WWE Performance Center, Orlando, Florida April 4-5, 2020
The stands may have been empty and at times eerily silent, but this year’s WrestleMania will go down as the most talked about event in WWE history, since the inaugural Mania back on that fateful March day in 1985. Rushonrock King Of The Ring and Wrestling Royalty co-founder Andy Spoors recaps the key action…
Much was made, in the build-up to the show of shows, of WWE’s decision to press ahead in the face of a global pandemic and the inevitable health issues posed by Covid-19. Away from the criticism and debate, WWE shut up shop to the public in line with all other live events. Social media buzzed with rumours and gossip of exactly how this could possibly work, which Superstars could and would be able to perform and how the company could possibly pull off an event with all the grandeur and history of WrestleMania…in an empty gym.
With the first ever, two-day WrestleMania now in the history books, in our opinion, WWE pulled off something that wasn’t only special – this was a brave and potentially game-changing extravaganza of action.
There are a number of disclaimers before we dissect the event: WrestleMania 36 will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It wasn’t perfect when compared to business as usual, but WWE remained steadfast in its attempt to bring entertainment to their fans in a troubling and uncertain time.
Saturday brought the first night of action and with WWE keeping all aspects of the weekend under lock and key, fans were left guessing how the mammoth card would be split over each night – let alone how the belts would be won. The first preshow of the weekend expunged some this information, presumably announced as late as possible to encourage fans to tune in to both nights.
The split of matches was, as it happened, a relatively even divide of title matches and stipulations. Sunday arguably remained the stronger of the two nights but there was a little bit of everything to keep viewers from growing tired. The lack of audience certainly hindered the first few matches of the weekend with finishes falling a little flat and anti-climactic. This isn’t a knock on the level of performance on display, more a confirmation of the effect the WWE Universe can have on matches. The cheers, boos and even jeers can turn an average match great and a great match to fantastic.
Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross capturing the women’s tag titles in the opening match obviously meant a lot to the odd couple but as the referee’s hand hit the canvas for three, the usual eruption of noise was replaced by booming theme music. It wouldn’t be the last championship to change hands over the weekend against a backdrop of muted celebrations.
Business certainly picked up with the modified ladder match for the Smackdown Tag Team Championships. With an injured/unwell Miz needing to drop out, a representative from New Day (Kofi) and The Usos (Jimmy) took on John Morrison in a hellacious ladder match. Wince-inducing set pieces saw all three men take heavy bumps all in the name of entertainment. The finish was an imaginative and creative way to potentially continue the three-way rivalry between a trio of talented teams and it was as close to a tie as possible.
Unsurprisingly, Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens made great use of the time they were afforded to build both their characters and provide one of the moments of the weekend. After a restart to their match and an added stipulation of no disqualifications, Owens scaled the giant WrestleMania logo that took up an entire side of the Performance Center, before throwing himself off the sign and crashing through Rollins and the announcers’ table below. For Owens, it was a chance to create himself a Mania moment and take steps towards the main event spot he should rightly be involved in.
A typically short Goldberg match unsurprisingly saw a new Universal Champion crowned in the formidable shape of Braun Strowman. The less said about the bout the better. The only upside here was the first world title of Strowman’s career. It’s just a shame the company didn’t capitalize on the Monster Among Men’s popularity two years ago. Called in as an unexplained and last-minute replacement for Roman Reigns, to a match that took place behind closed doors, is no way for any Superstar to have to remember the biggest moment in their career. He may have lost some fans with recent comments on social media but Strowman deserved better. Perhaps he can create his own luck, now he holds one of the most sought-after titles in the industry.
The main event of Saturday night brought around the intriguingly titled ‘Boneyard Match’ between AJ Styles and The Undertaker. Part low budget B Horror-movie, part wrestling match and 100% entertaining. Filmed on location in a cemetery/farmhouse, the heavily produced ‘match’ saw Undertaker arrive on motorbike to the sound of Metallica’s Now That We’re Dead. The match reportedly took eight hours to film as Taker rotated through his pervious gimmicks of biker, supernatural being and Big Evil. Terrorising Styles and his OC team mates, as an almost Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers unstoppable style character, Undertaker was able to bury his foe in an open grave before riding away into the night on a custom chopper. It truly is a section that needs to be seen to be believed. Over the top, cheesy, riveting and oh so entertaining, it was a 20 minute tour de force that will be remembered for years to come.
Twitter and Facebook exploded into a frenzy of positive feedback. Some were shocked that WWE had put on a cinematic style bout, akin to Matt Hardy’s previous efforts in the Ultimate Deletion matches in Impact Wrestling. It was a very clever way to conclude the opening night. Always leave the fans wanting more…
The second night’s action arguably edged the first in terms of quality and in-ring performances. A brutal back and forth between Rhea Ripley and Charlotte Flair in the opening match saw Charlotte become the new NXT Champion. The momentum Ripley had coming into the match may have meant the result was somewhat of a shock, but the in-ring ability of Charlotte should never be forgotten. It is little coincidence that Flair has been involved in all of the biggest WrestleMania moments for women in recent years including a triple threat match and first ever women’s main event against Ronda Rousey and Becky Lynch – the first match for the renamed WWE Women’s Championship in AT&T Stadium. Then there was breaking Asuka’s unbeaten streak at WrestleMania 34. There is one common thread. She may not be everyone’s favourite but when the big time comes around it is Charlotte who steps up.
Becky Lynch survived the biggest threat to her title to date, picking up the win over Shayna Baszler with a quick pin in a disappointingly forgettable match. Another win for Aleister Black continues his push towards title opportunities but all but diminished whatever relevancy Bobby Lashley had remaining. The longest feature of the night saw the returning Edge take on Randy Orton in a Last Man Standing Match.
