By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Despite what you might think. Despite the relative comfort you feel leaving your house to go to the grocery store. Despite how fed up and tired you are of wearing a mask. Despite how the issue has been politicized, marking to many the difference between Republican and Democratic beliefs. Despite it being the holiday season. Despite what any of us actually want to admit out loud.
COVID-19 is still here.
In fact, it’s so still here, that us Americans are in the middle of yet another wave that many experts are saying could be the worst of them all. And it comes at an inopportune time, considering how Thanksgiving is only a handful of days away and Christmas is right around the corner. Then, of course, there are those struggling with unemployment, an economy that’s having a tough time as it is …
Wait, this is a professional wrestling website, isn’t it?
Right. So, I’ll get to it. Of the many ways both the entertainment and sports industries have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing in particular stuck in my mind as the finale of this year’s Survivor Series went down: We’ll never get back these moments we lost as a result of this ongoing pandemic.
And that issue, believe it or not, is a bit more unique in the wild world of professional wrestling than it is in other sports. Think about it. At this point, the difference between watching a football game on television last weekend and watching a football game on television in 2019 isn’t all that much. The crowd noise is there. Most players don’t wear masks when they peruse the sidelines. The referees still look like robots. Shoot. In some instances, they are letting so many people into the stadiums that you’d be hard pressed to find a distinctive difference between sports consumption pre-pandemic and sports consumption now.
That’s a little different in professional wrestling. Kudos to WWE for trying to create … something … that felt fresh with the ThunderDome. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, I can personally attest to the safety protocols AEW has in place for its very limited capacity live events, which have their own unique aesthetic on television as well.
But as the Undertaker took the ring to close out 2020’s Survivor Series Sunday night, I couldn’t shake a very specific feeling that has been running through my blood while watching wrestling for the last eight months or so. That feeling?
They’re wasting this.
Don’t get me wrong. WWE did the best they could to compensate for the lack of real fans in the building, but there’s no denying that the atmosphere would have been nothing short of electric if there were 25,000 screaming fans refusing to stop a “Thank you Taker” chant 10 minutes after the show went off the air. Then we’d see the raw footage somewhere on YouTube from a guy in the top row recording it on his phone. Then we’d get chills. Then we’d be reminded of why professional wrestling is so important to us.
Not so in this era of social distancing and mask-wearing. And so, while the WWE sets out to transport its ThunderDome to The Trop next month, and dreams of being able to check out a big-time professional wrestling event live and in color in our hometowns may be further away than any of us want to admit, I thought it might be prudent to take a look at how everything stacks up in the pandemic era of pro wrestling as we move forward, all the while looking back.
Because if you really take a second to think about all the moments we were forced to consume from the comfort of our couches – without the luxury of a live crowd to communicate how special some of these moments feel in the flesh – you might start throwing even more curses at this unforgiving virus. And with most of the country reenforcing travel and social restrictions while COVID-19 cases rise with more fervor than ever, it’s about time we admit that at best, we are most likely only halfway home on this thing, even as chatter about vaccines dominates the news every night.
So, let’s take a look at the scorecard for the last several months. And let’s hope that it won’t be too, too long before we can talk about “the pandemic era” or “the empty venue era” in past-tense.
While I can confidently admit that I am a lot of things, an optimist, I am not. Still, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take at least one second to point out how the wrestling industry shutting down may very well have just helped elevate some of those who needed help being elevated before this whole thing started.
Take the NWA. Are we to believe the NWA Women’s Championship would be defended on AEW television in 2020 without the pandemic forcing things to shut down? That’s tough to answer. Thunder Rosa and Serena Deeb, in particular, are making the most of their shot on cable TV, with the former becoming one of the hottest names in women’s wrestling while the latter enjoys a much-deserved resurgence of notoriety in her in-ring career.
