WrestleMania 36: The One With No Crowd But Plenty Of Fanfare

 

Mania logo
Source: Scottsblogofdoom

There’s every chance you went into this years WrestleMania with muted expectations (not quite WrestleMania 32 levels, but muted all the same). The more broader conversation opens up ideas as to whether this years event should have even gone ahead at all – the truth though, is that no one really expected WWE to prolong their marquee centrepiece, they were always going to push on regardless.

In essence an empty venue setting gave WWE the chance to capitalise on opportunities they simply wouldn’t have had under an ordinary scenario, so why not roll the dice? Never again will Vince McMahon and co have the opportunity to stage a second night of WrestleMania for no extra venue rent cost, if they were ever going to pull a two part stunt, the timing would never be more rife.

You can commend WWE for being bold enough to take real risks with this years ‘showcase of the immortals’ (that phrase has become a bit cringe worthy now, hasn’t it?) But it’s inescapable that some flaws were exposed with weeping wounds. As the dust settled, the company had done a phenomenal job under the circumstances of, for the most part, hitting the right story beats. But when ‘The Gronk’ somehow managed to not be the worst part of this show: there are issues that need to be addressed.

For years now the shows have been just too long, last years spectacle could well have gone down as one of the greatest they had ever put on had it dropped, or at least shortened 2/3 matches (are HHH and Batista still fighting?). You’d think that now split over two evenings – the show would feel less like an absolute marathon sit through, even to the most adorning pro-wrestling obsessive.

This still wasn’t the case though, and even with both world championship encounters across both nights lasting a combined 6minutes, part 1 and 2 still felt sloggish. It has become clear that WWE’s mantra of ‘let’s put as many people on the card as we can because it’s Mania’ has started to detract from the ebb and flow of sports entertainments most important evening.

Baron Corbin and Elias were the very illustration of this problem. A feud thrown together at the last minute that people weren’t invested in and knew full well this was just a way to fill 10 minutes, that’s not what WrestleMania is. Side note: last year Baron Corbin retired Kurt Angle – one of the greatest of all time. Had they moved Corbin’s heel character forward in the months after you’d have accepted it, one year later and his most memorable moment of the last 365 was having dog food poured on him by Roman Reigns and The Uso’s. What a waste.

baron-corbin-eats-dog-food-1
Source: WrestlingWorld

You’d forgive this if WWE only fell down the rabbit hole of throw away matches this year to capitalise on an extra evenings work, but that’s not the case. In retrospect – did the women’s tag title match from last year really need to happen? How about Braun Strowman and Nicholas the year prior? We could go on.

In fairness there’s some cases where crowing the show is necessary, defending titles at the biggest show of the year adds importance to them right? There’s truth to this, but importance is only added when either the story going in, or the story told in the ring MAKES the match important. Case in point: Had we removed Baron Corbin and Elias from the card, Sami Zayn and Daniel Bryan could have had a competitive, 20 minute match to add glory back to the Intercontinental Championship. What we got instead might be a nice moment for a superb, under-utilised performer in Zayn, but this did absolutely no favours for the title round his shoulder.

You could open this further if you wanted, there are simply too many titles in WWE. Would the company benefit from one show being the home of tag team, the other being the home of women’s wrestling? That’s a debate for another time, but no show exposes the company’s over abundance of gold than WrestleMania.

Even when you add in the throw away matches, lack of crowd, and… The Gronk though – it’s fair to say WrestleMania 36 was a success – regardless of circumstance. It stings that fans weren’t there to pop when Otis got the girl, or Mcintyre overcame the beast incarnate, but what’s more important is that they happened. And there’s never a guarantee that Vince McMahon isn’t going to throw an unnecessary swerve just for the sake of it.

It would have been more beneficial to Drew to have more of a back-and-forth match with Brock though these kind of Lesnar matches are infuriatingly few and far between in the present day despite how great a worker he actually is. The bigger picture though, is that a young, new WWE champion that the fans want has been put over by the older, larger name. It’s not exactly the same story for Braun Strowman taking the Universal Championship from Goldberg – as the monster among men has ‘transitional champion’ written all over him, but you can’t cry for youth at the top of the card and then moan when they get there (or at least you shouldn’t).