As with any Superstar who returns from a serious – and what has previously been stated as a career ending – injury, it was difficult to watch. A student of the game, Edge, playing on his neck injury by struggling to get feelings into his fingers, was difficult to watch at times. The fight sprawled around the Performance Center, taking a much-needed break from the uncomfortable silence of the ring side area. The halls, offices and warehouse of the PC, delivered interesting and unorthodox stages for various parts of the match.
The idea of beating your opponent so he can no longer stand before a ten count, is an easy way to create tension and a sense of urgency. In the hands of two pros like Edge and Orton, the match ebbed and flowed, but maybe went on about five minutes too long. It was, in a plethora of ways, the perfect way to reintroduce Edge to today’s audience after an almost decade-long absence. Quite where the victorious Rated R Superstar goes from here only WWE know but there are a multitude of Superstars that would provide mouth-watering and dream match ups for the WWE Universe.
If the WWE Universe thought they had seen something out of the ordinary the previous night between Taker and Styles, the Firefly Funhouse Match between John Cena and The Fiend made the Boneyard Match look like a paint by numbers effort. To sum up quite what transpired in this match, would take just as long as it must have taken to film and edit together. Another cinematic style match saw John Cena effectively enter the psyche and imagination of one of the most twisted minds WWE has ever seen in Bray Wyatt. Akin to a David Lynch movie on acid, the WWE Universe travelled with John Cena through his various personas in the company while being mocked and mentally tortured by Wyatt throughout.
The world has come to know Cena as a Hollywood actor and one of the most decorated WWE Superstars of all time, but rarely would a thought go to the men he has pushed aside to get to that spot. Playing as a cross between a This Is Your Life special and A Christmas Carol, this was more of an elongated segment than a match per se. The match may have felt thrown together and Wyatt’s accusations in the weeks building up to the event, of Cena being the man responsible for the existence of The Fiend, seemed a bit far-fetched. By the end of the night it would be all that people were talking about.
Flashes of Cena’s biggest failures in his career. References to similarities between Cena and Hulk Hogan’s careers. Smash cuts of Wyatt and Cena’s match at WrestleMania 30 where it all began. Layers upon layers of gloriously meta detail lavishly poured into every shot. This was not a last minute ‘match’ thrown together. Indeed, it wasn’t even a match in any normal measure of the word.
When Cena said, ‘This WrestleMania match is going to accomplish what should have happened six years ago. Ending the existence of the most overhyped, overvalued and overprivledged WWE Superstar in existence’ it showed exactly how much thought had gone into every word of this startling rivalry.
The nuances and references poured into the astonishing 16-minute presentation were simply outstanding. This wasn’t wrestling. It was art. The single most daring and thought-provoking segment in wrestling history by this humble fan’s reckoning. It goes a long way to prove the company’s faith in Bray Wyatt’s creative genius and that WWE does possess writers capable of producing shocking, fresh and engaging programming when afforded the opportunity to do so.
That wasn’t the end of the action however. The match to bring down the curtain belonged to Brock Lesnar and Drew McIntyre for the WWE Championship. McIntyre’s quest to become the first ever British WWE Champion playing out on a closed set, is heart-breaking and maybe even more bittersweet than Strowman’s victory the night before. The giant Scotsman delivered on the promise he made to vanquish Lesnar. The pop from the crowd should have been huge. It was supposed to be his moment. It was written all over the face of McIntyre as the referee offered him the spoils of his victory in the shape of the Championship belt. Elation and relief tinged with sadness. Yes, there are more important things in the world but after a life of working to this moment, Drew would be forgiven for feeling slightly robbed.
In summary, it’s a feeling a huge number of fans will share when looking back on WrestleMania 36 in the next few years. For some, Mania is the pinnacle of their year and serves as the beacon of light guiding them through tough times. It sounds over the top, but the emotion on display each year in the stands, shows the reality. Fans scrimp and save for their opportunity to witness these moments in person each year.
Conversely, credit must go to WWE for delivering any moments at all in the current climate. For two nights, the company transported fans to a place few will get the opportunity to visit. Some things worked, others didn’t, but isn’t that true the world over right now? The escapism provided over the entire weekend, was much needed. Perversely, WWE can come out the other side of this with both credit and new fans for taking bold and brave decisions even if they may have disappointed others in the process.
With tighter regulations and guidance in place than when they filmed a couple of weeks-worth of programming, WWE now face new challenges and decisions. Continue to put out what they can in terms of new content or pause with the rest of the world. It may be a tricky decision, but it is one they can no longer hide from. Roll on LA in 2021 when fans can be back in their rightful place and WWE can provide the World with Wrestling Entertainment live and in person.
WrestleMania 36 Theme:
Blinding Lights – The Weeknd
In recent years WWE have chosen pop or hip-hop efforts to act as the soundtrack for WrestleMania, with a particular and unexplained penchant for Flo Rida. For possibly the first time ever, WWE’s choice sat at the top of the music charts. The uber cool Blinding Lights was used just as much as previous year’s soundtracks throughout the weekend, but unlike previous iterations, never felt overplayed. Another unfortunate victim of the closed set, it’s disappointing WWE didn’t get to use the track in a sold-out stadium with, ahem, blinding lights. Although not rock, The Weeknd produce slick, catchy tracks that will worm their way into your consciousness for days. It isn’t the first time they have worked with WWE and it will almost certainly won’t be the last. Some of the lyrics seemed a little on the nose, an unfortunate coincidence as the song was announced well before the cancellation of the event. ‘Oh, the city’s cold and empty. No one’s around to judge me. I can’t see clearly when you’re gone’.
Rushonrock Prediction Results:
Reese: 8 (Out of 16)