Wrestlemania 36 was never going to feel like a Wrestlemania, not after the crowds were locked out due to, as WWE brass put it, our “current circumstances.” Due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, Vince McMahon and company shuffled whatever wrestlers weren’t already hacking up a lung into the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, where matches and promos unfolded beneath ceiling fans to utter silence and empty chairs. It was surreal and sorta lonely, a demonstration of how vital the hum and roar of a live audience is to the theater that is professional wrestling.
For Wrestlemania, an event that thrives on spectacle and pageantry as much as it does a captive audience, would occur in that hollow, cavernous square is a joke. The sheer vastness of the event, punctuated by cacophonous fireworks, has long been a selling point, as has its breadth of “legitimate” celebrity: Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost and Michael Che hosted last year’s show and, every few years, The Rock briefly departs the A-list, flamethrower in hand, to honor his old stomping grounds. Wrestlemania is where Triple H arrives flanked by skeletons, where Shane McMahon leaps off cages, and where the adults who grew up watching The Undertaker wait impatiently for that first spine-tingling dong of his theme song, desperate to remember what it was like when all of this seemed so real.
Wisely, WWE didn’t try to replicate any of that this year. Nor did they attempt to manifest the weird pirate theme of the event’s ads, outside of a silly, amusing intro package that was filmed when Roman Reigns, who dropped out of the show last week due to him being immunocompromised, was still on the card. NFL legend and new WWE signee Rob Gronkowski “hosted” the show, in that he gave an intro spiel, danced during a few entrances, and wormed his way into a subplot around the very dumb 24/7 Championship (he disappeared halfway through night two, with Titus O’Neill taking his place). Wrestlers were introduced in silence. They wrestled in silence. They celebrated in silence. And, as anyone who’s watched Raw or Smackdown recently knows, this is a deafening silence, the sort that sucks the electricity from sequences that would otherwise pop a live crowd. As annoying as wrestling audiences can be, watching wrestling is meant to be a communal experience. Lacking that, what’s one to do? Fill the air with music? White noise? This needed something.
So, yeah, some matches suffered. Daniel Bryan and Sami Zayn is a match made in heaven, but weeks of toothless buildup, bad booking, and a general lack of dynamism turned it into a bummer. The same goes for Becky Lynch and Shayna Baszler, a listless and too-short battle that, when you consider the response both performers tend to extract from crowds, might have shifted into another gear in a packed stadium. But there was a lot of shoddy storytelling going into this year’s show. It’s great that Braun Strowman beat the snot out of Goldberg, but it might have resonated more if the company hadn’t just had the 53-year old Goldberg destroy The Fiend, a heretofore untouchable star, during a blood money PPV in Saudi Arabia—and, you know, done anything with Braun over the past few years. And not even 10,000 screaming fans could’ve helped that 37-minute slog between Randy Orton and Edge. Despite having a solid story behind it, the match itself barely engaged with the pair’s emotional complexity as they smashed each other into different parts of the Performance Center. There was a palpable rawness to the finish, when Edge was consumed by a numb, exhausted hatred, but the endless counts by the referee were such a drag. Yet again, a good Orton story culminating in an underwhelming match.
But the challenges of this year’s Wrestlemania served to highlight the strengths of other performers. Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins delivered an intense match with a killer swerve—that jump off the sign was as close to a traditional “Wrestlemania moment” as we got—but what they demonstrated that so many others didn’t was an ability to believably trash-talk through the silence. Their feud was paper-thin, but their ability to talk like actual human beings—a shockingly hard thing to do while punishing one’s body—helped make their match more present and, by extension, more intimate.
Charlotte and Rhea Ripley, meanwhile, lit up the rafters with guttural screams, turning the night’s best traditional match into something genuinely palpable; my knee was throbbing after the tactical assault Charlotte laid on Ripley’s. It’s a bummer that Charlotte won, sure, but Ripley’s tap arrived in a fit of pain-induced mania that the rising star sold to perfection. Incredible work on both of their parts.
Still, though, the only bout that didn’t have me missing the audience was the Street Profits and Angel Garza/Austin Theory/Zelina Vega, all of whom seemed preternaturally comfortable in their roles. The Profits remain lightning-quick and charming as hell, while Garza and Theory exude smugness and entitlement; Vega, meanwhile, is the perfect manager, pounding on the apron and alternating between pure joy and absolute terror. A gem of a match, though the Profits really shouldn’t have to cheat to win.
