This year’s WrestleMania ended up quite different from what anyone expected.
Once the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, WWE moved almost all of its scheduled events—everything from the regular weekly TV shows to the biggest card of the year—to its WWE Performance Center gym in suburban Orlando, Florida, the exception being some tapings for the promotion’s television program NXT, which filmed at nearby Full Sail University. All these were staged in front of exactly zero fans, eerie reminders of the outside world that made it hard to watch the shows as escapist entertainment, especially since the first few broadcasts were set up the same way they would have been if they were open to the public, complete with empty chairs. The presentation improved in recent weeks, with the chairs removed and the main camera adjusted to face the entrance ramp, but the overall vibe hasn’t changed much. WWE’s overproduced, micromanaged house style was generally not translating to an empty room. A number of the wrestlers, like Velveteen Dream, have spent the bulk of their careers learning that style and, in the weeks leading up to WrestleMania, looked significantly more like they were doing bad playacting and play-fighting than they usually do. Others decided to play to a crowd that wasn’t actually there.
At the same time, WWE rival All Elite Wrestling did a much better job adjusting to wrestling during the pandemic, as questionable as such an endeavor may be. AEW first taped its shows at circuit owners Shahid and Tony Khan’s Daily’s Place outdoor amphitheater, in Jacksonville, Florida, but then moved to a carefully dressed wrestling school near Atlanta. Wrestlers were placed ringside to react to the show and provide atmosphere, though this first show’s “audience” flagrantly violated social distancing practices. (They’ve been adjusting to find a happy medium since then.) Some smaller, independent wrestling operations also ran empty arena shows of mixed quality before state governments started to shut down everything. But the upshot from a few weeks of the events was that while WWE’s style of pro wrestling didn’t translate to a show without an audience, showcasing athletic and hard-hitting fights worked, and so did having the wrestlers add noise by trash talking, as long as they didn’t overdo it. But the WWE style—with its emphasis on overwrought capital-P “performance,” over-rehearsed matches, and flowery mannerisms—looked more like a parody when staged in front of zero spectators. Still, expectations for this WrestleMania were low, albeit with some minor optimism over the show being divided up into two nights instead of the marathon one-night slogs of recent years.
Against the odds, a healthy and surprising percentage of the show leaned into what’s succeeded in both promotions recently, and managed to be pretty entertaining.
But at first, it didn’t look good on Saturday night, when the broadcast opened with a match for the Women’s Tag Team Championship that probably would have been great in a stadium setting. The match was dynamic and fast-paced, but it felt like a regular really good match dropped into an empty room without enough adjustments. Worse, the match was drastically overproduced, ramping up the frantic style WWE fans are accustomed to. The typical quick cuts and camera movement translated as significantly more intrusive than usual. The in-ring effort was so strong that it managed to make me feel bad for those involved. A throwaway grudge match—in which Elias, a guitar-playing drifter, defeated abrasive villain King Corbin—had a lot of the same problems as the opener, without the good parts. Together, the first two contests gave an impression that this was going to be a show full of low-impact wrestlers doing Performance Center performances.
That changed with match three, where Becky Lynch successfully defended her Raw Women’s Championship against former top MMA fighter Shayna Baszler, a longtime training partner of Ronda Rousey’s. Finally, the wrestlers started to unlock one of the keys to making wrestling work in a small room without fans: laying in their strikes so they look better and make audible noise. If you’re not a big wrestling fan, this may sound a bit weird, or even antithetical to the point of pro wrestling, but it’s not. Making things look good while barely touching your opponent is the ideal, but that wasn’t going to look good in this environment much of the time, as the lack of a crowd requires closer camera angles and fewer wide shots. So making things look good without hurting your opponent becomes the goal. Wrestlers have plenty of tricks that allow them to hit each other hard in low-risk parts of the body, and in a WWE where the women’s matches are often more intense and violent than the men’s matches, Lynch and Baszler tagging each other repeatedly with thudding strikes that ricocheted off the walls of the converted warehouse was exactly what the show needed. Sami Zayn defending his Intercontinental Championship against Daniel Bryan in the next match was more of the same, just with more loud trash talk, and that also translated well.
Just about everything else for the rest of Night One featured wrestlers who seemed blissfully unafraid of hitting each other. (Even though it does introduce additional body-on-body contact during the pandemic—not that there wasn’t already plenty, as the wrestlers grappled with each other. WWE is claiming to have taken every possible precaution, but that’s far from foolproof without testing.) Of particular note was a ladder match that saw a lot of the usual stunts—without the adrenaline rush of thousands of screaming fans to help the wrestlers push through the pain. That had to suck, but it was also balanced out by Jimmy Uso taking a big fall to the floor where viewers didn’t see his landing. If they used a crash pad here, more power to them. Kevin Owens diving off the WrestleMania sign onto Seth Rollins in the next match was similarly spectacular, and Braun Strowman’s Universal Championship victory over Goldberg was exactly what it should have been: a short, explosive battle of living superheroes.
The very physical matches made the best of the setting, and with most of the matches fitting that bill, Night One was really strong overall. But not every match was in that setting.
Two matches were announced for the weekend’s cards that were clearly going to be on some kind of alternate set instead of being at the Performance Center: the Undertaker vs. A.J. Styles in a “Boneyard Match,” which closed Night One, and John Cena vs. “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt in a “Firefly Fun House Match,” which would air on Night Two. All that anyone really knew was that they would be matches shot on sets elsewhere and that it seemed, from comments that Triple H gave to TV Guide, like they went well enough that we’ll be seeing more.
And they really did work.
