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The surreal, troublesome results of an audience-less Wrestlemania 36

The Super Bowl of pro wrestling went on, though no one was there to watch

A year ago, I watched WrestleMania 35 at MetLife Stadium surrounded by 80,000 people. This past weekend, WrestleMania 36 emanated from an empty gym and several closed studio locations before a crowd of zero. For the first time in its history, the annual event — a live culmination of some of professional wrestling’s biggest storylines — was taped in advance. It was weird.

The recent pandemic has turned TV on its head. CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus, reads the news from his basement, while late night talk shows like Last Week Tonight have gone from a studio to a white wall in John Oliver’s bedroom. The lack of an audience hasn’t done much to impact news-adjacent programs, which have largely remained the same (one person still speaks into a camera). But the situation is a harder hit for pro wrestling: Independent promotions the world over have been forced to shutter — there’s little substitute for physical contact in the realm of “sports entertainment” — while corporate-owned promotions like WWE and AEW have broadcast weekly shows from closed sets with severely reduced crews. A temporary measure, one hopes, though it couldn’t have come at worse time for WWE, who’ve spent the last few months building to their biggest event of the year.

The company’s flagship program is synonymous with spectacle. Some call ’Mania “The Super Bowl of Sports Entertainment” to explain it to outsiders, while fans and promoters have taken to calling it “The Showcase of the Immortals” and “The Granddaddy of ’Em All” — an appropriate pairing of regal and tongue-in-cheek.

But the road to Wrestlemania has been bumpier than normal. Last month, amidst entire sports seasons being indefinitely postponed or cancelled in response to the coronavirus — NBA in the US, IPL Cricket in India, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and UEFA Euro 2020 across 12 different countries, to name a few — WWE found themselves scaling back their production, beginning with the March 13th edition of Friday Night Smackdown. The show was broadcast live in front of empty stands at WWE’s Performance Center in Orlando, a venue usually reserved for incoming talent to train and hone their skills. It would be the first of several weekly shows to take place in the building, as the company paired down the number of matches unfolding live (instead broadcasting bouts from yesteryear), while focusing on monologues delivered directly to the camera. WWE may as well have been Jimmy Kimmel Live.

For the next few days, fans wondered whether WrestleMania would go ahead as planned on Sunday April 5th at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. On March 16th, less than three weeks from the event, WWE finally announced that WrestleMania 36 would no longer take place at Raymond James, but would instead be broadcast over two nights, April 4th and 5th, from an empty Performance Center; behind-the-scenes reporting would go on to reveal that the show would be filmed in advance, on March 25th and 26th, undercutting the excitement of watching it unfold live.

In retrospect, it seems foolish for us fans to have expected a gathering of 75,000 people at a time like this, but it wasn’t without precedent. WWE’s mantra for the longest time has been “the show must go on” — for better and for worse.

For the last few years, the company has been under constant fire. A Last Week Tonight segment from 2019 detailed the harsh expectations WWE had of its in-ring employees (or “independent contractors,” as they’re referred), many of whom appeared to be overworked and underinsured. Similar concerns arose this year over whether WWE might be asking too much of its wrestlers and their health, especially superstar Roman Reigns, who had appeared in the main event of WrestleMania 31 through 34, and was a key fixture during this year’s Performance Center buildup. Reigns, who has a history of Leukemia, would rightly drop out of the tapings at the very last minute, but the question remained: should WrestleMania 36 have been taking place at all?

WWE executive Paul Levesque (aka the wrestler Triple H, and Vince McMahon’s son-in-law) recently cited escapist fantasy as the company’s key responsibility, especially in trying times. “Now more than ever,” he added, “entertainment is needed.” It’s an idea the company has stood by for decades; in the days following 9/11, the first mass gathering in the US was, in fact, an episode of WWF SmackDown on September 13th, during which the company not only provided entertaining matches, but words of comfort from stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. If nothing else, McMahon’s proclamation at the match, saying “the spirit of America lives here, in Houston, Texas,” felt cathartic at a time when most people hadn’t even begun to process the tragedy. The show went on.

However, for every commendable instance of WWE pushing forward, several others leave a much fouler taste. The Over the Edge Pay-Per-View in 1999 ended tragically for wrestler Owen Hart, after a high-wire entrance stunt gone wrong. Hart plummeted nearly 80 feet and died in the middle of the ring. His death was announced to the crowd at home, though no such information was relayed to the fans in attendance. The show went on.

