The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Yes, yes, I know that tomorrow, WrestleMania 36 will technically take place and 2020 will in fact, have a WrestleMania. In fact it will have two nights of it, as WWE will host a two-night, empty arena spectacular, running all (well, most) of its planned matches for an event that was supposed to take place in front of 60,000 fans in Tampa.
Name aside, the event this weekend will not be WrestleMania. Instead, it is one stubborn man’s reluctance to bend to the will of society, and to continue soldering on with the battle has already been lost. The show this weekend will be devoid of almost everything that makes WrestleMania special, mainly the enormous stadium audience, the spectacular stage design and the idea that you are watching a once-a-year event.
WrestleMania is really about legacy and defining moments. Have a very good match on any other show, and it is just a good matches, one of thousands that will take place every year across the wrestling sphere. Have a very good match at WrestleMania, and you will live on forever. No matter what else happens in your wrestling career, a memorable performance at WrestleMania will always be imprinted on the minds of fans.
As the popularity of WWE and wrestling in general has declined over the years, WrestleMania has managed only to become a bigger event. As the product deadens and more fans tune out of weekly television, the idea that once a year, a major show happens that it is so big, even lost fans will pay attention, has become very appealing. Dormant wrestling fans will always pay attention during WrestleMania season, even if it’s just to roll their eyes and remind themselves why they stopped watching in the first place.
WrestleMania is also used as a milestone that if properly utilized, is an important benchmark in the careers of performers. WrestleMania 30 became the iconic night in Daniel Bryan’s career; WrestleMania 35 last year became the iconic night in Becky Lynch’s career. Perhaps this year similar stories would have been told, but a performance in front of no fans, with no crowd reaction or feeling of importance is hard to become iconic.
For certain wrestlers, this could not come at a more inopportune time. Drew McIntyre is receiving the biggest push of his career, and appears to be set to dethrone Brock Lesnar and end up WWE Champion. This was supposed to be the night he would be crowned king, but who knows if that is going to happen?
McIntyre is an interesting case because he has all the tools that you would think would make a good guy to push to the top; great size, good promo, good worker, etc. He was being cheered by fans, but maybe not to an overwhelming degree where it was obvious that he was a good bet to be the next guy. In the last few weeks, without any fans watching him, it is hard to tell just how over he really is. Does he have a special kind of buzz about him, the way Bryan did heading into WrestleMania 30? My gut tells me that he does not, but it’s hard to tell since he hasn’t been in front of a live crowd in weeks.
As WWE learned with Roman Reigns, you can only really crown a guy once. You can’t give him the title for the first time, let him run with it for a few months, then back off and hit the reset button. Everything after that first win is diminishing returns, unless their character is completely altered. Does WWE really want to do that in an empty arena show? If McIntyre beats Lesnar in front of nobody, and then celebrates in the ring at an empty performance center, that will be one of the more disappointing championship wins in WrestleMania history
I think now might be the time for a screwjob angle, where McIntyre doesn’t win the title, but does manage to get the better of Brock in some capacity, building to another big match that they can do whenever everything is back up and running. Under normal circumstances; I would be totally against doing that kind of finish at WrestleMania. However, this isn’t really WrestleMania and if they can eventually do the big title swap on a grander occasion, they might want to think about doing a non-finish.
Other performers are in similar boats, albeit with less pressure. Shayna Baszler and Rhea Ripley are looking for their big break on the main roster, but what could have been a chance to beat a top star in front of 60,000 people, is now a chance to beat a top name in front of an empty audience. Baszler and Ripley could still recover, this isn’t really a make or break moment for them, especially because Ripley is so young, but there is certainly an opportunity lost as new stars losing out on a chance to really shine on the big stage.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this year’s show(s) is the fate of Randy Orton vs Edge. Orton vs Edge has been WWE’s best feud in a really long time; with a clear babyface and a clear heel, an emotional story that is easy to understand, and great promos leading to a major match at WrestleMania. Due to it being an empty arena match, we won’t be seeing all of that great build used to its fullest potential. They will still probably have a good match, but without any fans it is going to be tough to tell the emotional story and have it peak at WrestleMania.
Although it probably seems impractical, I would have liked to have seen WWE take a page from AEW and delay this match until it can be done right. AEW was planning on doing Blood and Guts in Newark in front of their largest crowd in history, but when they had to cancel it, they didn’t go through with the War Games-style match in an empty arena setting; they announced they were going to delay the event until they could do it properly. I honestly don’t care that much about any of the other matches at WrestleMania, but Edge vs Orton deserves to be done properly. I hope that at the least, they will build to another match that will be held in a proper arena.
Lastly, I have watched a lot of empty arena wrestling over the last month, from promotions large and small and from all over the world. I think I have a decent grasp on what seems to work and what seems to not work. Matches that can reach a physicality and intensity level work; fans get sucked into the spirit of competition. The Drew Gulak vs Daniel Bryan match at Elimination Chamber would be a good example of a WWE match that would work well in that type of setting.
The matches that don’t work are the ones that rely on audience participation and reactions. Normally, those things are great, because matches should always be striving to get a reaction from the live audience. However, with certain performers, mainly Goldberg and The Undertaker, those wrestlers at this point don’t have much to offer outside of the crowd’s attachment to them. Goldberg and The Undertaker get by because the crowd treats them like stars, and pop big for their few signature moves. Take the crowd away, and flaws become more exposed.
The Undertaker should do okay, he will be working a goofy boneyard match with Styles, which will certainly be a smoke-and-mirrors match if there ever was one. Goldberg going against Braun Strowman is going to be a tall task. Even if it is something like a quick squash match that goes under two minutes, it probably isn’t going to come off that well in an empty arena, for a match that is supposed to be for a world title.
In the end, this will be a forgettable show that fans won’t know how to react too. Will this be the worst WrestleMania in history? Probably; but it will probably be excused from any true “Worst WrestleManias in history” conversations, because it isn’t really WrestleMania at all.