By Will Pruett, ProWrestling.net Co-Senior Staffer (@itswilltime)
ProWrestling.net Live returns today at 3CT/4ET. Jason Powell and I will be taking your calls (and arguing about the Firefly Funhouse match) at PWAudio.net.
This is a show I was ready to hate. Between the questionable ethics of filming professional wrestling during the Covid-19 pandemic, the empty warehouse in Florida as a setting, and the overt joylessness of the world around me, WrestleMania 36 was shaping up to be a show I’d immediately pan. I had pre-written an opening paragraph in my head about the inherent emptiness of empty arena wrestling about two weeks ago. I wanted to dislike this show and spin that into a great blog about the world today, then something weird happened. WrestleMania 36 did exactly what WWE hoped it would do. For a few hours on Saturday and Sunday night, the world was almost normal.
Don’t get me wrong, the setting of the WWE Performance Center, with its giant fan and meaningless barricades was still eerie. It didn’t feel like WrestleMania should, but it couldn’t. What WWE did instead was get insanely creative. They gave us not one, but two matches over the two nights that took established characters and evolved the art form of professional wrestling, both to massive success. They took a ridiculously negative situation and made it neutral.
First, we had night one’s Boneyard Match. We knew it would be off-site. We knew it would be a graveyard-ish situation. For The Undertaker, this fit really well. It was a hybrid of The Undertaker’s undead zombie and trash-rock biker personas. It feels like Undertaker’s final evolution before hanging up the leather vest and literally riding off into the 5:00am sunrise. AJ Styles was the wildcard, as a talent more traditionally referred to as a top five wrestler in the world, how would he fit into The Boneyard?
It turns out Styles was a perfect fit for Undertaker’s delightfully trashy action movie. We had lighting, fog, a really fun musical score, a complete lack of self-awareness, some potential (but apparently not) dropping of the big swears, and fun. This was a fun match. The Boneyard played to what Undertaker can do right now and what WWE could do without a crowd. This encounter was better than anything the 55 year old Undertaker could do in front of a crowd. WWE took a massive negative, took a major creative risk, and made one of the most entertaining WrestleMania main events of all time.
WWE would be wise to pre-tape 14 more Boneyard matches with The Undertaker when we’re all allowed to do things again. Play one Boneyard Match per WrestleMania and give Undertaker his retirement ceremony at WrestleMania 50.
Now, let’s dive into John Cena’s psyche, Bray Wyatt’s memory, and The Firefly Funhouse Match. We knew it would be something weird and (hopefully) creative after The Boneyard Match, but we had no idea how deep it would go.
Unlike The Boneyard Match, WWE didn’t give us an actual match in The Firefly Funhouse. The conceit of The Fiend character is the way he digs into the past and WWE brought us face to face with both history and John Cena’s catalog of work. This was a well edited vignette instead of a straight fight. It was a journey outside of time and space itself that could have only happened on a show disrupted by a global crisis.
I understand why people wouldn’t enjoy The Firefly Funhouse Match, but I would encourage everyone to look at Bray Wyatt’s body of work. He has three good matches to his name and anything he has done in the ring at The Fiend has been disappointing. If anything is impressive about this match, it is the match’s ability to entertain. There were no giant hammers. There were no weird red lights. There were moments of brilliance and introspection. We saw John Cena succumb not only to Wyatt’s Fiend persona, but to himself. John Cena had to confront the villain he has always been.
Look at the above paragraph. That’s a whole lot of complicated storytelling for a professional wrestling match, so of course it couldn’t be a match.
While The Boneyard and The Firefly Funhouse were both outside of what WrestleMania has always been, they both gave us some wonderfully creative variations on professional wrestling. WWE took a massive negative and somehow turned it into something fun. They gave fans something to enjoy when I thought it was impossible. This WrestleMania will always be an awkward moment in wrestling history, but these matches will make it an enjoyable one to look back on as well.
And now for some random thoughts:
– Rob Gronkowski was silly, but inoffensive as the WrestleMania host. I would have been okay with him leaving as the Universal Champion, to be honest, since that title is less prestigious than the 24/7 title. I was only bothered by his refusal to change clothes between nights one and two.
– Maybe it was me adjusting to the setting for matches inside the Performance Center, but I was more bothered by the empty arena at the beginning of night one than at any other point. The atmosphere definitely played to the strengths of the wrestlers who talk more while wrestling.
