It’s WrestleMania week, with the ‘Show of Shows’ set to take place on Sunday night. Every day between now and the big event, Tom Beasley takes a look at a different element of the build-up. Today, it’s the mounting pressure on the shoulders of Ronda Rousey ahead of her rookie match…
Earlier this week, I wrote about how the WrestleMania 34 main event clash between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar is a reprise of a rivalry that began three years ago at WrestleMania 31. At that same event, UFC icon Ronda Rousey made her first appearance at a WWE show, joining forces with The Rock to humble WWE’s power couple, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. Three years later, Rousey is a full-time wrestler and is tagging with Raw general manager Kurt Angle against the aforementioned power couple. It’s a marquee spot that piles the pressure on WWE’s rookie performer.
Rousey is arguably the most important signing WWE has ever made, and certainly the most significant since Brock Lesnar returned to the company back in 2012. While the likes of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura were huge figures from the wrestling world to sign, they can’t compare in a mainstream cultural sense to the most successful female combat athlete ever. Everything Rousey does in WWE is going to make news outside of the wrestling bubble, which gives everyone cause to be nervous.
There’s no shaking the fact that this match feels slightly more thrown together than it should given the years of foundations. The ideal partner for Rousey would obviously have been The Rock, but he is the busiest movie star in the world and hasn’t wrestled in a WWE ring for more than 30 seconds in five years. In his place is Kurt Angle – a man held together by hours of surgery, yards of kinesio tape and the power of sheer hope. With Rousey an unknown quantity in the ring and Angle always at risk of crumbling like a sandcastle in the rain, the match could be a disaster, not least given Triple H’s newfound habit of working so slowly that he sends half of the crowd to sleep every time he wrestles.
Rousey herself has hardly done her bit to fill the WWE audience with comfort. When she appeared at the Royal Rumble in January, she was a weird combination of defiant, scowl-faced pointing and broad smiles for the fans. Her subsequent appearances have alternated between clunky promos that make Nikki Bella look like Dusty Rhodes and aggressive physicality that, while rough around the edges, at least hints at her athletic prowess as a feared fighter. The question marks are deafening.
It’s telling that, if the WrestleMania match fails to live up to expectations, it will be Rousey who bears the brunt of the negative reaction. Despite the star power on both sides of the bout, this is being billed as Rousey’s debut match above anything else. It’s her who will reap the benefits if it works, but a failure of a match will paint an immediate picture in the minds of some fans. Once a certain corner of the WWE Universe makes up its mind about someone’s in-ring ability, it’s tough to change that. Just ask Roman Reigns.
The thing is, Ronda Rousey isn’t going anywhere. Whether she’s as creaky as Kurt Angle or as immediately talented as, well, Kurt Angle, her star power is such that she will be a major force in the WWE for years to come. She has to be considered to be the odds-on favourite to ultimately snap Asuka’s undefeated streak and, at next year’s WrestleMania, the smart money would be on her competing in a match for one of the two women’s championships.
It’s difficult to remember a time in recent memory in which a rookie match has been forced to carry so much weight. The expectations upon Ronda Rousey’s shoulders weigh very heavily indeed and you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. It almost certainly won’t be the most obvious wrestling classic on the WrestleMania card but, if WWE wants to push Rousey as quickly as they almost certainly desire, she has to bring it on the biggest stage.
Tomorrow: How the return of Daniel Bryan has rescued the most muddled Mania season feud in recent memory.
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.