By Orrin Farries
WWE hosted its most recent ‘showcase of the immortals’, Wrestlemania 36, to a live audience of its production crew and former New England Patriot and Wrestlemania emcee, Rob Gronkowski. There is a lot to unpack with Vince McMahon’s “Grand-daddy of them all”.
Professional wrestling has always been absurdist sports-theater, and the absurdity was amplified by the circumstances of performing to no audience. What was originally supposed to be a single-day mega event of 7 hours at the Raymond James stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida, with an expected audience draw in excess of 60,000, became something much more bizarre over 2 days in the mostly empty WWE performance center in Orlando, Florida.
The WWE pivoted as best as they could to provide a scintilla of a live sports-entertainment experience, spreading the card out over two days, which was the first major boon of the weird weekend of wrestling.
In classic WWE style, the brand brought back many of its old as hell, overworked superstars of the past to carry the ‘Super Bowl of sports entertainment’. The Undertaker did his best rendition of his former ‘American Badass’ persona in the very gimmicky ‘boneyard match’ where he battled AJ Styles around a farmhouse with a lovechild cinematic setting that looked very akin to if ‘Sons of Anarchy’ had a crossover episode on ‘Days of Our Lives’. While the match was expectedly campy, it was for many wrestling fans the highlight of the Saturday of this year’s Wrestlemania. The deadman wasn’t the only vintage superstar that didn’t stay dead this Wrestlemania weekend.
The most gimmicky match of the weekend was the ‘Firefly Fun House Match’ that pitted current bizarro character, Bray ‘The Fiend’ Wyatt, against everyone’s favourite wrestler, big match John Felix Anthony Cena Jr. Words cannot do justice just how wildly entertaining and preposterous this match was. It should be required viewing for anyone needing a grin during these grim times.
The lowlight of the weekend was undoubtedly the return of Canadian wrestling icon Edge for a last man standing match with Randy Orton. This match showcased just how old Edge has become. He did his best to sell his never-say-die attitude, but the sheer amount of old-man noises that he produced in an overdrawn match made for a very forgettable performance.
The lack of an audience did make for some strange coronations. Three world championship belts changed hands over Wrestlemania weekend, two of them going to first-time champions, whose crowning achievement was met with Gronk giving all the exuberance he could after sitting through three hours of wrestling. These were good booking decisions by the creative team, but it just didn’t feel the same.
Wrestlemania 36, as unattended spectacles go, was everything it needed to be. It was fun, light-hearted, and just serious enough to underscore how campy the whole thing came off. The joyful addition of Rob Gronkowski as Wrestlemania emcee and one-man audience was huge for giving the WWE’s biggest event of the year something of a live atmosphere. While there were brutally short matches, indicative of changes having been made on the fly, and horrendously overdrawn matches, indicative of performers being tasked with eating up time, WWE put together an inspired and bizarre event that gave the audience an iota of the live sports experience that we have so desperately been missing. It may have been irresponsible of Vince McMahon to have Wrestlemania 36 go forward in light of the pandemic that we are living in, but given the circumstances, it was a light in a darkened sports-entertainment world.