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Wrestlemania 31: a beginner's guide to the biggest wrestling event of the year

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We're only a couple of days away from Wrestlemania 31, the biggest annual wrestling event and one of the few occasions each year where more casual or even non-wrestling fans perk up their ears and might consider watching. If you count yourself in that crowd — or if you're a lapsed fan looking to get back in, or a current viewer who just wants a reminder — this guide is for you.

I'm going to run down each match and provide some simple backstory of why this match exists, what the stakes are and if you should care.

To get the basics out of the way first: Wrestlemania is a yearly wrestling supercard — that is, a collection of big showcase matches featuring a promotion's biggest stars. Though at this point they have monthly special events, Wrestlemania has been WWE's premiere happening since it first started in 1985.

Traditionally, Wrestlemania includes anywhere from six to a dozen matches. Some of these are champions defending their title belts, while others are the conclusions to ongoing storylines. In a lot of ways, this event operates similarly to a season finale of a television series; major plots from the past six months to a year are wrapped up, while threads are laid for the next batch of rivalries, struggles and triumphs.

Wrestlemania 31 will be held in Santa Clara, California this Sunday, with live broadcasts available via pay-per-view or the WWE's subscription-based service, WWE Network. Here's what's waiting for us this year.

the curtain jerks

Wrestlemania 31 battle royal

Second Annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal

Oh my gosh, if you don't know what a Battle Royal is, you're in for a treat. In this ridiculous match, a huge number of wrestlers — usually anywhere between 20 and 40 — all start in the ring at the same time. Each wrestler can only be eliminated by being tossed over the top rope of the ring and having both feet land on the floor below it. The last wrestler standing in the ring is the winner.

Battle royal matches are, for lack of a better phrase, a complete clusterfuck, and I love them for it.

The Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal started last year at Wrestlemania 30, where Cesaro won top honors and was subsequently ignored and mishandled for the rest of the year, so fear for whoever wins this go-round. So far WWE has announced 20 entrants, but there's almost definitely going to be at least one surprise.

As far as storylines heading into this confusing mess, there are a few major players who are more likely to win. First off, there Damien Mizdow. Mizdow was previously failing to go anywhere under the name Damien Sandow, until he decided to become the stunt double for The Miz, a much-hated wrestler whose gimmick is that he's a Hollywood hotshot. The crowd quickly warmed to Mizdow's goofy antics, which has led to increasing tension between him and his employer, The Miz. In the middle of a battle royal is as good a place as any for the long-teased break-up of these two to happen, and it would gain extra weight if it does so while giving Mizdow the victory.

Battle royal matches are a clusterfuck, and I love them for it

Or there's Ryback, a big, beefy wrestler who sets crowds on fire with his silly catchphrase, "Feed me more." Ryback spent much of 2014 struggling to get noticed, then disappeared off TV with an injury for several months. Since his return in November, though, WWE has been pushing him hard, even without any major belts to go after. A victory in this battle royal could be the next bit of prestige he needs to rebuild his character and make him a serious contender for bigger and better things.

In the always-possible worst case scenario, WWE may opt to go with a bigger wrestler — one who could at least begin to match up to the size and strength of Andre the Giant. Kane and the Big Show, two old-as-hell wrestlers who somehow haven't retired yet, are the most likely to fit that bill. Though they're technically both members of the same team — WWE's current big bad guy squad, The Authority — Kane and Show have been bickering an awful lot lately, teasing that they both want to come out on top of this match. There's also the added wrinkle of Mark Henry, another large, powerful and very old wrestler who used to be teammates with Big Show before an angry break-up last year.

And finally, in the realm of underdogs who I'd be incredibly excited to see win, there's Hideo Itami. This wrestler made a huge name for himself on various Japanese circuits before heading to North America to work as part of NXT, WWE's smaller developmental roster where they train new talent. Earlier this week, Itami won a special NXT tournament in order to earn a spot in the battle royal against mainstream WWE wrestlers. How incredible would it be for his career if he comes into his first proper WWE match and his first Wrestlemania match, defies the odds and wins?

