The First Challenge

Wrestlemania is known by many names: The Showcase of the Immortals, The Grandest Stage of them All, The Greatest Spectacle in Sports Entertainment! But unlike the Show of Shows, the Pay-Per-View that follows is known for being the start of a new calendar year in wrestling. It’s tough to follow the Superbowl of Wrestling with a show like Backlash or Extreme Rules, so often, the WWE decides to give fans a glimpse of what is to come. Instead of an epic clash between the two hottest stars for the WWE Championship, we may get an up-and-coming youngster getting his first real shot at the gold. Instead of a Wrestlemania rematch, we could see a new heel character shed his babyface skin right into his first-ever shot at the richest prize in the game. Or maybe a veteran of the industry, who finally makes it into the WWE after 18 years, ends up with his first shot at championship legacy. In all of those cases, the challengers fell short at their quest for immortality. However, all three of those men would use those failures to make themselves champions just months later.

I got the idea to look back at this topic when Roman Reigns stood in the middle of the ring on the April 16th, 2021 edition of Smackdown. Fresh off his win in the main event of night 2 of Wrestlemania 37, the Tribal Chief required a new challenger to his throne. Out came the only superstar on more of a role than Roman himself, Cesaro. Cesaro, who is widely considered one of the best in-ring competitors ever to do it, has never had a one-on-one match for the World Championship. While it’s not official yet, WWE is teasing that Cesaro will finally be getting that one on one shot against Roman Reigns. And if indeed the Swiss Superman steps up to the Head of the Table at Wrestlemania Backlash, then he will be next in the long line of fresh challengers at the post-Wrestlemania Pay-Per-View.

There are different paths Cesaro could go down if he does indeed get this match against Roman. He could shock the world and win it on his first go. And, while that would be shocking, it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise win of its kind. Most of us remember Backlash 2017 (Smackdown’s first PPV post Mania), where Jinder Mahal, jobber to the stars, beat Randy Freaking Orton for the WWE Championship. Say what you want about the reign, but at least it was something different. Surely Cesaro, and the Cesaro section, are hoping for this outcome if he and Reigns clash.

There is also the road travelled by Ryback in 2013. The night after Wrestlemania 29, Ryback turned heel on John Cena. Ryback had a handful of WWE Championship matches in 2012 as a babyface but never truly felt like a threat. But now, as the big bad heel to John Cena, maybe this was his time? The two faced off for the WWE Championship at Extreme Rules 2013 in a Last Man Standing Match. Ryback speared Cena through the stage, and the match ended in a no-contest. This felt big. Cena didn’t just beat Ryback and move on. Ryback would get a rematch in a rare Three Stages of Hell match at Payback the following month. Cena would retain the championship, but Ryback had made a mark. Unfortunately for the Big Guy, that was the closest he would ever come to becoming WWE Champion.

So if you’re Cesaro, you’re hoping to pull a Mahal and not a Ryback. But as fans, we’ve seen just how dominant Roman Reigns has been. It’s hard to imagine, no matter how much we wish it to be true, that Cesaro dethrones Reigns at Wrestlemania Backlash. But does a loss at the first post-Mania PPV mean he’ll never become champion? Or does it mean he is well on his way to history?


THE DOCTOR’S FIRST CASE

After Brock Lesnar won the WWE Championship from Kurt Angle in the main event of Wrestlemania 19, the Next Big Thing was ready for a lengthy title reign. Smackdown General Manager Stephanie McMahon announced an eight-person #1 contenders tournament featuring the top talent on Smackdown. The favourites to come out of each side of the bracket were the Undertaker and either Chris Benoit or the Big Show. But just like any sports tournament, some major upsets occurred. In the first round, John Cena shocked everyone by beating Eddie Guerrero clean to advance to the semi-finals. It was a great showing for the young Cena, but now it was time to face the presumptive #1 seed in the Undertaker. In 2021, telling you about a Cena v.s. Undertaker match-up would come with the assumption it was a dead heat. But back in 2003, Taker was established, and Cena had yet to get a big defining win.

