In sports or in entertainment, there is nothing like WrestleMania. As an idea conceived and carried out by owner Vince McMahon — who risked bankruptcy when he launched the brand in 1985 — WrestleMania, now in its 39th installment, is for more than just wrestling fans; it is, in fact, for anyone who desires to be part of something special.
Los Angeles’ 300-acre SoFi Stadium, an awe-inspiring structure on its own, has been dressed up to become the stuff of dreams — Hollywood dreams, perhaps — as the two-night site of 2023’s WrestleMania. WrestleMania certainly “Goes Hollywood” again (in the face of an initial delay caused by the pandemic), the last time being in 2005, with a combined 160,000-plus tickets sold for Saturday and Sunday. The demand for more WrestleMania is absolutely there, reinforcing WWE’s decision to turn its annual extravaganza into a two-parter.
The gold and crimson stage, comprised of the resplendent WrestleMania marquee, digital movie posters sporting the likeness of the talent, and a red stage leading down a black ramp and steps, was reminiscent of the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre and, without question, a true achievement by WWE’s behind-the-scenes staff. Tinseltown bore witness to an advertised card of seven matches, with an impromptu eighth one, for night one of the “Showcase of the Immortals.” Over the span of four hours that felt like two, John Cena was again in fine form, a father-son impasse resolved in resounding fashion, legendary female wrestlers were back in the thick of things, a goth prodigy overtook a vanguard of the women’s wrestling revolution in an all-time classic, a social media star had a memorable outing against a stalwart and, finally, a long-running and well-received storyline culminated to the tune of significant fanfare in the main event. It was, overall, an occasion that saw the good and favored triumph.
Following Becky G’s rendition of “America the Beautiful,” and the introduction of the Miz and Snoop Dogg as WrestleMania hosts alongside breathtaking pyrotechnics, the opening matchup kicked off. It saw John Cena, who is as much a Hollywood A-lister as he is a ring legend, versus the brash up-and-comer, Austin Theory, for the United States Championship. Cena’s entrance was notable for its G.I. Joe-themed entrance and collaboration with Make-a-Wish Kids (Cena is the foremost granter of wishes). When the bell rang, the crowd was immediately invested, chanting “Let’s Go Cena/Cena Sucks.” Early in the match, Theory ingratiated himself to the subset of anti-establishment fans by biting his opponent’s ear, but Cena responded with a painful-looking neck-hold called the “STF.” Nonetheless, despite Cena getting the fans to passionately respond to his every cue, Theory countered Cena’s signature maneuver, the “Attitude Adjustment,” and shortly thereafter used a dastardly low blow and his own knee-into-face finisher to ultimately retain his coveted title.
The second contest featured a men’s showcase four-way tag team match; the combatants included Braun Strowman and the high-flying Ricochet, the Street Profits, Alpha Academy, and the Viking Raiders who dressed exactly as one would imagine them to. Besides the quartet of teams, Intuit TurboTax was also highlighted on the digital ring apron and barricade. Earning the biggest ovation was Chad Gable of the Academy, a former amateur wrestler, who German-suplexed (an overhead throw from behind) the comparatively gargantuan Strowman, who quickly dusted off the cobwebs and followed with a surprising top-rope splash. This was topped by a multi-person tower that was toppled by a catapulting Ricochet. Subsequently, Angelo Dawkins of the Profits then stopped the locomotive Strowman in his tracks before averting a shooting star press by Ricochet to win the match for his team. Despite being only eight minutes, this was a blisteringly energetic bout.
The tenured Seth “Freakin” Rollins, a champion several times over, then took on the host of Impaulsive, Logan Paul, who zip-lined from the rafters and joined a mascot representing his energy drink, Prime. An L.A.-based conductor then appeared onstage, leading the fans to sing Rollins’ “whoa” battle hymn. Out of fire and brimstone, Rollins, who had the crowd in the palm of his hand, was summoned in a glistening red robe which covered a pair of pink tights underneath.
Paul, who was wrestling on his 28th birthday, again impressed as a natural-born talent despite being a veritable rookie. Undeniably, his inexperience didn’t stop him from throwing his weight around, to Rollins’ chagrin. That being said, when Paul faltered with a missed “moonsault” (backflip splash), Rollins took control with three through-the-ropes dives and even evaded the diving Paul who accidentally table-crashed into his mascot, who was revealed to be fellow YouTube star, KSI. This led to Rollins delivering a devastating “super-kick” to the airborne Paul before a curb stomp to end the perceived impudence the erstwhile Shield member had heretofore been subjected to. Suffice it to say, the match was seamless in its execution and ability to whip the crowd into a frenzy.
A six-woman collision between the recalcitrant Damage Ctrl, led by the masterminding Bayley, against Lita, Trish Stratus, and Becky Lynch fully exceeded expectations. At the outset, Damage Ctrl triple-teamed Lynch and mocked her hall-of-fame partners. One of them, Lita, responded with a leg-scissor takedown and tagged in the equally fiery Stratus who chopped down the opposition and performed a “hurricanrana” leg-scissor takedown of her own thanks to an ingenious assist from her mates. In spite of Bayley trying to turn the tide, Lita hit her patented moonsault before Lynch concluded the ordeal with a “Manhandle Slam” in what was an enthralling back-and-forth tussle.