Of course, those are just a few of the most likely winners. It's always possible WWE could throw us for a loop and handpick someone who doesn't have as much build or buzz as a way to kickstart their career. There are over a dozen other floundering wrestlers here — people like Fandango, Zack Ryder and Erick Rowan — and there's always a chance (however small) that any of them could end up taking a victory here to start building a new star for the coming year's stories.

Wrestlemania 31 tag team

Tag Team Title Match Fatal 4-Way: Tyson Kidd and Cesaro vs. The New Day vs. Lost Matadores vs. The Usos

Before Wrestlemania proper begins, WWE will be warming up the audience with a two-hour kickoff show. While this mostly consists of "expert analysis" of the night to come and hype videos, it will feature a couple of matches, including the battle royal and ... this much less exciting fight.

As the name suggests, the tag team title is actually two belts held by a team and defended in matches where they can tag their partners in and out. And a "Fatal 4-Way" is fancy WWE language for four opponents (or in this case, four teams) fighting each other rather than a one-on-one battle.

There's an obvious reason that the tag team title match got relegated to the pre-show: It's arguably the match with the absolute least storyline on the whole card. WWE's tag team division has felt rather shallow for some time now. A lukewarm feud between current champs Tyson Kidd and Cesaro, and previous champs the Usos, has failed to really drive any electricity to the division. Meanwhile, the other two teams, The New Day and Los Matadores, don't have particularly strong records and don't really feel like they deserve to be competing for a championship.

This all sounds bad, but there's one important reason to not discount this match completely: For whatever poor writing they've been receiving, pretty much every wrestler in this match is a very good performer. Cesaro and Tyson Kidd in particular are always entertaining. The high-flying antics of Los Matadores and The Usos can get a little repetitive, but in a strong match with a lot of momentum, they can also be really fun to watch.

Basically for this one, watch it if you feel like it, but don't worry too much about being invested in the outcome.

The workhorses

Wrestlemania 31 U.S. championship

United States Championship Match: Rusev vs. John Cena

Here's everything you need to know about Rusev: He's a big, scary dude who the WWE originally introduced to audiences as "the Bulgarian brute." Uncomfortable with ascribing a nationality that may not mean anything to the average viewer, the WWE repackaged Rusev as a hardcore Russian nationalist, a Cold War era-style cartoon bad guy who constantly praises Vladimir Putin and talks trash on the United States. Then, to rub salt in the wounds of hyper-patriotic wrestling fans, they gave him the United States championship.

Here's everything you need to know about John Cena: He's a big, boring dude who has dominated the main event scene in WWE for years now. After his latest series of failed attempts to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Cena has backed down and decided to set his sights on a seemingly more attainable prize: the United States title. In the run-up to Wrestlemania, Cena has played up how much he loves America and how he wants to win this belt primarily because he hates Russians or something.

Cena actually already had a shot at Rusev and the U.S. title during WWE's Fastlane event. In that match, Rusev put Cena in a submission hold until he passed out. This a running theme with Rusev, and one of the reasons that the dude has literally never lost a one-on-one match in the whole year that he's been part of WWE's main roster.

For as much as I make fun of John Cena, this should be an entertaining match. Rusev is a beast in the ring, and Cena is a skilled enough worker to help carry him even further. That said, I fully expect Cena to win the title in order to provide a feel good moment for any xenophobes in the audience.

Wrestlemania 31 divas match

AJ Lee and Paige vs. The Bella Twins

This is the sole women's match — or, as the WWE prefers to call them, "divas match" — of Wrestlemania, and bizarrely it's not even for the Diva's Championship. Instead current Divas Champion Nikki Bella will team up with her sister Brie to take on previous champs AJ Lee and Paige.

For as strange and haphazardly thrown together as this match feels, I'm actually really looking forward to it. The Bellas play the role of evil twins perfectly. AJ Lee and Paige used to share super shallow and somewhat offensive "crazy girl" personas, but over the past few weeks WWE has built their friendship into something that feels a little more realistic and a little less over-the-top. AJ Lee, in particular, has been increasingly coming off as a wise veteran trying to mentor a much younger, less put-together Paige.

they're so much more than what WWE tends to give women wrestlers

These aren't incredibly deep roles and they could certainly use more fleshing out, but they're so much more than what the WWE tends to give its women wrestlers these days. If nothing else, it's a small glimpse of hope for the future.