Credit: WWE/WWE Network

Enter April 10th, 2003, where the Doctor of Thuganomics picked up his biggest win ever over the American Badass. It took the entire F.B.I. (the one with Nunzio, not the American Government) to cost the Undertaker the match. Still, a wins a win, and John Cena had advanced. On the other side of the bracket, Christ Benoit had fought his way through A-Train and Rhyno to get to the tournament’s finals. John Cena had willed his way to a win over Eddie Guerrero and stole a win over the Undertaker, but now Chris Benoit? This is where his story would surely end. However, it didn’t, and John Cena OUT WRESTLED the Rabid Wolverine. Benoit had Cena in a pinfall combination, but Cena sat out of it and scored the pinfall. The sophomore superstar had won the whole damn tournament. John Cena was going to fight for the WWE Championship.

This is a scenario where the championship match matters the least in my eyes. John would go on to have a quick two-week feud with Brock before ultimately failing to capture the WWE Championship at Backlash. He got close, but in the end, Brock was just too much for Cena. But that was okay. Because in the course of one month after being on the pre-show of Wrestlemania, John Cena had planted his flag. The fans had gone from seeing him as a lower card guy to someone who beat Eddie Guerrero, The Undertaker, and Chris Benoit three weeks in a row. Cena then took the unstoppable Lesnar to the limit. In one month, John Cena’s fortunes had changed entirely.

Even younger fans do not need to be told how this story ends. John Cena’s clever rhymes and fun style made it impossible to boo him. He quickly climbed up the ranks and became a big babyface star. By this time next April, he was the United States Champion and the hottest star on Smackdown. Fast forward another twelve months, and he was the WWE Champion after besting JBL at Wrestlemania 21. In just two short years, John Cena went from rapping on the pre-show of Wrestlemania 19 to winning the most prestigious championship in the sport at Wrestlemania 21. And without that run of victories to get to Backlash 2003, who knows how his run to the top would have gone?

Credit: WWE

But wait, who did I say John Cena beat for the championship at Wrestlemania 21?

STOCKS ON THE RISE

JBL. John. Bradshaw. Layfield. Depending on when you started watching wrestling, you either know Bradshaw as only this character, or you were like me and in shock when he first stepped out on Smackdown with the ten-gallon white hate and big evil grin. Bradshaw had been a mainstay of the WWF, but during the Attitude Era, he was linked with Faarooq to form the APA. At first, the Acolytes were dark and ominous figures that associated themselves with the Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness. They were brooding bad guys who sometimes were lost in the shuffle of a large faction. But when the Undertaker took some time off in 1999, it left the team of Bradshaw and Faarooq on their own. After some success in the tag division, the two brawlers turned full-on babyface and embraced their real-life love of beer drinking and kicking ass.

The Acolyte Protection Agency were guns for hire, specifically because they needed beer money! This version of the APA was a hit with the fans and seemed like it would be where the story of Bradshaw and Faarooq peaked. However, in early 2004, Faarooq stopped competing in-ring and it was time to repackage Bradshaw. Playing off his real-life love of and success in the stock market, Bradshaw was now JBL, John Bradshaw Layfield. This version of Layfield was a heel’s heel, cutting promos at the border between Texas and Mexico while hunting for illegal immigrants. He even gave Eddie Guerrero’s mom a “heart attack” at a house show in El Paso on Mother’s Day! In just a month’s time, Bradshaw went from lovable beer drinker to the most despicable man on Smackdown.

The majority of fans still may not have bought JBL as a threat to take the WWE Championship, but after the angle with Guerrero’s mom, they were looking forward to seeing Eddie get his revenge. At Judgment Day 2004 (the first Smackdown PPV after Wrestlemania XX), JBL had his first WWE Championship match against Eddie. A match that got so violent, a mere mention of the contest is enough to invoke images of the blood-soaked Guerrero after a viscous JBL chair shot.

Credit: WWE/WWE Network

JBL won the match by disqualification when the referee caught Eddie Guerrero using the championship belt as a weapon. But by the time that bell had rung, it didn’t matter that Eddie had retained. JBL came out of that match looking like a real threat to Eddie’s WWE title. One month later at Smackdown’s event, The Great American Bash, JBL would get another shot at Eddie and the gold in a Texas Bullrope match. In this contest, both men would be tied together using a large Texas bull rope with a cowbell in the middle. Anything was allowed, as the only rule was you had to drag your opponent around the ring and touch all four corners in succession to win the match. The finish here saw Eddie seem to retain, but heel General Manager Kurt Angle came out to deliver the news. As Guerrero leaped for the final turnbuckle, JBL’s shoulder crashed into the corner before Eddie’s hand hit. John Bradshaw Layfield was your new WWE Champion. 