Drew WWE title
Source: http://www.thesun.co.uk

Yes, Edge and Randy Orton’s Last Man Standing/Performance Centre tour match went 15 minutes too long, but seeing Adam Copeland be capable of putting on a lengthy, stiff match for half an hour bodes well for the future. The right man won, the desperate brawl story telling was, for the most part interesting, and the mind boggles at what could be done with Edge and younger talent. PLEASE ALSO GIVE US EDGE AND AJ STYLES.

Depending on which side of the fence you sit, you’ll either be furious, or fine with the state of the women’s division in the events aftermath. Charlotte taking the NXT title from Rhea Ripley might leave a sour taste right now, but if there’s one woman who can elevate, and add star power to the women’s division in NXT, it’s her. Rhea Ripley will be fine, she’ll be champion again within a year, and Charlotte will have made stars out of at least two women in NXT – stop worrying.

Shayna Baszler’s failure to overcome ‘The Man’ Becky Lynch is slightly more bizarre, especially when she lost to a basic, flat looking roll up. But this goes one of two ways from here: we’re either stalling till Ronda Rousey returns, or Shayna bases Lynch’s victory on luck and suggests some kind of gimmick match where pinfalls aren’t as prominent and takes the title then. Again, it’s early days here, and the big money points to Baszler Vs Rousey somewhere down the line.

What made WrestleMania 36 a memorable spectacle though, was the matches that, had it not been for the pre-taped environment, simply could not have been as grandiose as they were. The Undertaker’s ‘boneyard’ grave style match with AJ Styles was produced, and executed so expertly, you’d be forgiven for never wanting to see Taker’ wrestle an in-ring match again.

Taker Styles
Source: http://www.thesun.co.uk

The return of biker Taker worked, the casket entrance of AJ Styles was classic heel work, and the story the two told exchanging set pieces made for both comedy and sympathy. It was over the top, and slightly silly in places, but this felt fresh, unique, and it’s undeniably the best program Undertaker has worked since WrestleMania 34’s ‘will they, won’t they’ squash of John Cena. The Deadman feels exciting again for the first time in a long, long time.

Everything pales in comparison though to the whacky, wild, outlandish genius of the Firefly Fun House match, though. Last month ‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt was almost being mourned on social media, his loss to Goldberg in Saudi Arabia felt like the harshest middle finger creative had given us in a long time. But on April 5th 2020, The Fiend was wholeheartedly rescued.

It’s difficult to really describe this (match?), it’s simply one of those: GO AND WATCH THIS moments. The references of Cena to Hogan, Vince playing the puppet master role on commentary, the NWO skit, the journey through Cena’s career, the flashbacks of WrestleMania 30, this was truly one of the greatest pieces of production, and creativity that WWE have shown in the entirety of the PG era.

His loss to Goldberg is forgotten, The Fiend has been let back in to relevancy. It goes to show that under the right setting, with the right performers, and ideas going in – anyone can be resurrected in pro wrestling. The showmanship of both Wyatt and Cena throughout the skits was unmatched, and utterly compelling. Similar to the boneyard match, this simply could not have happened in an arena with 80,000 people in, and there was more character building on show for Wyatt here than what could ever have been possible in a standard match in between the ropes. Utter gold.

Sometimes modern day WWE really makes you work for your moments of happiness, we got treated to more than our fill here. Special mention for Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins too, who put on a stellar, stellar performance on night one. When you look back at WrestleMania events over the years, though this one still highlighted much of what needs to be addressed in the company, WWE bought themselves a tremendous amount of faith on a night where under the circumstances, you can’t help but thank everyone on the company’s payroll for working to make it happen.

 

 

Bret Hart: The best there is, the best there was, the most important there ever will be

If you’re in your mid/late twenties as you read this, the chances are you probably caught on to professional wrestling slightly before or during the attitude era, and what a time to catch on, right? Bikini contests, racially charged story lines, and genitalia references aside; it was a three year period where the popularity of “Sports Entertainment” was at such a level so high – that the smart money suggests it will never be replicated again.

Whether or not the attitude era ended up being a good thing for the business in retrospect is an argument for another day. The fact remains that looking back, car crash TV was entertaining, and boy did we have the perfect roster to dish out the mayhem.

