The End of Wrestling As We Know It: WrestleMania 36 Part Two Recap and Review

Previously: WrestleMania 36 Part One

At last, wrestling can sleep. It won’t, of course—as a long-running metaphor for the strength and endurance of America(n capitalism), there’s more Raw, NXT, SmackDown, and AEW to come—but it could. And if it did, what strange new territory it’d have to explore upon waking. AJ Styles is canonically dead. John Cena was banished to another realm. Otis and Mandy are breaking social distancing mandates. And, perhaps more important than any of that, two very big, very beefy boys sit atop the thrones of their respective brands, champions of an uncertain world.

With May 10th’s Money in the Bank pay-per-view prominently advertised during night two of WrestleMania 36, we will not be taking the more narratively interesting road of not knowing what comes next, which means more of this, whatever this is. While WrestleMania 36 was often entertaining, I am still grappling with my discomfort over it. With nobody in the crowd, there was no ambient noise or soft bodies or clothing fabric to blend things like bumps, spot calling, or breathing into the tapestry of the match. It’s the breathing that’s with me now, as I write this review—big, deep, greedy intakes of air in every match, brought to the foreground for the lack of anything else to listen to.

I know that it’s a popular movie right now, but I remember seeing Contagion in the theater, how quiet that space was, and how someone screamed when I sneezed during the credits. Sneezing is a normal, everyday sound, but in the wrong context—a movie about a global pandemic, a public space during a global pandemic—it can be terrifying. That’s how I felt, listening to The Undertaker, Otis, Rhea Ripley, Randy Orton, Shayna Baszler, and the rest of the WrestleMania crew during the bulk of this two day descent into madness; terrified. It was a reminder—one I didn’t really need—that they, the crew filming them, and the other staff involved in the show were human, largely incapable of rising to the challenge their profession sets out for them on a weekly basis. Is it possible to be larger than life in a vacuum? Is it possible to hold WrestleMania for no one? These are questions I thought would be answered by the end of WrestleMania 36, but all I’m left with is breath. The horrible frailty of the human body. The lengths those bodies are forced to push themselves to.

WWE

PRE-SHOW: Liv Morgan def. Natalya

Every Natalya match for as long as I can remember has had the energy of an empty arena exhibition, and here at last that energy was made manifest. Nattie really is one of wrestling’s greatest gifts so far as her in-ring talking is concerned, as her ASK HERRRRRRRRRs were really on another level. But she is expendable in the face of youth, and eats a pin after a series of counters.

Smiles on faces: A smirk that became like half a smile when Nattie went ASK HERRRRRRRR.

WWE

NXT Women’s Championship: Charlotte Flair def. Rhea Ripley (c)

So far as actual wrestling was concerned, this was the best match of the show. I drop off on WWE programming a lot, so it seems like every time I watch a Charlotte Flair match I’m seeing someone make ridiculous strides in their career. Where some second and third generation wrestlers crumble under the pressure of their family name, Charlotte has thrived, bringing her own unique gifts as an athlete to the classic pace and structure of title matches older than her. It’s an incredibly satisfying package, one that works in an infinite number of ways, like this match against Rhea Ripley, a more smashmouth competitor who is no less talented than Flair, but came to the match with less big match experience.

It is wild that this managed to feel like a big match, but they pulled it off extremely well. Flair focused her attack on Ripley’s leg the moment she spotted an opening and was relentless in going after it. Ripley, for the first time in her WWE career, was forced to play babyface in peril, and did an excellent job. The void, it turns out, has great acoustics for someone who wants to put their lungs into screaming, and that’s what Ripley did, selling both her and Charlotte’s offense audibly like a prime Lex Luger. Charlotte getting the clean win with the Figure Eight is the most interesting thing that’s happened to the NXT main event since it moved to the USA Network, and I can’t wait for a rematch to happen in front of a live audience.

Smiles to faces: A legitimate five, the highest number of smiles a match can get without transcending the bounds of professional wrestling, that transcendence itself being a terrifying act.

