The absence of professional sports in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak has left a pretty sizeable void in the world. An unassuming beneficiary of those shutdowns has been World Wrestling Entertainment. Despite performing in front of empty arenas, they and their competitors are the one mass live entertainment enterprise still producing new live content. Any WWE fan and even casual observers can tell you that the entire wrestling calendar revolves around Wrestlemania. The annual April mega show is not just a WWE showcase. It also serves as a central hub of all things wrestling, hosting multiple indie shows, podcasts, interviews and more. In fact, per capita it makes about as much as The Super Bowl and World Series.
But even Wrestlemania couldn’t avoid the touch of the coronavirus. An event that brings in upwards of 80,000 fans in the largest arenas in the country was reduced to an empty gym at the WWE Performance Center in Florida. It’s strange to think that a medium so dependent on a live crowd reaction could still work, but somehow WWE pulled it off. It wasn’t always pretty, easy, or what you expected (we’re going to dive DEEP on the Firefly Fun House match), but it did what it was supposed to and managed to give us legit Wrestlemania moments in the strangest circumstances we’ll ever see. So let’s break down both jam-packed nights of the showcase of the immortals!
Cesaro v. Drew Gulak (Kickoff Show): The kickoff show matches have a track record of being beyond inconsequential but this one did pretty good. Gulak is one of the quickly rising talents in WWE and Cesaro has never ceased to be one of the very best in-ring competitors. This was as good as you would expect but just too short to really get going. Still, seeing Cesaro hit a no arms airplane for the win is immensely worth it.
Women’s Tag Team Championship – The Kabuki Warriors (c) v. Alexa Bliss & Nikki Cross: Just never let it be forgotten that Asuak and Kairi Sane are pure, straight-A gold. They need more legit runs right the damn now. And this match is a good example of why as even in defeat at the hands of a more than game and hard-hitting Bliss and Cross, they showed that genuine star power IN THE RING that so few wrestlers can do nowadays. Bliss and Cross will be good champs but Vince and company need to commit to this title because the women’s division continues to be the best thing WWE has right now.
King Corbin v. Elias: If you watched the go-home edition of SmackDown, you saw Elias get thrown 25 feet onto a concrete floor. Corbin, who continues to be the main SD heel despite never winning anymore, was rightfully gloating to the tune of Elias not showing up. But a new tune strummed through the center, and Elias showed up with a huge guitar shot to Corbin’s back. What followed was fine but entirely too long for a match with a literal 2-week build. Elias got the roll up win with the heel move of pulling the tights, which feels about right for a match that went on too long.
Raw Women’s Championship – Becky Lynch (c) v. Shayna Baszler: Oh WWE, what are we doing here? There’s a phenomenon among WWE fans that when a superstar seems unbeatable, they then become very unlikeable. This is the Hogan/Cena/Reigns effect (though I take issue particularly with the last name there) and I really hope if doesn’t happen to Becky Lynch. The Man is one of the best in the business right now but they seem to be reducing her mic time and increasing her acerbicness. Thus enter NXT force of nature Shayna Baszler. Baszler, a real-life MMA champion, dominated the women’s division of NXT for over a year and made a huge statement at Survivor Series last year beating Lynch and Bayley. They’ve since set her up as the unstoppable force coming to wreck Lynch who has held the title for a full year. And for much of this match it looked that way. These two really went all-out in a physical affair that made them both look tough as nails. But it was ultimately an out-of-nowhere roll up from a Kirafuta Clutch. I was genuinely shocked that WWE forewent the obvious Rocky 3 storyline before them and I’m more than a little skeptical as to whether the top brass know what they have in Shayna and trust her with the reigns. This match clearly makes it seem like they do not.
Intercontinental Championship – Sami Zayn (c) v. Daniel Bryan: Dear God have we missed Sami Zayn or what? Injuries have kept him out of the ring for so long that it was genuinely shocking to see him beat Braun Strowman for the IC title last month. This match told a predictably fun story with Zayn doing the typical heel avoidance and getting help from the Artist Collective. It was ultimately a fantastic looking Helluva Kick as Bryan came off the top turnbuckle that got the win for Zayn. Don’t get me wrong, this match was fun but they need to let these two seriously cut loose with their elite skills in the ring eventually. It was weird to think Bryan wouldn’t win but more Sami in the ring is desperately what we need right now.
SmackDown Tag Team Championship – John Morrison (c ) v. Kofi Kingston v. Jimmy Uso (Ladder Match): Ladder matches are by nature meant for big crowds to react to the crazy bumps the competitors take. This tag team match was reduced to one representative from each team after co-champion The Miz came down with flu-like symptoms. And despite the lack of crowd, these 3 reliably awesome performers put it ALL out there. Morrison tight-roped the top rope into a Spanish Fly and pulled a corkscrew onto a rope-propped ladder. Kingston and Uso were flying ALL over the place and all had their A-game. Some have criticized the ending with Morrison falling off a ladder nearly knocked out with the belts to retain, but at least it was original. This match easily would have stolen the entire show if not for the last match of the night.
