It seemed like bliss at first, the ability to enjoy wrestling without “what” chants, in those bizarre early days of pandemic pro wrestling. When the world shut down, WWE moved its TV production into the audience-free environs of its Florida Performance Center. It was an interesting experiment at first, but it wasn’t long before the strange, skin-crawling sensation of watching sports entertainment without an audience set in. Last year’s WrestleMania was plagued by awkward silences and the canvas’s hollow thundering, as were the months of TV that followed. The seams of a product that relies on a live audience’s suspension of disbelief were beginning to show. The creation of the ThunderDome and its dystopian virtual attendees was an improvement—at least there were humans in the crowd (albeit digital ones) and the sound of fans (albeit inorganic)—but still no substitute for actual butts in actual seats.
Many would argue it was still too soon to gather more than 25,000 fans outdoors at Tampa’s 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium over the weekend, and it was obvious to the casual viewer that many attendees were playing fast and loose with mask requirements. But one thing is undeniable: the energy they brought to Saturday and Sunday’s shows, even after a spat of rain and lightning briefly delayed the first day’s festivities. Below, we’ve zeroed in on the cheers, boos, chants, and gasps that made this one of the most cathartic WrestleMania events of all time.
Drew McIntyre finally gets his WrestleMania moment.
After nearly two decades and one hell of a glow-up, Drew McIntyre celebrated his first WWE Championship win last year with a strain of drums and bagpipes, a poor substitute for the roar of a ravenous crowd. His theme music was all that was there to greet him at WrestleMania 36, which unfolded in an empty arena. Don’t expect to see it in the highlight reels. The Scottish Warrior enjoyed some measure of recompense, however, by being the first superstar to emerge after a year of crowd-less events, and the rapturous welcome he received, reverent and respectful, was all the more euphoric in the wake of a cruel rain delay. He didn’t walk away with Bobby Lashley’s belt, but there will always be more title shots. The chance to absorb a year’s worth of bottled-up fervor? That’s once in a lifetime.
Hulk Hogan gets booed.
You won’t hear it on Peacock, but anybody who saw Hulk Hogan’s welcome speech live caught the crushing wave of boos that rained upon the disgraced legend. And though Hogan’s history of racist remarks earned him that scorn, it’s obvious that the boos were just as much for the WWE. The company booted Hogan from the WWE Hall of Fame in the wake of the scandal, but has slowly sought to reintegrate him into the franchise (and the Hall of Fame), all while cynically exploiting the red-and-yellow iconography of his early career to help ease the transition. On Saturday, the crowd made it clear through those weaponized boos, which were reserved only for him, not cohost Titus O’Neil: Leave Hulkamania where it belongs—in the past. Trotting him out in a feather boa just rubs salt in the wound.
Kevin Owens gets sicced on Logan Paul.
One of the greatest gifts a wrestler can give an audience is the illusion of control. Following his win over Sami Zayn on Sunday, Kevin Owens did exactly that. We knew Logan Paul was doomed after he discarded Zayn and tried to cozy up to Owens, but Owens, sensing the crowd’s celebratory cheers bending into a renewed bloodlust, allowed us a tantalizing 25 seconds to gnash our teeth in escalating frenzy at the controversial YouTuber before hitting that inevitable stunner. Call it the Stone Cold special. No modern WrestleMania is complete without one.
Bad Bunny raises the bar.
When a celebrity shows up, whether it’s Jay Leno or Jon Stewart, we expect a bump or two. We expect bits. We don’t expect Canadian Destroyers on the ringside mat. Even those expecting a competent in-ring performance by hip-hop sensation (and lifelong WWE fan) Bad Bunny were surprised at the level of seriousness with which he took his match against Miz and John Morrison. The rapper executed clean arm drags, drop toeholds, and surprise rollups, and sold a vicious beatdown for long enough to earn his eventual hot tag to partner Damian Priest. Still, that sustained roar of perplexed surprise that greeted the Destroyer—exacerbated in great part by Miz and Priest’s own expressions of disbelief—was born from a genuine defiance of expectation. Those cheers doubled as a unifying question: “Did you just see that, too?” It was the sound of the celebrity guest star bar being raised.
