We may be seven months away from WrestleMania 33 in Orlando, Florida, but with SummerSlam in the rearview mirror, we begin the slow march toward the biggest show of 2017 for the WWE.
A lot can happen from now until April, as we witnessed with Finn Bálor's devastating shoulder injury at SummerSlam, but finding out which direction fans believe things are heading helps us understand how the current storylines are working. It also allows an opportunity to break down each potential match by considering historical precedence and what evidence can currently be gleaned from watching.
We asked our @WWEonESPN Twitter followers to predict what WrestleMania might look like next April, and we reacted to the most interesting responses.
@WWEonESPN Rollins vs Balor
- Brian (@BHam1720) August 26, 2016
This is one of the most logical choices at this early stage, complete with all of the backstory you could ever want. Bálor defeated Seth Rollins to become the first WWE Universal champion, and did so with a damaged shoulder for a large chunk of the match. Bálor's road to recovery and eventual redemption should lead to both Rollins and that championship, and what better stage for the coronation of the next big star than the biggest one WWE has to offer? It seemed that big things were ahead for Bálor before the injury, and while you never hope for such a talented start to be derailed, a WrestleMania payoff would take some of the sting out of it.
Rollins has every reason to want to prove he's the better man, and if Balor is able to return in six months, as the WWE originally estimated, the timing would be perfect ahead of WrestleMania. Everything seems to be working in this matchup's favor as an early favorite to headline the event, save for one; as the WWE showed at SummerSlam, competing for the company's biggest title doesn't always guarantee the top slot on the marquee. With the lingering possibility that any WrestleMania could prove to be the last for aging superstars like The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar, there's no telling what Bálor-Rollins could end up competing with for the main event slot.
@WWEonESPN Undertaker vs. John Cena. Career vs Career Match.
- loveheartcore (@loveheartcore) August 26, 2016
Speaking of matches that could bump championship bouts from the main event spot, this intriguing one (and popular fan theory) would be an almost automatic selection, considering how long each man has been in the WWE and how long each was on the SmackDown roster at the same time. John Cena and The Undertaker haven't been in the ring together since an August 2010 dark match main event -- a triple-threat steel cage match for the WWE championship that also included then-champion Sheamus. Every other time they were in the ring in the same match, dating as far back as 2008, they were in tag team matches and on the same side.
Other sporadic crossovers between the paths of Cena and The Undertaker include:
They were both in the 2008 Royal Rumble, but Undertaker was long gone by the time Cena entered the ring at No. 30.
They were on the opposite sides of two tag matches in 2007; both featured Cena and Shawn Michaels taking on The Undertaker and Batista.
The last time they faced off in a one-on-one match was 2006, in the main event of the Oct. 9 episode of Monday Night Raw. They wrestled for just over four minutes before King Booker and the Big Show interfered, causing a no contest.
The last full-length match between the pair aired on the June 24, 2004 episode of SmackDown. Cena was the United States champion, but after more than 22 minutes in the ring, The Undertaker picked up the victory in a nontitle bout.
The pair had only one stretch where they faced off in a true rivalry, and that dates all the way back to the earliest stages of Cena's career, in 2003. To let you know just how far back that is, Cena was still the "Doctor of Thuganomics" and Undertaker was in his "American Badass" phase. They squared off three times that year, with Cena picking up a win on SmackDown in April, The Undertaker getting the victory in their lone one-on-one pay-per-view match at Vengeance in July, and Cena winning the rubber match the following week on SmackDown.
All of this is to say that it has been over a decade since they squared off in any kind of meaningful match, and they are both at far different points in their careers. It's safe to assume The Undertaker has only a handful of matches (at most) left to wrestle, and there's not much left for Cena in terms of career accomplishments (save for equaling Ric Flair's record of 16 world championship reigns). Unless The Undertaker wants to go out against a young up-and-comer, this has all the makings of the right way to end the run of "The Dead Man" for good.
@WWEonESPN Rollins vs. Reigns vs. Brock
- Joshua Gagnon (@HeelDoors) August 26, 2016
This triple-threat match would be a reprise of the WrestleMania 31 main event, only this time all three would be in the match from the start. There's certainly something interesting to play with there -- Rollins and Roman Reigns will likely feud for as long as both are in the WWE, and there's unfinished business between Brock Lesnar and both of them. The biggest issue here is the amount of star power tied up in one match. If you add in the Universal championship, which either Reigns or Rollins has a good chance of holding next March, you're taking a lot of elements that could have drawing power on their own and throwing them all into one match. It's not unprecedented, but it seems unlikely this will happen at WrestleMania 33. Yet as long as Lesnar sticks around, don't count out the possibility of this match happening at a future WrestleMania.
