Vince McMahon and his supposed “giant grapefruits” have done it again.
The broadcast of WWE’s “WrestleMania 36” will not be live, nor in front of any fanfare that makes the event live up to its storied history. But, it will go on. Matches were taped last week in various settings, mainly the WWE Performance Center in Orlando.
With major sports leagues, cancellations and postponements have been the norm in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Wrestling (and UFC, but Dana White’s very-public meltdown is a topic for another day) still has the perception of half-sport, half-entertainment, and all-minor league. Thus, I suppose McMahon can get away with this.
After all, the WWE head honcho has made quite the history of flying in the face of common sense. His entire existence as a promoter was based on this line of thinking, in fact. Before McMahon, not many modern-era wrestling promoters were eager to travel outside their “territory,” aggressively nab talent from other promotions, or risk their fortunes on going national. McMahon’s own father, Vincent J. McMahon, was even against the idea.
Still, McMahon persisted, and created a near-monopoly for himself in the process. Even with the rise of All Elite Wrestling (AEW), American wrestling is still defined by WWE, for better or worse. So, that’s his headspace at the moment. He made his brand on going against the grain, why change now?
The difference, of course, is that the health of his employees is on the line. Make no mistake, the NBA, MLB and NHL would love to be playing games right now, even without fans. Do they want to lose money? Absolutely not. But, it’s a sacrifice that is made with the well being of their bread and butter in mind.
If the NBA had not implemented rigorous testing, and continued games without fans, how many people would Rudy Gobert or Donovan Mitchell be infecting? Not just talking strictly players, but those that also skew older, such as coaches and athletic trainers.
The same logic applies to WWE, and that doesn’t even cover the fact that these performers are swapping sweat for 15-20 minutes. God forbid someone is sick, doesn’t know it yet, and is busted open “hardway,” bleeding by accident. The risks here are just too great.
Although we haven’t had the Gobert moment for the WWE, yet, there was a close call. According to numerous reports, The Miz attended the “WrestleMania” tapings sick, with the extent of his sickness unknown. This partially caused one of the show’s main event performers, Roman Reigns, to back out of his scheduled match with Goldberg. Reigns’ history with Leukemia makes his inclusion in any physical activity right now dicey, with Miz’s sickness being another deciding factor.
Still, McMahon persists.
I know every excuse in the book. They’re publicly traded, so they can’t let the stock become affected by the lack of streams and buys for the show. Advertisers, such as Snickers, have already been brought in with the idea of “WrestleMania” still taking place. There was no mandate for shutdown in the area at the time of taping, so there are no legal repercussions. Finally, it’s supposed to be a feel-good event in these uneasy times.
All of these come off as cold, corporate speak, which isn’t surprising, since that’s WWE’s wheelhouse. If you’ve ever heard a Stephanie McMahon interview, you know what I mean.
So how should I, and other fans, feel about all of this? We can’t stop ‘Mania, since it’s already been taped.
My diagnosis is to watch and enjoy, if that’s even possible in the empty-arena setting, but watch with knowledge of context. In some ways, having “WrestleMania” with a blasé attitude towards the talent is similar to morally questionable shows the company holds in Saudi Arabia. So, put on the “Super Showdown”-tinted glasses for this one.
Let’s run down the card, from least-to-most intriguing contests (predicted winners in bold):
-Lacey Evans vs Sasha Banks vs Tamina vs Bayley (c) vs Naomi for the SmackDown Women’s Title: Putting this at the bottom, since nothing depresses me more than what has become of Bayley. She wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire as a babyface, but her heel “persona” has been an active skip for me. I don’t even know what her character is supposed to be. She doesn’t like the fans now? That’s it? Not that she’s been given any favors carrying a motley crew of SmackDown women, but a big disappointment. Lacey wins, I guess.
-The Street Profits (c) vs Angel Garza and Austin Theory for the Raw Tag Titles: Theory’s second match on the main roster, and he gets a title shot. If they announced this today, I would’ve thought it was a good April Fools’ joke. But, it’s not. Garza is good, really good in fact, but being tag champion doesn't help him at all. Street Profits retain.
-Asuka and Kairi Sane (c) vs Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross for the WWE Women’s Tag Titles: If you weren’t aware before, the first three matches I’ve listed should give you a good sense that there are way too many titles in this company. I don’t even know the last time Asuka and Sane defended the belts, and they haven’t been pushed at any sort of championship level. Poor Asuka, who is a treasure, has been a jobber to the stars for months now. She’ll get thrown a bone here, though. Not that it means much.
-Elias vs King Corbin: A battle of the two biggest bores on SmackDown, this match isn’t least intriguing because I’m perversely excited to see this. At least we know one match that would’ve gotten the same amount of crowd heat if ‘Mania had 70,000 in the building. Plus, Rob Gronkowski (who is hosting the two-night event, another “first” for the show) will get involved here, and Gronk is just insanity whenever he’s on screen.
-Aleister Black vs Bobby Lashley: I’ll give this as much thought as they did putting it together. Black Mass, three-count. Lashley’s WWE comeback, now two years in, has been a master-class in how to hurt the drawing prospects of a top talent.
-Some version of The Usos vs The Miz and John Morrison (c) vs The New Day in a Ladder Match for the SmackDown Tag Titles: More interested in seeing what this match actually becomes, since Miz’s sickness threw everything for a loop. Hopefully they drop the Ladder Match stipulation, since it would be cringe-worthy watching these guys take crazy ladder moves to no reaction.
