'WrestleMania' thrills fans with made-for-TV action

As much as the thrill of WrestleMania XXX was being among the 75,167 ecstatic fans packed into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night, the event really is a made-for-TV product.

Even for those in the Dome, the focus was on the screen — seven big screens over the ring and around the stadium — that displayed the action as Daniel Bryan ended the exhilarating show when he overcame a “shoulder injury” to win two matches and best five opponents to take the WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt in the ring.

Those screens not only made the action visible to those in the upper tiers, but they showed video packages that gave the matches context.

One shown before Bryan faced Triple H established his history in the WWE mythology as someone smaller and less muscled than other wrestlers. He had to win against Triple H to earn a place in the championship contest that ended the show, and he did so in a very entertaining match that energized the crowd. When one section started chanting “Yes!” in support of Bryan, it was quickly joined by fans throughout the Dome, getting exponentially louder in moments.

The WWE has always offered viewers a choice: Play along, or sit on the sidelines tsk’ing that it’s not real. Both are reasonable positions, but one is more fun.

By now, most people know it’s not real, and that Triple H didn’t really injure Bryan’s shoulder two weeks ago on WWE’s “Monday Night Raw.” But Bryan acted injured, and the audience went along with him as he struggled to overcome Triple H’s attacks on the shoulder during and even after the match, when he whacked it with a folding chair after losing.

Nonetheless, Bryan returned for the championship match at the end of the night against Randy Orton and Batista, who had help at ringside from Triple H and his wife, the WWE’s Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon. At one point, they even pulled the referee out of the ring and inserted a crooked substitute.

Bryan overcame these obstacles and being smashed through a broadcasters’ table at ringside by Orton and Batista simultaneously. He climbed off a stretcher that was wheeling him toward the backstage area to re-enter the match and put Batista in a submission hold. Batista quit and Bryan won the belt. Confetti poured into the Dome in celebration.

WrestleMania XXX offered a rock concert’s sense of spectacle, with lasers, light shows, smoke machines and pyrotechnics to build excitement. One of the most thrilling moments for fans came at the beginning, when three of the best-known stars from WWE’s past — Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock — entered the ring one by one. Austin and The Rock were surprises that earned a “This is awesome!” chant from the audience.

The two and the crowd good-naturedly riffed on Hogan’s erroneous reference to the Superdome as the Silverdome. Some of their patter was lost in the echo of the stadium, but the WWE specializes in larger-than-life characters, and these three are some of its biggest, so seeing them together felt special.

Another one of its biggest characters is the Undertaker, who came into the night with an enviable WrestleMania win streak of 21 in a row. The length of the streak hinted at his age, and his match with former UFC fighter Brock Lesner moved slowly. The two WWE superstars walked and slugged each other for much of the match, which meant more if you were emotionally attached to the Undertaker and his streak.

It was clear that time and injuries have slowed him, but the audience still was stunned when Lesner hit the Undertaker for the third time with his finishing move and pinned him. Nobody thought the WWE would let the longtime crowd favorite lose. The audience was flat for much of the match, but it gave the Undertaker an enthusiastic, curtain call-like ovation when he eventually left the ring, knowing that he can’t have many more WrestleManias in him.

The audience struggled as well with ultimate boy scout John Cena’s match with Southern Gothic cult leader Bray Wyatt. The match’s story was that Wyatt wanted to prove Cena had a dark side, and he offered Cena a number of chances to let his violent, mean streak loose.

Wyatt’s one of the WWE’s rising stars, and he’s a compellingly freaky in-ring figure, but because the match was largely about what was going on in Cena’s head, it was a little slow. In the end, Cena resisted the urge to whack Wyatt with a folding chair, instead using it to knock one of Wyatt’s minions off the ring apron before defeating Wyatt himself.

The night had an unlikely star in someone appearing in his first WrestleMania: Cesaro. He appeared in two matches — one with four tag-teams, and a battle royal that he won by scooping up the favorite and aptly named Big Show and dropping him over the top rope. In the tag match, he carried much of the action for his team, the Real Americans, but he was pinned, which earned him ire and retribution from his partner, Jack Swagger. Their fight at the end seemed to signal that time’s running out for their tag team, and Cesaro got the best of it as well.

It’s a sign of the strength of the E! Network’s “Total Divas” reality show that a 14-woman divas match was scheduled near the end of WrestleMania, but it was a pretty incoherent event in which anybody could pin anybody to win the Divas Championship belt from AJ Lee. Each diva got a noteworthy moment, but none of it made much of an impact.

In the end, Lee retained her title when she put Naomi in a submission move and, with a hand partly shielded from the referee, grabbed Naomi’s hand and pounded it on the mat, giving the ref the impression that Naomi had signaled she’d had enough. It was a move so subtle and small that many in the Dome missed it when it happened and were as confused by the ending as by the match itself. They got it when they saw the replay on the big screens.