2020 Was the Year Wrestling Went Quiet

For the better part of a year, I have been an advocate for watching wrestling that’s from any era that isn’t what we’re destined to call “the COVID-19 Era.” It’s not that wrestling in 2020 wasn’t fun (okay, it mostly wasn’t), but watching wrestling in 2020 meant getting through an onslaught of bad news from nearly every quadrant the industry can generate bad news before immersing oneself in a product that was often more frustrating than good. It’s hard! I wouldn’t recommend it.

I called the kind of wrestling I watched to make 2020 more palatable “inconsequential,” but that’s got more to do with the way most wrestling produced before March of last year feels like it’s from an entirely different universe for an extremely obvious reason: There are people in the audience reacting to what’s happening, and they’re in no danger of catching a terrifying virus. I really miss that part of wrestling. Sometimes I’ll remember what it was like to be at a WrestleMania or a Raw or a house show or to watch the tiny, miserable gym AIW used to run in fill up 250 people and cry. I miss telling the wrestlers who suck that they suck. I miss letting the bass in my deep, trans woman’s voice rumble when I like something. I dream about going to wrestling shows. No joke.

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Do I like most wrestling crowds? Not really. I’ve been driven away from wrestling by homophobic audiences, taken out of matches by chants that feel more obligatory than organic, and have seen way too many wrestlers fail outside of the protective bubble of venues like Full Sail University to be able to gauge who is or isn’t truly worth my time, but I will bottle my loathing for fans who don’t like to have fun the same way I do in late 2021 or 2022 when enough people are vaccinated to make the act of attending a wrestling show feel less like a game of Russian Roulette than it currently does.

We’ve had wrestling with empty arenas or limited capacity audiences for ten months now, pay per view events with nobody in the seats, appearances by Steve Austin and The Undertaker and Goldberg and Brock Lesnar with nobody around to boo or cheer them, WrestleMania in what was essentially an abandoned Crunch Fitness. There are hundreds of hours of wrestling like this now, and while weekly coverage of shows here and elsewhere has largely pushed past the silence in order to consider the wrestling, it is still extremely weird, even unsettling, to watch this sport without the benefit of crowd noise.

The Sound of Silence

Wrestling is a loud sport, and intentionally so. While sports broadcasts aren’t exactly quiet, the way a sport like wrestling is staged and the way sports like basketball, football, and baseball are staged means that the kind of noise a spectator at home expects to hear are inherently different. For all of the bells and whistles of television broadcasts, the legitimacy of major sports means that all the squeaking basketball shoes, pad-rattling tackles, and socked dingers one experiences are documentarian in nature: this is what shoes sound like, this is what pads sound like, this is what a leather ball sounds like when it hits a wooden bat.

Crowds cheer, crowds boo, they reach a fever pitch, they hit a crushing low—the crowd is miced, but it tends to sound pretty even to the ear on the broadcast version of a game because it’s mixed with the game itself in mind. The spectators are just spectators. They’re important to the look and feel of the product, of course—reading about how various sports leagues curated, prepped, rehearsed, and eventually ran live crowd reactions (in the NFL’s case one for each of its 32 teams) is fascinating if you’re into the specifics of audio mixing—but none of these sports has the problem that wrestling finds itself incapable of solving: In making its audience a character, its absence (or diminishment) means that there’s no gigantic cue triggering an emotional response for the wrestlers in the ring or the viewers at home.

This issue is most apparent in WWE’s ThunderDome, a portable wall of LED panels meant to distract the home viewer from the absence of humanity through the utilization of a livestreaming apparatus that turns the WWE Universe into a Zoom room of hundreds. Gigantic faces peer down at the ring, reacting silently and out of synch with whatever’s happening in the ring, the roar of the crowd replaced with canned applause that hasn’t been updated from SmackDown’s pre-taped era. It’s bad, and made worse by the company’s decision to lease out basketball arenas and baseball stadiums to make it happen. WWE has run their television in venues like that for decades now, and the lack of flesh-and-blood people does nothing but shrink the ring product down to a 20’x20’ ring in a sea of nothing, so tranquil that, were it not for the fake crowd noise, you could hear a pin drop.

