It’s pro wrestling’s biggest weekend of the year, with “The Showcase of the Immortals” taking center stage.
WWE meticulously plans all year for programs that ideally reach a crescendo at this mega-event known as Wrestlemania, and this year’s 34th edition in New Orleans is no different.
Some feuds that have been simmering will come to a climax, new champions will be crowned and, hopefully, new stars will be born.
Some bouts will become instant classics.
Two matches that have the potential to steal the show both feature superstars from the Far East, and coincidentally winners of their respective Royal Rumble matches back in January that earned them title shots at Wrestlemania.
There’s a reason Shinsuke Nakamura is called a “rock star,” and not all of it pertains to his considerable wrestling ability. Sporting possibly the most exciting and unique ring entrance in all of professional wrestling, Nakamura is a hard-hitting, legitimate fighter who hasn’t yet come close to displaying his full repertoire inside a WWE ring.
Sunday night, however, he will hopefully have carte blanche to put on a wrestling clinic with his American counterpart, Gainesville, Ga., native AJ Styles, quite possibly the best worker in the business today.
Nakamura, 38, and Styles 40, have toiled on mats across the globe patiently waiting for their big shots in WWE, and their Wrestlemania match has the potential to be one of the greatest in the history of the franchise.
The highly anticipated bout will mark their first singles matchup in WWE. Their only other meeting was a classic at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in the Tokyo Dome in January 2016 shortly before both signed with WWE.
The face of Smackdown since the brand extension in 2016, Styles won the WWE title in November for the second time, adding to his resume of two U.S. heavyweight titles, five TNA world titles and two IWGP crowns.
A 16-year veteran in the pro ranks, Nakamura made his mark as one of the greatest stars in the history of New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he was a three-time IWGP champion and five-time IWGP International champion, before signing with WWE in 2016.
But it was his “destiny,” says Nakamura, to leave his homeland and strive for something even bigger and better. And that something bigger and better is a three count away Sunday night on the grandest stage of them all.
Dubbed “The King of Strong Style,” Nakamura’s strikes and submissions highlight his aggressive arsenal. His magnetic charisma made him a fan favorite in NXT, where he was a two-time champion, and that popularity followed him to the main roster.
Two performers on the women’s side, Asuka and Charlotte Flair, have that same opportunity to put on a classic Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Dubbed by some as a Japanese monster with a pretty face, Asuka finds herself in a high-profile match with the daughter of 16-time world champion.
Since arriving on the main roster, Charlotte has emerged as the leader of the vaunted “Women’s Revolution” in WWE. With little prior training despite her well-known bloodline, she came out of WWE’s Performance Center as the top female talent and has carved her own path to six world titles on both brands.
Charlotte, who has been a major force in the elevation of the WWE women’s division, has stated on numerous occasions that her dream is to one day headline a Wrestlemania, and an epic title clash with Asuka could move her one step closer to that goal.
Billed as “The Empress of Tomorrow,” the 36-year-old Asuka (Kanako Urai) has already set records during her time in NXT and WWE. She has yet to be pinned or made to submit since her debut in NXT, with her record reported at 265-0 and counting.
She has even drawn praise from Bill Goldberg, whose famous WCW streak was broken by Asuka last May. “The ‘streak’ is in very good hands,” tweeted Goldberg, whose undefeated run through 1997 and 1998 was recognized as 173-0 before coming to an end against Kevin Nash at Starrcade ’98.
Asuka also was a major star on the Japanese circuit for a dozen years before WWE landed her in late 2015. A striker and submission artist, the engaging and charismatic Asuka combines her athletic prowess with an air of mystery.
Much like Nakamura, her intensity in the ring is complemented by strong facial expressions. And while their interviews are usually kept to a minimum, both do more than their share of talking in the ring.
Charlotte, whose Smackdown women’s title is on the line, poses the top threat thus far to Asuka’s two-and-a-half years of dominance. On paper, this match has all the makings of a classic.
For the past month John Cena has called out The Undertaker and challenged him to a match at Wrestlemania.
There has been no answer each time.
So what gives? Cena, still considered the face of the company, has no opponent for Wrestlemania. He failed to win the Royal Rumble and lost a WWE championship match last month at Fastlane before turning his attention to a dream match with The Undertaker.
This most likely will lead to a Wrestlemania surprise when The Dead Man, rumored to reprise his role as “The American Badass,” finally makes an appeareance Sunday night.
While it’s not certain that he will actually wrestle, Taker is expected to show up and confront Cena, possibly even setting up a showdown for the future. Expect newly enshrined celebrity Hall of Famer Kid Rock to be on hand as well to usher Taker in with his former theme music.
If a match does materialize, look for these two past-their-prime veterans to push their limits and deliver some memorable moments.
Top Mania matches
Wrestlemania has long been known as “The Granddaddy of Them All” when it comes to premier sports entertainment events.
This year’s edition hopes to produce a match that will be remembered for years to come.
What are some of the most remembered matches over the past 34 years of Wrestlemania? Here’s a quick look at 10 of the greatest:
(Honorable mention) Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart, Wrestlemania 10 on March 20, 1994. New York City. Owen stepped out of his brother’s shadow in this match, not only winning, but stealing the show. All was not lost for Bret, though, as he would go on to win the WWF championship later that same evening.