Should WrestleMania 36 have gone on? From a safety standpoint, perhaps not; no show is worth the lives of the company’s talent. Although, with entertainment industries the world over going on hiatus — from Broadway to TV to theatrical films — one can see how Vince & Co. might come to the conclusion that pushing forward was their public responsibility. Both halves of the two-night event opened with an on-camera speech from Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon, in which she mentioned “the current circumstances” (without being specific) and the company’s commitment to “providing a diversion during these hard times” — among other buzzwords like “hope,” “perseverance” and “determination.”

However, WWE has the uncanny ability, or perhaps the misfortune, of avoiding direct references to real-world gloom & doom, but evoking it all the same. Of the 18 matches this year, two were filmed off-location in order to create stylized cinematic events, shot and edited like movies rather than live sports broadcasts. One of these matches, between The Undertaker and AJ Styles, took place in a graveyard, and ended with one of the competitors being buried alive; hardly an escape from the grim reality of mass COVID-19 graves visible from space.

A regular match broadcast from Performance Center, between returning superstar Edge and rival Randy Orton, spilled over into the backstage area, and featured the bizarre image of one man trying to hang the other from gym equipment. Intentional or not, the moment evoked the 2007 murder-suicide of Chris Benoit, a wrestler WWE has attempted to scrub from its records, but who has been on people’s minds thanks to Vice TV’s recent Dark Side of the Ring documentary.

Words like “pandemic,” “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” were understandably absent from WWE programming in the weeks leading up to ’Mania. However, their specter loomed large regardless, in the form hundreds of empty chairs set up throughout the tiny filming location, lit brightly and intentionally. During these weekly shows, the humble Performance Center suddenly found itself playing host to the likes of global mega-star John Cena and returning ’90s sensation Stone Cold Steve Austin, whose natural habitat is a crowd of tens of thousands. The results were mixed, thanks in large part to the ever-encroaching reality of the world outside.

During the buildup, Cena’s unfolding feud with Joker/Mister Rogers hybrid Bray Wyatt found uncanny intimacy, as the duo toned down their usual back-row projection and engaged in black box theatre, filling the silence with dramatic tension (theirs was the second WrestleMania match filmed off-location; the result was more effective).

Other TV segments, however, suffered. Stone Cold’s return, with its frequent cutaways to empty stands where crowd reactions ought to have been, felt downright surreal, while the debut of New England Patriots tight-end Rob Gronkowski was almost tone-deaf in execution, as “the Gronk” danced to the ring surrounded by reminders of absent fans.

Awkward as it may have been, you can still get away with such faux pas on a free weekly episode Raw or Smackdown. WrestleMania, however, is wrestling’s grandest stage; it usually costs a $9.99 monthly subscription to the WWE Network, but for the first time since the network’s launch in 2014, the show was also made available on Pay Per View via other OTT platforms (Fox Sports and FITE TV) to the tune of $59.99. The company may cite public responsibility, but a disappointing financial quarter and dwindling Network subscribers seem like they had a significant say in whether the show would continue — live audience be damned.

In a normal year, WrestleMania is a big season finale of sorts, paying off months and years of storylines with the sole purpose of humongous, gladiatorial spectacle. Wrestlers’ entrances are turned up to 11 (which is why Triple H has shown up as everyone from The Terminator to Skeletor), the sets are lavish (WrestleMania 33 in Orlando had an entire Universal-style theme park built atop its ramp), and the fireworks budget appears to be bigger than the GDP of some entire countries. This year, Raymond James Stadium came fully equipped with an enormous Pirate Ship, which many speculated would play a part at this year’s festivities, especially since WWE had a pirate-themed wrestler on-hand, Japanese sensation Kairi Sane. The pirate theme would continue through the show’s graphic design, but the setting was reduced to black curtains and a few laser lights; poor Sane didn’t get a special entrance either.

Generally, the in-ring action at WrestleMania is all about eliciting “pops,” or audible excitement from the crowd. Since its inception, the show has featured cameo after cameo from major celebrities for exactly that purpose; Mr. T and Muhammad Ali at WrestleMania I; Joe Frazier at 2; Pamela Anderson at XI; Mike Tyson at XIV; Kim Kardashian and Floyd Mayweather at XXIV, and my all-time favourite, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at WrestleMania 29. The point is the pomp and circumstance, and crossing wrestling over into the mainstream as much as possible, even if only for a night, by marrying the worlds of film, television, music and combat in full view of a colosseum.

Hulk Hogan lifting Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III is an iconic wrestling landmark, not because it was unprecedented (the enormous Andre had been hoisted before), but because 90,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome lost their minds. Estranged lovers Macho Man and Miss Elizabeth reuniting at WrestleMania VII went from domestic drama to grand opera thanks to an emotional Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, and The Rock battling Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8 proved that even an average match could become the stuff of legend, thanks to a most raucous Toronto crowd. The Rock was presented as the hero (or “babyface”) in the buildup to the bout, with Hulk Hogan playing the villain (or “heel”), but the live audience was firmly behind ’80s and ’90s mainstay Hogan, despite the show’s writing. So, the duo re-adjusted their narrative on the fly, switching places as the match went on; the audience functions as a live feedback loop as well.