Credit: WWE/WWE Network

This was about as underwhelming as a way to win a title as you can get, but JBL owned it. He won, fair and square, and didn’t care if you liked it. Honestly, he preferred that you didn’t like it. He’d go on to have what was at the time the longest championship reign in Smackdown history, weaselling his way to wins over the likes of the Undertaker, Booker T, Big Show, and Kurt Angle. Much like John Cena just over a year prior, his first shot at the WWE title felt like it came out of nowhere. But also, like the future 16 time World champion, it was that first challenge for the gold that would cement his future hall of fame career.

Both of these triumphs happened at the height of the original brand split, and when that ended, so did the chance for more risks to be taken with the first post-Mania PPV. The trend had already died out, giving way to mostly Wrestlemania rematches, but after the brand split ended for the first time in the Summer of 2011, it all but ensured the rise of a “new” challenger was dead. And then 2016 happened, and it was phenomenal.


WINNING WITH STYLE

In 2004, the same year that JBL was winning the WWE Championship and John Cena was winning the United States Championship, there was another wrestler in an upstart promotion who was winning championships of his own. Total Non-Stop Action Wrestling was a company born out of the ashes of late-WCW. Founded by Jeff Jarrett and his father Jerry Jarrett, TNA initially ran out of Nashville, Tennessee on weekly Pay-Per-View before switching to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida on a more traditional monthly PPV format. And if there was a Mr. TNA after its first few years, it was AJ Styles.

Credit: Impact Wrestling

Styles had shown up in WCW just as it was dying, but it was enough to get himself noticed. He would debut with TNA on their first show and waste little time collecting titles. In the main event of their second weekly show, AJ Styles became the first-ever TNA X-Division Champion, defeating Jerry Lynn, Low-Ki, and Psicosis. When all was said and done with his time in TNA, Styles had amassed an unparalleled resume. He was a five-time World Champion, a six-time World Tag Team Champion, a two-time Television champion (named the Legends title at the time), and a division defining six-time X-Division Champion. But it felt like that would be AJ’s legacy. Destined to be a TNA talent but never getting a shot in the WWE.

The rumour was that in 2014 when Styles finally left TNA (now Impact), he was offered a not so generous deal to come to the WWE. AJ bet on himself and went to Japan instead, where he became a megastar in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Styles went from TNA legend to one of the hottest pro wrestlers on the planet in just two years. He won the prestigious IWGP Heavyweight Championship twice, and the once thought forbidden door to WWE superstardom was finally opening. On January 24th, 2016 in the very fitting Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, AJ Styles made his WWE debut in the Royal Rumble match as a surprise entrant. It was an incredible moment made even more special by the reaction of the fans in attendance. AJ had a good showing before getting eliminated by Kevin Owens. The Phenomenal One was here.

That could have been it. AJ would have a somewhat clunky feud with Chris Jericho, where Styles would be referred to as the “Redneck Rookie” and would even lose to Jericho in Styles’ first ever Wrestlemania match. It felt like a letdown. But an expected letdown. A guy like AJ from a place like TNA doesn’t just become a top WWE superstar. It doesn’t happen. But it did. Enter the Head of the Table. Enter Roman Reigns.

At Wrestlemania 32, Roman Reigns won the WWE Championship from Triple H in a too long and too complicated match. Everyone knew Reigns was winning. Many watching agreed it should have been quick and decisive. Instead, it was slow and tedious. Reigns title reign was faltering before it even had a chance to get off the ground. So, just like AJ Styles, Roman had reason to want to put on a show-stealer to follow a clunker of a Mania. The next night on Raw, there was a fatal four-way match to determine the #1 contender for Reigns WWE World Heavyweight Championship. In a shocker, AJ Styles beat Chris Jericho, Kevin Owens, and a returning Cesaro (it’s all coming full circle!). It wasn’t shocking that Styles could beat those three men. But it was shocking that WWE had decided that AJ Styles of all people would be Roman Reigns first challenger for his newly won gold.

