WrestleMania is the highlight of the WWE calendar every year. The show is typically a culmination of month-long feuds and often the setting for iconic moments that even non-wrestling fans can likely recognize. Hulk Hogan body slamming Andre the Giant? WrestleMania III at the Pontiac Silverdome. The iconic scene of Ultimate Warrior rushing to the ring in a surprise return? WrestleMania VIII at Indianapolis’ Hoosier Dome. The icon vs. icon match clashing generational talents in The Rock and Hulk Hogan? Wrestlemania XVIII at Toronto’s SkyDome.
Moments like these are what keep wrestling fans returning for more. Over time, the scale of this show has drastically changed. Instead of being held in basketball arenas, the Showcase of the Immortals has moved to football stadiums. Staging, lighting, pyrotechnics, and video screens have made each of the thirty-five WrestleMania events bigger and shinier. Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida was the venue for WrestleMania 36. Given the circumstances impacting our country, and many others around the world, plans have changed.
WWE superstars will not be performing in front of tens of thousands of fans in a football stadium this year. In fact, by the time the first part of WrestleMania 36 aired on Saturday, April 4th, most WWE employees were likely watching the show from the same place that most fans watched – their respective homes.
In a controversial announcement, Vince McMahon, WWE’s CEO, declared that WrestleMania would not be canceled this year. Instead, the show would be pre-taped at WWE’s performance center in Orlando, Florida and air over the course of two nights on April 4th and 5th. While essentially every other form of live entertainment, ranging from sports to concerts, has been canceled or postponed, the WWE took a different path.
This could not have been an easy decision. As appreciative as fans are for having some form of entertainment on a weekend where most people in America are being asked to stay home and socially distance, concern over the well-being of anyone involved in this production was certainly not absent. This was best highlighted by Roman Reigns, one of the company’s biggest superstars. He was scheduled to main event the show and yet decided to back out citing health concerns.
With or without a star, the show would go on. Part 1 aired on the evening of April 4th. How did it go?
Review of Day 1?
The WWE was in a unique position to make WrestleMania 36 an unforgettable experience. The absence of fans is impossible to ignore. The outstanding feats of athleticism displayed by performers are not properly rewarded without the roar of a crowd. On the other hand, that same lack of a live performance opened the doors for the matches to take place in unique settings and timelines.
The opening of the show capitalized on that opportunity. America the Beautiful is traditionally the opening scene to any WrestleMania. Instead of having a live performance, this show opened by presenting a package highlighting many artists who have traditionally performed the opening over the course of the past 35 years at this event.
Following that video sequence, a reel resembling a Pirates of the Caribbean movie trailer opened the show and led to this year’s WrestleMania host…. Rob Gronkowski! WWE’s newest acquisition exuded energy and did his best to continue the hype that the previous video package started. This would pretty much be all that we would see from him tonight.
The first three matches did nothing to capitalize on the benefits associated with pre-recording and all started and ended relatively quickly. Titles were disputed with no particular pop because of the audience’s absence. It seemed that the goal was to get through these bouts as quickly as possible. Superstars were in and out of the ring with little time for even a quick restroom break for the viewers.
The fourth match added some entertainment with ladders providing avenues for creative acts on behalf of the superstars. John Morrison, Kofi Kingston, and Jimmy Uso certainly made this a match to remember, despite a finish in which Morrison retained the titles awkwardly. This was followed by two more matches that, other than a high-flying landing from Kevin Owens, left much to be desired.
The very last bout featured AJ Styles and the Undertaker in a Boneyard match. The WWE had teased the use of cinematics leading up to this event. That is precisely what this final match of the night demonstrated – albeit, poorly. WWE is an entertainment company, but they are certainly far from being heralded as a movie production studio. The video was comical, but it was a brave attempt at something innovative in uncertain times.
That wrapped up day 1 of WrestleMania 36. This will certainly not go down among the best of its kind, but it was entertainment at a time when that is lacking. It was a 3-hour escape from grim news. It was the WWE doing precisely what the WWE does best, keep the show going. And it will do it again tomorrow.