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Making sense of WrestleMania 36

Nobody really knew quite what to expect from the 36th edition of 'Mania, but what we got can be divided into three categories: the unexpectedly brilliant, the disappointing emptiness, and the business-as-usual.

The Showcase of Immortals. The Grandest Stage of them All. The Show of Shows. WrestleMania.

This past weekend should have been the biggest weekend on the pro wrestling calendar: WrestleMania weekend. However, due to the ‘rona, WWE canceled events, moved everything to their Performance Center, and started airing Raw, SmackDown and NXT from the training facility. They delayed in making a decision on WrestleMania, originally set to take place in Tampa, until the government took over.

The word going ’round is that everyone except Vince McMahon wanted to postpone ‘Mania, but when it comes to WWE only one opinion matters, and that’s McMahon’s, so we got a WrestleMania… a weird, big ol’ asterisk next to it WrestleMania, but we got it nonetheless. There was no Hall of Fame ceremony, no NXT Takeover (they instead chose to spread the matches out over a few weeks on their weekly show). There were no celebrities, no legends making a surprise appearance in a backstage bit, no musical performances. There were no fans, and that was perhaps, the weirdest part. We got a card, a big one at that, shown over the course of both Saturday and Sunday nights. But, it was pre-taped, in an empty gym. Wrestlers dropped out and matches were changed last-minute with no storyline explanation.

Nobody really knew quite what to expect from the 36th edition of ‘Mania, but what we got can be divided into three categories: the unexpectedly brilliant, the disappointing emptiness, and the business-as-usual.

The Unexpectedly Brilliant

First, actually, let’s get the expected brilliance out of the way: the WWE video team is always top notch, and they delivered yet again with the intro, even if it was (puzzlingly) not made for the two-night event.

As for the unexpected brilliance, there are two “matches” that fit this bill. I put “matches” in quotation marks because they were matches in the traditional sense, but more like a combination of short film, Lucha Underground, and wrestlers-left-to-their-own-devices ingenuity.

On Saturday night, the card concluded with the Boneyard Match between the Undertaker and A.J. Styles. What we got was a gloriously dumb, amazing, crazy love letter to 80s action movies and the Biker Taker era. I cannot even begin to describe this, so just watch it yourself, I plead of you. Instead of a struggling old man trying to keep up with the best wrestler of the past decade in front of 80,000 people, we got magic.

On Sunday night, we got the Firefly Fun House Match between Bray Wyatt and John Cena. It’s ironic, really, that at the ‘Mania with no fans, WWE finally gave the fans the Bray Wyatt win they’ve wanted for so long. Now, this was less of a match than even the Boneyard, which was at least a fight. This was a more of a smark dissertation on Cena’s entire career. And, like the Boneyard, the Fun House match is a must watch.

In these two instances, the WWE made the absolute best of an unfortunate situation — assuming, of course, this wasn’t the intended direction all along, which is doubtful, but also irrelevant at this point. Without doubt, these two matches were the highlight of WrestleMania 36.

The Disappointing Emptiness

Now, as awesome and creative as the Boneyard and Firefly Fun House matches were, this event probably should’ve been postponed. For a company so obsessed with making “moments,” you would think they realize they’re extremely hard to manifest without a live audience. The above two matches are the rare exceptions. Naturally, despite the amazing efforts of the wrestlers and crew to put on this show, some of it fell flat because the crowd wasn’t there, and some of it, while a good watch, just didn’t have that WrestleMania feel to it that makes this day so special.

Perhaps our biggest loss as wrestling fans was missing out on whatever Kairi Sane was going to do for her entrance at the stadium with the giant pirate ship (for those who don’t follow, Sane is known as the “Pirate Princess”).

The triple threat ladder match for the SmackDown Tag Team Championship was actually pretty fun to watch in its abbreviated format. Prior to tapings, the Miz pulled out with an unspecified illness, so the match was changed to his partner, John Morrison, defending the belts against, Kofi Kingston and Jimmy Uso. Those three men absolutely did not have to put their bodies through what they did, but hats off to them for the effort. Unfortunately, without the oohs and ahhs and “holy shit” and “this is awesome” chants from the ‘Mania crowd, this didn’t hit that magic level.

