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‘WrestleMania 36’ Goes Outside the Box—and Ring—to Deliver

Without the roar of the crowd, WWE had to look to unconventional areas for its “‘WrestleMania’ moments.” The company found them in unusual places.

WWE/Ringer illustration

Halfway through his “Boneyard” match against AJ Styles, the Undertaker, gray-beard sage and (living) ghost of WrestleMania past, hopped down off the roof of a car (more on that later) and said, “You want more? I got a lot of more.” And over two nights and something around eight hours of action, in an oddball mishmash of matches emanating from an empty room in Orlando, “I got a lot of more” could have been the motto for this year’s WrestleMania.

Officially, the slogan for this year’s show was “Too big for just one night,” and while the duration was never in question, the “big” part was a little suspect. As part of the widespread cancellation of public events in the wake of the coronavirus, the original stage—Raymond James Stadium in Tampa—was nixed and what is nominally WWE’s biggest show of the year was retrofitted into a pretaped exercise at its training facility, filmed weeks in advance with a minimal crew and no audience. There was a wrestling ring, an entrance ramp, full color lights and graphics, ringside barricades, and even an announcer team—just enough to make you almost think you were watching a regular broadcast.

But there’s nothing regular about where we are right now, and despite the insistence of WWE and its performers that its top priority was bringing some entertainment and happiness to fans, the specter of, well, the oddity of the proceedings was the main takeaway. But onward they fought. At times it felt like you had accidentally stumbled through a stage door and into a dress rehearsal for the actual WrestleMania, but that made the moments of transcendence—and distraction—all the more powerful.

As WWE has reshaped its own product into a sort of semi-self-aware hagiography, the prize at WrestleMania has shifted subtly. There are still championships on the line (a lot of them, actually—three championships were defended at WrestleMania 1, whereas nine were defended this weekend), but the ultimate goal is now the “WrestleMania moment.” The WrestleMania moment is that amazing ending to a match, the chord struck by a flash of shocking physicality, and a perfect pose after victory. It’s history being etched in real time, the sort of thing a mythmaking operation excels at. After the cancellation of the stadium show, there was lots of talk among fans about wrestlers missing out on their WrestleMania moments. The championship wins could be rescheduled—title belts in a fake sport are transitory anyway—but it’s the memories that last forever. Drew McIntyre, the Scottish superhero who won this year’s Royal Rumble and thus earned his way into Sunday’s main event, had his entire rise to the top redefined by the absence of such a moment; after his feud with Brock Lesnar was derailed by social distancing, his story line functionally shifted from McIntyre vs. Lesnar to McIntyre vs. Nature. (The more he publicly insisted that he had come to peace with his biggest moment going audience-free, the more it was clear he was destined to win, and that only made it sadder.)

But in the absence of a stadium full of fans, and without the godly shadows cast by a venue of that size, would “WrestleMania moments” even be possible? And if not, would WrestleMania even be WrestleMania? To put it another way, how would WWE manage to keep anything that happened in an empty room from feeling ... empty?

In 1981, Jerry “The King” Lawler was making a comeback from a broken leg, and was the hottest babyface in Memphis wrestling. He was beefing with Terry Funk, who thought he was getting unfair treatment in Memphis, what with it being Lawler’s home turf and all, so he made a challenge: an empty arena match, held in the usual big-show environs of the Mid-South Coliseum but without fans, security, or anybody except the two wrestlers, the announcer, Lance Russell, and a cameraman and photographer for posterity. It was one of the greatest matches of all time, at least when you balance against workrate (there was basically none) and crowd reaction (there was literally none). The match was utter joy, starting at the anachronistic hedonism of Russell’s indoor smoking and moving forward, drudgingly, into probably the realest match I can recall—real in the sense that it was plodding and awkward and often aimless, and at the end, when Funk tried to gouge Lawler’s eye with a metal pike only to have it kicked back into his own eye, leaving Funk screeching in agony, Lawler just walked away apprehensively, looking around as if to see whether anyone would be able to ID him if the police showed up.

Eighteen years later, during halftime of Super Bowl XXXIII, with John Elway’s Broncos up 17-6 on the Falcons, the WWF brought the empty arena back into currency, capitalizing on their Attitude Era crossover appeal (and a halftime show featuring Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) to air “Halftime Heat”—a match between WWF champ the Rock and Mankind in an empty Tucson Convention Center that saw Mankind win the belt with an assist from a forklift. There have been other audience-free wrestling experiments over the years—the AWA made a go of it with its deeply weird Team Challenge Series—but outside of the occasional special feature, wrestling without a live crowd makes about as much sense as wrestling without wrestlers.

I’ve written before that the audience is pro wrestling’s “Third Man”—along with the protagonist and antagonist, they’re an equity partner in the proceedings, because their reactions both steer the match and define its reception. To stage an entire event without a crowd isn’t so much an acoustic performance as spoken word. It’s art without background music. To WWE’s great credit, much of WrestleMania 36 somehow had me humming along.

