Wrestlemania 36: An Immediate Review
Updated: Aug 5, 2022
To a wholly silent ovation, Drew McIntyre emotionally held the WWE Championship aloft to bring the most bizarre Wrestlemania of all-time - yes, that includes the convoluted 3 venue set-up of Wrestlemania 2 - to a heart-warming close.
"Current circumstances" ensured that Wrestlemania 36 felt nothing like the 'Manias we have grown to know, and with the world in a global lockdown it is a miracle the event took place in the first place. It is safe to say the age-old wrestling adage of 'the show must go on' has never been more apt or pertinent.
In fact, one two sentence paragraph does not do that justice. At a time of worldwide anxiety, fear and apprehension the fact that WWE sought to continue to entertain its audience should be applauded. At a time where an escape from reality is needed, the chance to suspend your disbelief and get lost in the art of "sport's entertainment" should be seized with both hands (just remember to wash them after.)
Traditionally, Wrestlemania is an overblown, over-the-top and over-elaborate spectacle, complete with a large stadium audience and over-exuberant performer entrances. 'Mania draws on the emotions of its spectators to add to the grandiose and pompous nature of the event, showcasing its larger than life stars in a way befitting royalty. You could say this year's Showcase of the Immortals had a slightly different feel to it.
As events unfolded in the WWE Performance Center, there was an eerie silence throughout that was irregularly offset by the slapping of thighs and the hum of the ceiling fans. A surreal atmosphere that reminded this writer more of a school gym independent show than the biggest wrestling event on Earth. So, if an event that thrives on pageantry and spectacle is forced to call the most implausible of audibles, how does the WWE universe get the Wrestlemania they know and deserve?
Shrewdly, WWE didn’t try to replicate any of the conventional grandeur this year. Nor did they attempt to manifest the weird pirate theme of the event’s advertisements. In fact, the only form of traditional 'Mania pomp came in the form of NFL legend and new WWE signee Rob Gronkowski "hosting" the show. And even Gronk was subdued. Ostentatious and extravagant entrances were cast aside, and besides their entrance music, wrestlers were introduced in silence. They wrestled in silence. They celebrated in silence. For a 'sport' that thrives of audience participation and electricity, this silence could have been deafening. Yet, as a whole, this worked.
Once you abandon your pre-conceptions of what Wrestlemania must be, the 36th installment of the event showcased how to put on a wrestling show in the midst of an international pandemic. Yes, the event was not perfect - and we will get to that - but perhaps we also owe Covid-19 a "thank you" in parts as well.
Firstly, one of the major points of criticism in previous years has been the running length of Wrestlemania. A near eight hour show is draining enough on a live audience, let alone the viewers at home, and this would be multiplied had WWE stuck to their traditional format despite the empty arena. However, billing the event as "too big for one night" allowed WWE to run a two-night Wrestlemania, making each show easily digestible and, most importantly, more enjoyable.
The two-night split also allowed for female performers to open both nights. Particularly pertinent given the company's continuously fed notion of "women's evolution", the opportunity to open the show is a much revered position in the wrestling industry. Without a 'hot' crowd, performers were able to enter the ring and simply ply their craft. And ultimately, it would be tough to argue against both the NXT Women's Championship and Women's Tag Team Championship titles matches being in-ring high points for the event as a whole.
Additionally, the unprecedented global situation affected far more than the venue and live audience numbers - or lack thereof. As if unsatisfied with his work, the uber-heel Covid-19 also sought to pick apart the proposed matchcard, using his cunning wiles to alter already advertised matches. With his immune system compromised due to his fight with Leukaemia, Roman Reigns was replaced in the Universal Championship match by Braun Strowman - even though the commentators would refuse to mention Reigns withdrawal at all - and The Miz opted not to appear on the show due to reported illness-related reasons. That latter change led to this already bizarre event becoming even more so with the Smackdown Tag Team Championships defended in singles competition. Yes, individuals competed for title belts that by name require teamwork and collaboration. Although that is where the majority of negativity stops when it comes to the triple-threat ladder match that threatened to steal the show on 'Mania night one. Well, until Booger Red came along - yes, we will get to that. Kofi Kingston, John Morrison and Jimmy Uso could have easily settled into a run of the mill WWE ladder match, but instead they chose to channel their inner Hardy Boys, Shawn Michaels and Shelton Benjamin to create their own 'Mania ladder moments. The finish of the match has been a point of contention, however whether you view it as innovative or convoluted should not impact the enjoyable nature of this match as a whole.
If a ladder match is not a good enough 'feel-good' moment for the WWE universe, it is safe to say night two delivered even more. McIntyre's victory has already been mentioned so instead let's focus on the impossible love story come true. Built for several months on Smackdown, Otis' pursuit of Mandy Rose had become the ultimate underdog story. Throw in a cocky, arrogant and despicable heel in the form of Dolph Ziggler and Otis now had the perfect foil for this downright ludicrous storyline. That said, wrestling requires ludicrous storylines as much as it requires blood-feuds and in ring greatness. And on this night, the bullied lovable oaf got the prom queen. Who says good guys never win?
