WrestleMania 34 is about a month away.
Usually, at this point, most of the matches on WWE's annual supercard are pretty apparent, if not official. But aside from a match or two, this WrestleMania is still very much a guessing game.
And that's a good thing — so far.
Let's start with Braun Strowman. WWE's breakout monster is in the midst of an enjoyable feud with another hotly received Raw newcomer, Elias. Their prop comedy and hands-catching could just as easily spill over into a featured singles match, The Miz's Intercontinental Championship defense or the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. It's unclear.
But Strowman is reportedly being kept in this limbo because WWE wants to be able to slot him into another match: Brock Lesnar's Universal Championship defense against Roman Reigns. And the company wants the 385-pound backup plan, the report goes, because it's worried that Lesnar won't do business on his way back to UFC and/or Reigns will be tied to a steroid distribution ring.
I'm skeptical of the report. Lesnar can be an asshole, but he has enough respect for the business not to no-show his conquest by Reigns, which has been four long, stubborn years in the making. (Imagine the Undertaker's reaction to his streak being wasted like that.) And the filmmaker claiming to have outed Reigns seems like a bit of a sensationalist.
Regardless, Strowman benefits from the question mark hanging over him. He's already one of the most popular superstars on Raw, but without a WrestleMania date, fans may feel like they can influence his fate by getting even louder, a la Daniel Bryan in 2014. Besides, having an opponent so far out from a show tends to produce wheel-spinning TV. Every little bit of mystery helps.
Also in flux is Asuka, whose Royal Rumble win allows her to choose whether to face the Raw or Smackdown women's champion at WrestleMania.
Though reports favor Charlotte, I could just as easily see the Empress of Tomorrow picking Alexa Bliss. The Raw champion dropped a non-title fall to Asuka early this year, but her Elimination Chamber win and KO of her would-be challenger on Monday have regenerated interest in the match. That'd free up Charlotte to face several Smackdown women, giving them a spot on the prestigious card.
But Charlotte is directionless, and her facing Asuka is the kind of marquee match ideal for WrestleMania. Plus it'd free up Bliss to face Nia Jax, paying off the story of the diminutive champion ducking her monstrous friend for the better part of the last year. And it'd keep Asuka and her undefeated streak the hell away from Ronda Rousey and her inevitable steamrolling of the Raw women's roster.
Maybe the most exciting WrestleMania wild card, though, is John Cena. And that's by virtue of him being John Cena: Whomever his opponent, it's going to be a big deal.
Monday, Cena teased challenging the man fans have wanted him to face at WrestleMania for years: the Undertaker. Though he quickly walked back the possibility, fans have been abuzz anyway: Why would he mention the Dead Man if he's not going to face him? Or is the Undertaker really retired, and WWE was just going out of its way to snuff out the rumor?
The uncertainty of Cena's WrestleMania opponent puts some intrigue behind his addition to the WWE Championship fray at Fastlane. If nothing else, fans will watch to see if Cena's WrestleMania opponent — The Undertaker? Samoa Joe? — costs him the match. Or maybe WWE will pull
Batista away from his "Infinity War"-promoting duties for a Hollywood-sized WrestleMania feature with Cena. WWE prides itself on being a place where anything can happen, so it's no surprise that its biggest show of the year is the most tantalizing when it really feels like that's the case.
20. Raw Women's Champion Charlotte vs. Bayley, Raw (Feb. 13). Her fortunes may have dimmed since, but Bayley's first WWE championship victory was the kind of feel-good moment that reminded us how winsome her character can be when she overcomes the odds. The ever-improving Charlotte was game for this TV epic, and its stock rose weeks later at Fastlane when Bayley handed Charlotte her first PPV loss, bucking the trend of dethroning "The Queen" on TV only to promptly lose the title back to her.
19. Seth Rollins vs. The Miz vs. Finn Balor, Raw (May 2). The Miz is magic. Put him in a multi-man match and it overachieves (see: his fatal four-way against Cesaro, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn last year). This Raw main event was no exception, mixing the Intercontinental Champion's chickenshit ways with Balor and Rollins' athleticism to edge-of-your-seat effect.
18. NXT World Champion Bobby Roode vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, NXT TakeOver: Orlando. Roode's NXT Championship run was almost as miraculous as it was, yes, glorious. Two of the best examples were his overperforming pair of matches with Nakamura. (And if you thought he was too prone to autopilot during his own NXT Championship reign, "The Artist's" lifeless Smackdown run has put things in perspective.) With relentless old-school limb work and a nail-biter of a finish, the second match between Roode and Nakamura is the superior one.
