WrestleMania shouldn’t have happened this year, but it did. Pre-taped in the WWE Performance center from the hours of 11:00pm to 5:00am and with a card heavily altered due either to talent being ill in an undisclosed fashion or being immunocompromised, WrestleMania defied logic and safety, practically spit in God’s eye, and happened. Beyond retrospectives on the labor issues, dramatic effectiveness, and logistics of WrestleMania 36, there’s no further need for me to ruminate upon the existential dread the prospect of the show was causing myself and no shortage of fans and fellow wrestling journalists—at last, the nightmare is half over.
How was part one of this WrestleMania that was too big for one night? Hoo, boy. The same problems with every other empty arena show by WWE (and AEW) persisted, and okay matches that would have been helped by an energetic, incredibly large crowd felt impossibly small in the vacuum of the WWE Performance Center, put in brutal perspective by the looming WrestleMania sign behind the commentary desk. It’s hard to enjoy something like this, like watching a recording of a stand-up comic with no audience, or a musical in an empty theater—part of the magic of filmed live entertainment is the crowd, the way it’s possible to live vicariously in their wide-eyed wonder, their anguish, and their joy. At it’s best, WrestleMania 36 was a hollowed out version of professional wrestling. At its worst, I felt like I was in purgatory.
With all of this brought to bear, it’s hard to enter into the agreement that WWE assumes you’re making by watching the show. What part of their presentation of the show is capable of distracting me from the harsh reality that’s permeated every aspect of it? WWE’s new thing is that their mission is to put smiles on faces, and I tried my best to meet them on this, to the point that I kept track of the exact number of smiles each match brought to mine. Let’s get to the recap.
PRE-SHOW: Cesaro def. Drew Gulak
Because the focus of the pre-show is “two chuds talk to each other about nothing,” Cesaro and Gulak had a really tight window to work in, but both of them rule so it didn’t really matter. In the glorious but distant future where it’s possible to let a meaningless match go for 15 minutes, maybe we’ll get the CHIKARA main event we deserve out of these two, but as it is this had everything you’d want from them, Cesaro’s powerhouse technical style working against Gulak’s more finesse-based game. Cesaro busted out one of his old indie stalwarts, his UFO hands-free airplane spin, and got the win with it. I freaked out for it, the way one freaks out when you see the ghost of someone you liked. Where are the ghost stories like that?
Smiles on faces: Three.
After Stephanie McMahon welcomed us to a WrestleMania contested under Unusual Circumstances, we got the weirdest opening video to a wrestling show ever, where WrestleMania’s pirate-y conceit was undone by a sarcastic, vaguely British narrator. I think because nobody in WWE has ever seen a pirate film before, the WWE Superstars were using hammers and stuff to fight a volcano? Anyhow, they used AC/DC’s “For Those About To Rock (We Salute You),” presumably because it’s the one with a cannon in it, but when it was time for said cannon to fire, they didn’t have their little pirate cannons fire. Then GRONK came out. In the grand tradition of 1980s wrestlers coked out of their minds while speaking into a microphone, he was wearing sunglasses indoors. He and his friend Mojo Rawley were there to pretend to have a good time, but for the most part they were respectfully quiet, like two boys at church. I still hate them.
Women’s Tag Team Championships: Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross def. The Kabuki Warriors (c)
This was fine? Like, there’s some wrestling that’s capable of transcending these circumstances, and then there’s everything else. This was everything else. Built around showcasing Nikki Cross’ resilience (she kicks out of a lot of death moves), the match would have benefited from a crowd freaking out about it. GRONK and Mojo, two dudes who love partying and being hype, should have been losing their minds in the weird podium built for people to fall off of, but nope. Despite the talent and charisma involved here, this often felt like a meaningless series of moves. Empty, but okay.
Smiles on faces: Two.
Elias def. King Corbin
King Corbin thought that knocking Elias off of a questionably assembled tower would end Elias for good, but instead of all that Elias showed up to the WWE Performing Center, red hankie in his left pocket, letting Corbin know that not only is he a top, he’s a fisting top. I like King Corbin the same as I like most conniving 1980s territory heels, the same as I like most sleeping pills, but this was boring and listless and had me wondering if the goal of this WrestleMania was to make me question why I liked wrestling at all. The last part may not be Elias or Corbin’s fault, but boy was I feeling it here.
Smiles on faces: Zero.
Raw Women’s Championship: Becky Lynch (c) def. Shayna Baszler
I got FIRED UP for Becky’s semi-truck, as there are few vehicles on this earth more amazing than customized semis, and few people as legendarily bad ass and sleazy as truckers. Only Becky Lynch was just normal Becky Lynch. You can question whether or not having Baszler lose clean after her Elimination Chamber performance was the right way to go, but to me the story of this match is how much Baszler struggled throughout it. I think the world of her, but it was impossible not to notice how often she struggled to lift Lynch off her feet, whether it was to swing her into the desk, lift her out of an arm submission, or go for moves of her own. It was like watching someone wrestle with the flu. That’s probably not what was going on, but this was the least impressive marquee match both women have had in some time.
Smiles on faces: One.
WWE Intercontinental Championship: Sami Zayn (c) def. Daniel Bryan
If what you wanted here was something resembling a PWG World Championship match, this was probably a disappointment. But I hate Good Wrestling and live for stalling and loud men, so this match really pulled me out of a spiral. I could have done without Daniel Bryan crushing his head into the barricade for an audience of GRONK and Mojo, but dude really came to play, busting out his grumpy indie wrestling stuff while Zayn, crying, begged him to stop. Bryan eventually got distracted by Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura’s roughhousing with Drew Gulak and ate a Helluva Kick, continuing Sami Zayn’s 1,000 year reign.