Wrestlemania 36's biggest revelations, however, didn’t happen in the ring at all, nor, oddly enough, were they centered entirely around wrestling. Let’s start with Saturday night’s Boneyard Match, which pitted a villainous A.J. Styles against the Undertaker. While many thought ‘Taker was finished after he lost to Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 30, the legend’s returned to diminishing returns time and again, whether it be to bury Bray Wyatt, put over Roman Reigns, or ruin our childhoods in a terrible match against Goldberg. The truth is that Mark Calaway’s 55 years old and, despite being in great shape for his age, just not able to go like he used to. We pop when he’s announced for a card not because we want to see him wrestle, but because we want to see his entrance. The match itself is always kind of depressing.
Not so with the Boneyard Match, which was filmed in a “cemetery” with dynamic lighting and a perfectly rectangular six-foot grave. Like most WWE feuds these days, ‘Taker’s feud with Styles lacks a real inciting incident, relying on shit-talking and escalation, so the heat’s as minimal as the stakes. That doesn’t stop this from being ‘Taker’s best match in years. By shooting it cinematically, WWE taps into the fantastical mythos that’s always chased the character while also embracing the looney, self-aware comedy popularized by “Broken” Matt Hardy. ‘Taker also gets to straddle the supernatural—how did he teleport from the grave to the bulldozer so quick?—and American Badass—that middle finger—aspects of his persona without ever having to stop and catch his breath like he would in the ring. Besides, it wasn’t his in-ring work that made the Undertaker special, it was his size and persona and steadfastness, his ability to remain consistently imposing even as he morphed into different variations of his character. It’s a bummer to see him lumber around the ring now, squashing wrestlers who need a boost and, as a result, becoming the embodiment of everything CM Punk railed against with his pipe bomb promo. The Boneyard Match fixed that—‘Taker gets to look fierce while wailing on druids and protect Styles by beating him not by pinfall, but by burying him alive.
That Styles will somehow be able to dig himself out of there is enough to ensure his reputation remains intact.
But if the Boneyard Match is for the Undertaker what the Mission: Impossible movies are for Tom Cruise, then the Firefly Funhouse Match between John Cena and “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt is something you’d be more likely to see in an arthouse. Okay, maybe that’s giving it too much credit: The Firefly Funhouse Match is like an Are You Afraid Of The Dark? episode, but with 15 years of actual history behind it. Less a match than a psychological thriller, the bout found Cena falling prey to a time-traveling maelstrom in which Cena, now an A-list actor alongside The Rock, is forced to confront his legacy as seen through the eyes of modern wrestling fans. His early gimmicks—the “Ruthless Aggression” promo, the Doctor Of Thuganomics—haunt him, as does the pressures of him being viewed by both management and fans as a modern-day Hulk Hogan. Wyatt leads him through a bygone Saturday Night’s Main Event promo, mocks the ways in which his relationship with Nikki Bella was exploited by WWE, and imagines an alternate history in which he listened to fans and pulled a Hogan-esque nWo heel turn. Most fascinating, however, is how Wyatt uses Cena’s own losses and failures as a means of framing his resentment over Cena beating him at Wrestlemania 30, which more or less marked the beginning Bray’s descent as a character. That was, along with Cena’s win over the Nexus, a historically bad bit of WWE programming, one that stifled its rising stars in favor of a sure thing.
Yes, this is scripted, but it also folds in what are no doubt real resentments on the part of Windham Rotunda (Bray’s real name), as well as insecurities Cena likely has as someone who’s followed in The Rock’s footsteps and now views the business from a place of retrospection. There’s an abrupt quality to its finish, and your mileage may vary when it comes to the Vince McMahon puppet, but this was the most ambitious and daring content the WWE’s produced in ages and it both rehabilitates The Fiend after his embarrassing loss to Goldberg while also serving to make this rare appearance from Cena feel genuinely special.
Wrestlemania 36 will go down as both one of the weirdest Wrestlemanias of all time, but if enduring audience-less wrestling means the company learns how to better utilize its veteran stars, then this experiment was worth it.