Given that wrestling matches are a series of orchestrated falls, you don’t need the pin. Slams, stomps, missed aerial moves, Irish whips, turnbuckles, relayed instructions from one wrestler to another—all of it comes through crystal clear. But it’s the sound the ring makes when a wrestler hits it that bothers me the most. It hurts when you hit a wrestling ring, the construction of which is canvas, matting, wood, and steel. By the time you’re seasoned enough for television it hurts less, but a bump is a bump, and the shotgun bang of a solid object hitting a wrestling ring is extremely loud because it’s meant to be—it’s why the ring is miced.

When a crowd pops to this noise, it’s magic. In 2020, without a crowd, it was like being subjected to the question “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” over and over again. The answer is yes, of course—there is a television audience. But the answer is also no. Wrestling isn’t just the tree falling down, but the way people react to said tree’s demise. The question isn’t so much “does the tree make a sound,” but “isn’t this deforestation a little needless?”

The Audience as “Character”

There is a point in the history of wrestling where fans crossed the threshold between “spectator” and “active participant,” but it’s hard to pin down. In October, I credited Extreme Championship Wrestling with the invention of “Company Fan” as a marketable identity, but it’s not as if WWE and WCW didn’t try to make their liking their brand and/or wrestlers an identity unto itself.

WWE, which rose to prominence on the back of Hulkamania, did this to diminishing returns as Hogan’s attention turned elsewhere, my favorite attempt at establishing a brandable fan being Undertaker’s “Creatures of the Night.” When Hulk Hogan joined WCW in 1994, they tried to make the same hay WWE had a decade earlier, but the thrill of watching him beat the same guys he’d beaten in his prime diminished to the point that they were casting people as bogus Ultimate Warriors and lost relations of Andre the Giant, creating some of the most critically reviled wrestling of all time in the process.

Despite its broad influence on its competitors, I don’t think ECW’s creation of fans who bought into the company influenced the fans at Bash at the Beach 1996 who threw garbage into the ring as Hulk Hogan cut the promo that formally launched the new World order, or the fans who started showing up to Raw tapings with Austin 3:16 signs. But the confluence of these events is important, I think. If nothing else, it’s the seed that led to the explosion of wrestling’s popularity from 1997 to the end of the decade. So let’s say that 1996 is the year the televised wrestling audience changed in its utility to the wrestling industry. But in order for that to have any relevance to what wrestling became in 2020, have to float a theory as to what a wrestling audience was before that, what televised wrestling was.

Jump back to what wrestling looked like before the 1995 debut of WCW Monday Nitro. Wrestling was filmed in front of live audiences, both in television studios and in arenas, but how they responded to what was in front of them mostly didn’t matter, as television wasn’t a venue for marquee matchups. There were occasions where two “names” would square off on an episode of WWF Wrestling Challenge or WCW WorldWide, but the point of those shows was not quality wrestling, but building up wrestlers to a level of credibility that they’d draw a crowd to untelevised house shows.

This is a generalization, but if the televised wrestling show is, first and foremost, an advertisement for whatever’s happening this month on pay-per-view, at Madison Square Garden, or at the Omni, all a wrestling audience has to do in order to be a functioning part of that advertisement is fill up the room, cheer for the good guys, and boo the heels. The fans responded as asked, in part because it’s fun, in part because the smallness of the room and the proximity of the fan to the camera meant that good behavior was rewarded with one’s face getting on TV.

Beyond specials like Clash of the Champions, few of these broadcasts were live. What WCW Monday Nitro did was introduce the notion of live weekly television broadcasts, first from an outdoor lot at Disney-MGM Studios, then from arenas (and eventually stadiums) across the country. Fans started bringing signs to shows to pass messages to friends at home in real time. Rather than responding at the suggestion of the show’s producers, live crowds reacted to what they cared about, elevating wrestlers like Dean Malenko and Eddie Guerrero, proving that wrestling still worked, even in the nightmarish hellscape that was Dungeon of Doom era WCW.

