The card for WrestleMania 35, taking place April 7 at MetLife Stadium, is reportedly up in the air.
WWE traditionally has its biggest show of the year figured out months in advance. But this year, less than two months out, it sounds like Vince McMahon still hasn't made up his mind. Will Undertaker and John Cena even wrestle? Will Batista be able to appear? Is Kurt Angle retiring? Also, McMahon just abruptly added NXT stars Ricochet, Aleister Black, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa to the roster, the latter two as a tag team even though they'll likely conclude their blood feud at NXT TakeOver: New York. Will they make their WrestleMania debut together two nights later, inexplicably friends again? Then there's Roman Reigns, who's expected to announce Monday that he's beaten back his leukemia. So he might be back in play for his fifth straight main event at the "Showcase of the Immortals."
At this point, only two matches are on the marquee: Universal Champion Brock Lesnar vs. Seth Rollins and Raw Women's Champion Ronda Rousey vs. Charlotte Flair.
However, it's all but guaranteed that Royal Rumble winner Becky Lynch will be added to the latter match to make it a triple-threat. Meanwhile, on Smackdown, WWE Champion Daniel Bryan will assuredly be in action. His opponent is a mystery, reportedly someone who's not currently active on Smackdown's roster. Cena, Angle, Kevin Owens and more have been floated. (I wager Kenny Omega would have gotten the shot had he signed with WWE instead of AEW.) But, by all rights, Bryan should face the man fans have recently been clamoring to see dethrone him: The New Day's Kofi Kingston.
Both Kingston finally winning the big one and Lynch getting her shot at Rousey are the two things WWE fans are most passionate about seeing at WrestleMania 35. It's not a coincidence. That's because both matches also exemplify the clever approach WWE takes to booking characters like Kingston and Lynch. Ironically enough, it's an approach that crystallized during Bryan's road to WrestleMania 30.
It's simple, really: It's about toying with the expectations of fans. When it comes to underdogs like Bryan, Lynch and Kingston, WWE doesn't just come right out and give the fans what they want to see. Because then they wouldn't be underdogs. So, instead, WWE feints toward denying them, and in turn, denying the fans. And that not only intensifies the fans' passion for seeing the things they want to see, it also makes them part of the story. When those things inevitably do happen, the fans become the reason they did. So it's an approach that thinks a few moves ahead. It's 12th-dimensional booking.
It just wouldn't be as satisfying if Daniel Bryan won the 2014 Royal Rumble instead of Batista, if Becky Lynch sauntered uninterrupted along her road to WrestleMania, if Ryan Satin or Dave Meltzer revealed Kingston was indeed Bryan's challenger. Fans, having gotten their way outright, would just find a new way to gripe. Because that's why WWE's fakeout booking works: It's powered by the audience's need to feel like they, not McMahon, are calling the shots. So the chairman himself replacing Lynch with Charlotte at WrestleMania was smart, because it preyed upon that need. And the royal Charlotte has long been the Reigns to Lynch's and, before her, Sasha Banks' Bryan. As the women's roster goes, Charlotte is the embodiment of WWE telling its audience what they want to see.
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So instead of six weeks of Lynch crushing Rousey on the microphone, WWE can tell a more satisfying story. Lynch can earn even more fan support as the wronged underdog who employs the "Stone Cold" playbook to regain the match she deserves, as I'm sure she'll do Monday at Ric Flair's birthday party. And Charlotte can sponge all the heat that would otherwise throw off Rousey, whose insecurity and lack of experience makes her getting booed rather agonizing to watch. Lynch will still tap her out in the main event of WrestleMania, but those six weeks of uncertainty will sweeten the moment.
It's less certain, however, whether Kingston will get his WrestleMania moment against Bryan. Unlike Lynch, Kingston in a main event was not the plan all along. It may still not be the plan. But he has a few things going for him that could lead WWE to make him the plan. First, he's popular. Obviously, WWE's fakeout booking doesn't work as well, if at all, when the superstar in question isn't beloved by the fans. And Kingston, between his 11 years of tenure, Royal Rumble highlight reel and goofball empire that is The New Day, is most certainly beloved by the fans. The trio's social media reach is also advantageous: Twitter, Instagram et al. have not only amplified the voices of WWE fans, they've become spaces where those fans, in the presence of like-minded others, commit further to their support.
After Kingston faces Bryan at March 10's Fastlane, where he'll likely come even closer to unseating the champion than he did at Elimination Chamber, we'll see where that support takes him.
It might be WrestleMania — but WWE might also make his fans work for it.
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