The sun started to set — as the set was, in contrast, starkly illuminated — beckoning the long-awaited familial clash between the masked legend Rey Mysterio and his insurgent son Dominik. The uber-famous Bad Bunny sat down with the Spanish announcers as a video played of the reviled Dominik in prison. Sirens then signaled the arrival of the “hardened” Dominik who was brought out in a corrections vehicle and escorted in handcuffs. In a slightly wanton twist, he also had on one of his father’s masks before summarily removing it.
Rey, on the other hand, received vociferous cheers as he came to the ring in a lowrider driven by Snoop Dogg with the late Eddie Guerrero’s theme blaring on the loud speakers. This was followed by Rey shaking the hand of a Cinnamon Toast Crunch mascot at ringside, symbolizing a sponsorship tie-in with the cereal. Still, notwithstanding the cereal’s neon, kid-friendly branding around the ring, the match retained its very adult intensity, eliciting some of the biggest reactions of the night, particularly when Rey literally whipped his son with a belt. When Dominik disrespected his sister, seated in the front row, by throwing a drink on her, Rey’s wife got into the melee, slapping her son in what was redolent of a stirring, in-ring telenovela. And while Dominik tried to win by hook or crook, Bad Bunny came to the rescue by removing a chain from Dominik’s grip, which segued into an Eddie Guerrero-esque frog splash by Rey for the cathartic win as the Mysterio family, minus the incredulous Dominik of course, embraced.
Afterwards, the SmackDown Women’s Championship was to be defended, which pitted champion Charlotte Flair against Royal Rumble-winner and No. 1 contender Rhea Ripley. The two took center stage in a 23-minute masterwork that will forever shine unremittingly in WrestleMania lore (not to mention, with a female ring announcer and referee additionally in tow, this was a historic all-female first for WWE). Flair proved why she’s a 14-time champ early with a flying cross-body, which was rejoindered by Rhea throwing forearms. Ebbs and flows of offense followed with Charlotte chopping Rhea as a “Let’s Go Charlotte/Let’s go Rhea” chant grew in volume and foreshadowed a compelling narrative in the ring. Flair took two nasty falls, the latter potentially breaking her nose, but still managed to counter and kick out of Rhea’s finishing move, the “Riptide.” On the giving end, Flair executed a picture-perfect moonsault and a spear, but was abruptly overcome by tears, suggesting a searing self-doubt, in a dramatically cinematic moment. Once Rhea finally took Charlotte’s crown by winning with a “Riptide” off the middle rope, it became clear that this emotion-filled affair will be discussed in the same breath as WWE’s most indelible matches.
Given that the 80,497 attendees were left in a breathless state, the Miz and Snoop Dogg attempted to lighten the mood in time for the main event. A few minutes later, sports host and former SmackDown commentator Pat McAfee sauntered down the ramp, in an unadvertised capacity, to challenge the Miz in an impromptu battle. With the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle also coming out of the audience to clothesline the Miz, McAfee punted his foe en route to victory in what was a harmlessly fun segment.
Last, but not least, was the apotheosis of a brilliantly crafted storyline, and the headlining match of WrestleMania 39’s night one, as longtime tag champions Jey and Jimmy Uso of the Bloodline collided with Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, a duo of recently reunited best friends. Lil Uzi Vert rapped down the ramp, preceding the Usos who came out on a stage aglow in blood red. KO and Zayn were out next, receiving a raucous reaction. The story in the match, like in the arc encompassing its hype, was top-notch. It saw the Usos attempt to neutralize Zayn and Owens who were continuously thwarted by an array of super-kicks. At one point, Owens was slammed through an announce table before getting a second wind with a “powerbomb” (a move that involves picking an opponent up in a seated position before slamming them into the mat) and a “Stone Cold Stunner” (chin breaker). A few minutes later, a stereo splash by the Usos yielded a heart-palpitating kick-out by Zayn who then recovered to have a duel with Jey, resulting in a series of running “Heluva” kicks and, most importantly, the euphoric pin-fall triumph as celebratory fireworks were launched in the stadium. Needless to say, the long-awaited conquest for Zayn and Owens was the perfect capping off to one of WWE’s most successful and satisfying events.
Overall, night one of WrestleMania 39 turned out to be a toweringly critical and commercial success. With one feel-good conclusion after another, which emphatically and skillfully put a punctuation mark on months worth of storytelling enveloping a myriad of feuds, this event exemplified why WWE is at the top of its genre: the company understands the necessity of driving rivalries, and their eventual in-ring rendezvous, with character work and captivating theatre. On the strength of its matches, which were chock-full of riveting twists and turns, WrestleMania 39 Saturday stands proudly on its own merits — even without the Sunday festivities — as a showbiz gem that will endure in the hearts and minds of WWE fans.
For more information and news about night one of WWE WrestleMania 39 at SoFi Stadium, please visit wwe.com.