Because Nitro was live and WCW head Eric Bischoff wasn’t above dirty tricks, Nitro often featured spoilers for Monday Night Raw as an incentive to not change the channel. This backfired spectacularly when they spoiled Mick Foley’s first WWF Championship win in 1999, but in the heady days of 1995-1996, it pushed the World Wrestling Federation into more frequent live episodes of Raw, just like WCW’s expansion of pay-per-view led to WWF’s introduction of the In Your House concept and the 12+ PPV a year schedule we’ve been beholden to ever since.

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By now it’s rote that the Monday Night War was about ratings, about quarter hours and the young male demo, building and failing to build new stars, and the WWF’s near defeat turned complete conquest of the industry. But I don’t care about any of that—it’s too business-y, and focusing too much on the business end of this business means missing out on how, in order to drive millions of viewers to TNT and USA, Nitro and Raw began to resemble the big money house shows television was meant to function as an advertisement for. The expansion of PPV would have done this anyhow, but the focus on television ratings meant that Nitro and Raw were mini-PPVs in themselves, featuring frequent title matches, massive stars, and huge narrative shifts from week to week.

The audience ate this up, to the extent that actual coverage shots of that audience were added to broadcasts. Rather than the nondescript mass behind the announcers at the start of a show, cameras circled arenas, catching glimpses of thousands of faces, hundreds of signs, loud music, louder pyro. Wrestling wasn’t just something to see, it was an event that celebrated its audience for being there. Surely you, the wrestling fan in Detroit, will want to buy tickets to Raw at the Joe Lewis Arena after seeing how much fun the wrestling fans in Chicago had next week. Don’t be left out—only a handful of tickets remain! And that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since … until now.

When Every Match Is an Empty Arena Match

An aside: While the boxing itself wasn’t great, the Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones Jr. fight from November featured the best set-up of any combat sport last year. Watching it, you’d be excused for not knowing it took place in Los Angeles’ STAPLES Center, a venue that is no stranger to wrestling, mixed martial arts, and boxing. Using curtains to keep the permanent installation of empty seats from the eye, the home of the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers was transformed from its communal, coliseum like environs to something much smaller, much more sleek, much more capable of presenting the kind of show that didn’t remind the viewer of why nobody was there.

The Tyson/Jones layout is gorgeous in its simplicity. Its white ring and lowered scoreboard lighting popped against the black curtains. The gigantic screens and mirrored walkway of its stage (which looked borrowed from AEW’s pre-pandemic PPV looks) ensured that the focus was on the boxers as they made their way to the ring. The lighting and sharp contrast of colors ensured that your eye was never not on the ring. There was fake crowd noise, but the look of the STAPLES Center put that in the very, very deep background. It took eight months to achieve, but combat sports finally figured out how to make itself larger than the absence of fans, the eerie silence  of an empty venue built to accommodate thousands.

In a way, how the Tyson/Jones set-up succeeded was in acknowledging the unusual circumstances without saying a word. In staging the fight the way they did, Tyson/Jones completely destroyed what the brain expects an arena to look like for such an event. In texts with friends and on Twitter, I was as high on the concept as people are on WrestleMania set-ups from year to year, because it’s an interesting problem whose only real solution is “don’t run shows during a pandemic.”

Wrestling is an essential business though, so the way it solved the problem of things being visually, audibly not normal was to make do with what they had. Early in the pandemic, when all eight hours of WWE wrestling produced in the United States was moved into a hastily converted WWE Performance Center, we were beholden to earnest “please be patient” messages from various members of the McMahon family, efforts like Raw Underground, the firebombing of the Performance Center by Retribution, Steve Austin leaning into the surreality of the situation on 3:16 day, and, my favorite, Goldberg making his long walk from locker room to ring through a hallway full of NXT posters.

If you’re able to turn off the part of your brain that was living in terror in March (and every month thereafter), there’s a certain amount of charm to how WWE approached this. Despite the fact that nobody was in the PC watching the show, the PC had a full compliment of well-lit seats behind the guardrail. One of my favorite comments on how all of this looked (though it was hardly meant as a slight), was a video WWE tweeted of John Cena watching a 205 Live taping from the tech area. “I’m used to performing in front of a crowd, so I’m a rookie at all this stuff” he says, gesturing to the ring where WWE’s cruiserweights toil in the relative obscurity of the WWE Network. “I’m watching the pros and taking notes.”

