One detour through the Fastlane later, Roman Reigns is back on the road to WrestleMania.

With a trip to The Grandest Stage of Them All on the line and a very vocal WWE Universe split down the middle in support, The Big Dog Superman Punched his ticket to the big dance and a WWE World Heavyweight Title Match with Brock Lesnar himself, leaving Daniel Bryan’s dreams of a WrestleMania repeat stalled.

All of which isn’t to say that this battle between the 2014 and 2013 Superstars of the Year was a foregone conclusion. Despite Reigns’ assertions that he was destined for this (and potentially the next) victory by virtue of his birth into the Anoa’i dynasty, Bryan – who has already proven he writes his own destiny – took the former WWE Tag Team Champion to school in a way Wild Samoan Sika never did.

Bryan began the match by making good on his promise to outwrestle the powerhouse, slithering around the mat on one knee and plying his mat-game bread and butter while Roman struggled to keep up. If Reigns hadn’t exactly anticipated the depth of Brayn’s arsenal, however, the big man’s strength also proved to be beyond what Bryan anticipated. In the midst of his dissection, Reigns countered Bryan’s famous surfboard submission hold by simply mule-kicking The Beard into the corner and forcing him to start from scratch.

That Bryan responded by going back to the well was no surprise, but what was surprising were the initially diminishing returns. The locomotive momentum that Bryan often rode to victory during his meteoric rise in 2014 did him little good when he ran full-speed into a tilt-a-whirl slam from the big man and was quickly ping-ponged outside the ring by his relentless opponent. Some well-placed tenderizing of Reigns’ hamstring aside, the “Yes!” Man was all but smothered by another round of punishment in the form of a clothesline that sent him into a full flip as Reigns prepared his foe for the Superman Punch.

The Beard was ready for that, too. As Reigns leapt into the air, Bryan cut him down with a midair roundhouse kick to the midsection that nearly stopped the match, and Reigns’ insistence that he continue found him trapped in the corner and subjected to three – count ’em, three – sprinting dropkicks to the face and a barrage of kicks and knees to the body. It’s understandable that Bryan attempted to follow that up with a high-risk hurricanrana off the turnbuckle, and equally understandable that he was nearly put through the ring by Reigns’ thunderous powerbomb counter.

Beat into the corner, Bryan countered by sending Roman off the opposite turnbuckle and applying the “Yes!” Lock in quick order. Again, Roman’s power proved to be his saving grace when he dragged himself to the ropes, and Bryan’s wrestling skills proved to be his own ace in the hole when he hit The Big Dog with a pair of suicide dives as Reigns recovered outside the ring. Not one to be outdone, Reigns countered a third dive with a belly to belly suplex and Bryan answered right back, simply sidestepping a charging Reigns and allowing him to Spear the steel steps at full speed.

denied: The only thing The Beard’s dome collided with was Reigns’ fist in the form of a Superman Punch. With Reigns’ own signature maneuver in play, the big man began to rev up for the Spear and “Mr. Small Package” was lying in wait for him, turning Reigns’ momentum into an inside cradle that Reigns was able to escape, only to receive an annihilating running knee that somehow only notched a two-count.

At this point, referee Mike Chioda could have, again, been forgiven for stopping the match, calling it a day and potentially sending the two men into a Triple Threat against The Beast Incarnate. Both Bryan and Reigns were spent shells of themselves, splayed across the mat as WrestleMania sign loomed large like a dare for both men to scrape themselves off the canvas.

As he has often been, Bryan was the first to rise, tenderizing Reigns’ chest with a flurry of kicks that Roman, frankly, was having none of. He snatched Bryan’s leg mid swing and unleashed a primal war scream into his opponent’s face in a display of intimidation, which Bryan, frankly, was also having none of. Bryan slapped Roman across the face and leapt into the air, executing a byzantine counter that somehow landed Reigns in the “Yes!” Lock with no hope in sight.

Reigns displayed some wrestling acumen of his own by writhing free of the hold and swarming Bryan for a street-style flurry of punches. Bryan’s attempt at a triangle chokehold proved ineffective, as Roman countered that into a powerbomb that left The Beard flattened and The Big Dog spent.
The Universe frothing around them and Chioda nearing a double countout, both Superstars, or what was left of them, began to rise and fight: Roman with hands to Bryan’s face, Bryan with boots to Roman’s and, once adrenaline kicked in, a full-on swinging kick to The Big Dog’s head. The powerhouse all but broken, Roman retreated into one corner as Bryan set up shop in the other. “Yes!” chants swirling around him and Reigns dead in his sights, Bryan sprinted full on for the final running knee that would send him back to the main-event of WrestleMania.

Alas.

With his last burst of strength, Reigns propelled himself forward and cut Bryan down with the Spear, covering him immediately to claim the win and cement himself, once again, as the No. 1 contender. In the dazed, speechless aftermath of the match, a heaving Bryan willed himself over to Reigns and interrupted the big man’s celebration with a rough shove to the chest that instantly silenced the buzzing WWE Universe. It seemed, for a moment, that Bryan’s famous honor would fail him and another all-out brawl was imminent. But all Bryan had was a gritty handshake and a single demand of the No. 1 contender.

 

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