WrestleMania 36 review: Against all odds in front of no fans, WWE puts on two near-perfect shows
What if I told you that WWE would have to put on WrestleMania, their biggest show of the year usually held in a jam-packed arena or football stadium, in their own Performance Center in front of zero fans due to a global health pandemic?
And, what if I told you that, with their backs completely against the wall, WWE’s higher-ups could put together a show that took fans away from all of their troubles in the world for three hours on not one, but two separate occasions over the span of an entire weekend?
Well, that’s exactly what WWE was able to do when it came to WrestleMania 36, and for that, WWE deserves the ultimate kudos.
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From the start, WWE decided against avoiding the elephant in the room, and instead addressed it head-on. After an incredible, edited rendition of “America The Beautiful” featuring footage from decades of WrestleMania’s past, WWE’s Chief Branding Officer Stephanie McMahon popped onto the screen to address the event’s circumstances.
“Each WrestleMania has its own personality, and has been different from the rest,” McMahon explained. “Tonight and tomorrow’s WrestleMania will be the most different of all.”
McMahon explained that the event should serve as an escape from all of the trouble’s in today’s world amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and somehow, WWE was able to allow fans to do just that with the matches put on during both Saturday and Sunday’s portions of the worldwide event.
The weekend got off to a slower start than many may have wanted, as Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross defeated the Kabuki Warriors to win the WWE Women’s Tag Team Championships in the event’s opening match. Then, things slowed down a little more as Elias took out King Corbin in unimpressive fashion.
From there, business picked up in a big way, with the RAW Women’s Championship match kicking off what would turn into a classic night of wrestling.
RAW Women’s Champion Becky Lynch and Shayna Baszler took the stage with a big-fight feel, which makes sense given Lynch’s status as a former WrestleMania main-eventer, and Baszler’s experience as a cagefighter. The two went back-and-forth with some brutal strikes and a flurry of submission attempts, with Lynch eventually reversing Baszler’s Kirifuda clutch into a pin to retain her title.
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Then, Intercontinental Champion Sami Zayn squared off with Daniel Bryan in a match where Zayn got off very minimal physical offense, instead rolling with a battle of the minds. One simple mistake on Bryan’s part, and some interference from Zayn’s friends Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura, allowed Zayn to pick up the win in typical heel fashion. While it wasn’t the wrestling classic that fans may have hoped for, the storytelling elements were perfect, and kept things interesting for potential future matches.
In arguably the match of the night (as far as battles inside of the ring are concerned), the SmackDown Tag Team Championships were defended in unique fashion, with champion John Morrison battling Kofi Kingston and Jimmy Uso in a ladder match. While it may have seemed weird to have the tag team titles defended in solo fashion, along with the idea of a big-spot ladder match with no fans to build up anticipation or excitement, the three put on a WrestleMania classic despite the circumstances.
Each participant had their chance to shine, with Morrison showcasing his sheer athleticism, Kingston confirming his usual creativity and Uso adding in his own flair. In the end, Morrison won in a unique finish, falling off the ladder while simultaneously ripping the two titles off of their rig in what had turned into a game of “Tug o’ War” between the trio. It was a refreshing change of pace from both the previous four matches of the main card, and the ladder match genre as a whole.
In a forgettable moment, Mojo Rawley and WrestleMania host Rob Gronkowski found themselves in the midst of an impromptu battle for the 24/7 Championship, with Rawley taking out R-Truth to win the belt, much to Gronk’s chagrin.
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Back to the action in the ring, it was time for Kevin Owens to finally get his hands on the “Monday Night Messiah” Seth Rollins. The two highlighted why they’re considered two of the best that WWE has to offer with some impressive back-and-forth wrestling to give each man their own spotlight. With no fans in attendance, both were able to demonstrate their verbal prowess, as well, adding another element to the intensity of the match.
The encounter initially ended with Rollins triggering a disqualification by bashing Owens with the ring bell, but K.O. wasn’t willing to let Rollins off that easily.
Owens laid down the challenge for Rollins to head back to the ring to continue the match with no disqualifications, and the two got a little more physical as a result. Owens then used the same ring bell to change the tide in the match, eventually laying Rollins out on the announcer’s table in the process.
While Rollins remained sprawled out on the table, Owens scaled the Performance Center’s WrestleMania set, and provided a true WrestleMania moment by jumping off and crashing into Rollins’ chest. And, just a Stunner later, Owens was able to secure the pinfall and take home the win.
In one of the less-impressive matches of the weekend, Universal Champion Goldberg defended his title against the replacement for his original opponent Roman Reigns: Braun Strowman.
Four spears from Goldberg here and four powerslams from Strowman there was all it took for the latter to win the match, taking home the Universal Championship for the first time in his career. With no crowd to react to any of the match’s eight spots, it failed to strike a chord with anyone watching at home, and could be considered the most forgettable Universal Championship match in the belt’s existence.