WrestleMania 36, filmed around the clock to avoid the possibility of a government shutdown of wrestling that never came, ended the idea that any of this would be charming and fun. Having paid money for the damn thing, WWE actually assembled its Tampa Bay Buccaneers themed WrestleMania sign behind commentary, where it loomed large and sad over an endless grind of matches that had no business being on a normal PPV, let alone The Showcase of the Immortals. Yes, it was a two-night-only appearance that gave Kevin Owens something large to jump off of, but consider the scale of it—something meant to hang in a football stadium, large enough to be seen by tens of thousands of people, dropped into a training center nobody was allowed into. THIS IS WRESTLEMANIA! the sign screams, but there is no one there to hear it.

After a couple of remote shows filmed in closed sets, AEW moved its production to Daily’s Place, an outdoor amphitheater adjacent to the practice field utilized by Tony Khan’s Jacksonville Jaguars. If you squint, you can see how running outdoors for the bulk of the year has compromised the product somewhat—AEW’s roster is built for speed, and the high heat and perspiration had a lot of its high fliers adjusting their game over the summer, just in time for winter. It’d be more apparent in a completely empty amphitheater, but AEW had the foresight (if you want to call it that) to put its own wrestlers at ringside.

The early days of this were rough. On the one hand, there’s the risk of transmission. On the other hand, wrestlers like MJF and Shawn Spears were in the audience running angles like betting on the matches, which makes sense if you’re trying to get MJF and Spears over, but not if you’re trying to get a match over. That gave way to an audience populated by participants in marathon AEW Dark tapings, which has worked better both optically and narratively. Dark wrestlers being more obscure (generally speaking) than the wrestlers on Dynamite every week, placing them in the crowd makes the concept more anonymous. It’s surprising, then, when Serpentico is actually a returning Sammy Guevara, or the rise of Suge D as Pineapple Pete.

What it couldn’t do, what it can’t do, is give the same sense of stakes to the occasion as a live audience. As smart as the idea is on paper—why wouldn’t you go all out to pop the boys when they’re watching—asking a wrestler to play the role of a participant doesn’t work most of the time because the boys don’t pop as much as the fans do. The “Judas choir,” where fans sang Chris Jericho to the ring, went from a nice, organic thing that happened because it’s fun to sing the extremely dumb lyrics to Judas with a couple thousand people to being something wrestlers had to do for Jericho because it’d become part of his gimmick.

That hasn’t exactly been solved by the return of fans in a limited capacity, as crowd coverage shots often reveal fans who, COVID-19 negative or not, frequently struggle to keep their masks on. This is also true at NXT’s Capitol Wrestling Center, effectively a hybrid of its big brother the WWE ThunderDome and AEW’s limited capacity crowds, the virtual fans appearing on the big screen while bringing in fans as part of invite-only, COVID tested audiences who bang on the ringside plexiglass and cheer for what’s happening much more enthusiastically than the contracted Performance Center talent who used to fill those seats.

The argument for running shows this way is two-fold. Logistically, we’re told, it’s safe. Guidelines are being followed, reprimands handed out for failure to comply, and so on. Presentationally, we’re told, it’s better for the product. When fans are able to react live to what’s happening in front of them, wrestlers are more able to gauge what is and isn’t working during a match, and fans at home are more able to cue into the emotional ebb and flow of a match. I don’t know how to argue for or against either point, except to say that “following guidelines” and “being safe” are two different things, and that the last people in the world I’d like to hang out with are the kinds of people who are risking it all for any kind of live entertainment, but I also don’t think it works. There’s the revulsion of seeing people choosing professional wrestling over staying safe, but presentationally, taking 1,000 fans and scattering them around a 5,500 seat open air amphitheater makes it extremely difficult for the noise of a wrestling show to gather, to build, to be audible for anything less distinct than an in-unison chant.

