In the last few years, a certain tension has come to define WWE's WrestleMania season just as much as the company's obscenely big arena signs that remind everyone the event is approaching.
That tension, of course, comes from the inevitable difference between what WWE's most diehard fans want to see at WrestleMania, and what its creative monolith, Vince McMahon, tells us we want to see at WrestleMania.
Sometimes, the tension is so thick that McMahon has budged, like when the diminutive Daniel Bryan was added to the main event of WrestleMania XXX and actually won the damn thing. But sometimes, McMahon's stubbornness has won out, like when Roman Reigns was given the main event spot by Superman-ing the Royal Rumble to deafening boos the following year.
It's a battle of wills — the fans' vs. McMahon's. And that's why I'm curious how this year's emerging WrestleMania tension plays out.
This year, it's McMahon's will that, for now, appears stronger: He wants Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg to be for the WWE Universal Championship.
However, that means taking the title away from the WrestleMania program where, by all rights, diehard fans would rather it stay: Kevin Owens vs. Chris Jericho.
The tension isn't quite palpable yet, but I suspect it will be if Goldberg unseats Owens for the championship at Fastlane March 5. And the more authoritatively Goldberg does it, the thicker that tension will be. It's not hard to imagine a squash: If it took Goldberg 84 seconds to beat Brock Lesnar, McMahon might reason, the slovenly Owens shouldn't even take half that.
Goldberg squashing Owens — who enjoys as much grassroots support among diehard fans as anyone due to his top-tier work and Ring of Honor roots — would perfectly follow the playbook for a fan revolt. After all, Bryan's WrestleMania XXX win may never have happened if fans didn't rally to him after his squash by Sheamus at the event two years prior.
Unlike that derided booking decision, however, a Goldberg squash or even a hard-fought win over Owens risks turning fans against him, and his feud with Lesnar, because of another recurring source of WrestleMania tension: McMahon's reliance on part-time talent. This would be two such talents swooping in to headline, for the title, only to disappear the next day.
Owens and Jericho, on the other hand, have been putting in the work — fantastic work. The Festival of Friendship segment that saw said friendship finally end was up there with Daniel Bryan turning on the Wyatt Family and Seth Rollins betraying the Shield as the best wrestling character turns in recent memory. It was funny and tragic, expected and shocking all at once.
With that segment alone, Owens and Jericho more than earned the right to have their WrestleMania match be for the WWE Universal Championship. Jericho is so sympathetic at this point, and his improbable renaissance this past year has been so successful, that him winning a world championship at WrestleMania for the first time is as feel-good a moment as WWE can create there.
Sure, Goldberg's return has also over-delivered. His superhero quest to embarrass the bully Lesnar and inspire children has been much more rousing than it sounds on paper. But he can still do that without the WWE Universal Championship. Besides, after less than five minutes of ring time at Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble, the 50-year-old's wrestling ability is still suspect.
And sure, Jericho and Owens could subsist without the title, or even without Jericho's U.S. Championship. Jericho could cost Owens his championship at Fastlane, then Owens could cost Jericho his to heat up their feud even more. More segments like the Festival of Friendship and Owens' brilliant follow-up promo are all the two need to maintain their lengthy headlock on fans' interest.
But they just deserve to see their story through with the big one on the line. And if WWE's diehard fans come to agree, we're in for another tense WrestleMania season.