Last but certainly not least, it was time for the “Boneyard Match” between The Undertaker and AJ Styles. Once Stephanie McMahon made the point during her intro that some matches would take place on some other closed sets, fans knew that this bout would turn into the equivalent of an action movie. And boy, did it deliver.
From Styles’ entrance in a casket inside of a hearse to ‘Taker flashing back to his “American Badass” days with his motorcycle entrance, everything about the match’s beginning was just what the audience needed.
A common thought among WWE fans on social media after the match rings true here: The Undertaker + Video Editing = Absolute. Magic.
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That equation was all WWE needed to bring back the mystique that made The Undertaker into a legend over the last three decades. ‘Taker looked tough and brutal, even at 55 years old, and Styles played it all well on his end to add to the experience.
Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows’ presence helped to add some more chaos, and made The Undertaker’s journey throughout the match that much better. He hit Anderson with a Tombstone on a barn roof, he threw Gallows off of said roof, and chokeslammed Styles off the roof and into a pile of wood, turning The Deadman back into what fans were used to before the end of The Streak at WrestleMania 30.
Taker, after listening to Styles’ begging and convincing The Phenomenal One that he wouldn’t be buried, eventually kicked his opponent into an empty grave before filling it with a tractor full of dirt to “win” the match.
While the match was undoubtedly corny and nothing fans were used to seeing on WWE television, it delivered in a big way, and provided the entertainment that fans were looking for when they turned on the first night of WrestleMania 36.
Onto the second night, WWE got right into the nitty-gritty with the NXT Championship match between titleholder Rhea Ripley and challenger Charlotte Flair.
The match was full of intensity, great storytelling with Flair’s attack on Ripley’s knee, and Ripley’s varied offense on Flair throughout the match. But, The Queen was able to take advantage of Ripley’s damaged leg, and locked in the Figure Eight to take home the NXT Women’s Championship for the second time in her career, seven years to the day of the title’s introduction on WWE television.
In a bit of a filler match, Aleister Black picked up a solid win over “The Almighty” Bobby Lashley, showcasing his unique offense throughout the match with some high-flying shots, some brutal kicks, and finishing things off with a Black Mass kick to earn the victory. On a side note, it’s unfortunate WWE wasn’t able to highlight Black’s unique entrance in front of a sold-out crowd in a football stadium.
Next up, in one of the weirder storylines of the weekend, Heavy Machinery’s Otis squared off with Dolph Ziggler, with the former looking for revenge on the latter for thwarting a Valentine’s Day date with Mandy Rose. The match wasn’t anything special by any means, but the finish with Mandy Rose slapping her former best friend, Sonya Deville, and delivering a low-blow to Ziggler to give Otis the win was a fun part of the night.
After the match, Otis got his WrestleMania moment, sealing the victory with a kiss from Mandy Rose as the two rode off into the sunset in Orlando.
In one of the more highly-anticipated matches of the weekend, Edge made his singles return in a Last Man Standing match against Randy Orton. With no fans to worry about, the two took their rivalry across the entire Performance Center, battling in the weight room, offices, storage areas, and even on top of a semi truck. Edge showcased some creativity in his return to “in-ring” action, dangling off of a mini cage on an office ceiling to deliver an elbow drop, and hitting a spear on top of the truck to avoid an Orton punt.
The finish, after what seemed like an eternity of wrestling, came when Edge knocked Orton out with an arm-triangle choke on top of the truck before smashing Orton’s head with a Con-Char-To to take Orton out for the necessary 10-count.
Unfortunately, the match took far too long for an event with no fans or crowd reactions, and likely could’ve succeeded more without some of the transitional action between different areas of the Performance Center. It was one of the more hyped-up matches of the weekend, and that may have led to most of the disappointment in the long run.
The next two matches seemed to fly by after the Edge-Orton epic, with Rob Gronkowski getting in on some physical action by jumped onto a crowd of wrestlers vying for Mojo Rawley’s 24/7 Championship. The former Patriots tight end pinned his friend Rawley for the title, and ran off away from his hosting duties to ensure he left WrestleMania with some WWE gold around his waist.
The Street Profits then successfully defended their RAW Tag Team Championships against Angel Garza and NXT standout Austin Theory, with Bianca Belair making the run-in save during a post-match beatdown from Garza, Theory, and manager Zelina Vega. Had Andrade been involved in the match rather than Theory, this match may have had a larger spotlight shining on it.
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Before the big guns came out for the final two matches of the night, the SmackDown Women’s Championship was defended in a solid five-women match between champion Bayley, Sasha Banks, Lacey Evans, Naomi and Tamina. The match inevitably came down to Bayley, Banks and Evans, with a tease at the potential end of Bayley and Banks’ friendship before Evans knocked out Banks with the “Women’s Right.” In the end, Banks helped her friend successfully defend the title, interfering to take out Evans in Bayley’s benefit.
Now, into the real meat on Sunday night’s bones, John Cena took on “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt in a “Firefly Funhouse Match.” What is that match, you may ask? Somehow, Wyatt turned it into a match between Cena and, wait for it, Cena himself.
