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Far from perfect, but Wrestlemania 36 is one we’ll remember

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Drew McIntyre emerged as the new WWE heavyweight champion after defeating Brock Lesnar in the final match at Wrestlemania 36. WWE photo

As we all welcomed 2020 with hope and optimism, pro wrestling fans seemingly had a lot to look forward to in the new year.

All Elite Wrestling, the new kid on the block, had a relatively small but hungry and talented roster with solid financial backing while establishing itself as a major player on the American wrestling scene. World Wrestling Entertainment, sports entertainment’s juggernaut for the past several decades, was on the Road to Wrestlemania, with Tampa Bay primed to host the company’s biggest annual event.

If someone had told me then that WWE’s crown jewel would not only not take place in the cavernous environs of Raymond James Stadium, but instead be pretaped inside an empty arena at the company’s training facility in Orlando (along with other “remote locations”), that messenger quite likely would have been laughed out of the room.

But here we are, a week after Wrestlemania 36, in a world facing new realities and many uncertainties. And that includes pro wrestling/sports entertainment, where that industry’s biggest and baddest heel has emerged as a deadly virus known as COVID-19. The pandemic, which stretched across the globe, would alter pro wrestling in a way that could have lasting ramifications for the business.

Sounds of silence

To say the two-night “extravaganza” was surreal would be a gross understatement. That it was actually held was a result of Vince McMahon’s “show must go on” mantra, even with the company losing millions of dollars in ticket and merchandise sales. Postponing the event would have posed considerable uncertainty, and canceling it was a decision the WWE owner likely would have never considered.

So with no fans cheering, no surprise celebrities, no musical performances, and with the scaled-down pomp and pageantry confined to an empty arena, Wrestlemania 36 went on as planned. The actual matches were taped more than a week earlier, with only a limited number of performers and crew on hand for production due to coronavirus-mandated social distancing.

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AJ Styles arrived for his Boneyard match with The Undertaker in a casket at Wrestlemania 36. WWE photo

Wrestlemania is typically known as “The Grandest Stage of Them All,” “The Super Bowl of Sports Entertainment,” but it wouldn’t really be fair to review this year’s edition by normal standards considering the unconventional circumstances. Without an audience, the show naturally lacked that high level of fan-driven energy and excitement that Wrestlemania is known for. Without the adrenaline rush of thousands of screaming fans, there is only performance art inside a squared circle playing to eerie silence.

What truly can be judged, though, is the dedication and effort displayed by the performers and crew that made the most of an extremely difficult situation, delivering some much-needed entertainment to the worldwide wrestling community.

This year’s Wrestlemania, the first two-night spectacle in the iconic event’s history, featured some quality wrestling along with major title changes.

Although it wasn’t the ultimate crowning moment in front of 70,000 fans in Drew McIntyre’s new hometown of Tampa, the originally scheduled host city, he was able to fulfill a dream by winning the WWE heavyweight title with his victory over Brock Lesnar. While there was no crowd inside the near-empty Performance Center to be sent home happy, surely thousands of fans watching via the WWE Network and pay-per-view had to have smiles on their faces seeing the 34-year-old McIntyre win the crown and cap a 19-year journey.

Braun Strowman, a late substitution for Roman Reigns, also dethroned Bill Goldberg for the Universal crown in a two-minute bout that was much too short for a match of that significance. The 36-year-old “Monster Among Men,” who has seen his status decline since first knocking on the world title door three years ago, is finally getting his long-awaited run as champ. Reigns, a leukemia survivor, wisely opted out because he is immuno-compromised.

Wrestlemania: The Movie

Making the two-night Wrestlemania seem more like an action movie production than a wrestling event were two high-profile matches that veered away from the wrestling portion of the equation. Gimmicks included time travel and teleporting, along with a casket and hearse, a group of druids, explosions and other special effects, camera tricks and heavy editing.

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AJ Styles battles The Undertaker in a Boneyard match at Wrestlemania. WWE photo

Labeled by some as a wonderfully bizarre “cinematic masterpiece,” The Undertaker and AJ Styles battled it out through a graveyard in an aptly named “Boneyard” match. The finish saw “The Deadman” win by “burying” Styles before exiting the scene on his motorcycle, a nod to the Biker Taker era. It was an over-the-top presentation for which Wrestlemania 36 most likely will be most remembered, and a spectacle that the company obviously felt it needed to provide this edition of Mania with plenty of talking points.

As a fight scene, it was well produced and executed, helping mask the 55-year-old Mark Calaway’s physical limitations at this point in his career. But this isn’t Hollywood.