Those issues, safety aside, pale in comparison to the ThunderDome, which actually pipes crowd noise into the gigantic empty spaces it’s occupied, forcing the rosters of WWE’s flagship shows to wrestle in white noise machines that were built to house the populations of small municipalities. While writing this piece, I’ve been listening to an hour-long loop of wrestling crowd noise. Within seconds, the distinctness of the human voice, of thousands of human voices, begins to fade. Were it not for the occasional whistle or scream, it’d be easy to mistake for heavy rainfall.

No Men Enter, No Men Leave

I cannot imagine performing in this atmosphere, but WWE ThunderDome made its debut in August and is likely to be a fixture, traveling from empty Florida stadium to empty Florida stadium like a ship of the damned, until it’s safe to welcome crowds back to wrestling, whatever “safe” means. Why WWE decided that renting stadiums was a better bet than producing television from a building they already owned is a mystery, but the sheer scale of the ThunderDome, the need to show off the LED screens, the pyro, the use of drones, the expanded lighting rigs, and every other aspect of this monstrosity means that, even with the truly empty spaces of the arena curtained off, the space that’s on camera swallows the product whole.

The big feature of the ThunderDome are the LED boards that surround the ring, allowing fans an opportunity to “watch” and “be heard,” as their faces appear on camera and their voices are mixed, however low, in with the canned audience. In a way, it’s everything the company has ever dreamed of. Discounting incidents where fans have displayed signs with slogans like FIRE VELVETEEN DREAM or displayed images of Klansmen and Chris Benoit, the company now enjoys complete control over its audience. Don’t like the way a fan is reacting to The Miz? Push a button and they’re gone. Does one of the screens on hard cam feature someone who looks like they’re sleeping through a promo? Poof!

In September, it was reported that over 130,000 people had requested access to the ThunderDome, which, on its own, sounds like a success. But WrestleMania 36 was supposed to draw 80,000 on its own, Raw and SmackDown draw over 3M viewers a week, and, taking that 130,000 person queue and distributing it over the 15 shows that ran that month, you’re talking an average of 8,000-9,000 people per show. While that’s about what Raw and SmackDown were drawing before the pandemic shut down large scale live events in the United States, WWE’s costs in running live events was offset by the fact that fans paid to be there. In order to run the ThunderDome, WWE had to build an entirely new set, create the teleconferencing infrastructure that affords fans the thrill of seeing their gigantic faces on television, and pay thousands of dollars every day they occupied the Amway Center, even on days they weren’t running television or using the space.

That $200K was a great deal, at least when comparing it to the usual cost of renting a venue of the Amway Center’s size, but what did they gain in abandoning the Performance Center and scaling up to an extent that was only short of Major League Baseball and the National Football League’s logistical nightmare of running traveling leagues in their extant stadiums? Five months (and counting) of the most antiseptic, emotionally vacant product in company history. There was a time when Raw ran in nondescript municipal civic centers, and those shows had more character. Was it due to the fans in attendance? Not particularly. Watch a WWE television show from 1994 or 1995 and tell me how many fans seem enthralled by the action.

The difference is intimacy—normal wrestling shows have it, COVID era ones don’t. Even at their largest—think WrestleMania or Wrestle Kingdom—wrestling shows managed to make the ring seem close, the action resonate to everybody watching, whether it’s the 80,000th person in the last available seat in an arena or someone watching at home. Take a look at this crowd shot from WrestleMania III:

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Resist the urge to count the fans. This fisheye shot, taken from a corner of the Pontiac Silverdome, is beautiful, not just for the guy mid-fist pump or the retro ambiance of the white dome that kept the anguish cries of thousands of Detroit Lions fans from filling the heavens, but because you can see every aspect of the event’s production, the various ways in which an audience’s attention is drawn to the ring. Shooting in stadiums and arenas, wrestling is free to put seats around the ring where the turf, court, or ice would be. There are seats around the entryway so fans can react as their favorite wrestlers head to the ring. Somewhere in there (maybe not for WrestleMania III, but certainly for modern shows) there’s the technical area, where the show is produced. The gigantic video screens are for the fans in the cheap seats.

