championship match: Buddy Murphy (c) vs. Tony Nese

Murphy has been on fire as the champion of the 205s, putting on barnburners against Akira Tozawa, Mustafa Ali, and Cedric Alexander while elevating the brand of WWE’s fourth-most important show. For his efforts, he’s been rewarded with ANOTHER spot on the pre-show — his fourth-straight PPV shunted off the main card.

He’ll have to work his magic this time against the Kirkland brand Neville, Tony Nese.

12. No holds barred match: HHH vs. Batista

HHH and Batista are a combined 99 years old. Sunday’s battle is for the right to be the one true avatar of the god of human growth hormone. Last man to tear a quad muscle wins.

11. AJ Styles vs. Randy Orton

Styles is an excellent wrestler whose toil on the independent circuit (and TNA. And Ring of Honor) is being held in stark contrast to Orton’s place as the polished product of an early-2000s WWE that valued appearance and finishing moves over personality and storytelling. This match will be boring in the same way all Orton matches are — a perfectly fine and well-executed bout with little mystery other than how he’ll pull off his signature RKO. The question is whether Styles can drag him into the finisher-spamming kinetic action of his past or whether this will be just another low wattage showcase for the two veterans.

But hey, we might get Orton taunting the crowd atop a giant sperm on his way to the ring, which would be something.

10: Shane McMahon vs. the Miz

The WWE understands all we want from a Shane McMahon match is to watch him plummet off something tall and onto something moderately padded. Making this a falls-count-anywhere contest should mitigate any concerns we have about his striking — which has all the efficacy of a punching nun puppet — by ensuring us he’s going to fall off the roof of Metlife Stadium.

The Miz will continue his run as an icky babyface with aplomb. The rest of this one will be butt, though.

9. WWE Women’s Tag Team Championship match: The Boss ‘n’ Hug Connection (Bayley and Sasha Banks) (c) vs. Beth Phoenix and Natalya vs. The IIconics (Billie Kay and Peyton Royce) vs. Nia Jax and Tamina

There’s plenty to like here (besides the Bayley/Banks tag team name, which is outlandishly stupid even for a company that’s given us teams like the Gymini and Tekno Team 2000 in the past). The … BnHC have seemed sorta aimless even after being coronated as champions, but they remain two of the most talented performers on the roster. Natalya is always technically proficient (even if she’s as convincing as dinner theatre talent when asked to emote) and Phoenix looks just as good as she did on the day she retired.

The IIconics are in the running as the company’s most entertaining weirdos and solid in the ring, too. Jax and Tamina are intimidating, at least until they’re asked to do wrestling-adjacent maneuvers. The alignments for this match — conquering heroes, likable but rough veterans, entertaining goons, and low-mobility krakens — strike a perfect balance for what should be an exciting, if not especially meaningful, match.

t-7: Wrestlemania women’s battle royal

t-7: Andre the Giant memorial battle royal

Battles royal are almost always fun, and the Wrestlemania versions have the added benefit of not being woefully predictable like the annual Royal Rumble. Sometimes the biggest man actually wins. Other times Rob Gronkowski shows up and shoulder-blocks his buddy to a victory. Oh hey, he could do that this year, too.

Only one thing’s for certain; the WWE will have forgotten all about the winner by Summerslam. Look at the past list of competitors who got zero rub from winning either the Andre or women’s trophy:

  • Cesaro
  • Big Show
  • Baron Corbin
  • Mojo Rawley
  • Matt Hardy
  • Naomi

That’s terrible news for oh, let’s say Elias and Carmella.

6. United States Championship match: Samoa Joe (c) vs. Rey Mysterio

Two more long-tenured veterans of the sport square off in a battle of career renaissances. Mysterio’s once-shredded knees have recovered to the point where he looks like his early-30s self rather than the 44-year-old he actually is. Joe shook off a slow start to become one of the WWE’s most menacing villains, and he’ll play a useful base for Mysterio’s once-revolutionary style.

But Mysterio’s reportedly dealing with the effects of an ankle injury suffered at this week’s RAW, and may not make it to Mania at full strength. A diminished Mysterio limits the ceiling of this match (which will almost certainly not get as much time as it deserves in the first place). Replacing him with Andrade Cien Almas, however — Mysterio’s recent rival with no definite plans for the event so far — could make this match even better.

5. Roman Reigns vs. Drew McIntyre

God willing, this will just be 15 minutes of marble statues smashing into each other before one crumbles to dust in front an overstimulated audience. For the first time … ever? Reigns will go into a singles match at ‘Mania as a crowd favorite (all he had to do was beat leukemia for a second time in his life). The Samoan John Cena’s admirable recovery from cancer has shed the undue weight of Vince McMahon’s expectations and should allow him to shine for what he is, a talented powerhouse wrestler with an innate grasp of his world, than what he’d previously been viewed as, an impostor to the throne unworthy of his sustained spotlight.