10. The Dudley Boyz vs. Edge and Christian vs. The Hardy Boyz. Wrestlemania 17 on April 1, 2001 in Houston. This sequel to their initial TLC Match at the previous year’s Summer Slam saw Edge and Christian once again claiming the world tag-team championship in one of the most extreme bouts in company history.
9. Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Hogan. Wrestlemania 6 on April 1, 1990 in Toronto. Hulk Hogan passed the torch to The Warrior in this colossal showdown of the two wrestlers who defined that era of the WWF. The match also turned out turned out to be much better than many had expected.
8. Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon. Wrestlemania 10 on March 20, 1994 in New York City. HBK made history when he took to the air and splashed Ramon off the top of a ladder. The Bad Guy, however, defeated Michaels to unify the two Intercontinental titles. Dozens of ladder matches followed, but this one will always be special.
7. Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels. Wrestlemania 24 on March 30, 2008 in Orlando. An instant classic with HBK sending the Nature Boy off into the sunset in one of the most emotional Wrestlemania swan songs of all time. Flair’s “retirement,” however, would be relatively short-lived.
6. The Rock vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Wrestlemania 17 on April 1, 2001 in Houston. The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, two of the biggest stars of the Attitude Era, battled in the main event of Wrestlemania on three separate occasions, and this edition was their best. In a dramatic heel turn, the match ended with Austin’s longtime arch-nemesis, Vince McMahon, helping him win. The unholy alliance with McMahon would signal a shift in Austin’s career.
5. Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels. Wrestlemania XII on March 31, 1996 in Anaheim. These two legendary performers battled for more than an hour and put on a classic. Michaels won his first WWF championship that night, and together with Hart, they created one of the most memorable performances in company history.
4. “Macho Man” Randy Savage vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. Wrestlemania 3 on March 29, 1997. While many fans will remember this event for Hulk Hogan body-slamming Andre The Giant in front of one of the biggest crowds in wrestling history, a 15-minute Intercontinental title match between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat would be widely regarded as one of the greatest matches in company history. Action-packed from start to finish, the two put on a clinic, with Steamboat walking away with his first and only title in the WWF, and Savage eventually becoming WWF world champion at the following Wrestlemania.
3. Bret Hart vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Wrestlemania 13 on March 23, 1997 in Rosemont, Ill. An extremely brutal and physical match credited with launching Austin’s rise to superstardom, it marked a changing of the guard with both performers reversing their respective heel and babyface roles. The enduring image would be of a blood-covered Austin refusing to tap to Hart’s sharpshooter. Austin came out of the match as a sympathetic anti-hero, and the WWF was never the same.
2. The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels. Wrestlemania 25 on April 5, 2009 in Houston. The 25th edition of Wrestlemania produced a classic with two icons colliding at their peaks. While Shawn Michaels fell just short, it would lead to a rematch at the following year’s event that would nearly spell the end of his career at Wrestlemania 26.
1. Hulk Hogan vs. Andre The Giant. Wrestlemania 3 in Pontiac, Mich., on March 29, 1987. Far from the technical masterpiece between Savage and Steamboat on the same show, this just might be the Wrestlemania match that most people still remember years later. The image of Hogan slamming Andre is still etched in the memories of those who witnessed it. Quite possibly the greatest bout ever promoted by Vince McMahon, it marked the first truly epic match in Wrestlemania’s long and illustrious history.
RIP ‘Luscious’ Johnny V
Tommy Sullivan, who as “Luscious” Johnny Valiant teamed with storyline brothers “Handsome” Jimmy and “Gentleman” Jerry during the ‘70s, died early Wednesday after being hit by a pickup truck.
The 71-year-old Sullivan was struck just before 5:30 a.m. while crossing a street in Ross Township, Pa., about eight miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
At the urging of Pittsburgh-area neighbor Bruno Sammartino, who helped train him, Sullivan began his career in the late ‘60s working for The Sheik (Ed Farhat) in Detroit. After extensive touring, he returned to Pittsburgh under the ring name John L. Sullivan (after the famed boxer).
Later changing his name to “Luscious” Johnny Valiant, he teamed with “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant (James Fanning) to capture the Indianapolis-based WWA tag-team title from Sammartino and Dick The Bruiser in 1974. Loud and flashy, the bleached blond heels next went to New York where they won the WWWF world tag-team title that same year from Dean Ho and Tony Garea.
Five years later he teamed with “Gentleman” Jerry Valiant (John Hill aka Guy “The Stomper” Mitchell), this time under the management of Capt. Lou Albano, to win the tag crown once again.
Later in his career Sullivan became a manager for such acts as Demolition and Dino Bravo, and guided Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake to the WWF tag-team title. He also briefly managed a young Hulk Hogan in the AWA.
Johnny and Jimmy Valiant were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1996.
Sullivan, who was a classmate of future WWE CEO Vince McMahon at Fishburne Military Academy in Waynesboro, Va., worked as a stand-up comedian and an actor (Tony Lip on HBO’s “The Sopranos”) after his days as a full-time manager in pro wrestling were over.