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With its back against the wall last weekend, WWE unveiled two matches during WrestleMania weekend that would generate quite a bit of interest. The first, the "Boneyard Match" between The Undertaker and AJ Styles, would be a walk and brawl in a graveyard setting, a match that appeared to be a homerun for most wrestling fans who enjoyed the atypical action and storytelling. The second match, the Firefly Funhouse would be more of a segment than a match, with Bray Wyatt and John Cena using numerous call-backs, old references and costume changes, to create a bizarre replication of both Cena and Wyatt's careers. While less straightforward than the Boneyard Match, the Firefly Funhouse match was equally as popular with wrestling fans, who got a kick out of the numerous references and kayfabe-shattering comments.
With WWE (and AEW) still producing weekly television from empty arenas, the concept of doing a different style match, away from the arena and in an off-site setting, with different elements like music, special effects, unique backgrounds, etc. to make the matches feel different, is appealing. WWE will never be able to recreate the atmosphere of a packed arena, but what if they were not trying to? By producing matches that are not intended to cater towards a live audience that isn't there, the cinematic matches can create a dynamic that caters to the crowd at home and does not remind the fans that they are watching a glib imitation of what pro wrestling is supposed to look like.
This is not exactly a new concept in wrestling. Matt Hardy's Final Deletion matches in Impact were very similar, even incorporating supernatural elements that would be used in both the Boneyard and Funhouse matches. WWE would even attempt a similar style match with a House of Horrors match between Wyatt and Randy Orton in 2017, which was one of the worst matches in WWE history.
Even going further back, there is a long history of wrestlers brawling in atypical places, whether it is Steve Austin and Booker T brawling in a grocery store, or The Headbangers chasing Crash Holly through a ballpit. The difference now is that while those matches were mainly used as comedic diversions, coming off of WrestleMania they look to be taken more seriously as major attractions on PPV cards.
The Firefly Funhouse match feels more polarizing than the Boneyard Match, because it really wasn't a match at all. While the reaction from fans seemed to be mostly positive, there was a portion of the fanbase that didn't care for it. There is a real argument to be made that while hardcore fans get kick out of all the references, the segment is almost incomprehensible for any casual fan. That kind of presentation is going to be very limiting when it comes to wrangling in new viewers or lapsed fans.
John Cena is also a character uniquely positioned to star in such a match, since there was a 10 year stretch where he was the most polarizing figure in professional wrestling and his character had gone under different incarnations that could be played into the madness. With exception of a few other performers, such as Triple H or The Undertaker there are not many other performers that could pull anything similar to how Cena was used. For that reason, I see the Funhouse has more of a one-off kind of match, although I assume WWE will probably try again at some point.
The Boneyard Match is very different, since it didn't require really any understanding of even the basic parameters of pro wrestling to be appreciated. However, the real reason the Boneyard Match got over so big was probably because what it did for The Undertaker.
Wrestling fans love The Undertaker, and still love to see him perform. The problem over the past few years is that as he has become more physically limited in his performances, the aura of The Undertaker has waned. People want to see The Undertaker that endlessly kicks ass, not someone who hobbles around in broken matches. The way the Boneyard Match was presented allowed fans to see The Undertaker the way they wanted to, unbroken and unstoppable, beating the crap out of AJ Styles and coming across like a complete badass.
Instead of WrestleMania going off the air with fans wondering if The Undertaker should finally hang it up, the consensus was that with these type matches, The Undertaker could have five years or more still left. With the matches being shot more like movies and edited, as opposed to live performances, The Undertaker's age and physical limitations are less of a factor. If Slyvester Stallone can still be Rambo when he is 71, then The Undertaker could still perform into his late-50s.
A common opinion shared after the match was that not only could this type of match revive The Undertaker, it could also provide an outlet for other older, broken down wrestlers to have one last match. Sting, at 61 and suffering from spinal stenosis could come back and perhaps fans could finally see the Sting vs Undertaker match that some fans have been clamoring for forever. While wrestlers like Mick Foley may have joked about it doing a similar match on Twitter, I have no doubt that there are older stars out there who would love to have one last big match (and payday). Hulk Hogan has been angling for one last match for years with WWE, I'm sure he would love to do something like this.
With WWE unable to tour and produce regular shows, being able to do these special kinds of matches is going to be appealing. Throw in a big name wrestling and it may help pop a rating during a time where viewership is sinking to new lows. The idea was too successful for WWE to not try it again, and it would be logical to try and get another big match out of a legend, if they are willing to do the match.
That being said, arguing that Sting vs The Undertaker can now take place due to the success of the Boneyard Match tends to ignore that The Undertaker didn't wrestle another old wrestler. He wrestled AJ Styles, who took a lot of bumps and did a ton of stuff in the match to make The Undertaker look good. You can have a decent match with one guy who can't take a lot of bumps, it is much harder to pull it off when neither performer can take a lot of bumps, as Goldberg vs The Undertaker taught us last year. If older, limited stars are going to be doing these kind of matches, they are going to have to be paired with a younger wrestler who can fall off structures and take big moves on strange surfaces.
Another issue is that while they could prolong the careers of older stars, the more the older stars are pushed, and specifically protected in these types of matches, the less of a chance younger wrestlers will have at getting over to a major degree. WWE has relentlessly leaned on older, part-time performers to bolster their major shows because they don't trust the younger generation to draw at an acceptable level. This is why WrestleMania was built around The Undertaker, Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, John Cena and Edge. Eventually the older names would become so old they couldn't perform anymore, but if WWE wants to continue to promote them in these kinds of matches, the glory days might not have to end.
For some fans that is great, but as a business model it isn't sustainable. WWE needs younger stars to reach new, younger fans. It becomes difficult for younger stars to break through when The Undertaker and the future of his career are what people are talking about after WrestleMania, and not Drew McIntyre and Braun Strowman winning their first world titles. It also isn't like all the old names are drawing huge either, WWE has been getting diminishing returns out of the nostalgia acts for years. Prolonging the careers of older wrestlers is great for the performers and for long-time fans, but it isn't necessarily the most progressive move for the future of the company.
In the future, I wonder how frequently WWE will go to the well on cinematic matches. I wouldn't be surprised if we see another one over the next few weeks of RAW and SmackDown, but eventually I do think they will wear out their welcome. At the end of the day, wrestling fans are fans because of the unique combination of athleticism, drama and storytelling and how that all comes together in the form of mock competition. If cinematic matches become a regular occurrence, I don't know how impactful they will end up being.
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