Standing in his way is a 6’6 monster who looks like the last thing you have to conjure before graduating from Scottish warlock college. McIntyre latest half-formed push will feed him to Reigns, who in no way, shape, or form is going to lose this match. WWE was thrilled to spam us with Roman wins back when we hated him, so suddenly making him vulnerable after his most heroic effort of all and with the crowd finally on his side makes no sense.

Ah shit, I think I just talked myself into a McIntyre victory.

4. WWE Universal Championship match: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Seth Rollins

Rollins has been the WWE’s most reliable performer for a while now, which has led him to once more play the ripped Crossfit David to Lesnar’s South Dakotan Goliath. A motivated Lesnar is a compelling force unlike any other, the perfect marriage of dismissive MMA brutality, a terrifying array of spine-spiking amateur wrestling, and the testosterone of no fewer than six bull sharks. The question is whether that union will be on display Sunday or if Lesnar’s mind will be elsewhere with a rumored — and completed undeserved — UFC heavyweight title bout coming up in August.

If Lesnar’s into it, this will be a display of brutality that sees Rollins dropped on his head roughly a dozen times before settling into a crowd-rousing comeback and, quite possibly, invoking The Shield for one final time. If not, this’ll be an eight-minute affair faithfully recreated by a COM vs. COM matchup in WWE ‘15.

3. WWE SmackDown Tag Team Championship fatal four-way match: The Usos (c) vs. Ricochet and Aleister Black vs. The Bar vs. Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev

Like Lesnar, the mileage on a Nakamura performance varies wildly on his level of motivation. If he’s up for the challenge, this’ll be the top collection of talent on the card (mostly because of volume, but still). Everyone in this match is capable of putting forth an MVP performance, which means it’ll be especially disappointing when this one ends after six minutes.

16 matches is a lot, even for a seven-hour show.

2. Winner takes all triple threat match for the WWE Raw Women’s Championship and the WWE SmackDown Women’s Championship: Ronda Rousey (c-Raw) vs. Charlotte Flair (c-Smackdown) vs. Becky Lynch (agent of chaos)

This has all the potential to be an epic, beyond just the “first female headliner” aspect. Rousey is a certified badass, an Olympic judo medalist and the woman who convinced the UFC to add a second gender to its ranks. Lynch is an accomplished pro whose shit-talking reached new highs — transcending through the ring and blistering onto social media — making the former UFC champ look like an ineffectual dork in the process. Charlotte Flair is a Flair, and with that comes all the in-ring athleticism and innate cockiness of her father, even if she only talks a tenth of his game.

The company tried to turn Lynch into a bad guy, only to realize her years of fan favorite servitude just out of the spotlight and ability to connect to everyone in the arena only made her an anti-hero and, unexpectedly, the WWE’s biggest star. Injuries prevented the McMahons from slingshotting her to the top of the card, instead waiting until Wrestlemania to make her coronation the kind of moment that can be replayed non-stop whenever someone brings up how the company formerly treated its women.

That’s got benefits and drawbacks. All three women will get their spot atop the biggest card in the game, but their drama has lost steam in the build-up. Lynch’s ability to run circles around Rousey on the mic and online has only served to make the former UFC title holder look stupid and diminish the fact that she’s smashed through the typically-steep learning curve to be an impactful in-ring presence phenomenally early in her career. To correct for that, they’ve had Lynch get her ass kicked repeatedly … making her look like a chump in the process. What should have been the main event of Survivor Series has kinda limped on through the winter, losing some of its resonance and appeal to non-wrestling fans along the way.

And then this happened and I. Cannot. Stop. Laughing.

Last week’s combination of Keystone Cops and aggressive kicking was the perfect spectacle to build a second, greater spectacle at wrestling’s greatest annual spectacle. I love it and I will almost certainly love this match. But it gets second billing in my heart thanks to the sudden emergence of another boiling storyline that’s getting a proper climax at the ideal time.

1. WWE Championship match: Daniel Bryan (c) vs. Kofi Kingston

At Wrestlemania 30, it was Bryan running his underdog story through a gauntlet of bad guys and earning his first god-tier title run by overcoming the odds and rewarding the fans’ faith. Now Kingston’s earned that spot and Bryan’s evolved into the villain, even using the labels that had held him down on his run to the top — namely the distinction of a “B+ player” — to dismiss the oncoming challenge from the veteran high flyer.

Where Bryan was held back due to his size (and seemingly, his sin of making his name as an independent wrestler), McMahon’s reasons for throwing roadblock after roadblock in Kingston’s path haven’t been distinguished — but the subtext (and history of the WWE’s treatment of its black superstars) is a little clearer.

Bryan and Kingston have already proven to be magic in the ring in 2019. Now they get to run it back on the grand stage with a century of history hanging over their heads. A Kingston coronation would be epic. A Bryan win would only empower one of the WWE’s top villains. Either way I’m in.

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