The Boneyard Match was a cross between a main event–style WWE match and a gloriously trashy action movie from the ’90s. The wrestlers had a pretty intense brawl, the “acting” parts worked great, and because it involved the Undertaker, the weirdest parts made just enough sense to not seem out of place. The fight also completely opens up what the Undertaker—broken down from decades of taking bumps on a huge frame—can do in a big match. For the past six years, he’s been hit or miss (mostly miss), but doing something that’s part match and part movie allows a lot more opportunities to hide the weaknesses that his physical condition introduces. Purists may hate it, but it still stayed within the boundaries of what’s long been expected of the Undertaker character, a MAGA dad biker who can turn on his undead-wizard-king powers at the drop of a hat. Stay within those walls, nail the production, and trust the wrestlers enough to perform well without overwriting them, and you could get something like this. Popularizing a type of “cinematic” match where camera tricks, editing, special effects, and stunt doubles are basic tools means that a very debilitated Mark Calaway may have just tacked many more years onto his career as the Undertaker.
The expectations were high for the Cena-Wyatt “match” that followed as a result, and at least from a production perspective, it met or exceeded those expectations. The conceit that Wyatt was using magic or drugs (or something?) to take Cena on a journey through his past and his psyche was a bridge too far for some fans, even though many of those same fans can tolerate an inherently over-the-top and supernatural character like the Undertaker. (In fairness, Undertaker-Styles was not supposed to be taking place inside either wrestler’s head.) But strictly as a piece of business, the Cena psycho quest was fabulous. Using puppets, costume choices, set decorations, and licensed music (an element of the Boneyard Match as well), the wrestlers and the production team put on something that was part Twin Peaks’ Red Room, part B-movie, part alt-comedy, and a whole bunch of nostalgia. The match included heaps of fan service, like the wrestlers being transported into Saturday Night’s Main Event, WWE’s old show on NBC, as well as transporting Cena into classic moments such as his WWE debut and his first big match with Wyatt. Describing it any further in a way that would make sense to lapsed fans or nonfans would take forever, so just trust me when I say that it worked on the merits of what it aspired to accomplish.
Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for most of the rest of Night Two. The opener, with Charlotte Flair winning the title NXT Championship from Rhea Ripley, was another very physical match, albeit the talkiest to that point. Aleister Black vs. Bobby Lashley was hard-hitting, and Otis vs. Dolph Ziggler was a lovely climax to the unlikely romance storyline between Otis and Mandy Rose. (Nevertheless, it would have worked better in front of humans.) Then the big grudge match, between Edge and Randy Orton, took place, and it went 37 minutes while taking them all over the building. It was glacially slow, and it appeared to somehow be edited out of an even longer match. They could only throw forearms to the back convincingly, and the attempts at drama were unbearably overwrought. I felt badly for Edge, who was making his big comeback in his first singles match since being forced into retirement eight years ago, but the lack of a crowd was not the biggest problem here.
Meanwhile, in the match for the other men’s world title (don’t ask), Drew McIntyre defeated Brock Lesnar to win the title—in a carbon copy of the Strowman-Goldberg match, complete with how many times each guy hit his big signature move in a few minutes. It was a nice moment for Drew, who let all of the emotions of being officially positioned as the top guy take over his face. But it otherwise felt a lot more like a formality than anything cool, because it was so paint-by-numbers.
From a pure spectator point of view, staging fanless shows as if nothing in the world has changed, or like the broadcast could be a carbon copy of the sport in the Before Times, ought to be a major takeaway from WrestleMania 36 for broadcasters, and not just the WWE’s. If you’re a hardcore combat sports fan, you’ve probably seen plenty of preliminary fights on a boxing or MMA card happen in front of near-empty arenas, so it wasn’t a huge stretch to switch to vacant seats at the big event. Various legitimate combat sports promotions, including the UFC, ran some empty arena events at first too, with varying success, but with screaming coaches ringside or cageside, it was not nearly as distracting as empty-arena pro wrestling. And sports that feature longer stretches of quiet, like golf and, to an extent, even baseball, could probably translate better without fans (though they wouldn’t be perfect) than those like basketball and football, where the immediacy and energy of the crowd feels more integral and inherent to the TV experience.
All those sports could very well first return to television from coronavirus quarantine without live audiences, to broadcast for the rest of us still stuck at home, and they could learn something from the pageant of WrestleMania. Tighter focus on the performers, their dynamic athleticism, and the drama within each specific matchup worked well in this setting. So did fun experimentation that took advantage of the new scope of the show and turned its limits into strengths. Relying on most of the old tricks and camera moves worked much less well. In team sports, what would replace the booming Jumbotron calls to action, the mascot running through the stands, the shots of jubilant and devastated opposing fans after a big score? Something will have to take their place, and maybe soon: MLB is threatening to come back in May, UFC is supposedly securing private islands to hold bouts, and the NFL is proceeding as if it has immunity. The leagues would do well to start considering how the likely post-pandemic format could shape what audiences see and what they want from the show—as it did in WrestleMania 36.
For its part, pro wrestling is always going to suffer without live fans, because it is, at its heart, a performance art exhibition of an entertainment sport where the performers have, historically, been at their best when they were improvising and feeding off the energy of the crowd to figure out where to go next.
Where WWE goes from here, then, is anyone’s guess, as it’s most likely about to run out of taped shows—so it’s not as if there are going to be any immediate repercussions from the largely positive reception for the cinematic Styles-Undertaker and Cena-Wyatt matches. But in a company owned and operated by a billionaire who’s long had a psychological complex about where he made his money, a man who loves to say that what WWE does is “making movies” in spite of never quite pulling it off, it’s clear that we’re going to be seeing some weird shit shot on location for years to come. WWE has a habit of overdoing it, and that could very well happen, but thanks to the natural gap in any action we’re about to get, the biggest name in professional wrestling is probably going to be saved from its worst instincts for a while.