Everybody there reacts differently—you’ve got the fist pumpers in the righthand corner, several people lifting up binoculars, hands cupping mouths to scream, idle chatter between two parties—but it comes together seamlessly in a joyful cacophony, a capital-O Occasion, a capital-H Happening. Yeah, the wrestling is important, but a lot of what’s fun about being in a crowd at an event is getting swept up in someone else’s emotions. Seeing someone cry to your favorite Springsteen song. Watching your team come from behind and win with a few thousand strangers. Witnessing Hulk Hogan bodyslam Andre the Giant. The entertainment itself is incidental—the constant, what we’ve been told over and over in 2020 is necessary for that entertainment to resonate, is the audience. But what’s unsaid in all of this is what the audience is.

An audience, at least an audience the size of what wrestling has lost this year, is a contradiction, a group of people who largely don’t know each other who are nevertheless united in the hope that they will enjoy something together, feel something together. An audience is a reminder that we are bigger than ourselves, that the things we love, however strange they seem in the isolation of our homes, are also loved by others. Wrestling promoters are correct in saying that they live and die by the reaction of a live crowd, but their mistake, Vince McMahon’s mistake in particular, was trying to find a suitable replacement when there is none.

The thing about that WrestleMania III photo that gets me, the thing that gets me about being in a wrestling crowd, is that within those spaces there are literally thousands of ways to see the show. One for each seat, one for each camera, one for each pair of binoculars. WWE’s ThunderDome has flattened that out. Fans have call times, are asked to perform a certain way, and are given the televised version of wrestling to react to. Their reactions, as such, look a lot like the reactions one has when watching a television show in private, because that’s exactly what they’re doing. Instead of bringing the wrestling community together, the WWE ThunderDome has laid bare that what we are for the time being is thousands of isolated people watching a show we’re struggling to like.

ThunderDome is not a venue or an audience surrogate—it’s a magnifying glass held up to the fact that the company is too slick for its own good, creating a vacuum when it meant to remind us that we’re not alone, as fans or as people. It’s an utter failure in that regard. I’ve never felt more alone in my long life as a wrestling fan as I do when I can hear the mechanism that triggers the bursts of fire that go off around the LED boards. Unless you’re Bray Wyatt or Randy Orton, there is nobody there to feel the heat of that fire, nobody there to react to it. When a wrestler falls from a ladder, the sound their body makes when it hits the ring makes me feel sick with guilt because there isn’t a live audience to justify the risk. When someone breaks a table, it’s like watching Will Riker step up to the lip of a canyon and yell “ANYBODY?”

Only, unlike in that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the answer to Riker’s question is “no.” There’s nobody there, even if I’m meant to believe the ThunderDome experience a fun one. All I can hear is that fake crowd noise, loud as rain, and wrestlers hurting themselves for my pleasure. It’s a rough experience, and more than anything I feel like the end of it will be as much of a reason for me to cry through my first live show, when it’s safe and when I am over my anger at how wrestling handled the pandemic, as my love of crowds or the sensory overload of seeing so many people in one room after spending so much time alone.

There isn’t a means of presenting professional wrestling that could possibly ameliorate the pain of worry, frustration, rage, and grief it’s meant to distract me from. When this is over, the only reason I will revisit the COVID era of professional wrestling for is academic interest, and it will take a long time for me to steel myself enough to confront the torrent of ugly emotions that accompanies it. When I do so, there will be no level of crowd noise, real or fake, that can distract me from how utterly alone I was, and how incapable one of my favorite human endeavors was in its ridiculously cocksure attempt to address that isolation. It’s gigantic venues and eerie silences were not designed as such, but in creating spaces like WWE ThunderDome, wrestling erected a garish monument to a year—to however much time there is left for us to slog through—where companies, countries, and economic systems refused to yield to the grim reality of a global pandemic. In trying to build something larger than that pandemic, WWE has never looked smaller. There’s a poem about the hubris of an emperor who built something meant to last forever by virtue of how large it was, but this is one of those occasions where I don’t think wrestling is a poem. Poetry, at least, makes a sound.

 

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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