WWE

Aleister Black def. Bobby Lashley

Last month, Aleister Black had a match that served as a pretense for The Undertaker to return. This month, Aleister Black had a match that served as a pretense for a marriage to start crumbling. Lashley and Lana probably should have known better than to incorporate the bonds of matrimony into their effort to cuckold Rusev, but now they have to live with a WrestleMania loss because Lana, who has been a manager for a long time now, decided to stop Bobby from winning the match because she wanted to see a spear on a card featuring Edge and Goldberg. Black hit his lil’ kick and we may have learned which match went on at 4:00am.

Smiles on faces: Zero.

Otis def. Dolph Ziggler

Look, I know the focus of this match is the Otis/Ziggler/Mandy Rose love triangle, but as a gay I am having a hard time swallowing the idea that fellow gay Sonia Deville would help Dolph Ziggler get laid. Michael Cole called this one of the most personal matches in the history of WrestleMania, which you could really feel as the two proceeded to have a normal wrestling match, the highlight of which was Deville’s wasteland femme aesthetic. At one point that aesthetic distracted Otis enough for Ziggler to land a kick to the taint, which brought out an incensed Mandy Rose. She got Ziggler in the balls, Otis hit Ziggler with the Caterpillar, and this personal issue, perhaps one of the most personal in the history of WrestleMania, ended with Otis taking the girl home.

Smiles on faces: Two.

WWE

LAST MAN STANDING: Edge def. Randy Orton

I’ve never been a Randy Orton apologist before—before I was a hot wrestling journalist I was a very annoying message board person who spent Orton’s matches counting the number of chinlocks he used—but this match had me wondering if Orton has been secretly good this whole time? Like, yes, this was Edge’s match, built around the knowledge that his neck, however meaty it seems, is a stack of dimes and that one bad landing could end it all, but Orton was a fucking monster on the sell in this match. Dude was out there selling the pain in his injured arm as he was getting Irish whipped. As Edge continued to focus his attack on Orton’s ribs, Orton sounded like he was legitimately suffering, his labored breaths verging closer and closer to full blown vomiting on the floor of the WWE Performance Center.

It won’t get the same hype as the Boneyard or Firefly Funhouse matches, as this was pretty normal by comparison, but it was nice to see the two luxuriate in the space provided to them. As they went from the ringside area to the gym to the office to the storage facility, it felt like watching a game of WWF No Mercy rotate through its backstage areas and the weapons unique to it. Given that it’s a flesh and blood wrestling match, all of the connective tissue was there, and their treks through the cramped hallways and modified rooms of the Performance Center made this WrestleMania feel as claustrophobic as it was. There were too many good spots to list off, my favorites among them being Orton’s sneak RKO at the start and him throwing Edge off of a platform into a barricade, but between Orton’s selling and Edge always needing support of some kind to get back to his feet, I thought this was one of WWE’s best attempts at a match that frequently devolves into cartoonish territory.

Smiles on faces: Four and a half.

WWE

GRONK wins the 24/7 Title

Because nothing in this world can remain good for very long, new 24/7 Champ Mojo Rawley gets beat up by, like, at least 10 people. Why didn’t he just go home? Why did WWE let an additional 10 people into the Performance Center during these Unusual Circumstances? Both good questions, but GRONK, perched atop said performance center after claiming the 24/7 Title meant as much to him as three Super Bowl rings, hit a Coffin Drop, scored the pin, and ran out of the building.

Smiles on faces: During this minute or two of the program, I felt as though God had abandoned me.

Raw Tag Team Championships: Street Prophets (c) def. Austin Theory and Angel Garza

I don’t know, y’all. I wanted to like this, but when you’re reminded pretty early on that Theory and Garza have been a team for all of a week and they’re getting a title shot on WrestleMania you’re like “why?” and then you’re like “oh yeah, that’s why,” and then you just have a match with no build and an obvious finish. Everybody here is talented and I like the idea of Zelina Vega just plucking up whatever talent from NXT that she wants (making her the first real manager WWE’s had in a long time), but man what a bummer way of putting Bianca Belair on Raw, when she has a lot of unfinished business on NXT/should have been saved for something more meaningful.

