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The Looming Weirdness of ‘WrestleMania’

This weekend’s ‘WrestleMania 36’ is pretaped, audience-free, and two nights long. It’s going to be the strangest ‘WrestleMania’ ever. It could also be great.

WWE/Ringer illustration

WWE is the last man standing. Sporting and entertainment events all over the planet have fallen like dominoes in the wake of the dreadful and terrifying coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. None of this, however, has stopped Vince McMahon from marching defiantly toward WrestleMania—the jewel in his company’s annual calendar. If the world right now is like the beginning of 28 Days Later ..., WrestleMania is Cillian Murphy’s character, stumbling through an eerily quiet world unaware that everything else has changed irreversibly.

But WWE is aware of what’s happening, and it’s leaning into it in a unique way by turning this WrestleMania into a strange sandbox for the creative staff’s oddest ideas. This year’s Showcase of the Immortals has the feel of a brainstorming session in which every unhinged notion scrawled in Sharpie on the conference room flipboard has been thrown into a turkey baster and spewed out as a bizarre entertainment homunculus. And yet, it’s exactly that which makes it a must-watch spectacular.

Nobody knows how WrestleMania is going to pan out. WWE is trying a selection of mad ideas, from the cinematic approach to several matches to the embrace of the long-mooted idea of spreading the show over two nights. Rather than resting on its laurels and trundling down the path of least resistance, WWE has spun the wheel into a handbrake turn and steered directly into the weirdness. This could very well be a trainwreck on par with the furry freak show of Tom Hooper’s Cats, but it could just as easily be the most entertaining WrestleMania in years.

Most importantly, it doesn’t actually matter. Nobody expects anything from this WrestleMania and there’s very little competition for a televised event on this scale, so WWE can’t really lose.

In a world of uncertainty, WWE has been something of a constant—albeit a zany, unpredictable one. For several weeks, the company has been airing all of its weekly TV broadcasts from the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, with no audience and a scaled-down apparatus. Some of those broadcasts emanated live from the facility, while the more recent ones have been prerecorded, just as WrestleMania has been ahead of its airing on the WWE Network on April 4 and 5.

There’s no denying the weirdness this has brought about, with performers doing their thing in front of rows and rows of empty chairs. The novelty of this was undeniably intriguing in the first few weeks, with a particularly impressive promo segment between John Cena and Bray Wyatt—in his sweater-wearing, Mr. Rogers guise—compared on social media to the unique tension of a Samuel Beckett play. For the most gifted actors on the WWE roster, the ability to perform without an audience has amplified their talents and given their promos an added intensity. Even the matches, initially at least, had an oddball luster that made them a morbid joy to watch, even if silence after a big move always feels like underselling the talent on show.

As the weeks have gone by, WWE has visibly fallen out of love with this style and leaned more on traditional interview pretapes and reruns of old matches. There was also a segment in which Byron Saxton got kicked directly in the testicles by Stone Cold Steve Austin, but that was just tough to watch. In the past few episodes alone, fans have been asked to sit through replays of this year’s Royal Rumble match, the immensely tedious Roman Reigns vs. Triple H main event from WrestleMania 32, and the excellent triple threat world title bout between Brock Lesnar, Seth Rollins, and John Cena from the 2015 edition of Royal Rumble. It’s reasonable programming, but a telling addition for a usually live “sports” broadcast—especially one whose fans largely have access to these matches on the WWE Network.

Crucially, though, those matches are not what WrestleMania is going to be. This year’s Showcase of the Immortals has, as far as we know, already been prerecorded—there is now a “stay-at-home” order in place in the Orange County, Florida, area—and it’s fair to say there are some left-field ideas afoot. At least four of the matches have some form of stipulation, with two of those being match variants that have never been seen before. AJ Styles and the Undertaker will compete in a “Boneyard” match, while John Cena and Bray Wyatt, assuming the former accepts Wyatt’s challenge, will have a “Firefly Fun House” match.

The company has been teasing “multiple locations” for its WrestleMania card and the word “cinematic” has been thrown around on the dirt sheets in relation to several matches, including the Cena va. Wyatt contest. Their bout has been billed as a rematch of their impressive clash back at WrestleMania XXX, in which they were unsurprisingly drowned out by the combined volume of Brock Lesnar ending the Undertaker’s undefeated streak and Daniel Bryan finally climbing the mountain to become WWE World Heavyweight Champion. For some fans, the prospect of pretaped and cinematically edited matches may induce shudders at the memory of the infamous “House of Horrors” match between Wyatt and Randy Orton in April 2017 or WWE’s divisive attempt to channel the cult popularity of Matt Hardy—again involving Bray Wyatt—for 2018’s “Ultimate Deletion” match on Raw.

There is, however, a crucial difference between what WWE was doing then and what it is doing now. The “House of Horrors” match was hamstrung by a baffling stipulation that meant it had to end back in the arena, rendering the 15-minute prefilmed element of the contest somewhat irrelevant and feeling more than a little superfluous. “Ultimate Deletion,” meanwhile, suffered from being a watered-down rehash of something that Hardy had previously done over in TNA—like your dad sending a Rickroll link a decade after the rest of the world stopped finding it funny.

This time around, all bets are off—and the sky is the limit. There isn’t going to be anything conventional about WrestleMania this year and so, if WWE has any wisdom, it will push things as far as it possibly can. Already, the suggestion is that both halves of Bray Wyatt’s personality—Fiend and Mr. Rogers—could appear in the match via the miracles of editing, in a sort of souped-up take on Mick Foley’s busy night at the 1998 Royal Rumble. Wyatt is a man of many ideas and, given that Cena is now an accomplished actor, the possibilities for the match are pretty much endless. These two men have been given the opportunity to take a swing, and they’ll certainly be willing to embrace it.

