WrestleMania: Despite some flaws, WWE's effort should be appreciated

If you are a fan of professional wrestling, watching WrestleMania was never going to be a question. It’s the industry’s Super Bowl.

But, as sports leagues closed their doors and tens of millions of people forced to stay home amid the global coronavirus pandemic, WWE’s decision to relocate WrestleMania and carry on with the show may have nudged others into the world of sports entertainment.

People who normally would say “Sure, I used to watch when I was younger,” might have tuned in. People who normally may have been out at a bar on a Saturday night or wrapping up their weekend on Sunday evening might have had their curiosity piqued. Parents who normally drown it out while their children watched might have turned it into a family event.

In a world where content is king, fresh content has the shiniest crown.

For that, WWE deserves credit. It took necessary precautions to keep talent and staff safe, marching forward to — at the very least — give people a distraction for 6 1/2 hours between WrestleMania’s two nights. There were championship matches, pre-filmed vignettes, and even Rob Gronkowski performing in a role that, other than being an NFL tight end, he was born for.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel wrote after the first night, the effort was there, but the lack of fans still loomed large over the show.

It was a unique experiment in unprecedented times. We may not talk about this WrestleMania like WrestleMania III or 30, but there were still plenty of things that worked, even if there wasn’t anyone present to cheer them.

First and foremost, the biggest part of any wrestling show — from bingo halls to WrestleMania — is the action in the ring. With 18 matches on the card, WrestleMania 36 certainly had a lot of it and. without fans for the athletes to feed off of, it was more important than ever for the talent to work together to tell a cohesive and compelling story in the ring. It was here where, as the late Randy “Macho Man” Savage would have said, the cream rose to the top.

Stars such as Daniel Bryan, Sami Zayn, Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley were so good that it didn’t matter that there weren’t any fans. Part of the allure of professional wrestling — where of course as we know, the outcome is scripted — is seeing how the two (or more) athletes in the ring get to the predetermined finish. Every so often there’s an ending that is unexpected and legitimately surprising, but 99 times out of 100, it’s the journey, not necessarily the destination.

Charlotte Flair defeated Rhea Ripley to win the NXT Women's Championship. (Photo credit: WWE)

Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins, two of the top talents on “Raw,” showed exactly why they were beloved before ever stepping foot in a WWE ring. Both Owens and Rollins utilized the lack of natural crowd noise to hurl insults at one another — again, selling a narrative that complements their in-ring performances. The two stars used the ring bell as a weapon, a genius move when you can hear the impact clearly. Steel steps and chairs came into play, as they so often do, and again, the sound and Owens sold the pain that much more. Owens took a massive leap off of the WrestleMania logo structure, a spot that would not have been possible at Raymond James Stadium.

There was a ladder match for the Smackdown Tag Team Championships. Even without fans in the arena, it’s hard not to appreciate the risks John Morrison, Jimmy Uso and Kofi Kingston — who knows a thing or two about WrestleMania — took in order to put on an entertaining match.

Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman, two of the best in the business when it comes to creating that big-fight feel, brought their storyline with Drew McIntyre to its conclusion, putting over the 34-year-old Scottish star in a way only they could have.

Each night featured off-site matches, both of which emphasized the entertainment factor in the phrase “sports entertainment.”

Saturday’s Boneyard Match between A.J. Styles and the Undertaker capped off the night and felt more like a choreographed movie fight scene than anything else. Seeing Undertaker reprise his “American Bad Ass” character was cool, but considering his WrestleMania matches are akin to a touring band doing a greatest hits concert, this played out the same way a Metallica show would without “Enter Sandman.”

The following night was no less bizarre thanks to the “Firefly Funhouse” match between John Cena and “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt. If you were coming into WrestleMania 36 cold, good luck understanding exactly what was going on here with references to past personas, defunct shows and promotions and, of course all of the chaos that is the “Firefly Funhouse” itself. That said, kudos to WWE for leaning into its most creative and interesting character in a unique way.

There were clear changes in creative direction on the card as well, most notably Braun Strowman subbing in for Roman Reigns in the WWE Universal Championship match against Goldberg on Saturday night. The plan was almost certainly to take the belt off of Goldberg, but with Reigns opting to skip WrestleMania due to health considerations, Strowman stepped into the spotlight. The match lasted just over two minutes, suffering from lack of a true build and the full spectacle that is Goldberg’s entrance.

No, WrestleMania wasn’t perfect, and there will be a certain subset of wrestling fans that will point that out for years to come, but for World Wrestling Entertainment, for two nights amid a crisis unlike any in recent memory, its biggest show provided a welcome diversion, flaws and all.

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