While wrestling purists, myself included, prefer a suspension of disbelief, or at least a facsimile thereof, it was a sign that WWE could be moving away from actual wrestling to a more cinematic approach.

“This moment in time is changing everything, and I think there are opportunities that we will see and explore now that will become the new norm,” WWE executive Paul “Triple H” Levesque told TV Guide prior to the event. “So all of those things, whether it’s multiple nights, whether it’s off-site shoots or different things like that, I think those will all be opportunities that we can explore in the future and we'll see. If they're successful here, they might be successful in the future as well.”

“They were the most cheesy, corny B-movie stuff you could ask for,” Drew McIntyre told the BBC. “It was funny and completely unrealistic – and that’s what wrestling is about!”

The next night was even more of a cinematic-style presentation, with The Fiend (Bray Wyatt) defeating John Cena in a Firefly Fun House “match” that sadly was not an actual match, but a nostalgic and twisted journey with Wyatt making Cena relive the failures of his past in a series of flashbacks. No traditional Wrestlemania match here with Wyatt counting his own pinfall victory and Cena adding to his acting chops.

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John Cena (left) and Bray Wyatt led fans on a nostalgic journey. WWE photo

“Stupid and nonsensical” was how Hall of Fame manager Jim Cornette described the absurdity of it all on his Cornette’s Drive-Thru podcast.

“I’ve never met Bray Wyatt but I’m disappointed in John Cena,” said the longtime old-school proponent. “It didn’t make any sense as anything. It was making fun of the wrestling business. It accomplished nothing good. It wasn’t a good movie fight scene. It wasn’t performed well. It didn’t make any sense.”

“If you did this on a wrestling program even 10 years ago, it would put your company out of business,” Cornette lamented. “The cause is lost and the fight is over.”

Styles, already “buried alive” once, is hinting of another similar encounter with Undertaker.

“I hope I’m able to do it again. I don't know, but it'd be nice,” Styles said on his Mixer live gaming stream Wednesday.

“The match was different, no doubt about it. I told you it was going to be. You never know what you’re going to get sometimes. I was very pleased with it. I think the majority of wrestling fans, the WWE Universe, was happy with it. For every 100, there were maybe two or three (fans) that didn't like it.”

Host with the most?

Former New England Patriots great Rob Gronkowski, a self-confessed WWE fanatic, hosted the event but appeared out of his element in his new role. “I’m the right man for the job because I know how to start a party on a Saturday night and end it 30 hours later,” the 30-year-old retired NFL star declared to no one as he kicked off the festivities.

“Did anyone predict the Pats dynasty would end with a Round 1 loss to Ryan Tannehill, Brady leaving for the Bucs and moving into Jeter’s house in Tampa, and Gronk hosting a no-fan Wrestlemania?” tweeted former ESPN talent and Ringer founder Bill Simmons.

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Rob Gronkowski displays the WWE 24/7 title. WWE photo

Perhaps he felt like the rest of us who wondered how WWE could pull off this version of Wrestlemania.

That being said, the show exceeded expectations on several counts and was better than it had any right to be. While those classic “Wrestlemania moments” lacked exclamation points without an audience, there were some standout moments for fans to enjoy from home. But wrestling needs an audience, and that’s one trick it couldn’t pull off.

As with any major WWE show, one size doesn’t fit all. Some fans loved it, some fans hated it, and some likely tuned in out of curiosity.

“It’s just as uncomfortable as I feared it’d be,” tweeted one disgruntled viewer. “Under the circumstances, I would say it was awesome!” tweeted another.

But whether you liked it or hated it, or your opinion fell somewhere in between, putting on a show like Wrestlemania is difficult under the best conditions, much less operating with limited personnel and no fans.

Mick Foley was just one of many who praised the performers and the crew for providing a solid weekend of entertainment.

“I am a little in awe of just how hard each and every WWE superstar worked to make Wrestlemania an unqualified success, even under the most adverse of conditions. When history looks back on your careers, it will be this epic event that helped define you. I am so proud of you!”

Gronkowski, by the way, had his obligatory SportsCenter moment when he leaped off a balcony and landed on a group of wrestlers, including his friend Mojo Rawley, whom he pinned to take the “for-comedy-purposes-only” WWE 24/7 championship.

NFL reporter Mike Florio expressed safety concerns on the NBC Sports website.

“Even though the outcomes are determined in advance, the wrestling entails a significant amount of physical risk. And Gronk, who has had more operations than the guy in the Operation game, definitely assumed a physical risk by jumping onto a scrum of wrestlers.”

ESPN’s NFL insider Adam Schefter saw things differently, stating the three-time Super Bowl champ is seamlessly transitioning to the next phase of his life.