Sitting as somewhat of an on-looker to the most profitable era in wrestling was Bret Hart, who left the then WWF for Ted Turner’s WCW just as the term ‘attitude’ was starting to be coined. Despite being a solid main event player in 1997 when WWE/F began to turn up the risque factor in their programming – the Hitman is rarely associated with the era, mostly because of his departure from Titan tower but also because of WCW’s vastly underwhelming use of the Canadian.

Bret Hart
Image Source: http://www.onlineworldofwrestling.com/bios/b/bret-hart/

As a result of the watered down version we received of Bret Hart from Ted Turner’s organisation, you could easily be fooled into thinking that the Hitman didn’t play a pivotal role in turning WWE into the global phenomenon it is today; you’d be wrong. In fact, Bret Hart is probably the most important wrestling figure we have ever come across. Austin, Rock, Hogan, Flair, Sammartino, Michaels, The Undertaker, he was more important than them all. Bret is often referred to as one of the greatest of all time, but even that moniker doesn’t do his tenure in the business justice.

It seems like a life-time ago, but when Bret made his arrival into the WWF the company, and the world were stuck in Hulk Hogan’s craze of eating vitamins and saying prayers. And Vince McMahon’s mathematics for success were simple: build up a super heel who will eventually be fed to Hogan’s leg drop. You can question the Hulkster’s work rate all you want but the fact is, it worked, and from 1985-1991 Hulkamania was the cash cow that took professional wrestling from mostly regional, to worldwide.

But while Hogan was the undoubted face of the company, Bret was putting in excellent work in the tag team division with his brother in law Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart. Themselves as well as talents such as Ricky Steamboat, Randy Savage, Mr Perfect, and Shawn Michaels etc were starting to put together athletic, captivating performances that were consistently far out shining the main event in terms of entertainment value; a concept that would pay dividends in the years to follow.

Fast forward to the early 90’s and wrestling was nowhere near as hot as it was just a few years prior. WrestleMania wasn’t drawing 70,000 plus into stadiums anymore, and interest around the product in general seemed to be on the decline. The industry wasn’t quite in danger of going out of business – but pro-wrestling was no longer a worldwide sensation.

This was thanks in part to a mass of steroid allegations that surrounded both Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon – something VM was very nearly was imprisoned because of. Wrestling needed a new, squeaky clean hero for people to believe in once again – someone who could carry the ball for the company without looking like Mr Olympia.

As it turns out – they had the perfect man for it, by 1992 people had bought in to the character of Bret Hart. By no means the most charismatic, or particularly flamboyant – Bret was respected solely because of his ability to tell you a story in the ring. And its these chapters in the history of pro-wrestling which define the Hitman as the most important wrestler there ever will be.

BH
Image Source: pinterest.com

When the interest in the product was declining, and the perception of the industry was in doubt; Bret Hart was the courageous knight that kept people invested at a time when WWE was struggling financially. Incredible feuds with Mr Perfect, his brother Owen, and British Bulldog to name a few, allowed fans to invest in the concept of two talented workers taking you through twists and turns until an unpredictable climax, no “Hulk Up’s” necessary.

The pink attire, passing his sunglasses over to children in the crowd, his enigmatic entrance music, and his flawless ability in the ring: Bret Hart was everything that WWE needed at the time. Was the company roster filled with other talented individuals? Undoubtedly yes, but none of them could hold a candle to Bret’s ability to deliver the whole package in a believable manner. He was the very depiction of the people’s choice.

It could even be said that of all the “faces” of the company over the last 40 years, none of them had a job as difficult as Bret. Look at it any way you’d like, the fact is that Bret Hart was a draw at a time when people had started to turn their backs on wrestling, and the fans that stayed were ones that had bought into the art form of the sport. You could argue that Hart single handedly ushered in the era where the most talented, not necessarily just the biggest, got the chance to run with the ball.

Despite his massive contributions and importance to the industry in the early 90’s, Bret’s coup de grace in pro wrestling was to come between 1996/7. As we look upon the sport in 2018, we can all but accept that kayfabe is dead, and for better or worse we understand the workings of the business on a huge scale, nothing is a secret anymore. As a result of this – as fans we now realise just how important it is for wrestlers to “make” their opponent when the time is right, and Bret did one mighty job of making two of his opponents in the late 90’s.