Intimate moments become magnified when there are thousands and thousands of witnesses present, from Shawn Michaels reluctantly ending the career of legend Ric Flair while whispering “I’m sorry, I love you” at WrestleMania XXIV, to The Undertaker’s first ever ’Mania loss after 21 straight wins, at WrestleMania XXX, a result met with shock & awe. Legends are born hurtling through the air at WrestleMania, like Edge backed by a sea of camera flashes at WrestleMania X-Seven as he leapt from a twenty-foot ladder. And Legends are born through sheer force of will, as ring announcers yell to keep up with the crowd; when everyman wrestler Daniel Bryan — who was never meant to be in the main event, but was written into it after being propelled by fan support — stood victorious at the end of WrestleMania XXX, commentator Michael Cole closed out the show proclaiming: “The miracle came!”

Atmosphere helps enhance the façade of wrestling. Performative punches are usually pulled and open-handed, but they’re masked by the buzz of the crowd. When feuding wrestlers go back and forth with disguised palm-strikes, the audience alternates with boos and cheers. At WrestleMania 36, the much-anticipated brawl between MMA fighter Shayna Baszler and last year’s main event headliner, Becky Lynch, highlighted the need for an audience more than most other bouts, as the distinctly “slappy” sound of the open-handed-punches reverberated through the Performance Center. Other matches on the card suffered for similar reasons; some wrestlers continued to pretend a crowd was present, behaving as if on auto-pilot and egging on an empty arena to no response. Others engaged in matches made almost entirely of big “finishing” moves, rather than building up to them through narrative ebb-and-flow; it’s worked in the past in front of a live audience, but here, it was like watching a TV magician perform for an empty room.

However, while these bigger moments fell flat, a number of wrestlers who had made names for themselves on the independent circuit — Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Daniel Bryan and Sami Zayn, all veterans of Ring of Honor — adjusted their skill-set accordingly. The Performance Center’s slowly-rotating ceiling fan was visible in most shots, evoking the barely-held-together bingo halls of the indie scene; there was little point in pretending WrestleMania 36 was still the grandest stage. There would be no equivalent of the crowd cheering for a comatose Linda McMahon rising from her seat at WrestleMania X-Seven to kick her husband Vince in the groin — wrestling’s gaudiest soap-opera moment — so why bother? Instead, a handful of Bryan and Zayn’s teammates appeared ringside to provide a cheery vocal atmosphere, while Rollins and Owens used the silence to their advantage, taunting each other with clear, decipherable dialogue. Both matches ramped up the speed of the action, so the lulls wouldn’t result in painful silences as they did in other matches, where the lack of crowd reactions felt like sitcoms robbed of their laugh tracks, or action movies with incomplete sound mixes.

What’s more, Rollins and Owens had also been engaged in a fitting meta-narrative during the buildup; Rollins had the superior record of matches and big moments at WrestleMania, so Owens was in search of his own “WrestleMania moment” — a hurdle that grew higher when the event was made crowd-less. The stakes turned the unfamiliar atmosphere into part of the story, and when Owens leapt off a 20-foot high WrestleMania sign to put Rollins through a table, his taunt of “How’s this for a WrestleMania moment?” was a fitting bookend, aimed at both Rollins, and at those in the audience at home who doubted this year’s event could be entertaining.

Still, there was something amiss, as this year’s WrestleMania was primed for a big live audience response. The storylines on the “Road to WrestleMania” usually begin in January with the Royal Rumble event, a match where 30 competitors enter the ring one by one and try to toss each other out. Year after year, it’s filled with surprise appearances, unexpected match-ups, and a big winner whose prize is a title match in the main event of that year’s WrestleMania. This past January, the Rumble featured not one, but three massive “pops” that felt once-in-a-decade thunderous (on par with one of the loudest in history, Stone Cold helping underdog Mankind win the WWF title from rival The Rock), as the crowd roared and waved their arms, evoking a turbulent ocean. Before WrestleMania had even begun, audience reaction was an integral part of the proceedings.

One of these three big Rumble moments was the fairytale return of Edge, who was forced to retire after a devastating neck injury back in 2011. Between his nine-year absence and WWE managing to keep his appearance a surprise, the response was monumental. The following night, Edge’s road to WrestleMania would begin, as he would be re-injured (in storyline) by vicious former teammate Randy Orton, setting up a months-long revenge saga that culminated over the weekend — albeit in a match that felt far too long without an audience to play off.