Or it will be if WWE doesn't find some way to ruin it. On the plus side, AJ and Paige are both really excellent performers, and the Bellas have improved by leaps and bounds as well in recent months. As long as they're given enough time, this match should be worth watching.

The show stealers

Wrestlemania 31 ladder match

Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match

Here's my early pick for match of the show. In this match, seven (!) of the WWE's most talented wrestlers will be attempting to climb a ladder and grab the Intercontinental Championship belt, which will be hanging high above the ring. Think of the Intercontinental belt as something just one or two rungs below the World Heavyweight Championship — in other words, the perfect place for wrestlers who may not have the "look" WWE wants in their main champion but who may actually be better in the ring than anyone else.

I'm in love with basically everyone in this match, but a lot of the momentum here is in favor of Daniel Bryan. At last year's Wrestlemania, Bryan was on top of the world, winning two matches against three opponents in one night to become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Sadly, his championship reign was cut short by injury, and when he returned to action at the start of this year, it was clear that the WWE no longer wanted him in the main event scene. Perhaps a nice healthy run as the Intercontinental champ could keep him busy for the time being.

Or there's someone like Dolph Ziggler who is — and I'm trying not to exaggerate here — literally the best wrestler in the WWE. Okay, maybe not, but for real, Ziggler puts on incredible match after incredible match and has somehow still struggled to move up in the roster. Late last year, he started getting more of a push, beginning by winning a major main event at WWE's Survivor Series. Ziggler has already held the Intercontinental title for several brief runs in 2014; maybe Wrestlemania 31 is the time to kick off a much more prolonged run.

Or there's Dean Ambrose, the greaser-looking dude who's main gimmick is being an "unstable" bad-ass. Or Stardust, the actual crazy person who believes that championship belts are actually "cosmic keys" that will grant him greater power. Or R-Truth, a wrestler with the gimmick of being a rapper who has also demonstrated surprising range as a source of comedy over the past few weeks.

This is one of those fantastic, rare WWE matches where I can honestly say that I would be happy with anyone here winning. Mostly I'm just looking forward to what's sure to be an incredible fight.

Wrestlemania 31 Orton Rollins

Randy Orton vs. Seth Rollins

The story goes like this: Once upon a time, say six months ago or so, Randy Orton and Seth Rollins were both part of The Authority, a group that ensured their continued domination against everyone else on the WWE roster. But they didn't get along very well. Orton had been with The Authority since it first formed way back in 2013 and with the WWE since the early 2000s, whereas Rollins was new blood, a cocky upstart who loudly proclaims himself "the future of the WWE" at every turn.

this could be the best singles match on the whole card

Those tensions built for months until finally they exploded: Seth Rollins beat the crap out of Orton, causing (storyline) injuries that put him out of action for months. When Orton returned last month, he pretended to forgive and forget and got buddy-buddy with Rollins. Finally, at the opportune time, Orton turned and got his vengeance.

The build-up to this match hasn't been handled perfectly, but it has the opportunity to be one of the best matches at the show. These guys are both excellent performers, and although they've clashed many times over the last few weeks, it's never been in a proper one-on-one match. Rollins has always had help in the form of Authority thugs like Kane and Big Show or his own personal bodyguards, J&J Security.

Assuming those distractions are mostly kept away from the ring and this is a legitimate test of skill, this could be the best singles match on the whole card.

The main eventers

Wrestlemania 31 undertaker

The Undertaker vs. Bray Wyatt

Last year was a rough year for The Undertaker. This wrestling legend had fought for 21 consecutive years, and he had never lost a Wrestlemania match. Then he went up against Brock Lesnar, a monstrous opponent who we'll get to later. His streak was ended, and viewers were shocked.

Rather than let the man retire in peace, WWE has come up with another interesting opponent The Undertaker: Bray Wyatt. These two actually match up incredibly well, better than Taker and Lesnar. See, Undertaker has always been a supernaturally-driven character. He's obsessed with death. He used to carry an urn around, claiming it was the source of his power. He has a predilection toward dumping his enemies in coffins.