24/7 Championship: Technically we do have to list this one here. As host Rob Gronkowski and best friend Mojo Rawley did a segment, champ R-Truth asked for them to let him hide. Instead, Gronk attempted to take the belt after a cheap shot only to have Mojo break it up and get the pin himself to capture the belt. What can I say? Sometimes you just want the shenanigans.
Kevin Owens v. Seth Rollins: This feud was building pretty well since about the Royal Rumble. Owens had been beat down multiple times by the Messiah’s crew while also getting some licks in himself. The match was perfectly fine until it looked like we were getting a standard DQ finish after Rollins smashed the ring-bell over Owens’ head. After the ref called the DQ, Owens got on the mic and demanded a no-DQ match to continue. The brutality built to a crescendo with Owens taking a death-defying and show stopping plunge off the WrestleMania sign driving his elbow into Rollins’ chest. A stunner later in the middle of the ring and Owens was the victor. It’s going to be fascinating to see where these two go from here. Rollins has some serious heel heat working and I’m hoping this loss makes him even more vicious in the coming weeks.
Universal Championship – Goldberg (c) v. Braun Strowman: Look, Goldberg matches come with an over-under line of 2 minutes max. Strowman was a last minute replacement for Roman Reigns as he pulled himself out among concern for his health with the COVID-19 outbreak. As with the disastrous Fiend match in Saudi Arabia, Goldberg hit his spears early and often. Strowman kicked out convincingly each time and when Goldberg went for the Jackhammer (which would have never worked), Strowman hit 4 straight power slams to pin the champ and capture his first ever world championship. It’s surprising that they would finally pull the trigger on Braun this late into his run, but it might have just been the only lever to pull with Goldberg famously never sticking around for long anymore.
The Undertaker v. AJ Styles (Boneyard Match): This match was just freaking fantastic. When the rumors of a cinematically filmed match was confirmed, speculation swirled as to whether or not this was going to be a disaster or just what the doctor ordered as a change of pace for empty arena wrestling. Man was it so deliciously b-movie fun. There are too many awesome bits to name. Styles’ psych-out entrance, the Undertaker’s Mortal Kombat-esque lower third, the freaking druid horde, Taker’s teleportation and fire-summoning powers, and the freaking gloved hand! This match was the most delicious junk food you can think of and, quite honestly, WWE may have stumbled onto something here as a legit answer for the empty arenas we currently see. The filming was great, the banter was funny and menacing, and Taker riding off victorious was everything we wanted from our final match of Night 1. This match is pure wrestling goody gold.
Liv Morgan v. Natalya (Kickoff Show): Again, a solid if unspectacular bout. The finale was the best part as Natalya’s sharpshooter was countered into a pin setting off a string of pretty great pinning counters topped off by the ever more popular roll-up finish to give Morgan the win. Morgan has shown quite a deal of moxy since returning from injury and here’s hoping this propels her forward in the women’s division.
NXT Women’s Championship – Rhea Ripley (c) v. Charlotte Flair: Man oh man did these two beat the living hell out of each other. This is the first time an NXT title was defended on the grandest stage and it did not disappoint. This match lasted nearly 30 minutes and carried a frantic pace the entire time that easily made you forget about no crowd being there. In many ways it was reminiscent of the New Japan style of more physical wrestling. Ultimately Flair would continually wear down Ripley’s knee for a submission tap out to the Figure 8 leg lock. There literally was no squashing one or the other here. It was a stand-out of the weekend. However one has to wonder why the big show decided to give the standard bearers from NXT losses their first time out when they are arguably two of the most popular superstars on the roster.
Aleister Black v. Bobby Lashley: Count this one as the match no one wanted and was needed because of so many COVID-19 related cancellations. The match was fine. It didn’t go on too long, the right person won as Black landed a devastating Black Mass heel kick off of a missed spear from Lashley, and we’ve now set up the inevitable break-up of Lana and Lashley. So, cool that we invested months in building that romance. Cool.
Otis v. Dolph Ziggler: In a very strange way, this has been the most over program on SmackDown since the beginning of the year. Otis’ big-guy-but-sweet likability has always been the main appeal of Heavy Machinery and putting him in what equates to a high school dating drama has been surprisingly engrossing. And it helps immensely when you have someone as good as Ziggler playing the heel. The match was a decent back-and-forth until Mandy Rose came out to smack the literal taste out of former best friend Sonya Deville’s mouth and give her ex-boyfriend Ziggler a giant uppercut to the nether regions. This let Otis hit the Caterpillar for the pin and ultimately carry Mandy off into the sunset complete with a kiss to boot! This was just fun to see the underdog get the girl!
