WWE Wrestlemania 34: Ronda Rousey Obliterates Expectations

I doubted you, Ronda Rousey. And I’ve rarely been so happy to be wrong. There’s not a single WWE fan who could have sized up Wrestlemania 34‘s card beforehand and said, “Ronda Rousey & Kurt Angle vs. Stephanie McMahon & Triple H will steal the show.”

And yet, that’s exactly what happened, and it was more than petty theft. Was there a better worked or more technically proficient match on the card? Certainly. But this match was the one that lived up to WWE’s self-stylized description of being “sports entertainment.” It was theatrical and dramatic from start to finish. It told a simple, engaging tale of right vs. wrong. And it made a bonafide WWE superstar of Ronda Rousey, who has silenced her critics with her individual performance.

There was cause for concern during the match’s buildup. Rousey had appeared on Raw several times over the last month, but she always looked awkward and stiff. She stumbled over her dialogue. She seemed distracted and easily rattled by the crowds. She was better off when she stayed silent, and as the weeks wore on, WWE reduced her speaking time to a couple of one-liners.

During the final Raw episode prior to Wrestlemania, Triple H, Angle, and Stephanie dominated the “press conference” while Rousey sat and scowled. She may have been, skillswise, “The Baddest Woman on the Planet,” especially when compared to Stephanie McMahon. But in WWE, her character matters as much as her wrestling ability, if not more. And Rousey struggled to convey her emotions verbally, in a way that felt authentic and off-the-cuff.

There’s also the small matter of her prior UFC losses. Rousey got exposed and embarrassed in back-to-back, lopsided fights. Her prior, undefeated ethos was compromised. And this foray into WWE seemed a bit sudden; she was booked for her first match a mere month after her first in-ring appearance. How much had she trained? How much can you train in such a small window of time? Was Rousey taking this match seriously or was this match a mere publicity stunt–one and done? WWE uploaded some of Rousey’s training footage to quell fan anxiety, but even then, it’s easy to edit those clips and selectively show the highlights. Fans needed to see Rousey in a full-length match to know for sure.

Everything started out well. After a leather-clad entrance from Triple H and Stephanie McMahon and an Olympic-inspired entrance from Kurt Angle (it’s really nice to see his patriotic pyro again), Rousey entered the Superdome, wearing Roddy Piper-inspired gear. She had a white tank top that read “Rowdy,” using Piper’s classic font. She wore a tartan skirt over her black tights, a clear tribute to Piper’s kilt.

Rousey was all smiles, but once it was time for competition, she got into killer mode. She got low to the ground, panther-like, and stretched. She bounced on her toes. It’s the same look she always got before the bell rang in the octagon. It was her game face, and suddenly, the Rousey of old was back, not the Rousey who questioned her life’s meaning after a single MMA loss.

WWE prolonged the suspense; Stephanie spent the first third of the match engaging in classic heel tactics. She got a couple of cheap shots in on Rousey before the match even began. She cheated non-stop for her side, even pulling Rousey off the apron when she was about to make a tag. The old ways of getting boos still work, even in 2018.

But finally, Rousey tagged in, and she was a house of fire. She had punch combos. She had bodyslams and Samoan drops. And she had her signature armbar finisher, which she teased several times but failed to lock on to Stephanie.

It quickly became clear that Rousey was much better at this than anyone anticipated. Had she been practicing for months? There were little touches that belied her lack of experience. She seemed to know where the camera was at all times. She paced herself and didn’t run out of gas halfway through. She remembered to sell her injuries; a hard boot and a submission hold to her back both left her screaming in pain.

The crowd, seeing Rousey’s ability, cheered her harder. And after several more highlight reel-worthy shots–like cornering Triple H and simply wailing on him–she locked Stephanie into an immediate armbar. Rousey was even ring savvy enough to delay the payoff ever so slightly. She paused right before stretching Stephanie’s arm backwards, extending the moment of truth by a few seconds.

It goes to show that often, people have a lot more going on than what’s external and obvious. Rousey may not be able to tell an oral story, but she can tell a physical story with her body, and she does it better than most can. She is a phenomenal athlete, and that awareness of her physique allows her to express it well. It’s pretty exciting; Rousey is only going to get better from here on out.

Tonight, when Rousey comes out on the April 9 episode of Raw for a deserved victory lap, the crowd will be eating out of the palm of her hand. Rousey’s next opponent should interrupt the celebration, and it should be a more experienced wrestler–like Natalya, for example. With a full-time in-ring worker to mentor her and carry her during the rough spots, Rousey will continue to improve by leaps and bounds. And once that happens, Charlotte Flair vs. Ronda Rousey won’t be far behind.

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