Bray Wyatt, meanwhile, was the founder of an obsessive cult in his WWE debut a few years ago. When he talks on the mic, it's less like a wrestler cutting a promo and more like a preacher giving a sermon — if that preacher were mostly talking about how much he loves chaos and suffering and watching the world burn.

Interestingly, WWE has chosen to build this match without any input from The Undertaker himself. Besides a message accepting the match, the "dead man" has not appeared on WWE programming at all leading up to Wrestlemania. Instead, Wyatt has carried the build all by himself, delivering intense monologues about how he wants to put away the Undertaker so that he can be the WWE's "new face of fear."

Given the strange build and Undertaker's increasing age and inability to work a really long, intense match, I can't shake the feeling that WWE has something extra weird and surprising in store for this one. Whatever it is, I hope it leads to a greater push for Wyatt. His mic skills are basically unparalleled in the WWE right now.

Wrestlemania 31 Sting

Sting vs. Triple H

If you've heard about wrestling even in passing over the last 25 years, there's a good chance you've heard of a facepaint-wearing wrestler named Sting. But you may not realize one important fact: This will be the first match Sting has ever wrestled in a WWE ring.

See, Sting grew to fame as part of World Championship Wrestling (or WCW), the WWE's primary competition in the '80s and '90s. While other wrestlers jumped back and forth between the two, Sting stayed loyal to WCW. In 2001, WWE actually bought out WCW, and Sting was one of the only major wrestlers not to transition over. And he stayed away for another 14 years.

This will be the first match Sting has ever wrestled in a WWE ring

Late last year, Sting made his first ever WWE appearance in a match where he stopped Triple H from screwing over another wrestler. Triple H, the storyline COO of the WWE and head of the Authority, didn't take kindly to this and claimed Sting's interference was all about jealousy over the WWE thriving where WCW failed. Sting, on the other hand, has said he's just here to take Triple H down.

Whatever the motivations, this match has had one of the better build-ups of the Wrestlemania 31 card. Triple H and Sting are both older wrestlers, so they're not going to be blowing us away with speed, but they're also both masterful in-ring storytellers. I expect that even as performers nearing retirement match age, they'll be able to put on a good show that really helps celebrate Sting finally fighting a match with WWE.

Wrestlemania 31 world heavyweight championship

WWE World Heavyweight Championship: Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns

And here's the big one. Let me start by explaining how the WWE World Heavyweight Championship match at Wrestlemania works. Every year in January, WWE holds an event called Royal Rumble, which is a variation on the aforementioned battle royal. The winner of the Royal Rumble gets a ticket to a world title match at Wrestlemania.

This year, much to the chagrin of many audience members, the Royal Rumble winner was Roman Reigns. Reigns has been built up as a badass by WWE for a couple of years now, but many fans can't shake the sense that he's not quite ready for the spotlight the company seems to want to put on him.

One great thing about wrestling is that audience reaction can impact the writing. In this case, Reigns used the booing and disappointment from some sections of the audience as motivation. He's cut multiple promos talking about how everyone says he isn't ready and can't beat Brock Lesnar, and that doubt is his fuel.

Oh, and then we have Brock Lesnar. A former UFC champ — in other words, he can do actual fighting — and the dude who ended the Undertaker's streak at Wrestlemania last year, Lesnar has held the WWE World Heavyweight Championship since last August's Summerslam event. He's been an incredibly effective and scary champion, the kind that rarely shows up to fight, but when he does, he absolutely destroys everyone.

The WWE has also weaved an element of reality into Lesnar's story. Over the past few weeks, rumor mills were spinning with speculation on whether Lesnar would renew his soon-to-end contract with the WWE or drop it for a final run with UFC. Rather than ignore the rumblings, WWE did what they do best and made it part of the storyline, with Brock bragging that if he didn't renew his contract, he'd simply be leaving with the title.

This past week, it was finally revealed that Lesnar has re-signed with the WWE for a multi-year deal. Does that mean he'll retain his title? Or will WWE continue their big push for Roman Reigns despite some fans not buying it? If nothing else, the conclusion of this match is going to set the tone for the year of WWE programming and, indeed, what we can expect out of next year's Wrestlemania.

That's the real fun of wrestling. This complex web of interlocking stories I just tried to cut through never stops moving and growing. And if you're only going to pay attention to that one time a year, this is the time.