Meanwhile, the prospect of editing could turn Undertaker’s clash with AJ Styles into one of the Phenom’s most enjoyable matches in years. Fans have become sadly accustomed to seeing the Deadman meander around the ring as a shell of his former glory, whether it was in his saddening WrestleMania 33 main event battle with Roman Reigns or his excruciating tussle with Goldberg at last year’s Super ShowDown in Saudi Arabia. The latter, particularly, was like trying to watch two concussed refrigerators dance the entirety of Swan Lake. AJ Styles might be able to convincingly wrestle a broom, but nobody wants that broom to be a 55-year-old future Hall of Famer.

Undertaker is a performer who relies upon mystique more than in-ring performance. Charitably, Mark Calaway is at least a decade past his athletic best, while his 42-year-old opponent appears, somehow, to be right in the midst of his prime. A stipulation—particularly an overcranked one—will conceal Taker’s flaws and accentuate the character we all consider to be one of the most iconic wrestling gimmicks of all time. Styles has heavily insinuated that the “Boneyard” match stipulation is essentially just a reworked version of a “Buried Alive” match. The list of classic bouts in this arena is short—there have been only five of them, period—but the chance to shoot the action creatively and achieve new things with editing could help to smooth off the goofiness that has historically made these matches tricky to get behind. If it’s allowed to feel like a horror movie rather than just a pile of mud on the edge of the stage, it could be the perfect venue for the Deadman.

Those two matches offer the most eye-catching opportunities for creativity, but there’s also plenty of room for innovation elsewhere on the card. Last week’s SmackDown, for example, featured a spot in which Baron Corbin appeared to send Elias tumbling at least 20 feet to the arena floor in scenes reminiscent of Undertaker’s apparent murder of Muhammad Hassan in 2005 or Big Show’s devastating chokeslam of Kurt Angle, which confined him to a wheelchair (in story line) for several weeks. Even within the confines of the wrestling ring, a pretaped WrestleMania allows for plenty of unorthodox chaos like this.

But, with all of that said, a key question remains in the air. Will anybody watch the show?

WrestleMania is always a fairly unusual prospect for British wrestling fans like myself. On the one hand, there’s nothing like watching its drama unfold live but, on the other, it airs on this side of the Atlantic in the early hours of Monday morning. Added to that, there’s the fact that Vince McMahon’s ongoing distaste for brevity has increasingly bloated the show to the point that the final bell often rings just a few hours before we need to start our journey to work.

With that in mind, this year’s WrestleMania would seem to be rather missable for Brits. It has all been pretaped and so it seems likely that the results will surface in some dark corner of the internet before the weekend. There’s also the fact that the spark of a live show will be missing, with every shock moment and big move echoing around an empty gymnasium rather than reverberating through the pulsating energy of tens of thousands of inebriated, excited superfans.

WrestleMania may be assisted, though, by the way the spread of COVID-19 has changed the way we all work. Suddenly, many workplaces have closed down—leaving people either unemployed or furloughed at home—while other people are working from home for the first time, not needing to commute long distances and possibly even organizing their own flexible schedule. Kids, too, might be allowed the incredibly rare chance to stay up late in the absence of school the next day. And the event is split over two nights—Saturday and Sunday—to break things up. With that in mind, the prospect of two late nights in front of the WWE Network is entirely attainable. It’s doubly so given that, rather than one monster time commitment—last year’s WrestleMania ran to more than five hours, including the preshow—this year’s event is split into two, slightly more palatable parts.

This WrestleMania also occupies the rarefied position of being the only new sporting event to take place in months. British sports fans have had to deal with the postponement of Premier League football—or soccer, I suppose; whatever, guys—the coitus interruptus of the ongoing Six Nations rugby, a canceled cricket tour of Sri Lanka, and the delayed start of the Formula One season—not to mention all of the similar delays affecting sports in the U.S. Wrestling is, effectively, the final fix available for sport addicts. Never underestimate the boredom of British men when they can’t go to the pub or complain about the many misfortunes of Spurs.

It’ll be interesting to see how this unique WrestleMania event will play out. It will certainly lack some of the pageantry and pizzazz of previous years, but the stage is set for WWE to fill that gap with creative steam—free of the restrictions necessarily imposed on a show that has to appeal to absolutely everyone, while keeping the dozens of corporate forces involved equally happy. By using largely its own venue and keeping everything small, WWE is essentially making WrestleMania just for itself. The leash is off, so the company should just embrace the ability to run freely and try all of the ideas that would usually be considered too risky. There’s a built-in excuse if everything goes pear-shaped.

There are, admittedly, questions to be asked about whether it’s responsible for WWE to be pushing ahead with WrestleMania in the wake of the current crisis. The company has, however, done its best to protect its employees—notably, Roman Reigns has stepped aside, likely because of concerns about his compromised immune system—while still setting the stage for an interesting, star-studded event. Now, all that remains is to see what the simmering cauldron of ideas has produced. Genuinely, there could be anything in store—and that, in an art form that is so often predictable, is worth its weight in gold. Or toilet paper. Or whatever the currency is at this stage of the apocalypse.

Tom Beasley is a U.K.-based film and entertainment journalist. He’s a lover of horror, musicals, and wrestling—but not usually at the same time.