Credit: WWE/WWE Network

Newly debuted Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson added to the threat, as they teased, helping out their old Bullet Club buddy to rest the title away from the Big Dog. The match at Payback 2016 was fantastic, though it was heavy on the interference. Roman Reigns got counted out after a spectacular Phenomenal forearm to the outside, but the McMahon family restarted the match. The title can only change hands via pinfall or submission, so obviously, they wanted to ensure Roman could lose. That also explained why they overturned a disqualification on Reigns after an accidental low blow on AJ. After all that, and even help from Gallows and Anderson, Roman was still somehow able to survive.

But Styles had made his mark. Even post interference, Styles looked just a breath away from capturing the title. The rematch for the next month at Extreme Rules was made on-air, just moments after the bell rang. The following month at Extreme Rules 2016, the rules were out the window, and Gallows and Anderson were free to interfere. They were, however, neutralized by Reigns’ cousins, the Usos. Styles and Roman fought tooth and nail throughout the building, and there would be no restarts on this night. AJ hit two Styles Clashes on the champion, including one on a steel chair. But Roman still kicked out. It took a battered Reigns catching Styles in midair with a spear for him to finish off AJ and to retain the title.

After the match, Seth Rollins made his surprise return to WWE and laid out Roman with a pedigree. AJ Styles would fall out of the WWE title picture for now, but just three days after Extreme Rules, the WWE announced they would be bringing back the Brand Extension. Soon enough, news of a new championship for Raw, the Universal Championship, emerged. The WWE title had found its way to Smackdown around the waist of Smackdown’s #1 draft pick Dean Ambrose. Their #2 draft pick? AJ Styles.

Styles spent the summer feuding with, beating up, and beating John Cena. A strange thing occurred when it was announced AJ would challenge Dean Ambrose at Backlash 2016 (this time taking place in September.) Inevitability. It felt…inevitable that AJ would beat Dean and win the title. He was white-hot and had all the momentum behind him. And he did. He did, beat him. AJ Styles, once thought of as Mr. TNA, had won the WWE Championship.

Credit: WWE/WWE Network

I can’t tell you what Vince McMahon or Triple H were thinking at the time. I can’t tell you for sure that Stephanie McMahon watched Styles vs Reigns and thought, “this guy could be OUR champion.” But I can say for sure Styles status within WWE pre-Payback 2016 and post looked very different. He got one shot with the ball, and he never let go. So okay, what about that one guy Styles beat to qualify for his match with Roman at Payback?


SWINGING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

We’ve all watched lately as the light on Cesaro has shined the brightest it ever has since the Swiss Cyborg entered the WWE almost a decade ago. His Wrestlemania clash with Seth Rollins was situated to show that Cesaro has never had a one-on-one Mania match and “can’t reach his potential.” Yet there he was on night one of Wrestlemania 37, having an incredible match with Seth. He won! Maybe, more importantly, he busted out the mythical UFO move and spun Seth on his shoulder using no hands. WWE went so far as to proclaim it “the most impressive moment in Wrestlemania history.” That’s HUGE for them to do.

Credit: WWE

I’m not a fortune teller, but I’m pretty confident that Roman Reigns will still be Universal Champion in time for Wrestlemania Backlash. And I’m pretty confident that standing across from the Tribal Chief will be Cesaro. Who knows, maybe Cesaro does win. Maybe he shocks the world! But I don’t see the Reigns journey with the championship ending anytime soon. However, that doesn’t mean that Cesaro will retire a part of the “best to never win the big one” club.

Who knows how, but now more than ever before, there is a chance that sometime in 2021 or 2022, Cesaro will finally win the Universal Championship. Maybe there is another superstar shakeup, and he will win the WWE Championship on Raw! All I know for sure is that Cesaro has a chance. And if he decides to look back at the likes of John Cena, JBL, or even AJ Styles, he will see that his performance in his match at Wrestlemania Backlash could be so much more than a close championship loss. Like it was for those men, it could be the stepping stone to a chance of immortality. If anyone can do it, the Swiss Superman can.

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