Creating the Mania takes fans backstage with an all-access pass to the behind-the-scenes stories of WrestleMania 34, which became the Mercedes-Benz Superdome’s highest grossing entertainment event at $14.1 million and a sold-out crowd of 78,133 fans. Follow the yearlong life cycle of WWE’s biggest event, from how the storylines were developed to how the host city was selected, from the logistics and planning behind hosting over 70,000 members of the WWE Universe to the rivalries and matches playing out inside the ring, in a book that chronicles the events leading up to the “Showcase of the Immortals.”
This journey includes exclusive interviews with top Superstars, including Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Braun Strowman, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Kevin Owens, The Miz, and “Phenomenal” A.J. Styles, breaking down their year leading up to ’Mania and the highs and lows that go along with being a WWE Superstar ― pushing their hardest, all with the same goal in mind… to main event WrestleMania.
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Whose Yard Is it Anyway?
April 2, 2017: WrestleMania 33
How does it feel to have 75,000 people boo your every move? “Doesn’t matter to me; I have thick skin,” says Roman Reigns, after defeating WWE legend Undertaker in WrestleMania 33‘s main event in Orlando to a chorus of hate usually reserved for the elite heels of this (or any) era. The thing is, Reigns, a six-foot-three, 265-pound former football player and second-generation Superstar, is billed as the next Rock, even if the deafening — sometimes mixed but often negative — crowd reactions are increasingly in line with him being the next John Cena, the athlete who served as WWE’s main attraction for over a decade, despite not necessarily gaining the adoration of the entire WWE Universe. Leading into WrestleMania 33, the WWE Universe overwhelmingly booed Reigns, with only a few “Roman Empire” signs by diehard supporters scattered throughout the Orlando crowd. “It’s weird because, in a situation like WrestleMania, it was almost like there were just two hundred people out there,” says Reigns. “There can be so many people that it almost feels like hardly anybody is there. And then when you have a match and an opponent, you’re so laser focused it feels like it’s just you, him, and the ref.
“Obviously, you take into account the crowd, and that can help your flow, but when you can lock into your dance partner and just tell that story and you both get lost in selling for each other, that’s when you know it’s good. For me, Undertaker was such an opponent that once he made his entrance, I didn’t see anything but him. Before he came out, I was looking all over. I was looking at the crowd, looking at the signs, just kind of getting a feel for the place; but then once his music hit, as soon as that gong went off, it was all business.”
The match itself was a no-holds-barred slugfest that saw Undertaker chokeslam Reigns onto the announce table, only for Reigns to get up and spear his opponent through the Spanish announce table. The 23-minute match went back and forth and saw a series of near falls, including a devastating Last Ride and Tombstone from Undertaker, before a series of Reigns’s spears took down the incomparable Dead Man. After Undertaker performed his signature sit-up, only to collapse, Reigns charged back and forth across the ring, then speared Taker again, leading to the Reigns victory, and (what looked like at the time) Undertaker’s final farewell. After the match, Undertaker symbolically left his trademark gloves, hat, and jacket in the middle of the ring, then staggered to his wife (former WWE Superstar Michelle McCool) and gave her a quick kiss before walking up the ramp and raising his fist in the air to the deafening chant of “Thank you, Taker!” It was Undertaker’s second WrestleMania loss in 25 years.
“I was sad that I was the one who had to do it, but I was happy that I was the one given the responsibility. It’s such a weird emotion,” says Reigns about being the man tapped to possibly retire Taker. “It’s truly one of those deals where I was just like, ‘Man, this should be the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, this should be amazing,’ but at the same time, my heart felt so heavy because I’ve never cared for an opponent more than I did at that moment. I could see almost his whole career in his eyes, the weight that was on him every day of being Undertaker. Having the streak, being around, and setting that bar — that’s stressful, and you can see that when you work with someone of that stature. He has so much passion, so much experience, so much love for this business, and he carries it with him. And that’s just what I learned from him: how to carry that every single day and to give as much as you can while at the same time living in the moment because you never know when it could all end.