@WWEonESPN sasha vs bayley
- Joey Nazzari (@CaptDS9E) August 26, 2016
One can appreciate the ambitious desire of seeing two women headline WrestleMania, especially considering the kind of matches Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Bayley have had over the last few years. It makes that kind of vision far less crazy than it might have been before they entered the picture. Yet it still seems we're a ways off from seeing it become a reality.
There are certainly some arguments to be made in their favor. Banks and Bayley had arguably the best match of SummerSlam weekend in 2015 at "NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn," and both the four-way match the aforementioned Four Horsewomen had in NXT and the three-way match between Banks, Lynch and Charlotte at WrestleMania last year were top-class performances.
But another part of the problem here is the exclusion of Charlotte, who is on Raw alongside Banks and Bayley and recently regained the WWE women's championship. Since it seems unlikely Charlotte will be very far from that championship for the foreseeable future, in order for there to be enough star power, experience and balance in the match, Charlotte will have to be involved.
@WWEonESPN Styles vs. Balor
- Jason Shubnell (@JasonShubnell) August 26, 2016
A showdown between Bálor and A.J. Styles is truly compelling, for reasons that reach far beyond the boundaries of their employment in WWE. Once upon a time, Bálor was one of the co-founders of the ever-popular Bullet Club faction in New Japan Pro Wrestling. As they surged in popularity, grabbing hold of nearly every title in the venerated wresting promotion, Bálor took his shot and signed with WWE. His departure from the company happened on the same night Styles debuted as the new leader of Bullet Club, with Styles eventually becoming a two-time IWGP heavyweight champion -- drawing WWE's interest in the process.
Now that Bálor and Styles, along with fellow former Bullet Club members Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, are all under the same WWE banner, there has been a lot of speculation about how they'll interact. Styles, Gallows and Anderson joined up briefly as The Club before being split up by the brand extension draft, and there was even a brief backstage video segment at SummerSlam where they teased an interaction between the four; Styles himself mentioned that it was "only a matter of time before you see two of those guys in the same ring against each other."
There would have to be some maneuvering of the rosters, or some cross-brand story to tie them together, but with the way each has performed since their WWE debuts, there's little doubt Bálor and Styles could put on one hell of a show in front of a WrestleMania crowd.
Even if it doesn't quite come to fruition in Orlando, it would be quite the surprise if we don't see these two square off in the near-future, provided Bálor gets healthy and Styles stays that way.
@WWEonESPN Reigns vs Cena, unfortunately (?)
- Mark Barroso (@Mark_Barroso) August 26, 2016
While Mark is down on this match -- and I'm sure he's not alone -- this would be a good idea and a very compelling test case in front of the kind of crowd that WrestleMania tends to draw.
There's no denying that WWE has done everything in its power to make Reigns the next Cena. Reigns has succeeded in certain aspects, putting on big matches in the ring with the likes of Styles, Rollins and Triple H, along with his appeal to younger WWE fans. But it's a tremendous burden for Reigns to have to live up to the level of expectations that Cena has established over the last 15 years of his career.
Both Cena and Reigns have a clear delineation among fans who boo and cheer them, but the prevailing theory is that fans boo Cena because they're used to it and because it's fun; singing "John Cena sucks" along with the beat of his entrance theme is the same kind of thing people used to do to Kurt Angle, even when he was at the peak of his popularity. Cena has stepped up the level of his in-ring performances the past several years, with the United States championship open challenge allowing him to go shot-for-shot with some of the best in-ring performers in the world, to say nothing of his highly praised rivalry with Styles.
Reigns has steadily improved in the ring since The Shield broke up, but the way he has been pushed has left a lot of fans bitter. Few could benefit more than Reigns from a match opposite Cena, who has been vigilant in proclaiming his desire for someone to step up and take his mantle.
This match would be truly compelling at WrestleMania 33, if only to find out how the crowd would react to each superstar. Would Cena finally get a full crowd of cheers for the first time in years? Would both men be booed?
At the very least, it would make for a strong social experiment.