The space left by the absence of fans was filled by the announcers and the mic’d up grunts and groans—and running smack talk—of the wrestlers, favoring the format of the multiperson matches. It also favored nontraditional matches like Saturday’s ladder match between John Morrison, Jimmy Uso, and Kofi Kingston, which had enough death-defying moments to distract from the bizarre circumstances, or the buildingwide brawl between Randy Orton and Edge on Sunday, which was able to achieve something resembling normalcy by leaving the ring altogether. Style helped, too—the more close-ups a match allowed, the less the setting mattered—and thus the headlock made a huge comeback in 2020.

The two title matches—Goldberg vs. Braun Strowman and Lesnar vs. McIntyre—were mirror images of each other: super-short finisher-fests with the challenger winning against the old-guard icon. One almost wonders whether the decision to spread the event over two nights was to distance these similar bouts, but that much detail probably couldn’t have been known that far in advance. When they originally announced the two-night format, the Strowman slot was to be filled by Roman Reigns, who withdrew because his bout with cancer put him at a higher risk for the coronavirus. WWE proudly insisted that any wrestler was free to bow out of WrestleMania for whatever reason and with no repercussions, and it’s hard to imagine any resentment being aimed at Reigns regardless. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that Reigns’s WrestleMania moment, such as it was, got regifted to Strowman.

And if Sunday’s main event felt familiar, it wasn’t just because of the Goldberg match 24 hours before—it was a cut-and-paste job from various Lesnar title defenses over the past half-decade. If Strowman got Reigns’s slot this weekend, McIntyre got handed one of Reigns’s old scripts. He made the most of it, though.

After he pinned Lesnar, McIntyre looked directly into the camera to thank the fans and then climbed the ropes to celebrate with an imaginary audience while a felled Lesnar laid comically in the background. The “thank you” was meant to thank fans for their support, but it might as well have been for sticking out the show.

Not every fight stayed so true to the WWE formula. There were two unusual matches that made the most of the absence of traditional environs. First, and most significantly, was Saturday’s “Boneyard” match between the Undertaker and AJ Styles, relayed over a 20-minute short film that saw the Deadman brawling with Styles in a junkyard-cum-cemetery complete with explosions, hooded druids, and an open grave. It was grizzly, it was hilarious, it was a thing of beauty. On a regular WWE show, it’s the kind of thing that could have fallen flat with the live crowd—pretaped bits always do. But in the absence of an audience, the Boneyard match shone.

Then there was the “Firefly Funhouse” match between Bray Wyatt, a.k.a. the Fiend, and John Cena. The Funhouse in question is the domain of Wyatt’s latest persona, and so the deck was stacked against Cena, who had returned from his new life in Hollywood to wage battle. It was even more lopsided than that, though: It was a heavily packaged, expertly edited journey through Cena’s id, from the anxieties of his earliest days in the ring to the implicit ambivalence of his recent career choices. There were moments of genius—Cena re-living his WWE debut and (separately) playing Hollywood Hogan in a reenactment of early 2000s WCW. It’s hard to explain, but suffice it to say that if David Lynch did wrestling, this is what he would have come up with. But these weren’t mere mind games—they were the match itself. We know what a Ladder match is, and a Last Man Standing match, and a Hell in a Cell match. We can suss out what a Boneyard match is by experience. But a “Firefly Funhouse’’ match was a new concept, and as entertaining and legitimately thought-provoking as it was, it all kind of felt like the preamble to a real match. At least Taker and AJ came to blows. In a game of hocus-pocus, Cena never stood a chance.

Looked at another way, the Funhouse match was the first postmodern pro wrestling experience. (A fully self-aware T-shirt appeared on in the weeks leading up to the show: “WrestleMania: I Wasn’t There.”) There was angst and argument and muscles and story, just without the fisticuffs we’re accustomed to. Some might joke that this is what Vince McMahon has been angling toward for the better part of 40 years. It’s wrestling without wrestling—the final evolution of the form.

There was a lot of WrestleMania 36—a lot to enjoy and a lot to admire. Setting aside the ethics of doing business during the coronavirus lockdown, WWE definitely achieved the sort of escapism it was angling for. In the immediate fallout on Raw and SmackDown this week, we also have traditional matters to attend to: new top champions on both brands. But in the long term, the Funhouse match and Boneyard match are what we will remember about WrestleMania 36. They may be oddball novelties that serve more as high-quality fodder for video packages. They may be moments of evolution for the sport, like the first Ladder match or the first Hell in a Cell clash. Or they may be bigger than that—something along the lines of the first WrestleMania.

Before he leaped on to Seth Rollins from 20 feet above, Kevin Owens yelled “How’s this for a WrestleMania moment?” Despite the coolness of that spot, the Boneyard and the Funhouse were the only two true moments from this year’s show. (Unless you count the whole show as a moment, paying homage to the entire existence of a WrestleMania under these circumstances.) McIntyre’s celebration in front of a crowd of zero is worthy of reverence. It’s a fitting totem for where we are as a culture right now, and for pro wrestling’s resilience. Spoiler alert: The Boneyard match ended with Styles’s hand reaching up through the dirt he was buried beneath to show that he was fighting to the end. It was a powerful image. But McIntyre pointing at empty seats and blank walls, celebrating his win the only way he knew how—that moment said the same thing.