“Not everybody is going to be as fortunate as Undertaker and have that long of a career. If I could have half as long of a career, I’ll be happy. Just how aggressive this business is, how there’s no recovery time — all of these bumps add up, and that’s why there’s such a respect for what he was able to accomplish. I just saw something about Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns, how he was able to play ten thousand consecutive snaps in the NFL, and that’s the type of person Undertaker was to this business.”
Reigns calls his time in the ring with Undertaker “a true learning experience,” explaining how incredibly calm Taker is at all times. “He has to be the greatest veteran we’ve ever witnessed: he’s seen everything, he’s done everything, he’s handled every situation,” says Reigns. “I just wanted to take from him — the selling, his facials, the emotions — and just absorb what he does and take a page out of his playbook. That’s actually what I do with every opponent I have. I try to learn from them, take things they do well, and take them for my own. I’m a very nitpicking person. Sometimes I’ll watch the tape back and watch the way I walk, and it might just be one misstep, but that one little step will bother me.
“Undertaker has done it for so long that he knows every step. He knows exactly how he needs to hold his coat as he walks up the steps to how he gets into the ring with his hat. I watch all of that stuff. All of those little details add up, and it’s all those little things that helped him become this big entity, this big superstar, this figure that will never be matched. I’m a lucky, lucky performer to have been able to see that, not on television, but five feet in front of me from inside the ring. I was taking pictures in my mind so I could remember everything. That’s just how I do it. I definitely learned a lot. It was just a one-time thing, but to be able to take what I learned from that experience made me so much better of a performer.”
And while Reigns found the burden of possibly retiring Undertaker heavy, he already knew a year in advance the direction his character was headed: possibly retiring another legend. Everything after WrestleMania 33 is about Creative building Reigns up to fight Brock Lesnar in the main event of WrestleMania 34 in New Orleans. Lesnar’s WWE contract is due to expire the night after WrestleMania 34, and if he doesn’t re-sign in order to head back to the UFC, the main event against Reigns could be Lesnar’s last match.
“It’s an incredible situation that I’m in, a great responsibility, and it’s one of those situations that they don’t teach you,” says Reigns. “They can’t coach you for this. There’s no class where they put you all in the ring and teach you how to main-event WrestleMania and retire legends. Nobody teaches you that, so I find myself in no-man’s-land. But eventually, you have to go out there and perform and kill it or it’s all for nothing. I’m looking forward to it. Regardless of how it shakes out, I look at myself as the main event no matter where I’m at, so I’m going to get it done.”
To Reigns, being at WrestleMania is about more than the main event, however, as he sees the entire week as a reward for the nonstop work he puts in throughout the year. A reward that includes a week of much- needed family time. “There is no off-season,” says Reigns. “We go fifty-two weeks a year, and when it comes down to it, this is the biggest live event of the year, the biggest gathering of people in sports-entertainment. What I’m so passionate about is we get to bring our families. For one full week, they get to be involved, they get to see it, they get to experience the event by our side. That’s the tough part about our business: we’re away from home every single week of the year. I’ve been on tour now for eleven, twelve days straight. I’m coming off of Hurricane Irma; my house was under water, and my wife is having to redo all kinds of stuff without me there. So that’s the tough part of this job. That’s the part a lot of people don’t realize, that we have real lives, but we have to be here to keep the show going, which in turn helps our lives go. It’s a weird connection, but that’s what makes WrestleMania so special, so important, and so much of a reward and a celebration. We all have busted our asses for the past three hundred and sixty-five days, so for us to all be at an event that’s bigger than anything we’ve ever been a part of and to let our loved ones experience it along with us, that’s what is really cool.”
