By Keith Elliot Greenberg
Despite his exalted status on Monday Night Raw, Roman Reigns remembers the excitement of watching WrestleMania as a fan. His favorite moment: Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock at WrestleMania X8 at Toronto's SkyDome in 2002.
That The Rock and Reigns are cousins had little impact on Roman's emotions that day. Hogan was returning to WrestleMania after a long sabbatical and -- although his recent deeds and associations had been questionable -- the fans couldn't help but favor him against his normally popular opponent.
“The energy was intense,” Reigns recalls. “They had the crowd from the word, 'Go.'”
Now, the pressure is on Reigns to make WrestleMania 34 -- scheduled for Sunday, April 8at 8/7c --just as memorable, as he challenges Brock Lesnar for the WWE Universal Championship. It's being touted as a watershed moment in the history of sports-entertainment, and one that Reigns has been long contemplating.
Over the last several years -- through triumph and disappointment, adulation and adversity -- Reigns has been working towards this moment. But what occurs inside the ring at New Orleans' Mercedes-Benz Superdome is bigger than just WrestleMania 34. The fallout from the World Cup of sports-entertainment will be permanently felt on both Monday Night Raw (Mondays at 8/7c on USA Network) and SmackDown Live (Tuesdays at 8/7c on USA Network).
No one understands this better than Reigns, who defeated the Undertaker last year at WrestleMania 33, then opened up the following night's Raw with what was supposed to be an interview segment. As with Hogan in 2002, the Undertaker's long history had engendered so much devotion that even loyal soldiers of the “Roman Empire” expressed hostility towards their leader.
Every time Roman raised the microphone to his lips, he was met with jeers and chants, forcing him to place the object at his side and wait for the noise to recede. When it didn't, he managed to deliver five words that everyone understood.
“This is my yard now,” he uttered, referring to the Undertaker's onetime claim as the “biggest dog in the yard.”
It's taken a full year for Reigns to be given the opportunity to definitively prove that he was speaking the truth.
In the same night as Reigns' short-but-pointed proclamation, WWE announced a “Superstar Shakeup” for the following week. Since WrestleMania marks both the beginning and end of what amounts to the WWE playing season, it makes sense that officials would use the subsequent episodes of Raw and SmackDown to change around the two rosters.
Following WrestleMania 33, The Miz, Dean Ambrose, and Bray Wyatt, among others, were shifted to Raw, while SmackDown Live received Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Charlotte Flair, and Rusev.
As fans watch the action at WrestleMania 34 on Sunday, there will be much speculation about how both Raw and SmackDown Live will be transformed afterwards.
With WrestleMania 34 attendees -- some of whom are traveling to the event from such far-flung locations as Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom -- remaining in New Orleans for both live programs, the mood of both Raw and SmackDown Live will be markedly different from an average broadcast.
On the Raw that followed WrestleMania 29, for instance, the fans essentially took over the show, loudly humming Fandango's theme music, becoming completely unhinged when Dolph Ziggler cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Things became so raucous that, at one point, the audience started a chant for referee Mike Chioda.
Among other notable post-WrestleMania Raws:
- After being defeated by The Rock at WrestleMania 27, John Cena appeared on Raw and demanded a rematch -- at WrestleMania 28! It was the only time that a WrestleMania match was ever made a year in advance.
- In 2008, after losing a retirement match to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24, a tearful Ric Flair was celebrated on Raw as family members, tag team partners, and opponents filed into the ring to embrace the “Nature Boy.”
- Two days after being inducted into the 2014 WWE Hall of Fame, and a day after being introduced to the crowd at WrestleMania XXX, the 54-year-old Ultimate Warrior appeared on Raw, wearing his signature face paint and communicating directly with fans at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. “Every man's heart one day beats its final beat,” he prolifically said. “His lungs breathe a final breath.” Less than 24 hours later, the Ultimate Warrior passed away.
The post-WrestleMania SmackDown tradition is far shorter than that of Raw, since the program was previously pre-taped. But as of July 2016, USA began airing SmackDown live, leading to the type of spontaneity the WWE Universe had grown accustomed to on Monday nights. On last year's SmackDown Live, for example, fans were in a frenzy when Shinsuke Nakamura was officially elevated to WWE's main roster, after holding the title in NXT, the company's highly-regarded developmental league.
Making the most of the opportunity, Nakamura has become one of the most exciting WWE Superstars ever. Following his 2018 Royal Rumble victory, the charismatic “King of Strong Style” is slated to challenge AJ Styles for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 34.
If Nakamura's compatriot Asuka is successful in her Raw Women's Championship challenge to Charlotte Flair, it could mark the first time that two Japanese natives of different genders have worn the gold in WWE.
Yet former Raw Women's Champion Bayley is focused on another first: the inaugural WrestleMania Women's Battle Royal. She anticipates the match to become an annual tradition -- and an institution greatly influencing the intrigue of Raw and SmackDown.
“It will sound cheesy,” she admits, “but WrestleMania is what dreams are made of, and where dreams come true.”
KEITH ELLIOT GREENBERG is the co-author of the autobiographies of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, “Classy” Freddie Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham, and the third edition of the WWE Encyclopedia of Sports Entertainment.