This was supposed to be the biggest week of the year for wrestling. When WWE announced in March 2019 that WrestleMania 36 would be happening in Tampa this upcoming weekend, they couldn’t have expected that the entire country would be shut down by the time the date arrived due to a pandemic. And since WrestleMania week has become a kind of holiday for the entire industry, with smaller promotions hosting what are usually their biggest and most profitable shows of the year in the same city during the same week, this has become bigger than just WWE or WrestleMania. This week was supposed to be the SuperBowl, the Final Four and the Olympics combined for wrestling fans and the business itself, and the coronavirus has pulled the mat out from under everybody.
One promotion hasn’t cancelled its big weekend shows, though, and that’s WWE. WrestleMania will still be happening this weekend, although at a different venue, without a crowd, and spread over two nights instead of just one. Raymond James Stadium, the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is out; the WWE Performance Center, their training and production facility in Orlando, is in. WrestleMania doesn’t air until Saturday April 4 and Sunday April 5, but the whole show has already been taped, along with the episodes of Raw and Smackdown that air before and after the show. Also, due to the virus, one of the two main events has been scrapped; Roman Reigns, whose battle with leukemia has left him especially susceptible to COVID-19, will no longer be facing Goldberg for one of the company’s two major titles. A few other wrestlers were also bumped from the show, and the customary battle royals were dropped due to the recommended rules against larger gatherings. It’s the first WrestleMania to take place over multiple days, the first one to happen without an audience, and the first one to not air live, and it’s missing one of its marquee matches.
Given all that, how exactly is this a WrestleMania, then?.
Like the company itself, WWE’s biggest show of the year has always valued pageantry and bombast over anything else. WrestleMania is supposed to overwhelm the fans in pretty much every way, from the massive football stadiums that have become its annual home, to the exhausting runtimes the show has stretched out to over the years. (Before this weekend’s was split over two nights, Sunday night’s scheduled show was expected to run for up to eight hours.) WWE itself has increasingly marketed the show as being less about matches or storylines, but specific moments—with every wrestler supposedly desperate to have his or her own career-defining “WrestleMania Moment.”
WrestleMania isn’t a wrestling show at this point. What started as the culmination of a year’s worth of wrestling storylines with the spectacular presentation of a SuperBowl has become solely about the spectacle itself. The matches are just a backdrop for lights, fireworks, intricate sets, the loving shots of a massive audience, and WWE’s endless self-congratulation. As with everything about WWE, it’s not about the wrestlers or their matches, but the company itself, and how big and popular and successful it is, even as TV ratings continue to plummet.
All of that will be stripped away this weekend. WrestleMania 36 won’t have that blimp shot of fireworks ringing a stadium packed with 70000 people. There won’t be an audience reacting to highspots and near falls, or falling to an awed (or maybe just bored) hush during Undertaker’s unnecessarily long entrance. None of the crowd energy that’s so crucial for a wrestling show, that wrestles feed off of, and that plays a pivotal part in how their matches are received will be there. Of course, WWE’s marathon WrestleManias have struggled to maintain anything resembling a positive atmosphere, and not having a crowd will prevent the kind of apathy that has built up throughout the last four or five WrestleManias. So there might be some small benefit to this.
Still, though: whatever happens this weekend won’t feel like a WrestleMania. Nothing about it will live up to the legacy, both good and bad, that WWE’s major show has built up since 1985. No matter how well the matches are worked, or stories are told, or whatever surprises might happen (spoilers shockingly haven’t gotten out yet), it won’t hold the power and thrill of a WrestleMania. Without the crowd or the spectacle, it’ll look like that lame and thoughtless criticism that has so long been levied against pro wrestling: a bunch of guys rolling around in their underwear.
Empty arena shows are a bad look in general, but don’t make any sense for what’s supposed to be the business’s biggest show of the year. Look at the recent crowdless shows that both WWE and AEW have produced. AEW’s first post-quarantine Dynamite was surprisingly good, due in part to its venue (the open-air Daily’s Place amphitheater) and the small crowd of wrestlers that watched and interacted with the matches. The following week’s episode, after the guidance on distancing and crowd size had become more restrictive, was a bit of a bust; it had great wrestling and some sterling interviews (both pre-taped and live), but without any crowd to play off of it felt dry, empty—pointless. And that’s from the company who actually made a crowdless show work.
WWE, meanwhile, has been running Raw and Smackdown without audiences for almost three weeks. Like WrestleMania, they were filmed at the Performance Center, in front of empty rows of seats. Maybe you’ve seen the awkward clips and GIFs of wrestlers going through the motions without a crowd, or of Steve Austin doing his old “hell yeah” call and response routine to deafening silence. There was a bit of a trainwreck appeal to these shows at first, but even from the start WWE padded these episodes out by replaying matches from events that were held in front of audiences. They can’t do a three-hour Raw (minus commercials) without hitting the back catalogue for some excitement; how are they going to make two straight nights of WrestleMania work?
WWE clearly should have postponed WrestleMania. They could’ve run a different show in its place, with some of the matches and talent scheduled for it, and then just hold off on using the name WrestleMania 36 until they’re able to run in front of fans again—even if that takes months. Instead they’re going to be running an event that will bear no resemblance to what WrestleMania has become, and that’s practically guaranteed to disappoint fans who were expecting the pomp and circumstance the event is known for.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.