By Keith Elliot Greenberg
WrestleMania 34, “the granddaddy of them all,” is scheduled for this Sunday, April 8, and the WWE Universe has been buzzing about the confrontations fans most want to see. Astute followers of sports-entertainment are well aware that these will not be isolated skirmishes, but just the beginning of hostilities that will continue on WWE’s two flagship television shows -- Monday Night Raw, seen on USA Mondays at 8/7c, and Smackdown Live, broadcast on USA on Tuesdays at 8/7c.
Although every match at WrestleMania 34 inspires intrigue, here are the six that truly stand out:
AJ Styles (WWE Champion) Vs. Shinsuke Nakamura
It’s a matchup that many believe will steal the show at WrestleMania 34, the modern-day equivalent of Randy “Macho Man” Savage vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat at WrestleMania III, the Bret “Hit Man” Hart vs. Shawn Michaels ironman match at WrestleMania XII, and Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock at WrestleMania X-Seven.
Shinsuke Nakamura and WWE Champion AJ Styles have been on a parallel course since long before either entered WWE. In some ways, their WrestleMania 34 battle has been preordained.
At the Money in the Bank pay-per-view in June, the WWE Universe received a sneak preview of what might transpire on Sunday, as the pair engaged in a thrilling battle on the top of the ladder positioned in mid-ring -- until the eventual winner, Baron Corbin, tipped it over.
In January, Nakamura won the Royal Rumble, eliminating Roman Reigns in the final moments and earning a WrestleMania 34 title shot. Asked which crown he intended to pursue -- the WWE Championship or Universal title -- the “King of Strong Style” didn’t even deliberate before announcing his desire to go after Styles.
It will be Nakamura’s first WrestleMania -- and arguably, Styles’ most memorable one.
Brock Lesnar (WWE Universal Champion) Vs. Roman Reigns
This is a clash three years in the making, since the pair first collided at WrestleMania 31.
Although “The Beast Incarnate” rarely backs down from a fight, Reigns has been openly frustrated by Lesnar’s part-time schedule, branding the WWE Universal Champion a blow-in who treats WWE as a side hobby. Amid rumors that Lesnar -- a former UFC Champion -- might again choose to compete at MMA, Reigns, a second-generation Superstar, has depicted himself as a warrior who’ll always put WWE first.
Lesnar’s response to the taunts have been brutal. On the March 19th edition of Monday Night Raw, the WWE Universal Champion stormed the ring, battering a handcuffed Reigns with a steel chair. When paramedics placed the challenger on a stretcher, Lesnar attacked again.
In another clash this past Monday, Reigns believed he’d achieved a measure of revenge, hitting Lesnar with five superman punches. But when Roman looked away for a split second, Lesnar rose and executed his deadly F5.
It was a mistake Reigns claims he’ll never make again. WrestleMania 34 is not just a chance to secure the Universal title, he says, but his destiny.
Charlotte Flair (SmackDown Women's Champion) Vs. Asuka
Asuka positioned herself for the number-one contender’s spot when she won the first Women’s Royal Rumble in January. Flair was watching backstage, hoping that the unbeaten “Empress of Tomorrow” would use the opportunity to challenge for the Smackdown Women's title, rather than the Raw championship, at WrestleMania 34.
That’s because Charlotte -- the daughter of WWE Hall of Famer “Nature Boy” Ric Flair -- had been raised to put on the best match on the card. As soon as Asuka announced her desire to take on the Smackdown Women’s Champion, Flair was confident that fans would be witnessing a classic.
More than any other woman in WWE, Charlotte is the most accomplished, having held the titles on both Raw and Smackdown, as well as WWE’s developmental league, NXT. But she and Asuka have never met in combat, which means that, regardless of the outcome, fans will witness a rare first.
Although Asuka expects to turn up on next week’s Smackdown Live with the gold, Charlotte pledges to enhance her legend by becoming the first WWE competitor to fell her Osaka-born challenger. “To be the woman,” she boasts, paraphrasing her famous father, “you have to beat the woman.”
Kurt Angle & Ronda Rousey Vs. Stephanie McMahon & Triple H
In March, WWE executives Triple H and his wife, Stephanie McMahon, announced that Rousey, a former Olympic medalist and UFC champion, had agreed to compete in WWE. When “the baddest woman on the planet” arrived for her contract signing, she was accompanied by Monday Night Raw General Manager, Kurt Angle -- a multiple WWE kingpin and an Olympic gold medalist himself. But what should have been an exuberant moment quickly degenerated, as Angle revealed that WWE’s first couple had insulted Ronda behind her back. As the situation became more heated, Rousey slammed Triple H through a table and received a slap across the face from Stephanie.
A match involving the four was soon made for WrestleMania 34.
Although Rousey is accomplished in both judo and MMA, Stephanie points out that “Rowdy Ronda” is an untested commodity in the sport of kings -- while the woman once known as the “Billion Dollar Princess” was born into the industry. On the April 2nd edition of Monday Night Raw, Stephanie exhibited the craftiness she learned from her father Vince McMahon by coming up on Rousey and putting her through a table.
Sheamus & Cesaro (Raw Tag Team Champions) Vs. Braun Strowman & Mystery Partner
WWE rules stipulate that the tag team title match must be a two-on-two encounter. Yet, the 6’8,” 385-pound behemoth seems to have other ideas.
On the March 12th edition of Raw, he won a tag team battle royal to determine the number-one contenders without the aid of a partner. On this past Monday's show, after officials demanded that he find a teammate for the championship match at WrestleMania 34, he stomped backstage and came out, wearing a flimsy disguise. Although he claimed to be a twin brother named “Brain Strowman,” WWE authorities were neither amused nor persuaded.
So who will Strowman pick for his matchup? Will it be someone just as brutal, or a less menacing adversary who’ll allow Braun to do the heavy lifting he desires? Sheamus and Cesaro -- in the midst of their fourth Raw Tag Team Championship reign -- are clearly tired of their competitor's theatrics. When the final bell tolls, they vow, both Braun’s body and reputation will be broken.
Daniel Bryan & Shane McMahon Vs. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn
It’s the match nobody expected.
When Smackdown Live commissioner Shane McMahon announced his intention to pit Kevin Owens against Sami Zayn at Wrestlemania 34, the two flew into a frenzy. After pummeling McMahon, they placed a chair around his neck and rammed him into the ring post -- then pulled him backstage and delivering a tandem powerbomb onto some cold steel.
On the March 20th edition of Smackdown Live, the show’s General Manager, Daniel Bryan, fired the pair for their actions. In response, Owens and Zayn assaulted Bryan with the same savagery they’d shown Shane.
By circumstance, doctors had just been cleared Bryan to compete in WWE -- two years after head injuries forced a temporary retirement. He and McMahon quickly agreed to unite at WrestleMania 34 -- with the stipulation that, if Owens and Zayn lose, their termination is permanent.
The matchup has fans both excited to see Bryan back in the ring -- and scared that the perilous pair might retire him again, this time permanently.