The other two big Rumble moments concerned Scottish wrestler Drew McIntyre who, after being handpicked for greatness by Vince McMahon in 2009 (both in-story and behind the scenes), was unceremoniously fired from the company a few years later — a built-in redemption arc if there ever was one.

McIntyre returned bigger and badder in 2017 after touring the indie circuit, and back in January, he entered midway through a particularly unique Royal Rumble. Rumble matches usually fill up with wrestlers fairly quickly (one man enters every 90 seconds), so a crowded ring is a regular fixture. However, this year’s #1 entrant was WWE Champion and former UFC fighter Brock Lesnar — a slab of beef in bike shorts — so every man who entered was swiftly disposed of, followed by Lesnar standing in an empty ring and taunting the crowd, waiting smugly for his next victim. That is, until McIntyre waltzed down the ramp to take on the dominant champion, kicking him out of the ring and becoming an instant crowd-favorite. That was apoplectic audience pop number one, and it was accompanied by chants of “Thank you, Drew!” Pop number two came nearly an hourly later, when McIntyre won the match altogether, all but guaranteeing a one-on-one fight with Lesnar in front of an excited crowd.

McIntyre went on to win the title from Lesnar on Sunday, closing out the show as the new WWE Champion and the new face of the company, but his storybook ending couldn’t help but feel incomplete. There was no one in the audience to cheer him on when he was down, no one to react to the bone-crunching finishing maneuvers, and no one to provide the rousing roar that ought to accompany such a monumental coronation. Despite ending up on top, it felt like another case of bad luck for the Scottish superstar.

WWE couldn’t guarantee its usual big-event feel, but a pivot to off-location studio settings for two horror-themed matches yielded fascinating results. While the awkwardly filmed “Boneyard Match” between Styles and the Undertaker left much to be desired, never truly feeling like it had a sense of physical space, the “Funhouse Match” between Cena and Wyatt proved a unique highlight. Space was never an issue, since the match hopped between dream-realms: first, Wyatt’s Mister Rogers-esque “Firefly Funhouse” — the set of a children’s TV show filled with creepy puppets — and then, various locations through wrestling history.

Wyatt’s supernatural taunts would even transform Cena’s physical appearance. In the middle of a darkened arena, Cena appeared both as his former, white rapper persona, “The Doctor of Thuganomics” — a character that hasn’t aged well — as well as the stripped-down, unreasonably angry (and distinctly character-less) “Ruthless Aggression” Cena of his 2002 debut, while clips from yesteryear invaded Cena’s psyche, pushing to the fore his various doubts and anxieties as a performer over the years.

The dreamscape even sent Cena hurtling through time, first to WWF’s Saturday Night’s Main Event in the 1980s — an era in which the heroic, uber-muscular Hulk Hogan was the most popular babyface — and then to WWF’s rival WCW Monday Nitro in the ’90s, when Hogan had reinvented himself as “Hollywood Hulk Hogan,” a dastardly heel and a member of the mega-popular, anti-authority villain group the New World Order (or nWo). In both cases, perpetual babyface Cena, a child-friendly character frozen in time for over 15 years, stood in for Hogan, re-enacting the greatest hits of an era-defining star to whom he has always been (and perhaps, will always be) unfavourably compared.

The “match” only had one or two actual moves, but it involved the kind of mind-games that a normal WrestleMania, unfolding in front of a live audience, wouldn’t have allowed. It went so far as to re-edit and rewrite a previous WrestleMania in the process: WrestleMania XXX, during which Wyatt attempted to bait the babyface Cena into succumbing to his violent urges by hitting Wyatt with a chair. In reality, Cena refused to give in back in 2014. But here, in Wyatt’s nightmare realm, with footage from both ’Manias laid on top of one another, Cena finally took a swing — only for Wyatt to disappear. Before the match was over, Cena had already lost.

The Funhouse Match proved what was possible in wrestling with just a little bit of editing, and along with splitting WrestleMania into two parts (its runtime has ballooned to 7-plus hours in recent years), it was by far the best thing to come out of the weekend. Despite being a strange an at times awkward event, WrestleMania 36 forced its creatives to think outside the box, even if only for a couple of days, though one wonders if an off-season is finally on the cards. Monday Night Raw, which WWE flaunts as “the longest-running weekly episodic program in the US,” had tonight’s episode in the can before WrestleMania had even been filmed, and they company has already begun to advertise its May Pay Per View, the appropriately named Money in the Bank, with no indication of slowing down.

The world of entertainment may have hit the pause button, but for WWE, it’s business as usual.