Serving as an antithesis to the downright absurdity and foolishness of the Otis-Mandy love story, the feud between Randy Orton and Edge was a quintessential wrestling blood-feud. Founded in history, developed through villainy, culminating with revenge, this feud was perfectly woven in the preceding weeks despite the global situation. Edge's return at the Royal Rumble was almost a decade in the making, and Randy Orton was the perfectly unhinged foil for the Rated R Superstar. The inclusions of Matt Hardy and Beth Phoenix served to further cultivate an emotional story that required and deserved and emotional culmination. As Edge beat Orton in the Last Man Standing match on night two it was as emotional as we had all hoped, however it was wholly disengaging as well. The action was vicious, came across personal and utilised the empty arena to its advantage, however the match went far too long. Officially the second longest match in Wrestlemania history, it almost felt as long as the nine-years Edge has been away in retirement. The story was right, the ending was right, the match was wrong. That said, can it really distract us enough from the fact that EDGE IS BACK?
And if one match was far too long, there was a certainty that two of the other matches would go short...very short. In fact, it is safe to say that the WWE Championship and Universal Championship matches were effectively carbon-copies of each other. It as almost as if both bouts were fought on the WWE 2K20 video game - thankfully minus the countless faults - with each superstar having stored finishing moves, ready to use them without any prior build. Each superstar controlled by someone spamming the finisher buttons vociferously in attempt to be victorious.
In fact, combining Goldberg vs Braun Strowman and Brock Lesnar vs Drew McIntyre, there were 15 finishing moves hit in 2 matches. Perhaps, the term 'finisher' no longer holds true. However, when you arrive at the right conclusions, the ends can justify the means. With two new champions, WWE has the potential to not only usher in a new era for their product but also create two new megastars in the process. For Braun Strowman, the WWE has the potential to right their own wrongs from the past two years, and instead invest in the Monster Among Men in the way they should have previously done. And in McIntyre WWE not only have a story of redemption and triumph, but also a hugely marketable man with the potential to blossom into a Hall of Fame performer.
One could be forgiven for assuming that at the end of Wrestlemania 36 the primary talking points would be those two title changes. At any 'Mania gone-by, the title changes form the crux of our nostalgic memories. But this is no normal Wrestlemania; Covid-19 'Mania is the gift that keeps on giving. Bringing night one to a close, the Boneyard match between Undertaker and AJ Styles was the most perfectly corny piece of cinematic wrestling nonsense for many years. Channelling the broken nature of Matt Hardy and his Final Deletion, WWE cast aside its usual aspersions and condemnations to make the most of this global crisis. With fans present the audience would again have to labour through an Undertaker match where we all try to convince ourselves he is not damaging his legacy. But thanks to our trusty old friend Covid-19, the WWE stumbled across a goldmine. Honestly, my words cannot do this match justice. It was everything that non wrestling fans have said for years: it was fake, it was ludicrous, it wasn't believable, it was scripted. Yes, it was all of those things and that is why it succeeded. Wrestling is entertainment, and with a character like The Undertaker the suspension of disbelief is a requirement and necessity. So why not have a graveyard match that is more of a PG horror film scene than a wrestling match? A prime example of a 'has to be seen' wrestling moment, this match tip-toed the line between watchable and ridiculous. In other words it was the Fast and Furious film franchise of professional wrestling. When a departure from reality is needed, this seems like the perfect escape.
And then there was one. It would be a crime to end this review with anything other than John Cena vs Bray Wyatt. Billed as a Firelfly Fun House match, using the 'term' match is perhaps a little generous. The only wrestling match I can ever remember taking part in the fragments of a character's imagination, this 'match' rewarded die-hard wrestling fans for their dedication to both the WWE and their product. Far too complex, intricate and byzantine to cover outside of its own detailed review, Wyatt showcased Cena's flaws, failures, criticisms and faults in a practical and obscure way. Much like the work of a detailed film director, every time you go back and watch this match you will pick up on something you had previously missed. A clear deviation from the norm for WWE, Wyatt and Cena embraced the opportunity to create something truly memorable.
As stated in the title, this is an immediate review. Hindsight can often make a mockery of our immediate thoughts, but it could be instantly argued that Wrestlemania 36 is one of the better 'Manias of all-time. Immediacy can cloud our judgement, ignore deficiencies and increase emotional reaction, however the empty-arena Wrestlemania will definitely go down in history. Whilst it is more than admirable that the company put on an event when the world was crying out for entertainment and distraction, it is even more admirable to put on an event as high quality as this one.