The Showcase of the Immortals owes its main event to the Granddaddy Of ‘Em All.
WrestleMania 30, World Wrestling Entertainment’s biggest event of the year, is less than three weeks away and features a main event of villainous champion Randy Orton, recently returned Batista and fan-favorite Daniel Bryan (assuming Bryan beats the company’s storyline Chief Operating Officer, Triple H, earlier in the night. That seems to be a foregone conclusion).
Bryan is the most popular wrestler in the company at present, but his place in the WrestleMania 30 main event may not have come to pass were it not for Michigan State’s 24-20 defeat of Stanford in January’s Rose Bowl.
Michigan State and Bryan share similarities. Both are underdogs. Michigan running back Mike Hart famously called the Spartans “little brother,” a characterization that captures the dismissive way in which the Spartans are viewed.
Similarly, the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Bryan does not fit the stereotypical image of wrestling champion. But 2014 has been a breakout year for the underdogs.
Spartan quarterback Connor Cook scored a goal-line rushing touchdown that sealed the victory for little brother, and offensive lineman Travis Jackson broke into Bryan’s signature “YES!” chant.
Jackson told USA Today a Big Ten official played the role of Kofi Kingston from the below clip as agitated bystander.
“As I was doing it, the ref came up to me and said, ‘Please stop,’” Jackson said.
Much like Bryan, Michigan State’s version of “YES!” became a quality of endearment.
Michigan State was also an underdog in the Big Ten Championship meeting with previously undefeated Ohio State, as well as in the Rose Bowl against two-time defending Pac-12 champion Stanford.
The Spartan defense contained Ohio State’s prolific offense in Indianapolis, limiting Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller to just 101 yards passing. Ohio State was shut out in the decisive fourth quarter, while the underdog Spartans rolled off a pair of touchdowns.
That fourth-quarter flourish carried over into Pasadena the next month. Michigan State’s 24 points scored against the stingy Stanford defense were more than the Cardinal surrendered to high-scoring Pac-12 counterparts UCLA or Oregon.
Michigan State also contained the grinding Stanford run game, the Cardinal’s primary offensive weapon. A fourth-down stuff of fullback Ryan Hewitt sealed the Spartans’ first Rose Bowl win since 1988—and ostensibly, the first WrestleMania event of Bryan’s career.
The Spartans broke out into a rousing rendition of the cheer in the locker room, the video of which went viral. When the team led fans in the cheer at halftime of a basketball game the following week, it appeared on every sports highlight show and TV news broadcast across the country.
WWE didn’t become the billion-dollar giant it is today without capitalizing on mainstream, crossover appeal. Not long after thousands of Spartan fans joined the Rose Bowl champions in the chant, WWE began to reverse course in the buildup to WrestleMania.
WWE held one of its biggest events, the Royal Rumble, just 25 days after the Rose Bowl and less than three weeks after the “Yes Movement” took over the Breslin Center. Bryan was not included in the Rumble, a 30-man, over-the-top rope match that decides the championship contender in WrestleMania’s main event.
Instead, Bryan wrestled Bray Wyatt, a cult leader character who would have been at home in Season 1 of True Detective (and who, coincidentally, played on the offensive line at Troy).
Bryan began a storyline the week prior to the Rose Bowl wherein he joined Wyatt’s backwoods clan. WWE’s plan appeared to be to remove Bryan from the championship picture in place of Batista, the company’s hottest act in 2005, who left in 2010 to pursue acting and MMA.
Batista is more representative of the stereotypical WWE champion: a 6-foot-3 behemoth whose muscles have muscles. His physique helped him land a role in the upcoming Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy, and his return to the squared circle is an effort to help promote it, a la Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center became a scene emulating the Breslin Center, voicing their displeasure with Batista’s win. The WWE crowd was backing its own underdog; its own Michigan State.