Smiles on faces: Four, almost five.
SmackDown Tag Team Championship Ladder Match: John Morrison (c) def. Kofi Kingston and Jimmy Uso
Hey! Did you know that The Miz tested positive for “an illness” and could not compete? How do you compensate for the absence of one of your champions? Just remove the conceit of this being a tag team match entirely. And hey, while it’s already dangerous to be wrestling during a pandemic, how about making this a goddamn ladder match? You know, a loose collection of spectacular spots built around crowd noise and cutaways to people marking out in the stands? It’ll be fun!
And maybe it was? A lot of people I follow on Twitter were very into the spots in this match, a lot of which were exciting. Morrison doing an unassisted rope walk from one corner to the other to hit Kofi Kingston with a Spanish Fly will live on as a WrestleMania highlight for years to come, and nobody here was half-assing it. I just think that randomly booked ladder matches are unnecessary when they’re good, and ludicrously irresponsible regardless of its objective quality. This is the ladder match at its absolute worst, its car crash spectacle completely dwarfed by its circumstance. It’s nobody in the match’s fault, and I know how mirthless this sounds, but I really, truly hated it, and on the basis this WrestleMania asked to be judged. Probably the most “why is this happening” moment of the show.
Smiles on faces: Half a smile?
Kevin Owens def. Seth Rollins
Other than of Sami Zayn, nobody took better advantage of the WWE Performance Center’s acoustics than Seth Rollins. He was a shittalking machine during this match. I kind of loved where this went, as Owens’ story was his lack of WrestleMania moments, and Rollins denying him one by hitting him with the ring bell ruled. Before the match was restarted as a No Disqualifications match, I thought that was a brilliant bit of anticlimax, and the right environment to do it in. But the match restarting did give us a moment that would have been literally impossible under any other circumstance: Kevin Owens diving off of the WrestleMania sign to hit an elbow drop on Rollins. The Stunner after the fact was academic.
Smiles on faces: Three and a half.
More Meaningless Nonsense
R-Truth decided that the best place to hide with his 24/7 championship during a global pandemic was not in his own home, but in the WWE Performance Center between two beefy dudes. Mojo Rawley was the beefy dude who won the 24/7 Championship, the only title in wrestling that changes hands on a weak forearm. Paul Heyman cut a promo about the Lesnar/McIntyre match, one of the best I’ve heard from him in awhile.
WWE Universal Championship: Braun Strowman def. Goldberg (c)
Forget everything I said about being unable to forget the circumstances of the Tag Title Ladder match: This is big men bumpin’ meat, the kind of thing I live for. I lost my mind for Goldberg’s entrance, where two security guards escorted him through the hallway of NXT TakeOver posters, to the entryway, fog substituting for his normal pyro. I dreamed that dream before an empty Mania was in the cards, and was rewarded for my patience.
This was THE BEST. Goldberg used a spear. Braun Strowman used a powerslam. And every time one of them hit those moves I screamed. Goldberg needing three spears before he could even get a nearfall on Braun? WILD. Goldberg making like he was going to Jackhammer Braun after a fourth? INSPIRED. Braun reversing the Jackhammer into a powerslam? TRANSCENDENT. Goldberg, a man who hosts a show about knives and had a monster truck based on his jacked arms and who beat Hulk Hogan for the world title, was something of a childhood hero to me, and seeing that hero get smashed by a Bootstraps Guy hurt a little, but this match was a gift.
Smiles on faces: One. Hundred. Smiles.
BONEYARD MATCH: The Undertaker def. AJ Styles
Y’all, I knew we were in for something when we cut to someone’s backyard and a hearse was pulling up while Undertaker’s music played. This conceit, a match shot on-location, edited, and given music isn’t new (and didn’t start with Matt Hardy), but I bit very hard on this one, which had just the right vibe to it, this intersection of Undertaker’s aging gunslinger routine, his spooky zombie routine, and AJ’s hotshot redneck bullshit. Like, if you strip everything down, this was just a well-structured brawl in a yard that has a hole in it. But this one had Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows show up to Western stand-off music and shots of the Undertaker stalking AJ Styles while something like the score from The Terminator played.
I’m not sure how this match will play in subsequent viewings and I don’t care. This was a moment, and I was there for it. Undertaker going down after flipping Styles off but then pulling his spooky grandpa routine to teleport behind AJ while he was trying to start up a tractor? Taker throwing Gallows to his death and tombstoning Anderson on the tin overhang of a barn before menacing AJ with pyro and chokeslamming him to the ground below? This was inspired shit, a ramshackle adventure held together by Undertaker’s ragged breathing and the frankly homoerotic banter between the two. The finish, where Undertaker dragged Styles to a grave while Styles begged for forgiveness, was fucking incredible. I loved Taker hugging him. I love how he finished him off with a boot. I love how the Undertaker symbol was projected onto the barn and how a plastic hand with AJ’s glove shot through the cold earth on AJ’s grave, how Undertaker apparently had a tombstone prepared for Styles before hand despite it not being his yard. I loved this match, improbably and implausibly. They should never do it again since they’ll nothing that follows is going to live up to this one, but I’ll never forget my first trip to the boneyard.
Smiles on faces: As numerous as the stars in the sky, minus one for not using “Rollin’ (Air Raid Vehicle).”