“I was watching him from a TV standpoint, and I’ll say this – he nailed it,” said Schefter. “He had great energy, he got people pumped up. He was Gronk, what you’d expect and what you’d want for that setting. From an on-air perspective, it was very impressive.”

‘Defied circumstances’

An informal survey conducted on social media drew a variety of reactions, mostly positive, regarding the most unique Wrestlemania in history.

Some samplings:

“I loved both the Boneyard and Firefly Funhouse matches. I knew there was going to be no traditional emotional investment in the WM matches due to the lack of crowds, so the cinematic ‘matches’ were a welcome change of pace. I don’t want them to be regular things, but I thought both were very well done for what they were. I give a ton of credit to John Cena for buying in to the FFH idea and going with it fully. The irony of his prematch promos about not putting over a guy like Bray and then going above and beyond to do just that was not missed by me, and I think it is a shining example of how much Cena loves this business that he was willing to do this.” – Chip Collins

“I’ve been tough on the WWE for the last few years, and I felt strongly that they should have postponed Wrestlemania 36 for as long as necessary in order to host something that felt traditional and gave paying fans a chance to see firsthand. Once they committed to having Wrestlemania 36 despite the overwhelmingly disruptive effects the coronavirus has had on the their business, the WWE did what they had to do to put on a show that I think defied circumstances and felt worthy of the Mania moniker. While I’ll likely never get comfortable with the idea of professional wrestling or any major sport taking place in the absence of a live attendance fan base, the WWE combated an empty venue with a higher degree of viewer intimacy that included changes to camera angles and lighting of the ring and arena and by taking the viewer in close enough to hear in-ring interaction. While not a perfect substitute for a roaring crowd, it felt more like a wrestling product than most of what the WWE has done over the past several weeks of television programming.” – Steve Williams

“Considering the circumstances, I think it went pretty well. The lack of a live audience may have been seen as a detriment, but I think it provided WWE the freedom try new things with both the Boneyard and Firefly Fun House matches. Personally, I would have loved to see how audiences reacted to both Mandy Rose and Bianca Belair’s appearances. Could Otis have gotten over with 80,000 fans watching? What would the live reaction to the Last Man Standing Match have been? We will never know, but Mania happened still. I enjoyed it.” – Anthony Velvet Hall

“I enjoyed it. My top matches were Taker-AJ, Edge-Orton, Flair-Ripley, Owens-Rollins. Thought the Bayley match and the Raw tag title match were very good and told good stories. Firefly Fun House was like watching an episode of the Twilight Zone.” – Jim Varsallone

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Randy Orton (left) and Edge battle it out in a Last Man Standing match at Wrestlemania 36. WWE photo

“I gave it 3 out of 5 stars overall. There were some real gems that made me forget there was no crowd – Edge vs Orton, Charlotte vs Rhea, Owens vs Rollins – and some that needed a crowd – Drew vs. Brock, Otis vs. Dolph. It’s hard to judge the offsite stuff except as a ‘were you entertained?’ thing; I definitely was.” – Stuart Monroe

“The WWE tried to offer something for everyone. So, you have a variety of match types. For instance, the straightforward Lesnar-McIntyre clash was a total contrast to the Cena-Wyatt surreal special effects package with its insider vignettes meant to represent a dark showdown. The most dedicated fans would probably appreciate both styles. To others, something like the Cena-Wyatt confrontation would be a real head-scratcher.” – Ken Mihalik

“I had extremely low expectations but thought WWE delivered big-time. The Boneyard and Firefly Fun House matches are instant classics that will have a long-term impact on what we see in the future. The women were a highlight all weekend other than the SD 5 way. And it's about time for Bianca Belair to join the main roster! The men’s world title matches were bad. Agree Edge-Orton was too long but I still really enjoyed it. KO-Seth also delivered. It was a good to be able to escape the virus for two nights.” – Terry Taylor

“I had lower expectations going in but I think they delivered. The cinematic style ‘matches’ allowed for a more artistic way of storytelling. I hate to say it but the main heavyweight title matches felt weakest on the card, but I’m guessing with times changing you need to shave some of your higher-paid part-time champs.” – Jared Shapiro

“Would I have liked it better in front of 75,000 fans and a stadium? Absolutely, and so would the WWE. What we got was outstanding and I mean that, in that it stood out. The triumphant moments of wrestlers achieving the Ultimate Prize was sacrificed here due to the circumstances that could not have been controlled, but other than that I think they turned a negative into a positive and gave us a Wrestlemania we will never forget.” – Jeremy Vain