But to get to that point, first Reigns needs to put in the work as he attempts to earn some newfound respect from the audience. “The way this business is built, with injuries, the stories and situations can get shaken up a lot,” says Reigns. “For me, I try not to look too far ahead, I like to go program to program, but at the same time, I want to see the path, I want to know where I’m going to be on the big day. We can ask every talent in here, and every talent wants to be on that WrestleMania card. Someone like me, who has been fortunate enough to be in the main event for the last three years, there’s only one place I want to be, so obviously these next few months are important. I’m going to work with John Cena so I can work my way back to the main event. I’m working a long program with Braun Strowman and helping to get him to the next level, but this is all a building phase for me. The next six months is to build me up so that I can take on someone like a Brock Lesnar. As far as how it all plays out — who knows? I pray it doesn’t happen, but someone could get hurt and everything could change. It has happened with Seth Rollins, it has happened with me and my hernia in the past, and when it happens, it shakes up the entire card. You have an idea where you’re headed, but you have to be willing to improvise.
“In the past, I’ve heard a full year’s plan for me, but then it didn’t end up happening that way at all,” Reigns continues. “Sometimes it just depends on who your program is going to be with and how close Vince holds the plans to his vest. Sometimes you know: I’m going to be with Strowman for three months and we’re going to work our way to an Ambulance Match. Other times, you just don’t know until you show up to the arena. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Man, what am I doing this week?’ I might show up and beat up The Miz, but I’m like, ‘What’s the plan here?’ So sometimes you really are just working week to week rather than knowing the full storyline months in advance. Not only that, but you have to take into account live events too, so we not only have our TV events but our live events, and all of those matches and stories are intertwined.”
And if all roads do lead to Brock, Reigns is ready, as he wants to improve on the hard-hitting slugfest the two had back at WrestleMania 31. “Bret Hart told me that my first WrestleMania match against Brock was an instant classic,” says Reigns. “At the after party, I was beat up and sore, because we just went out there and tried to out-physical everybody. There were a lot of great matches, a lot of great moments, big Superstars with The Rock and Ronda Rousey, but it was our match that everybody went home talking about. They saw our match and were like, ‘Damn, now that was a fight.’ When you’re in the middle of it, you get lost in the moment and you feel like you’re really fighting, especially with a beast like Brock Lesnar slapping you across the jaw. I was getting krunk in there, and I started to feed into my own self, and I think that showed, and I think that type of belief is what made our match so good.
“We are both athletes who can handle that type of physicality, and it’s believable. We were able to go out there and tell a story, and it was a really simple story, so I don’t think it will be difficult for us to top what we already did because now we can throw in a few different elements, a few different wrinkles. That physical fight, that physical brawl that you’ve come to know, that’s just a skill set, and to me, guys like Braun Strowman and Samoa Joe and Bray Wyatt and Brock Lesnar, that physicality is something that you just can’t teach. You can’t teach a brother how to be aggressive, you just have to know how to do it, and me and Brock have that in spades.”
As for the crowd reaction Reigns expects in New Orleans? “Hopefully really loud,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve said it plenty of times, that’s the only thing that matters to me. Make that noise. You paid that money, I’m a grown man, I have thick skin, so you’re not going to hurt my feelings. I’ve been told a lot of different things throughout my life, and I’ve been called a bunch of things. Our whole goal is to get you outside of your regular life. We want to put you in our own version of Disney World for a few hours, and we hope you have fun and enjoy yourself, whether you’re booing me or not. If you’re there, do whatever you want, make as much noise as you want. You can boo me, but I feel good enough about my abilities and I know I can change things up on you at any moment, so I don’t sweat it. I will take you on a ride, you just have to be willing to get a little nuts, get a little crazy, and get a little loud.
“Hell, it’s New Orleans, hopefully by the time I get out there, they’ll all be drunk.”
About the Author
Jon Robinson is an award-winning author and journalist whose work has appeared across media including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, GamePro, and IGN.com. He has written eight books, including Rumble Road, The Attitude Era, NXT: The Future is Now, and Creating the Mania. His book, The Ultimate Warrior: A Life Lived Forever won the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Biography.