17. Elimination Chamber: WWE World Champion John Cena vs. AJ Styles vs. Bray Wyatt vs. Baron Corbin vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Dean Ambrose. It would end with a spectacularly crappy series against Randy Orton, but Wyatt's long-awaited first championship reign began rather well. He authoritatively pinned the two previous champions, Cena and Styles, in a match that also saw Corbin re-established as a legitimate upper-card threat. "The Lone Wolf" would fizzle out, too, but we'll always have Elimination Chamber.
16. Roman Reigns vs. Finn Balor, Raw (May 15). These two have a hell of a pay-per-view main event in them. Two of the slickest and best-looking wrestlers in WWE (in both senses of the word, if the signs they inspire are any indication), Reigns and Balor match up about as perfectly as the Big Dog did with AJ Styles. The commentary teased a fun story about Balor's technique making him as dangerous a striker as the more powerful Reigns, but I suppose we'll have to wait until that pay-per-view rubber match to get the whole thing.
15. Aleister Black vs. The Velveteen Dream, NXT TakeOver: War Games. Black has made a name for himself with some of the crispest striking in WWE today, but his best match of 2017 was all about old-school storytelling. All Velveteen Dream wanted was for Black to say his name, and his provocative Rick Rude-style tights set a tone that pulled you in. Dream did more than sell his desperation, though, not only hanging with Black but earning credible near falls after a fluid DDT variation and other offense. By the time of the Black Mass, Brooklyn was saying Dream's name — and, in a perfectly simple conclusion to the story, so was Black.
14. Raw Tag Team Champions Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins vs. The Bar, No Mercy. This will always be known as the match where Cesaro impacted his front teeth on a slingshot by Ambrose, but gutted out the next 15 minutes of action anyways. Though that did elevate the match, so did the elite chemistry between these two teams of veterans, which has culminated in some of the freshest double-team finisher sequences in wrestling.
13. Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade "Cien" Almas, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III. This was a match about two superstars trying to rebound, and after about 15 minutes of lightning-quick action, there was no doubt both will be just fine. In storyline terms, of course, Gargano wasn't fine: One of the most inventive finishes of the year saw him distracted by a DIY T-shirt tossed at him by Almas' manager, Zelina Vega, allowing her man to capitalize as thoughts of Gargano's betrayal by former tag partner Tommaso Ciampa consumed him. But Gargano would recover, winning a fun fatal fourway on the last NXT show of the year to earn a shot at the NXT Champion at January's TakeOver Philadelpha: Almas.
12. Cesaro vs. WWE Intercontinental Champion Roman Reigns, Raw (Dec. 11). Giving Reigns the Intercontinental Title has brilliantly put him in position to deliver week after week of "fighting champion" defenses on free TV, and this barn burner with Cesaro topped them all. A nonstop barrage of power moves and dynamic strikes by two unnaturally mobile heavyweights, it reaffirmed Reigns' ability to his doubters and Cesaro's singles prospects to his believers.
11. Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman, Payback. Strowman's improbable growth into one of WWE's best acts owes much to Reigns, whose low regard among fans and terrific selling and timing abilities make him the big man's best possible wrestling dummy. I just hope to god he's not finished with Reigns yet.
10. WWE United Kingdom Champion Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate, NXT (Dec. 22). I try to avoid including the same match twice on lists like these, but Dunne and Bate gave me no choice. The third and final 2017 match between the U.K. stars once again seamlessly mixed World of Sport joint work and modern high-flying, but the intimate venue of Full Sail University paid a whole new level of attention. Look no further than their gasps when Dunne gruesomely stomps on Bate's braced arm. However, as the show's main event, the match went a bit further into overkill territory than its predecessors, and you could tell by how quiet the crowd fell.
9. Smackdown Tag Team Champions The New Day vs. The Usos, SummerSlam. The New Day had established itself as WWE's biggest tag team by the time it moved to Smackdown this year, but its feud with The Usos established the team as one of WWE's best. The increasing use of the dynamic Xavier Woods, who can smack you with elbows as well as he can flip off the ropes, surely helped. But the big assist for The New Day's strong 2017, which would see them credibly challenge The Shield at Survivor Series, was The Usos. Their show-stealing openers with The New Day at SummerSlam and Hell in a Cell may have elevated the longest-reigning tag champions in company history, but they also proved that Jimmy and Jey are the best in WWE.