Then, of course, you have the cinematic matches, which, in my mind at least, are fairly hit or miss. Still, it allowed Undertaker to have a solid farewell fight without the risk of going all Saudi Arabia or WrestleMania 33 on his complicated and strung-out goodbye tour, and while it wasn’t for everybody, you can count me in the minority of those who enjoyed the John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt acid trip, the Stadium Stampede spectacle, and even the Matt Hardy vs. Sammy Guevara mess at AEW’s Full Gear. I hope we don’t see these with any semblance of regularity once the world gets back to normal, but for now, they have provided intriguing distractions.
Finally, the releases. No, I’m never happy when anyone loses a job, and yes, this element will be featured in multiple sections here for obvious reasons. But in all, the pandemic forced WWE – despite what you believe about how bogus it was that they had to lay anyone off at all – to let go of some talent that, for a long time, we all rooted to see in other companies anyway. Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson received some adrenaline to kick-re-start their careers. Rusev (a/k/a Miro) got a wish he had been passive-aggressively clamoring for on social media. And EC3 is finally allowed to wrestle again.
Hey. Who said life doesn’t have silver linings? Wait. We haven’t gotten to the other side yet …
The most obvious one here is the loss of jobs for so many employees, both in the back and in front of the camera. And that’s just talking about WWE – think about all the smaller and/or indie promotions who had to shut down completely. There was a time, much like in the music industry, when you didn’t have to be a household name to make a legitimate living being a wrestler. With the pandemic, that lower in-between level has all but been eliminated, which, again much like the music industry, leaves a lot of very talented people without work.
Actually, those cuts, in a lot of ways, exposed one of the many dirty secrets about the upper-level professional wrestling business that we already knew anyway: Greed. Financially, WWE has never been doing better, and yet not only did they cut staff, but it’s not like you see them bringing in an inordinate influx of unknown talent to help keep people employed. And with the elimination of house shows and travel, why not give a shot to some workers who wouldn’t previously get a chance at the PC, if only to inject some youth into the roster?
Naturally, then, there is perhaps the biggest con for all of us at home, and that’s the inability to understand what’s actually working. The most obvious case-in-point comes in the form of something Jason Powell asks in his Raw reviews every now and then: Would the crowd be cheering Lana going through tables every week? Or is this supposed to be designed to make her a super babyface? We don’t know because there’s no crowd. The same conundrum resides in AEW with these odd turns from Kenny Omega (should we cheer or boo him?) and Cody, who essentially worked like a heel during his match at Full Gear with Darby Allin. Would full live crowds (1,000 people in a 10,000-seater is hardly a barometer) shape the way we consume these storyline changes at home?
And last, but definitely not least, are the moments to which I alluded before. As fans, we’ve been robbed of so much. But that leads me to …
WHAT WE MISSED
So, here’s the thing. I know I missed a lot of pros. I know I missed a lot of cons. In the spirit of hoping you don’t click elsewhere, I can’t go on and on because this is already long enough. Keep that in mind as we run down all the things that didn’t get the fanfare they deserved while the professional wrestling world continued to evolve through its stories, even if a global pandemic tried to change its mind.
First, the debut of Matt Hardy in AEW (yeah, remember that?). Imagine how loud of a pop Hardy would have received, coming back with his “Broken” persona, on AEW TV. Instead, all we got was a series of teleportations and a weird half-program with Chris Jericho. Ditto for Miro and FTR, the latter of which came with all the expectations in the world, considering their issues with being on WWE’s main roster and the prospect of a match with the Young Bucks. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to think that a full crowd reaction for the arrival of Miro would have helped him as he came into his own in AEW. At this point, he’s an afterthought.
WWE isn’t immune from any of this, either. Drew McIntyre was a fresh babyface that live crowds were really starting to get behind when he won his first WWE Championship from Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 36. Imagine a sold-out Raymond James Stadium going wild as he took down The Beast. The same goes for his win over Randy Orton last Monday, even if the ThunderDome is infinitely better than the empty Performance Center. And don’t forget Becky Lynch’s pregnancy announcement. Asuka’s reaction in the ring said it all: If crowds were there, a never-ending series of tears, cheers, and applause would have been unforgettable.