– The best non-cinematic match of either night was Rhea Ripley vs. Charlotte Flair. This was a level of effort Flair hasn’t shown in the last year. Ripley felt like a wrestler who belongs in this major spot. Ripley matches up against Flair really well from a physical standpoint.
– Charlotte Flair winning the NXT Championship didn’t upset me. Ripley works best with a goal in mind and as the babyface fighting to get what she deserves. This sets up a journey for Ripley and a ton of fresh new opponents for Flair. In front of fans, I would have given Ripley the major moment, but here, with no audience, Flair was the right call.
– I found myself unimpressed with both the Universal and WWE Championship matches. They both had the exact same formula. Goldberg vs. Braun Strowman was the least impressive of the two, but not by much. Seeing an old man repeatedly try to spear a giant was not fun. Brock Lesnar vs. Drew McIntyre was the least impressive match I could imagine from those two. Brock worked his finisher spam style and it didn’t work without the energy of a live crowd.
– Drew McIntrye as WWE Champion will be fun. WWE would be wise to let Drew be the first entrance on their first show with a live crowd. Give Drew a mic and let him rally the fans once the world is together again. He is capable.
– Braun Strowman backing into his first world title is hilarious. He should have been champion back in 2017, but WWE was too busy sacrificing their entire roster to Brock Lesnar for no reason.
– Paul Heyman was right when he said Brock Lesnar would be champion going into WrestleMania 37.
– John Morrison, Kofi Kingston, and Jimmy Uso all worked exceptionally hard in the Ladder Match for the Smackdown Tag Team Championship. I know they had a few obvious edits and moments with pads likely placed at ringside, but I’ll call that smart. No one should take those huge bumps without safety equipment, especially without a crowd there.
– Seth Rollins vs. Kevin Owens was another highlight of this two night experience. I was really worried when they went to the bell shot finish, but restarting and giving Owens the major moment of jumping off of the comically huge WrestleMania sign was perfect. Owens finally had a WrestleMania performance he can be proud of. Hopefully it was the first of many.
– Kevin Owens talking through his matches is always fun and it made the empty arena work for him.
– If WWE is going to run Money in the Bank from the Performance Center, I hope the briefcase is hanging from the giant fan. Make the wrestlers wait for it…
– Edge and Randy Orton was my most anticipated match going into this show and it disappointed me. They worked hard. They wanted to have a creative match in challenging circumstances. They went way too long and on a massive tour of the Performance Center I did not need. The end of Edge vs. Randy Orton was great. If you cut three or four rooms of the PC out of the match, this was probably excellent.
– Edge deserved better than the world could give him for his first singles match back. I cannot wait to see him in front of a live crowd again. If you haven’t, fire up WWE Network and watch the WWE 24 about Edge. It’s the best documentary WWE has ever made.
– Color me surprised that I’m not writing more about Becky Lynch today. Her story with Shayna Baszler never clicked on Raw and her match was fine but flat. Becky needs better characters in the Raw Women’s division to work with.
– I’m not surprised that AJ Styles was in one of the best WrestleMania main events of all time, but I am surprised that he did not have to wrestle in it. AJ is a great performer and fully deserves a WrestleMania main event on his resume.
– Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross fully deserve to win the WWE Women’s Tag Titles at WrestleMania. Their reaction to the moment was great and helped to make this show feel like WrestleMania.
– I loved the “America The Beautiful” montage on night one. I did not love watching the same video package to introduce WrestleMania across both nights. WWE could have been more creative.
– Bayley retaining the Smackdown Women’s Championship was a fun choice, but it feels like that division is directionless overall. It’s time to pull the trigger on Sasha Banks turning on Bayley or to separate those two.
– Bianca Belair getting a debut at WrestleMania is a big deal. I wish it could have been the live pop it would have been.
Friends, this was a really weird WrestleMania, wasn’t it? What is the world right now? I have no idea. It was really nice to watch wrestling, Tweet about it, and almost feel normal for the last couple of nights. Now, it’s back to normal quarantine life. Thank you for reading and hanging out this weekend! Finally, Hollywood John Cena is 4 LIFE…
Will Pruett writes about wrestling and popular culture at prowrestling.net. Of interest to him are diversity in wrestling and wrestling as a theatrical art form. To see his video content subscribe to his YouTube channel. To contact, check him out on Twitter @itswilltime, leave a comment, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.