In fact, most of the title matches were hurt by the lack of crowd. Say what you will about the Universal and WWE Championship matches (more on them in a bit), but it is truly a bummer for Drew Mcintyre and Braun Strowman to have their WrestleMania moments in an empty gym. Especially Drew, because the story they were telling was perfectly told to hit it’s apex in front of 80K screaming fans. Charlotte defeated Rhea Ripley for the NXT Women’s Championship, in perhaps the best in-ring match of the evening, and while it didn’t need the crowd, it still felt empty when it was over.

The Raw Tag Team title match took a hit as well, with the Street Profits successfully defending against the on-the-fly team of Angel Garza and Austin Theory. While we’re here, I am 100% here for a stable of Andrade, Garza and Theory led by Zelina Vega. The match itself was fine, could’ve used a few crowd reactions, but what really took the hit was the after-match goings on. With the losers on the attack, including Vega, Bianca Belair came down to make the save (they did acknowledge her marriage to Montez Ford), in a moment that would’ve popped the ‘Mania crowd big time.

Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins had a solid match (with some weird booking, but whatever), and KO got himself a clip that’ll be used in highlight reels for years to come when he jumped off that giant, set-engulfing WrestleMania sign. Again, however, it kind of fell flat without the sea of flashbulbs and enormous pop from the crowd.

Aside from our Pirate Princess missing her chance with a pirate ship, the biggest casualty of the crowdless night was the payoff to the Otis/Dolph Ziggler/Mandy Rose story. Otis not only got the win and gave Dolph his comeuppance, but Mandy aided in the victory and gave Otis a big ol’ smooch afterwards. That would’ve been a great, old school wrestling moment for the fans.

The Business-as-Usual

Now, we knew going in that the lack of an audience would do some harm, as covered above. But, as with any giant card, there are always going to be some duds, and this ‘Mania was no different.

We spoke above about the title wins for Strowman and Mcintyre coming at an unfortunate time. What we did not talk about was the flat out lame-ass matches that led to those title changes. They were literally the same match: champ hits a bunch of finishers to start, challenger survives and hits a bunch of his own finishers, 1-2-3. Now, Roman Reigns was initially supposed to fight (and defeat, we can assume) Goldberg, but dropped out (Reigns has had bouts with leukemia and did not feel it in his best medical interest to participate, understandably). However, it seems pretty safe to assume the match would’ve been booked exactly the same. Pandemic be damned, we were gonna gets duds in these two matches regardless.

Both the Raw and SmackDown women’s title matches felt a bit hollow. Becky Lynch retained over Shayna Baszler, and Bayley retained in her 5-woman-elimination match in which they once again teased a program between her and Sasha Banks. Elias and King Corbin had a match that was dead in the water with or without a crowd. Aleister Black and Bobby Lashley had the annual “I didn’t even know this was on the card” match.

Then there were the two match a lost of us were most excited for, both of which suffered from booking that probably wasn’t much different from what was originally planned. The Intercontinental Championship match between champ Sami Zayn and Daniel Bryan was a weekly-episode match on a ‘Mania card, unfortunately.

And in the match with the best build of this ‘Mania season, Edge and Randy Orton had a ridiculously long match that sprawled all over the Performance Center. Now while a hot crowd would’ve helped this a bit, I can’t help but think this would’ve still ran way too long in the original setting. There’s always one ‘Mania match that gets about 10-15 minutes more than it needs.

Yes, the powers that be probably should’ve postponed ‘Mania. Going forward, wrestling should probably cancel events until we can get crowds, the lifeblood of pro wrestling shows, back. That said, it was obvious a lot of people worked their asses off to give us the best possible show they could’ve. They created two masterpieces in the Boneyard and Firefly Fun House matches. At least there’s that bit of silver lining in this shitstorm of a time we’re living in.

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