8. WWE Universal Champion Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar, WrestleMania 33. "Elegant" is the last word one would associate with either of these brutes. But their third match was just that, stringing together a captivating series of their biggest bombs and nothing else. Everything worked perfectly, starting with the camera shot of Lesnar boasting about his opening salvo of three German suplexes, only for Goldberg to storm into the frame with a blindsiding spear. And the turning point of the match, Lesnar's spear-avoiding leapfrog, was so improbably athletic for a man of his size, it was almost nightmarish. Name a better match with only four moves.
7. Finn Balor vs. AJ Styles, WWE TLC. Not only is "AJ Styles" a theme on this list, so is "last-minute AJ Styles substitutions that turn dreaded slogs into dream matches." This first one saw him finally face his Bullet Club predecessor, Balor, in a match as athletic and hard-hitting as they would have had in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Hopefully, their Bullet Club salute at the end suggests they'll meet again, and perhaps we'll even have some time to salivate beforehand.
6. Last woman standing: NXT Women's Champion Asuka vs. Nikki Cross, NXT (June 27). From a character standpoint, there might not have been a single better performance in WWE this year than Nikki Cross' against the dominant NXT Women's Champion. The Sanity member wrestled like someone truly out of her mind. She smiled through brutal kicks and weapon attacks, then goaded Asuka not to stay down so she could inflict even more punishment of her own. Asuka obliged, dialing up her fluid viciousness to defend her championship in what may be the most epic-feeling match of her WWE career.
5. WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar vs. WWE World Champion AJ Styles, Survivor Series. Wrestling fans rejoiced when WWE surprisingly switched the World Championship from Jinder Mahal to Styles a week ahead of Survivor Series' champion-vs.-champion match — and for good reason. I doubt Mahal could have delivered the kind of David-vs.-Goliath drama Styles did by throwing himself around the ring off Lesnar's suplexes, only to rally with a thrilling 450 splash and Calf Crusher. And, luckily, Lesnar was more inspired than he was against Samoa Joe and Braun Strowman. When he broke up Styles' submission by brutally dribbling his head into the mat, the former UFC Heavyweight Champion reminded us just how dangerous his matches can feel.
4. NXT Women's Champion Asuka vs. Ember Moon, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III. The final match of Asuka's instantly legendary NXT run was, fittingly, her best. Rematching from TakeOver: Orlando, "The Empress" and Ember Moon hit and wrenched each other even harder. After Asuka pushed the referee in Orlando to avoid Moon's Eclipse and retain her title, simply surviving the finisher to win cleanly in Brooklyn felt like a left turn. It's tough to tell where the story would have gone, though, as the collarbone injury Asuka sustained in this match moved up her promotion to WWE's main roster. I guess we'll just have to wait for Ember to join her.
3. NXT Tag Team Champions The Authors of Pain vs. DIY vs. The Revival, NXT TakeOver: Orlando. The work in this triple threat is as crisp, fast-paced and creative as you'd expect given what the three teams bring to the table: The horror movie power of the Authors, the breakneck strikes and dives of DIY, and the scheming limb work and rule-bending of The Revival. What made this match so great, though, was the two smaller teams trying to put aside their storied differences and align against the champions. They did so with a battery of mash-up double-teams that'd put down just about anyone, but the monsters still stood tall in the end.
2. WWE World Champion AJ Styles vs. John Cena, Royal Rumble. I wasn't hot on this match at first, as it felt too similar to their SummerSlam epic and, well, just about all of Cena's recent encounters with indie darlings like Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, etc. My second viewing was kinder to it, though. If nothing else, the match is great for Cena's two murderous lariats, the first that absolutely clobbers Styles and the second that barely misses him at full, uncompromising speed. It has the usual glut of 2.9 kickouts and despondent facial expressions, but Cena and Styles go all-out giving the now-16-time champion perhaps his hardest-fought victory ever.
1. WWE United Kingdom Champion Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne, NXT TakeOver: Chicago. Jim Ross isn't a great commentator. Between his Oklahoma cliches and his fixation on wrestlers' athletic histories, he can be a positively bad one. But I can't recall a match that's ever made Ross sound so inessential, so Mike Adamle, as Bate and Dunne's show stealer at TakeOver: Chicago. A thrilling fusion of hyper-technical European and heart-stopping U.S. styles, this match was its own pocket universe where no other titles and no other wrestlers mattered for 15 amazing minutes. Ross could only watch in awe right alongside us.
Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or
email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.