As the 7-hour WrestleMania 34 inched its way towards its conclusion, the crowd at the Superdome in New Orleans was basically running out the clock. That is, until Braun Strowman’s mystery partner for the Raw Tag Team title match was revealed. After saying that he would team up with “one of you,” the massive (and massively popular) big man went into the crowd and pulled 10-year-old “Nicholas” to be his partner, in a move that would have been more at home in an independent wrestling promotion than at the biggest show of the year.
Despite looking terrified beyond belief, Nicholas did his part, standing on the outside of the squared circle while Strowman went toe-to-toe with Raw Tag Team champions Sheamus and Cesaro. Nicholas also actually tagged into the match, to huge cheers, before nearly crapping his pants on the way to tag Strowman back in, who went on to win the titles for his team. Cue the cheers and the feel-good vibes. Even if Nicholas turned out to be WWE ref John Cone’s son, which dulls the “randomness” of the stunt a good bit.
Overall, it was a lovely moment, one that a 10-year-old will likely remember for the rest of his life. Hell, now he’s a tag team champion (at least until WWE fixes that on tonight’s episode of Raw). For a company that caters to kids and touts its family-friendliness, the image of Strowman towering over his pre-teen partner is a shining example. And if that were all you watched from WrestleMania, you’d be convinced that it’s a great show for kids to watch. You’d also be wrong.
Following the Nicholas Tag Team Tour de Force, the main event of WrestleMania 34 was a brawl between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar for the WWE Universal Championship. While Reigns has been presented as the top guy in the company, with an edgy-yet-sanitary appeal, Brock Lesnar is the last person you’d consider “kid-friendly.” A true-life UFC fighter with a nasty streak, Lesnar not only looks terrifying, he is also crass and violent; his current catchphrase, “Suplex city, bitch,” was born out of the pair’s first ‘Mania main event back in 2015, wherein he threw Reigns around viciously for 15 minutes.
It was more of the same on Sunday, with Reigns barely getting up from the beating he took from the so-called Beast Incarnate. After Reigns did kick out of one of Lesnar’s finishing moves, the F5, the latter screamed “MOTHERFUCKER!” so loudly that WWE had to censor the audio on the feed. That’s to say nothing of Lesnar busting open Reigns so badly that there were buckets of blood in the ring.
This speaks to a central problem in modern WWE storytelling: it tries to be all things for all people, while also trying to tell the stories it wants to.
Regardless of how the match was received, there was no denying that it was physical and brutal, and certainly not for kids that stayed up until almost midnight EST to watch their Samoan Superman finally defeat his animalistic rival. It was not meant to be, and so the good feelings of Nicholas winning just 20 minutes prior were replaced with the horror of seeing the top guy in WWE walk out covered in blood, dejected and defeated.
This speaks to a central problem in modern WWE storytelling: it tries to be all things for all people, while also trying to tell the stories it wants to. That’s how you get a show that vacillated in tone as hard as WrestleMania 34. If you’re WWE, you have to cater to three very different types of fans every year: the casual fans, the hardcore crowd, and the kids.
The casual fans are those who tune in because they recognize a certain amount of names from either their nostalgia or the mainstream sports media. The perfect example of that this year was the push behind former UFC Bantamweight Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey’s WWE debut. If you follow sports, you know Rousey, and there’s a good chance you also know her opponents: Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, real-life WWE management turned evil corporate agents in storyline. The match delivered on its ridiculous premise, and generally had the Superdome cheering their faces off.
For the hardcore fans, you have to have hard-hitting, fast-paced wrestling with logical storylines and technical mastery. Cue the the opening triple-threat match between Seth Rollins, The Miz, and Finn Balor, or the “dream match” between AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura. While the former exceeded expectations and the latter underwhelmed, it was clear that the audience for that was different than, say, John Cena vs. The Undertaker.
As long as WrestleMania is billed as a show for anyone, it won’t be a show for everyone.
In fact, that match is a perfect example of how trying to please everyone can be done right; while little kids love Cena, WWE didn’t hesitate to have him get crushed by the returning Undertaker in under 3 minutes. While that might have frustrated the younger audience members, it was still done with so much pizzazz that they probably couldn’t help but be enticed by Taker’s supernatural powers and Cena selling his return like death.
Unfortunately, WWE pushed its luck, and the juxtaposition of Nicholas barely being able to lift the belt he “won” with Strowman alongside Lesnar possibly mauling Reigns for real left a bad tonal taste in the mouths of those who stayed up through the whole 7-hour show. It’s hard to sell WrestleMania as a product for parents when WWE can’t even figure out what notes it wants to hit.
It’s okay to have violence in kids’ programming — the Marvel movies have made money, so much money, with that formula –but there needs to be a better balance between “little kid makes a dream come true” and “bloodbath of a match where the good guy loses horribly.” As long as WrestleMania is billed as a show for anyone, it won’t be a show for everyone, and it’s hard to suggest that parents who might already be squeamish about their kids watching a combat sport – the choreographed aspects of wrestling are surely lost on little kids – when the company leans so hard into the combat and not enough into the sport.