Similar to the “Boneyard Match” between The Undertaker and AJ Styles, the match was filmed in a cinematic fashion, with Cena entering into the Firefly Funhouse to face off against his biggest fears and failures.
Wyatt took Cena and fans back to June 27, 2002, mirroring Cena’s debut against Kurt Angle, but flipping the script as if Cena failed in his monumental debut. Wyatt, acting as Angle, continuously ducked Cena’s notorious slap that shocked Angle almost 18 years ago, and even took a shot at his failed marriage with Nikki Bella by singing “You Can Look But You Can’t Touch,” the tune of Bella’s WWE theme song.
Then, comparing Cena to the muscle-heads of the WWE’s olden days from the Saturday Night’s Main Event era, Wyatt busted out an old-school promo, with Cena as his “tag-team partner,” nonstop pumping iron until his arms wouldn’t work anymore. It compared Cena to Hulk Hogan, with Wyatt saying wrestlers in that era would get by with their looks rather than any single ounce of wrestling talent in their bodies.
Flashing back again, but this time forward to 2004, Cena went back to his “Doctor of Thuganomics” gimmick, speaking only in rhymes as he insulted Wyatt and his failed stint as “Husky Harris” at the beginning of Wyatt’s initial WWE run.
Wyatt called Cena out for being a bully, and gave him the chance to say a final word after being confronted, with Cena instead resorting back to rapping insults.
Then, Wyatt brought himself back to the past, resorting to his initial “Bray Wyatt” character that lost to Cena at WrestleMania 30. He accused Cena of lying about giving the fans what they want, considering the immense support Wyatt had from the fans in Louisiana on that night six years ago, and gave Cena the opportunity to reverse a decision not to use a steel chair to “finish” him when he initially had the chance.
Cena goes to swing the chair and right his wrong, only to see that he swung at the air before Wyatt brought fans back to another old-school style event.
Wyatt channeled the NWO days, reenacting the promo when Eric Bischoff introduced Hollywood Hulk Hogan to the WCW fans. In this instance, Cena channeled the heel version of Hogan, and came down to the ring as a member of the NWO before spearing Wyatt to the ground.
As Cena pounded on what he believed was Wyatt, it transitioned into Cena beating down one of Wyatt’s Funhouse dolls, while “The Fiend” finally showed up behind Cena.
“The Fiend” dropped Cena with the Mandible Claw, and after knocking Cena out cold, Bray Wyatt counted the pin to give “The Fiend” the win after Cena’s whirlwind journey through his worst nightmares.
As wild and weird as the match itself was, it was exactly what the night needed. It took fans away from everything going on in the world, and immersed them in this alternate wrestling universe for 20 minutes with two of the best talents the company has to offer: Bray Wyatt and John Cena.
It had digs at Cena, Wyatt, and even Vince McMahon himself, and brought old-school fans back to the golden days in the most unique way possible. It was arguably the best thing fans saw all weekend, and likely wouldn’t have happened had the event gone on as planned in front of a sold-out crowd in Tampa.
Continuing on the positive trend, fans were treated to a hell of a WrestleMania main event, with Drew McIntyre challenging Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship.
Many thought the match would go by quickly, given Lesnar’s track record as it relates to his title defenses, and the match met fans’ expectations with some fast and furious offense. Lesnar hit McIntyre with numerous F-5’s, with the Scottish Psychopath kicking out at one on the first occasion and two on the second.
Eventually, McIntyre was able to reverse Lesnar’s finishing move, and hit several Claymore Kicks to take down the champion and win his first world title in his WWE career.
It was the perfect redemption story to cap off an incredible match, night and weekend as a whole. It had the intensity to match the buildup from the last two-and-a-half months since McIntyre’s Royal Rumble win, and gave the ultimate rub from WWE’s “Beast Incarnate” to the company’s next big thing.
All in all, it told the story of the weekend: Something you may not have expected to ever happen if someone told you about it a few years in advance, but delivering in the best way when the time came.
The entire weekend was up in the air a few weeks back as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to gain steam, just like McIntyre’s career was a few years ago before his run on the indie scene earned him some popularity and respect. However, when the time came for WWE (and McIntyre) to put up or shut up, they ran with the former and knocked it completely out of the park.
For a total of almost eight hours spanning two nights, WWE did exactly what it’s meant to do. It allowed fans to escape reality and enjoy something that makes them feel like a kid, whether they’re a 10-year-old watching their idols, or a 40-year-old flashing back to when they were a teenager.
It was the perfect style of event and mix of wrestling and art to keep fans entertained, even when they were stuck at home rather than packed into tens of thousands of seats in a football stadium where the Buccaneers play.
In the end, it was a near-perfect show that defied everything that fans could have expected coming in, and WWE deserves a lot of credit for putting on such a beautiful event in the midst of worldwide uncertainty. With that, there’s only two things left to say: “Bravo” and “Thank you.”
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