“Honestly have to give the WWE a mulligan considering everything that is going on now. Which is not a knock on any of the matches whatsoever, because some of them were phenomenal, especially the Edge-Orton match. Putting myself in their shoes, I ask myself, ‘What quality of a Wrestlemania would I have been able to produce if I was allowed to produce it, given the same conditions?’ I think that puts a lot of things into perspective.” – Steve Worrell

“It was a distraction from what we have going on. Had this been at Raymond James Stadium, I feel like we would have gotten a really drawn-out show and some of the uniqueness that this Wrestlemania had would have been lost. I wasn’t as disappointed as I thought I would be. Boneyard match was the best thing from night 1 and Flair and Ripley was the best from night 2.” – Michael Fox

“They pulled it off. No crowd to gauge the excitement or boredom on. No playing to the crowd. Just pure storytelling. Taker/AJ was an odd twist but I got drawn in. Fiend/Cena was another that just drew me in. I don’t even know what I was watching, I just know it was entertaining.” – William Hunnell

“The Cena/NWO bit was another parallel of Hogan and Cena’s career path. In the Funhouse scenario Cena chose a different path at WM 30 which would have been akin to Hogan’s turn in 96. The point was it was too late. Even as a heel Cena would continue to take advantage of new guys like Husky Harris (represented by Huskus the Pig). Cerebral stuff.” – Jason Willis

“Considering the circumstances, the WWE produced the best Wrestlemania in a very long time. I was impressed.” – Dayv Duncan

“I was hesitant about the Undertaker/AJ Styles match, but it was better than I thought and I agree it was one of the greatest Wrestlemania matches in history.” – Bernie Jason Brown

“I enjoyed it overall, well put together, from a worker’s standpoint, it can be difficult to build up the energy to put on some of those matches, in an empty arena. My hat goes off for all. Great job.” – Clarence Santini

“Loved Cena-Wyatt. Creativity unleashed!!” – Ashley Souther

‘Pancakes without syrup’

“Tough watch. WWE did their best in unprecedented circumstances. Anyone who ever doubted the power of the fans and crowd surely has had their viewpoint changed in recent weeks. Fans are at least 50 percent of the formula that makes stars in the WWE. It is difficult to pass torches (Cena to Wyatt, and more so Lesnar to McIntyre – dislike immensely that booking) when no one is there to react. As a producer/director I was impressed by the Boneyard match. I’m not a fan of recording an external production of a match. However, in this case, it is by far the most and perhaps only memorable moment from Mania 36.” – Ben Houser

“Wrestlemania without fans was like pancakes without syrup. I give the crew and talent a big tip of the hat for the efforts to entertain and provide a distraction from the virus. Most of the matches were really good especially KO/Rollins and Edge/Orton. I thought the match between Taker and Styles was cool. The WWE and Universal title matches were DUDS and I am still trying to figure out what I watched between Bray Wyatt and John Cena. Overall … a noble effort considering everything.” – Rick Robertson

Horrible skit with Cena and Wyatt. Any credibility that wrestling may have still had is now destroyed by that buffoonery. It was a movie scene inside a wrestling show, much like the Boneyard match. Neither should have been featured as such mini-movies. Those were not wrestling in any sense of the term.” – Michael Majalahti

“Everything they did was to try to minimize the impact of no live crowd. Unfortunately, for me at least, it didn't work. During AJ/Taker match I was waiting for a director to shout, ‘Cut, let’s do this one over.’ That is all that was missing from this theater-style presentation.” – Anthony Conchel

“I love to listen to Jim Cornette, and I know he hates today’s version of the product. I don’t always agree, but he is passionate. I really think it’s an age thing. The ‘entertainment’ part has taken over, wrestlers are bypassed for musclebound gymnasts, and writers and bookers like Bruce Pritchard who are trying hard to win Emmy awards. But to me, this stuff started a long time ago … I want to hold on to the Briscos, Funks and Andersons. That era has passed and it looks like my taste for this scripted battle between tough guys has also!” – David Mabry

“Wow ... you guys really just accept anything in wrestling these days? Let it go … it’s over. It’s like being 10 and pretending that you still believe in Santa Claus just to get presents. It’s over, let it go. The magic is gone. Teleporting wrestlers, bad angles, sock puppets.” – Joey Jenkins

“Jumped the shark in believability. So AJ is dead now?” – Wayne Rush

“Between WM 36, AEW, Impact and NWA Power, they’ve finally killed pro wrestling.” – Chuck Green

“Although it was at no one’s fault, I was greatly disappointed as for the aforementioned reasons but would like to thank the athletes/actors for doing the best that could be done under the circumstances.” – Danny Lyle

“Cena-Fiend act was the dumbest in Wrestlemania history.” – Brad Jessup

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His latest book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com

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