Those are just the big-time, bullet-point instances. Think about all the tinier moments that could have legitimately launched stars with a live crowd in the room. Remember when Otis won the Money In The Bank briefcase and we thought he was poised for a title run of some kind? How about the Bayley and Sasha Banks friendship that was the best thing on Smackdown for months before being blown off with barely a whisper? Oh, and don’t forget about Chris Jericho putting Orange Cassidy over; did that have the lasting effect for which AEW hoped? Then there’s Tully aligning with FTR, EC3’s short return to Impact before appearing on ROH TV without any fanfare this past week, the resurrection of Eric Young and his program with Rich Swann … the list is a lot longer than a lot of people think.
Now, how much of a role did the venue have in all of this? Glad you asked …
THE THUNDERDOME VS. DAILY’S PLACE
Before you get angry that I’m not including Impact or ROH tapings, please be reminded that they are one in the same: empty venues. New Japan Pro Wrestling has had crowds overseas, but they are also in a different stage of the pandemic than America is. When it comes down to the first two things that come to mind when considering this era of televised professional wrestling, that would be WWE’s ThunderDome and AEW’s residence for the bulk of 2020, Daily’s Place.
As I noted two weeks ago, I am of the belief that Daily’s Place will go down as a sort of ECW Arena for a new generation. Granted, there are reports that note how the company is struggling to sell tickets to its limited capacity tapings, but let’s be honest: If you live in Jacksonville, how many times can you see AEW live before you say enough is enough? And unless you’re as stupid and/or as crazy as I am, there probably aren’t many people driving from 1,000 miles away for a few hours of live wrestling.
Still – and even admitting that one venue has live people present while the other has approximately five trillion video screens substituting as fans – WWE gets the nod for creativity, while AEW should be lauded for its ability to safely pull their productions off (it’s actually a minor miracle that a fan outbreak directly related to Daily’s Place hasn’t been reported in all the months the company has been there).
Now, which is better? On television, the ThunderDome trick became old hat after, say, a month. In short, if WWE has had the arena to itself through all this, why couldn’t its production people throw up different designs for different shows? Watching Raw, Smackdown and Survivor Series – and noticing how each show ostensibly looks the same – doesn’t do anybody any favors. It was a cool concept, and I’m eager to see how it looks in Tampa, but for now, it needs a refresh.
As for Daily’s Place … well, on TV, I’ve never been a fan of it. In fact, I could never quite grasp what it was. Yes, I know it’s an amphitheater, and yes I know it’s not as big as other amphitheaters across the country, but was there anything impressive about it? Why is the stage used as the entrance ramp and why did they eliminate the pit for the sake of the wrestling ring? Granted, it’s probably because they didn’t really have any other choice, but I always kind of thought the scene looked a little generic.
Actually stepping foot inside it? That’s a different story. It’s impressive in a lot of ways, not only for its layout, but also for how close you are to the action, even if you have a bad seat. Even so, that’s not fair because no fans are stepping foot into the ThunderDome anytime soon, so I’m comparing apples and oranges, really. And ultimately, that leads us to …
We don’t know. Of course we don’t know. Word about WWE bringing back fans into the arena began like a month after the country shut down, and here we are, eight months later, and that doesn’t seem feasible in any way, any time soon. Daily’s Place upped its capacity for Full Gear, but with COVID-19 cases rising and ticket sales becoming more of a challenge, who’s to say Tony Khan won’t just shut the doors to outsiders for the time being sometime soon anyway?
What we do know is that as fans, we’ve missed out on a bunch of Big Wrestling Moments in 2020. Or, well, we’ve missed out on the ability for those big moments to feel bigger – and in some cases, as big as they frankly deserved to be. It’s the least of the world’s problems, as we continue to battle COVID-19 and the deadliest pandemic we’ve seen in ages, and I have full respect for that.
But with only five weeks left in the year, smart money says we’ll be looking back on 2020 in ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years as wrestling fans and wonder about what could have been postponed, what was rushed, and what, over all, could have been.