WrestleMania 36: Salvaged event limps to finish

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The stage for last year's Wrestlemania at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. This year's Wrestlemania, originally scheduled to be in Tampa, will instead be at the WWE Performance Center in front of zero fans.

James Krause, Senior Reporter

World Wrestling Entertainment’s attendance figures for its biggest annual show, WrestleMania, have been under scrutiny since its inception.

In 1987, while WWE contends that 93,173 people packed the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Michigan for WrestleMania III, other wrestling news outlets like Wrestling Observer say actual attendance figures were around 78,000.

WWE Chairman Vince McMahon admitted in 2016 that WrestleMania 32’s new company attendance record of 101,763 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas “included ushers and ticket takers and all that.”

This year, there will be no disputable attendance figures. No fans will be in attendance when WWE hosts WrestleMania 36 at their Performance Center in Orlando, Florida on April 4 and 5.

Until March 16, while the entire sports and live entertainment world around WWE crumbled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company still planned to hold the event in its original venue, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida.

What it took for WWE to finally move the event is somewhat alarming. Three days after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency due to the coronavirus, two days after Tampa officials threatened to “pull the plug” on the event if the company wouldn’t and a day after the CDC suggested any event with more than 50 people be cancelled, WWE finally caved and moved the event.

The issues of location for WrestleMania was just the tip of the iceberg for WWE, as it was soon apparent that carrying on weekly television live would be an issue.

After airing a live edition of Smackdown March 13 and Raw March 16, WWE taped two weeks worth of both programs over a weekend, including portions of WrestleMania.

While each program primarily was made up of interview segments and classic matches, matches and segments in front of no crowd still took place as if nothing had changed. The absence of crowd for wrestlers to feed off of made WWE, an already weird adaptation of what is presented as sport, even weirder.

In the first match without fans of this new style of wrestling show viewers will have to get used to, cameras roll during a commercial break to see wrestlers … just stop wrestling.

On the March 20 edition of Smackdown, the Universal Champion Goldberg flips a table and stares down his scheduled WrestleMania opponent Roman Reigns with the only sound in the arena being a director calling for camera cuts.

WWE has avoided acknowledgement of the virus as much as it can on television, but the real world has put its effect on the card before it’s even made it to air.

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Roman Reigns, whose legal name Joe Anoa’i, from a WWE event in December 2015. Reigns was scheduled to face Goldberg for the Universal Championship at Wrestlemania before pulling out of the event.

Health concerns making event an ever-evolving puzzle, putting wrestlers at risk

In the span of a week, three wrestlers booked for WrestleMania were pulled from the event due to illness. While none have been confirmed to have the COVID-19 virus, a Wrestling Observer report from March 24 confirms performers Rey Mysterio and Dana Brooke are in quarantine. No confirmation has been made on the third reported wrestler, The Miz.

The Miz was scheduled to compete in a Smackdown Tag Team Championship ladder match with partner John Morrison against Jimmy and Jey Uso. Now, Morrison will face one of the Usos in a singles match with the winner getting their team the titles.

Dana Brooke was a part of another championship match at WrestleMania, a six-person match for the Smackdown Women’s Championship. There will be no replacement for Brooke, and now there will be only five competitors.

Rey Mysterio’s injury forced WWE to change plans from a United States Championship match against Andrade to putting Andrade in a tag team match, but Andrade himself was pulled from the event due to a rib injury.

The injury to Andrade opened the door for Austin Theory, a 22-year old only signed to the company in August, to make his WWE debut the week before its largest event.

In his first match, Theory was set to catch Montez Ford on a dive to the outside. Theory miscalculates the dive and Ford hits the edge of the rampway at full force. There’s no crowd of fans to cover up the sound of the impact. Ford, miraculously, will be at WrestleMania.

These three changes have been a precursor for the biggest change to the event: the Goldberg and Roman Reigns match.

Reigns, whose legal name is Joe Anoa’i, was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2007 as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. He was in remission until it returned in 2018, only to beat it again.

Pro Wrestling Sheet reporter Ryan Satin reported March 26 that Reigns was out of the event due to concerns of his immune system being compromised. According to the report, it was Reigns himself who made the decision, not WWE.

WWE’s latency in a decision on WrestleMania’s venue and decision to continue producing wrestling shows has put its workers, who still work as independent contractors, at a huge risk. Wrestlers are continuing to have to put their bodies through the ringer of the performance but with none of the payoff of hearing the roar of the crowd.

So with no crowd to explode when their favorite wrestlers win, how do they make the show feel alive and special?

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A shot of the crowd at Wrestlemania 32 in Dallas that set a WWE attendance record. This year, zero fans will be allowed to attend the company’s largest event due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How WWE reacts when they venture into uncharted territory

The 16-match WrestleMania card now split from one long day of bouts to two three-hour shows is a first itself for WWE, as are a few things on the card itself.

When the split to two days was announced, WWE decided to get creative and added that the event would take place from multiple locations. While they were not originally disclosed, events from the following days would make those locations clear.

A personal feud between AJ Styles and The Undertaker now won’t be decided at the Performance Center, instead with Styles laying out the challenge for a “Boneyard Match.” John Cena and Bray Wyatt will have a rematch of their WrestleMania 30 match in a “Firefly Funhouse Match”.

The rules to a “Boneyard Match” are quite simple: we don’t know them as it hasn’t been announced by WWE. Same statement can apply for the “Firefly Funhouse Match” taking place in the imaginary world created by the Bray Wyatt character (We told you wrestling was already weird).

Even outside of the obscure there is plenty to be excited about on the card with several long feuds being settled in matches.

Randy Orton ruined Edge’s return from retirement in January and now the two will face off for the first time in almost a decade. Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins, two of the best and most proven wrestlers in the company, will face off in a match that has history dating back to when both joined WWE.

Even on the undercard, a match between new fan favorite Otis and veteran Dolph Ziggler would surely be one the fans would love to see, if there were any there at all.

That’s what may doom this event from the outset, a lack of fans. The event the WWE and it’s wrestlers prepare all year for that can fill football stadiums is now restricted to a training facility. The only electricity and energy coming from beyond the ringside barriers will be the lights showing empty seats.

The right move in hindsight is starting to look more like WWE should have delayed WrestleMania until they could let fans experience the show in it’s best form; with them there to feed the performers.

But it’s not that simple. Unlike other sports where they can hit pause until they can play ball again, WWE has to contend with keeping fan interest up for however long that delay would be. Now, WWE probably wants to get this show over, rip it off like a Band-Aid, and just hunker down like the rest of the world.

WrestleMania on Saturday and Sunday may not be the best introduction to new fans of what is essentially the Super Bowl of pro wrestling, but there probably, hopefully, will never be one like it again