(CBSNewYork/CBS Local) — WWE’s WrestleMania 36 was supposed to play out in front of nearly 70,000 screaming fans. Instead, this year’s Showcase of the Immortals unfolded in front of a showcase of none.
The empty arena wasn’t nearly as jarring for those who had been watching the company’s weekly television shows since the coronavirus forced them to broadcast from a tiny closed set last month. But for the casual fan who only tunes in once a year for the elaborate spectacle, the silence was deafening.
WWE did their best to make lemonade out of the enormous mountain of lemons we’re all buried under. And at times it was pretty sweet. At others we were left to ponder why Vince McMahon and company didn’t decide to postpone or cancel the event.
Still, it is admirable that they pushed forward under such dire circumstances. WWE is one of the few sports leagues still in action, which some of the performers consider to be a badge of honor.
“We take a lot of pride in doing that,” WWE Superstar Kofi Kingston told me. “We were still able to keep that energy and realize what the importance was behind what we were doing, being able to provide a sense of levity for a lot of people going through some tough times.”
For a few hours on Saturday and Sunday night fans were treated to a break from reality, as Kingston had hoped. In quintessential WWE fashion, there were shocking moments that stunned the audience watching at home. There was Undertaker battling AJ Styles in the first- ever Boneyard Match, which was more Hollywood action film than wrestling display; Drew McIntyre sending Brock Lesnar down in defeat to win his first WWE Championship; Kevin Owens crashing through a table with Seth Rollins after taking a 20-foot plunge off a WrestleMania sign; and Braun Strowman upsetting Goldberg to capture the Universal Championship.
Had it not been for the coronavirus, Strowman would never have become champion. The 6-foot- 8, 385-pound behemoth was a last-minute addition to the card, serving as a replacement for Roman Reigns. With his immune system weakened by treatment related to a leukemia diagnosis, Reigns informed WWE officials he was not willing to jeopardize his health by climbing in the ring with Goldberg as planned.
That change was just one of a handful made as the card underwent a significant overhaul in the days leading up to the event because of the global pandemic. While Reigns stepped aside voluntarily, a number of other wrestlers were pulled from competition as a precaution. Officials opted to make a late change to the planned WWE SmackDown Tag Team Championship triple threat ladder match after The Miz reportedly arrived at the taping feeling ill. The call was made to then have one man from each team compete instead.
For as unique as this show was, there were still classic WWE elements that helped build WrestleMania into the giant spectacle it is today. Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski served as host. He and real-life friend and WWE Superstar Mojo Rawley welcomed the viewing audience to the show. The millions watching around the world then lived vicariously through the pair who became the only live spectators as they watched from a balcony above the WWE Performance Center where the show was recorded.
The show saw a total of 10 titles defended with five changing hands, including Gronkowski becoming the new 24/7 Champion.
On Saturday, WWE officially kicked off the show by giving the audience something to talk about. Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross defeated The Kabuki Warriors to become the first-ever two-time Women’s Tag Team Champions. The question now becomes whether Asuka will remain in the spotlight after being one of the brightest stars of the empty arena shows on the road to WrestleMania. Something also tells me that whenever the new champions’ second title reign ends, so too will their friendship. Alexa is bound to return to her wicked ways sooner or later, a role she plays so comfortably.
Among the other highlights, Becky Lynch rolled up to the makeshift arena in a custom black semi-truck wrapped in flames and her likeness. Minutes later Lynch defeated Shayna Baszler to retain the Raw Women’s Championship and extend her record reign to 363 days. Entering the show this was one of the most anticipated matchups on the card. So, it’s a mystery as to why it didn’t run longer.
Elsewhere, John Morrison defeated Kofi Kingston and Jimmy Uso in a ladder match to retain the SmackDown tag team titles for himself and The Miz.
The best of Saturday night was saved for last as Undertaker defeated AJ Styles in a first-of-its-kind Boneyard Match to secure his record 25th WrestleMania victory. The cinematic battle played out in a makeshift cemetery, with Styles continuing to taunt the 55-year-old Dead Man about his advanced age and marriage to former WWE Superstar Michelle McCool. It resembled more of an action movie than wrestling match and ended with Styles being buried in a freshly dug grave. The unique battle was widely praised by the WWE locker room and received rave reviews from those watching at home.
Night two picked up right where night one left off with another classic. Charlotte Flair, one of the most recognizable faces on the main roster, defeated Rhea Ripley to become only the second two-time NXT Women’s Champion in history. The 20-minute battle will be a match of the year candidate for its eloquent storytelling and unforgiving brutality. Even in defeat, it is hard to envision Ripley’s stock taking much of a hit. Given NXT’s tendency to extend promising feuds, there is a strong chance a rematch is on the horizon.
Flair’s first run lasted 258 days before she was dethroned by Sasha Banks. Her second run immediately gives NXT a shot in the arm as the brand remains locked in a battle with rival All Elite Wrestling on Wednesday night. More importantly for WWE, it immediately boosts the profile of the division that never fully recovered from a 2015 depletion that saw Flair, Raw Women’s Champion Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks depart for the main roster.