Smiles on faces: Two

WWE

SmackDown Women’s Championship: Bayley (c) def. Sasha Banks, Naomi, Tamina, and Lacey Evans

Before this match, Bayley and Sasha did a promo where Bayley insisted that the two would remain friends forever and Sasha, out of Bayley’s earshot, said that people were going to see how badly she wanted the championship. This match was built around that tension, the will they or won’t they explode weaving its way through the good (Naomi), the bad (Tamina), and the mediocre (Lacey Evans) of the SmackDown women’s roster. I liked how we got there, with Sasha getting pulled into an accidental Bayley knee, but any hope of a singles confrontation between the two was put off, as Sasha was eliminated and the field dwindled down to Lacey and Bayley. Sasha made the save, the match being no disqualification, and Bayley kept her strap for another day.

Smiles on faces: Two.

FIREFLY FUN HOUSE MATCH: The Fiend Bray Wyatt def. John Cena

Look, I have no room in my heart for the current discourse about Cinematic Wrestling. Both in the case of the Boneyard Match and here, I think wrestling fans and people who write about wrestling are getting a little ahead of themselves in talking about how these matches will change wrestling when, first and foremost, these matches exist the way they do because wrestling was changed by something else. While I’m trying very hard not to judge when someone says “who says wrestling isn’t performance art,” I would like to state that I am very much on the side of the fence where it’s fine for wrestling to be wrestling, and that wrestling, as one of the most malleable art forms we have, is capable of being anything while remaining wrestling.

Which is what brings us here, this elaborate skit where barely any punches are thrown and hardly any moves are utilized, where what’s being interrogated is less the rivalry between Bray Wyatt and John Cena and more what it means to be the face of an industry that spurns faces that look a lot like Wyatt’s. Here, John Cena is cast not only as John Cena of days past, but as several iterations of Hulk Hogan, both the Saturday Night’s Main Event training, vitamins, and prayers Hulkster, and the WCW Monday Nitro villain “Hollywood” Hogan. He is the prototype who screamed RUTHLESS AGGRESSION in Kurt Angle’s face, and he is the white rapper with the homophobic verses who gets over by being a bully.

This is not the first time Cena has had a storyline built around the idea that he’s keeping other talent from rising to his spot. At one point in their feud, CM Punk told Cena that he’d gone from being an underdog like the Boston Red Sox to being an institution like the New York Yankees. But this was a deeper exploration of that notion, aided by the years of props kicking around the WWE Warehouse/archive. If you love John Cena, as I do, building a “match” around the idea that he must confront that he is a bad person in his success is fascinating. When he gets fed up with the game, he starts swinging on Bray Wyatt (in Eric Bischoff garb), who disappears and is replaced by The Fiend, who wins handily. When that happens, John Cena disappears. It makes sense. Cena is WWE’s version of hope personified. The Fiend is hope’s absence. When one beats the other, the other ceases to exist. RSVP Big Match John, may you rest well until the world calls upon you again.

Smiles to faces: Look y’all, they licensed “Obsession” for the SNME parts, knew better than to use the regular WCW Nitro theme for nWo Nitro, but they still had Bray Bischoff in a 1998 Wolfpac tee when he was cosplaying 1997 Eric Bischoff and I’m not sure I can forgive that. Same amount as the Boneyard Match, give or take half a smile.

WWE

WWE World Heavyweight Championship: Drew McIntyre def. Brock Lesnar (c)

Given that Goldberg and Braun Strowman had a finisher-spam match on night one, I wasn’t expecting this to be similar. I don’t know why—ever since he returned to the WWE, Lesnar’s m.o. has been suplexing dudes a bunch, F5ing dudes a bunch, and getting paid a ton of money to get in and out of the ring in less than ten minutes. It rules, if that’s what you like to see in wrestling (and I do), but I got the sense while watching this that it was structured a bit differently before it got moved to the Performance Center. Yes, the Claymore is a knockout move, but beating Lesnar at WrestleMania is a coronation, and I was hoping for something more along the lines of the Lesnar/Reigns match that Seth Rollins interrupted at WrestleMania Play Button. A fine if sobering match that ended this tumultuous chapter of WWE history with a very quiet championship celebration. All that’s left to do is breathe and endure what’s coming.

Smiles on faces: Three.

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Colette Arrand

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

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