-Shayna Baszler vs Becky Lynch (c) for the Raw Women’s Title: I’m picking Shayna here, simply because there’s nobody left for Lynch to face if she wins. Outside of Charlotte Flair, that is, but I don’t think anyone wants to see Lynch and Flair for another two years, at least.
-Drew McIntyre vs Brock Lesnar (c) for the WWE Title: Recently advertised as the Saturday night main attraction, I’ll pick Drew for the same reason I picked Shayna. If Brock wins, who is left, outside of unifying the two world titles? Even if Drew isn’t red-hot, you still have to go with him, or he’ll get Lex Luger syndrome. For the uninitiated, “Lex Luger syndrome” is when a wrestler (Luger in 1993 against Yokozuna) gets hyped up for his big title match, and then loses. Luger didn’t even lose his match, but he didn’t win the title, and the fans saw him as lesser for it. As much as WWE likes to swerve people, especially with Brock Lesnar matches, there’s only one logical winner here.
-Otis vs Dolph Ziggler: This one really suffers from the lack of crowd. Really, the Ziggler/Otis/Mandy Rose love triangle has gone cold since the move to the Performance Center, as the crowd being behind Otis is what made this story work. Still, I’m interested to see if this is actually the end, or just a continuation of the feud. Does Otis actually get Mandy? Will Sonya Deville turn on Mandy if he does? It’s good soap opera fare, something wrestling sorely lacks in 2020.
-The Undertaker vs AJ Styles in a Boneyard Match: Global insensitivity with the match setting aside, this should be goofy fun. AJ has been perfect as a lame, dad-joke-spouting heel. Undertaker has owned his new role, too, a hybrid between “The Deadman” and his real-life self. The Twitter video of the year goes to whoever put the “Ether” beat behind ‘Taker’s promo on Monday. As much as it doesn’t make sense for their longer-term asset, Undertaker squashes Styles. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Michelle McCool run-in, either.
-“The Fiend” Bray Wyatt vs John Cena in a Firefly Fun House Match: The other big set piece distraction of the show, which brings the seemingly serious feud into the wacky Wyatt world. I couldn’t really take this show seriously, anyways, so I guess it fits in perfectly. The story of “The Fiend” is that he loses to anyone he’s never faced (Goldberg), but beats people that used to defeat “normal” Bray Wyatt. The trend continues.
-Kevin Owens vs Seth Rollins: These guys have really made the most of the empty-arena setting, cutting passionate speeches on each other. Due to the unavailability of Rollins’ stable (Murphy due to sickness, AoP due to a Rezar injury), this one will not have the ref bumps and outside interference that drags matches down. Instead, it’ll be two smart wrestlers finding their way to make magic in a near-hopeless space.
-Braun Strowman vs Goldberg (c) for the Universal Title: I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here, as Strowman being the replacement for Reigns is widely reported on. Rarely do replacement options lose their matches, so I’m going with Strowman. Plus, I don’t think Goldberg can pick up Strowman for the Jackhammer finish, since he barely got Undertaker or Wyatt up for the move. It still makes sense with booking, when things finally return to normal. Reigns can get his title win, toppling a familiar opponent in the process, and they can do Reigns/Goldberg when the world isn’t in total free-fall.
-Charlotte Flair vs Rhea Ripley (c) for the NXT Women’s Title: A helluva match right here, even in the empty setting. These two girls can flat-out go, and I’m excited for Ripley getting a big stage. She’s really earned it over this past two years, going from relative unknown to main-event material. Flair gets the win here, starting a longer feud between the two. An eventual return to normalcy also includes a return to the Wednesday Night Wars, where AEW’s “Dynamite” program consistently tops NXT in viewers. The brain trust of WWE isn’t going to take that lying down, much like when they went all-out with main roster invasions of NXT in November. Adding Flair to the program, even for a short run, will do everyone good. It gives Flair time off of main roster television, where she’s grown tired, and gets her into the NXT rejuvenation machine. It gives WWE an attraction to put on the Wednesday program. Finally, it gives Ripley crucial experience with a top worker, with the Aussie eventually getting the feud victory.
-Daniel Bryan vs Sami Zayn (c) for the Intercontinental Title: Hard to top these two from a pure wrestling standpoint. I have the upmost confidence in Bryan and Zayn to deliver a classic, since both are well accustomed to the independent scene, working in front of 15-20 fans. Both tell great stories through their facial expressions and body movements, neither of which require a crowd. Consider me hyped…
-Edge vs Randy Orton in a Last Man Standing Match: …but not as hyped as I am for this one. Much like Kofi Kingston vs Bryan at last year’s show, this match single-handedly gives the whole event my attention. I was there live for Edge’s return in the Royal Rumble Match, and watching him work with minimal rust was a pleasure. Much like Bryan and Zayn, both Edge and Orton possess top-notch acting ability, and their upcoming war will rely on it. These guys have defined “professional wrestler” better than anyone in the lead-up to the show, truly immersing themselves in their characters. Edge as the aging man looking for one last run because he loves wrestling, Orton as the irredeemable liar and snake we’ve seen for years. It’s been compelling television at a time where television itself barely exists, other than to keep us informed.
WrestleMania won’t be very informing, but Edge and Orton tearing the house down? Definitely entertaining.
You can thank Vince’s grapefruits for that, I guess.