In other second-night highlights, after months of heartbreak, the 330-pound Otis was finally able to get the girl of his dreams and revenge on the people who plotted to keep them apart. In the end, Dolph Ziggler and Sonya Deville were left to pick up the pieces, while the big man carried the blonde bombshell Mandy Rose off into the sunset.
John Cena’s return to the ring turned out to be downright bizarre, as he lost to “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt in the premiere of the Firefly Fun House Match. Like the Boneyard Match between Undertaker and Styles a night earlier, the Cena-Wyatt clash relied heavily on theatrics but differed greatly in the actual amount of action. The battle was more of a retrospective of Cena’s career, including the re-creation of his 2002 debut and famed Doctor of Thuganomics rapper gimmick. The peculiar showdown had some swings and misses, but it also had its moments. In the end, people were left to wonder what they just saw, and that may have been the point.
But the true gem of the night belonged to the Last Man Standing Match between Edge and Randy Orton. Edge, the WWE Hall of Famer who was forced into early retirement by a neck injury nine years ago, stood tall following a hellaciously brutal battle throughout the WWE Performance Center. It began in the ring with a sneak attack by Orton and ended with a series of violent chair shots from the Rated R Superstar more than a half-hour later atop a tractor trailer parked in the back of the Performance Center warehouse. The match-ending Con-Chair- To delivered by Edge was the same move Orton massacred his former tag partner with in January that set the wheels of their bloody battle in motion.
The only thing that could have made the match better would have been if it played out in front of a sold-out crowd filling the night with excitement and electricity.
You could say it was the culmination of a feud that began with Edge’s return at January’s Royal Rumble, but truly this was the payoff for nearly a decade of blood, sweat, tears, medical setbacks and ultimate triumphs. It was the feel-good moment of the year and could have easily closed the show and been the main event.
Instead, that honor went to Royal Rumble Champion Drew McIntyre defeating Brock Lesnar to capture the WWE Championship. For McIntyre, it is a real-life story of redemption after his first run with the company began with infinite potential that went unrealized.
The Scottish-born McIntyre floundered as a mid-card performer and ultimately fizzled out as a member of the heavily mocked 3 Man Band faction with Jinder Mahal and Heath Slater. In 2014, WWE gave up on McIntyre and released him from his contract. Although he doubted he would ever receive a second chance, he carried with him an enormous chip on his shoulder in the years that followed. He regrouped and rebuilt himself in smaller promotions and has been an unstoppable force since re-signing with WWE in 2017.
Although the arena was empty, it was clear that McIntyre’s heart was not as he had a difficult time hiding the emotions that poured out as he held the title belt over his head. It was a victory celebration that was 10 years overdue.
Given the extraordinary challenges facing WWE, this year’s WrestleMania won’t soon be forgotten. Of all the triumphs this weekend, perhaps WWE had the greatest of all. For, in many regards, it’s a miracle “the show of shows” was able to go on at all.
Hopefully the next road to WrestleMania won’t be nearly as bumpy and the health of the world won’t be at stake. Hopefully the coronavirus will no longer be a global pandemic. Hopefully the invisible enemy won’t necessitate the card to undergo seismic changes. Hopefully there will be a packed stadium, filled with 100,000 fans in Los Angeles next year. Hopefully things will be back to normal. Hopefully.
NIGHT ONE RESULTS:
Cesaro def. Drew Gulak (Kickoff Show)
Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross def. The Kabuki Warriors to become the new WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions
Elias def. King Corbin
Becky Lynch def. Shayna Baszler to retain the Raw Women’s Championship
Sami Zayn (with Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura) def. Daniel Bryan (with Drew Gulak) to retain the Intercontinental Championship
John Morrison def. Jimmy Uso and Kofi Kingston in a ladder match to retain the SmackDown Tag Team Championship
Kevin Owens def. Seth Rollins in a No Disqualification Match
Braun Strowman def. Goldberg to become the new WWE Universal Champion
The Undertaker def. AJ Styles in a Boneyard Match
NIGHT TWO RESULTS:
Liv Morgan def. Natalya (Kickoff Show)
Charlotte Flair def. Rhea Ripley to become the new NXT Women’s Champion
Aleister Black def. Bobby Lashley with Lana
Otis def. Dolph Ziggler (with Sonya Deville)
Edge def. Randy Orton in a Last Man Standing Match
The Street Profits def. Angel Garza and Austin Theory (with Zelina Vega) to retain the Raw Tag Team Championship
Bayley def. Sasha Banks, Lacey Evans, Naomi, and Tamina to retain the SmackDown Women’s Championship
“The Fiend” Bray Wyatt def. John Cena in a Firefly Fun House Match
Drew McIntyre def. Brock Lesnar (with Paul Heyman) to become the new WWE Champion
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.