“Holy shit” chants aren’t rare, but how often do we get one in reaction to a story twist rather than some death-defying in-ring sequence? The Fiend and Randy Orton’s supernatural feud is nothing if not divisive, and their Sunday match ended with a cliff-hanger that’s bound to infuriate its critics. Just as the Fiend appeared to have Orton dead to rights, the monster’s sunny sidekick, Alexa Bliss, reappeared with red eyes and a black goo–spewing crown, prompting the aforementioned chant and a match-winning RKO from Orton. Like a horror movie that ends on an ambiguous note, Bliss and the Fiend’s subsequent vanishing act prompted a flurry of boos, which is understandable in a product that isn’t prone to cliff-hangers. Still, at the center of that mixed reaction is something WWE isn’t always adept at cultivating: curiosity. Love it or hate it, the potential of a next act is compelling. Fingers crossed that one makes us say “holy shit,” too.
Cesaro swings his way into history.
Cesaro’s always been more than his swing, but Cesaro matches haven’t been the same with no one to count ‘em out in the ThunderDome. On Saturday, the Swiss Superman bested his record (and reignited his base) by swinging Seth Rollins 23 times in a single effort, each of which the crowd counted with increasing astonishment. In different times, that would’ve been enough to satiate the long-suffering fans of the undervalued superstar, which is perhaps why his surprising win resounded as one of the purest feel-good moments in a weekend filled with them. Fans’ interminable wait to return to ringside in some ways mirrored their impatience at the performer’s overdue WrestleMania coronation, and that dual sensation of satisfaction allowed his win to be that much more potent. It wouldn’t have been the same without the Cesaro Section.
Bianca Belair breaks out the hair whip from hell.
Some hits hurt just to hear. Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair’s headlining match on Saturday was easily one of the weekend’s best, a bout that found Banks in top-tier heel mode and gave Belair the star-making performance she’s been striving toward. Still, amid all its feats of strength and bursts of electric emotion, it was the deafening crack of Belair’s braid against Banks’s belly that’s still resounding. Eyes wide, hands covering masked mouths, the audience sharply gasped and visibly flinched along with Banks, that crack causing a physical reaction in addition to a vocal one. Next time someone tries to tell you wrestling is fake, show them that welt on Banks’s torso.
Roman Reigns embraces your hate.
Whether you despised Reigns as a face or saw his potential, it’s hard to argue against his effectiveness as a Heyman guy. The vest is gone, the scowl is fierce, and disdain oozes through his methodical moveset. Still, something integral has been missing, something that haunted his troubled face run—the chants. “Roman sucks.” Think back to the 2015 Rumble and the Rock’s perplexed expression as the stadium booed his buddy into oblivion. Think back to the utter refusal on the audience’s part to embrace Reigns, burned as they were by years of “Cena wins lol” booking. Reigns was thinking of it on Sunday night. During his triple-threat match with Edge and Daniel Bryan, as the taunting chants began anew, he directly acknowledged them, standing atop the steel steps while staring down the bullies that succeeded in turning him into one. At first, he seemed bothered, as if the chants, which he’s never heard as a heel, stirred up dark memories of rejection. After dropping fan favorite Bryan through the announce table, however, he’d come to fully embrace them. “Let me hear you now, huh!” he screamed back, luxuriating in their hatred. It used to bother him. Now, just as it did the entire weekend, it’s fueling him.
Randall Colburn writes and podcasts about movies, music, TV, wrestling, and the internet. He used to be an editor at The A.V. Club and he currently cohosts The Losers’ Club: A Stephen King Podcast. Find him on Twitter and Instagram at @randallcolburn.