BH vs SM
Image source: youtube.com

His iron-man match with Shawn Michaels in the main event of WrestleMania 12 for the WWE championship was 60 minutes of wrestling to an incredible standard. Before this point, Shawn was looked at as a phenomenal talent with a strong following; but would he ever be ready to hold the mantle of being “the guy”? It took one hour of vigorous, exhausting story-telling in the ring for you to be convinced that Michaels was the right guy for the title.

Shortly following WrestleMania 12 was when WWE were faced with another financial challenge. Ted Turner’s WCW were acquiring former Vince McMahon talents left, right, and centre, and the NWO story-line had taken over wrestling. For the first time in his life, Vince McMahon was sitting in second place to another wrestling organisation – and the future of the company was once again in doubt.

It would be on one fateful night in Chicago that Bret Hart would make yet another, and possibly his greatest contribution to professional wrestling. Stone Cold Steve Austin, you’ve probably heard of him – from mid 96 to early 97 the Texas rattlesnake had put in heel work of such high quality that fans had actually begun cheering him (an unusual concept in pro-wrestling at this time). His tough guy persona, aggressive in ring style, and fresh mic skills saw him turning into quite a fan favourite.

By the same token; Bret’s shining light persona had started to lose some of its shimmer, it was time to freshen things up, and thus: the cards were set for the greatest double turn in the history of wrestling. To perform a match where the heel and face switch roles is a daunting task for anyone who has ever set foot inside the squared circle, but it just so happens that Bret and Austin were going to do so in one of the great matches of all time.

No one could have foreseen that a simple submission match between the two at WrestleMania 13 would change the business in the way that it did. Go back and watch that match, the crowds investment into the two wrestlers is beyond captivating, and if “Sports entertainment” is the descriptive phrase we need to coin when describing wrestling in this day and age; this match was the perfect example of what it could be.

The two managed to execute a performance that looked like a legitimate fight all with the entertainment thrills and spills you’d come to expect from wrestling. The image of the blood pouring down Austin’s face while Hart attacks his legs with a chair somehow made you feel empathy for a man that had never showed it for anyone else – deep down you wanted him to overcome this obstacle.

But if we’re discussing imagery, there will possibly never be a better image in the history of wrestling than the one that appears at the climax of this match. As Bret Hart has Stone Cold locked in the sharpshooter while the camera pans to Austin screaming with blood running down his face and through his teeth – it sends shivers down the spine. You know how it ends, Austin doesn’t submit but does pass out from the pain, Bret continues the assault after the match, the fans boo Bret, and cheer for Austin when he drags himself to his feet. And there it is: Stone Cold turned face setting him up for arguably the greatest run in wrestling history.

BM vs SC
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWcCqxhTZUo

When you look into the folklore of wrestling, this match will be mentioned every single time, and so it should. It was one of the greatest matches of all time that cemented the biggest superstar in history as the guy you could finally cheer for. It’s been talked about to death but when you break it down – Bret Hart was the only man suitable for the role of turning Austin into the good guy; proving he was the excellence of execution.

What followed for Bret was a successful heel run leading the Hart Foundation faction into Survivor Series 1997, you already know what went down in Montreal on that night, but if you don’t: Google “Montreal screwjob” it makes for some fascinating reading.

The attitude era was started at the behest of Shawn Michaels, and Stone Cold, and while Bret’s actual contributions to the era were minimal; it can’t be argued that both Michaels and Austin had reached their star status as a result of their work with the Hitman. And that was the Canadian’s best attribute: his ability to make whoever he was in the ring with look like a legitimate star.

Would we have still seen an attitude era without Bret Hart? Possibly, but whether the era itself would have been anywhere near as impactful can certainly be debated. To put it simply, Bret Hart was the Stretch Armstrong figure that held the company together through the dark times and pulled Titan Tower into a new age of professional wrestling.

When you consider the Mount Rushmore of the industry, and you ask who played the largest roles in making the sport what it is today – it seems harsh to only be able to name four. The star power and mainstream attention generated puts Hogan and Austin on there without question, Ric Flair makes the cut for his sensational work in the 80’s, and the last space belongs to Hart. WWE’s burning light when times were at their darkest; he simply was: the best there was, the best there is, the best there ever will be.