Edge v. Randy Orton (Last Man Standing Match): These matches are hard to pull off in any circumstance. Many fans don’t like them by virtue of how long they have to go. And that is the defining characteristic of this match. At 37 minutes, it’s the second longest match in WrestleMania history (behind only the 60-minute timed Iron Man match from WrestleMania 12) and it felt it. The build with this feud starting with Edge’s insanely improbably comeback from a 9-year injury-caused retirement at the Royal Rumble and Orton’s subsequent attack the next night has been fantastic. But the match just didn’t quite live up to it. The brutality you would have expected didn’t quite land and even though they made the most of the environment by battling all over the Performance Center, the length simply took the air out of the place. Edge ultimately scored the victory after giving Orton a spear and his new chokehold submission on top of a semi truck. But it was the vicious con-chair-to shot that ultimately ended it. Going to be interesting to see if this is really the end of this feud.
24/7 Championship: Yeah you’re reading that right. Why do one 24/7 match when you can do 2?! As Gronk was doing a hosting segment from the perch Mojo runs to the ring chased by a dozen bodies wanting his title. As they all brawl under the perch, Gronk takes a dive into them and pins his best friend for the title. He then bolts leaving hosting duties to Worldwide Titus O’Neill for the rest of the night. I mean…. Cool.
Raw Tag Team Championships – The Street Profits (c) v. Angel Garza & Austin Theory: No match on the card was as snake-bitten by COVID-19 as this one. What was looking like a 4-way for the US Title between Garza, Andrade, Carillo and Mysterio turned into this mish-mash of a tag team bout. Don’t get me wrong, the action was good and anything to get more of Garza and Theory is a good thing. However the best part of the match was Bianca Belair making her official debut to the RAW roster and trust me when I tell you she is going to absolutely slay on the big show. As for this match, the Profits retained in the most easy call of the night.
SmackDown Women’s Championship – Bayley (c) v. Sasha Banks v. Lacey Evans v. Tamina v. Naomi: This match had a lot of potential in the lead-up but we were all waiting for the inevitable Bayley v. Sasha part of the match as the friends would be forced to fight. That didn’t exactly happen as we thought as Sasha was inadvertently pulled into a running knee by Bayley in the corner. As the two argued, Bayley pushed Banks away from an oncoming attack from Evans but the subsequent dodge also led to Banks suffering the Women’s Right for the pin; watched by Bayley without interfering. The rift seemed to be sunk in but Banks later returned with a Backstabber to Evans and set up Bayley for the win. Still, even though they celebrated together, it’s clear a rift is going to grow and the subsequent match series should be seriously fun to watch.
John Cena v. “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt (Firefly FunHouse Match): Let me be clear; this “match” is a damn masterpiece. What Wyatt and Cena put together here was something you so rarely see from WWE: true introspection. Sure you need to know some of the “inside baseball” stories of WWE for the past 18 years to truly understand all of it but when you do, the brilliance is undeniable. On a surface level, this is another cinematic experience match that bests the Boneyard for originality and bravery. As you delve deeper, you see critiques of Cena’s entire career from his “ruthless aggression” debut to his Doctor of Thuganomics heel run and into his “super Cena” run that soured him with many fans. This was a deep character deconstruction of the Cena persona that might actually give us the Cena heel turn we’ve been wanting for more than a decade. But even more than Cena, this is also a critique of WWE as a whole and how talents like Wyatt who don’t or didn’t meet Vince McMahon’s standard of a “champion” were continuously passed up in favor of those less talented. Wyatt has always been, as he put it, “the color red in a world of black and white” and the fact that he gets to air those grievances in this way is truly remarkable and cathartic for all of us. That Cena was willing to go with this shows that even though he’s always had to play the Hogan hero character, he understands that mistakes came from that. There’s way more that can be written about this match (and I plan to) but given how the WWE brass buried The Fiend for Saudi Arabia blood money at Super Showdown, giving Bray this showcase over the standard-bearer for the last 15 years in the company is a great showing that they understand he’s doing something far beyond simple wrestling storylines. This match is a wonder to behold and demands repeat viewings to fully catch everything going on. Standing ovation to everyone involved.
WWE Championship – Brock Lesnar (c) v. Drew McIntyre: There is nothing that saddens me more about the lack of fans at WrestleMania than this match. McIntyre’s journey to the top has been one for the ages. A prodigy as a 21-year old in the company, being fired for lack of passion, going back to his indie-wrestling roots and working his way back up (even going through NXT when he probably didn’t have to) and finally being one of the best performers at the top level upon his return. In all of that time, Drew never got a shot at the title. Then came the awesome performance at the Royal Rumble and we were all set to build a new superstar. The match was basically the same as the Goldberg-Strowman match with each of them trading finishers until McIntyre somehow kicked out of three F-5’s! Three Claymore Kicks later and we have our new WWE Champion. Drew deserved to do this with the pop of tens of thousands of fans cheering for him, but for someone who has strived for so long to reach the top, I’m sure it’s not as big a deal as it is to us. For now, WWE has a fantastic champion that should go on a very lengthy run and should be established in the upper echelon for many years to come. Here’s a massive “cheers” to the first UK champion in WWE history. Long may he reign!