WWE Wrestlemania 36 review: WWE’s first-ever crowd-less WrestleMania delivered a weekend to remember against all odds

4.5/5
WrestleMania 36 proved that WWE flourishes best when they are forced to be creative.

Some would be forgiven for thinking this year’s WrestleMania was cursed but c’mon, isn’t 2020 in general cursed? I digress, this year’s event was set to be a hotly anticipated card. After a fantastic Royal Rumble PPV in January, some high profile matches had already started building. Returning hero Edge betrayed by his sadistic friend turned unhinged obsessive Randy Orton the night after, and that night Drew McIntyre received his long overdue chance on the big stage for the big belt against Brock Lesnar. Add to this the unexpected awesomeness of March’s Elimination Chamber event and this year’s Road to WrestleMania was paved with potential. Even the undercard, was coming together in some respects, with the Mandy Rose/Otis/Dolph Ziggler love triangle angle being a strongly plotted story, that made Heavy Machinery’s Otis a huge fan favourite.

That said, not everything was peachy, February’s Super Showdown was pretty much a disaster, that sacrificed WWE’s best modern character “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt for a starry Roman Reigns vs. Goldberg Universal title match. But, alas, WWE had pulled things together mostly this year, with NXT’s Rhea Ripley and Shayna Baszler getting their big breaks, Wyatt looking for redemption in a match with John Cena and Drew McIntyre getting his moment. Sadly the Coronavirus happened….

The pirate-themed Tampa Bay show at the Raymond James Stadium was set to be a spectacle but as the virus pandemic grasped the world, WrestleMania was assuredly cancelled. Then, WWE took the divisive decision to adhere to guidelines but continue, moving all TV events to the Orlando Performance Center. This was then confirmed to be the (empty) venue for WrestleMania!! A crowd-free, pyro-free biggest show of the year! People dug this event’s grave ahead of time and pretty much spent the 4 weeks prior hating Vince McMahon and heaping their condolences on WWE stars who would be robbed of their special moments by having it play in front of no one.

Further complicating matters were the fact certain stars began dropping out for isolation, this included an immune-compromised Roman Reigns, star of one of the main events! And as many called for postponement or cancellation, reports came in that Mania was being split into two nights for the first time ever, featuring a record breaking 18 matches across both days, and was all being recorded ahead of time, with specific contests being filmed in a “cinematic” way. No doubt about it, this was set to be the oddest WrestleMania, some were unhappy but was this a show the world needed? As virtually every other sport was halting, the movie industry likewise, WWE would be there and there is something kind of cool about that, but would it be the same? The answer was obviously no but could WrestleMania 36 still work? Well, now that the dust has settled, here’s my thoughts…

Night #1

1. (Pre-show) Drew Gulak vs. Cesaro

The first match and meeting between these two talented performers was sadly brief but still fun enough. Cesaro showed off his god-like strength and Gulak continues to become a welcome big deal (after his breakout match at Elimination Chamber with Daniel Bryan) and constant presence in this feud (alongside Bryan) with Sami Zayn and his “artist collective” (Shinsuke Nakamura and Cesaro). Hard to believe this was Cesaro’s first ever WM singles match and his first PPV singles win since Fastlane 2017!

The main show night #1 opened with a message from Stephanie McMahon, say what you will but it was great to have something like Mania to enjoy at this point in time (obviously some even crazier things have happened since though). Can safely say I needed WrestleMania this year! And was grateful to get it.

We then moved onto a montage of WM’s quite impressively star-studded “America the Beautiful” guest singers over the years. Before a very very odd self-deprecating opening video package leaning heavily on the pirate theme of this year’s Mania.

The rather irksomely trendy “down with it” Wrestlemania host and former (for now) American football name Rob Gronkowski kicked things off, alongside Mojo Rawley (also known as Gronk’s wrestler mate), with his rave entrance music pounding out and looking a bit like an Avatar creature in his blue striped jacket. Still, at least he’s clearly into the WWE I suppose.

2. WWE Women’s Tag Team Championships – The Kabuki Warriors (Asuke and Kairi Sane) (c) vs. Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross

This one went a tad longer than expected but got its groove going and was an enjoyable opener. I have loved The Kabuki Warriors since they formed and empty arena or full arena, they are tremendous entertainers, however this match was arguably all about Nikki. It was a great showing for her and she turned up the fire in the latter half practically ensuring she and her “bestie” Bliss regained the gold. One wonders when the inevitable Bliss double-cross will come.

3. Elias vs. King Corbin

In a match made by Rob Gronkowski, a week or two prior, this all centred on a Mufasa-esque arena fall spot by Elias a week prior and whether he’d be ready to compete on this night. Spoiler: he was. Frankly it was an extremely forgettable affair, save for the guitar clobbering opening (I’d have been ok with Elias getting the quick win after that). Nothing particularly foul but lacking energy and would have benefitted from being shorter. Elias deserves to get a bigger programme going, as he’s a fantastic talent. Corbin is naturally punchable as per usual but he’s still recovering from streams of awful feuds, including that rancid never-ending dog food angle with Roman. Good to say Elias has a singles match and win at WM under his belt though.

4. WWE Raw Women’s Championship – Becky Lynch (c) vs. Shayna Baszler

In the first of Wrestlemania’s main events, Becky brought spectacle flare to the limited Performance Center setting with her specialised truck arrival (shame they jumped the gun with that on Raw a few weeks earlier, as it would have made it’s appearance here that much sweeter) and Baszler was all business. I enjoyed their match, it was hard-hitting and fierce but should have been longer (can’t believe Elias/Corbin was given more time). The end result was a massive shock with Becky winning, in similarly simple circumstances to last year’s WM 35 main event, all I can think is they have a big endgame plan for Baszler, otherwise it would be just bizarre, considering how Baszler decimated the entire division weeks before (and since). Odd decision aside, this was a fun, if disappointingly short, battle.

5. WWE Intercontinental Championship – Sami Zayn (c) (w/ Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura) vs. Daniel Bryan (w/ Drew Gulak)

This could have been a technical marvel but instead they boldly chose to stick to an old fashioned character battle, with Sami playing the heel stable leader to perfection and Bryan being the skilled warrior circumnavigating the odds. It suddenly ended with Sami’s out of nowhere kick and it was not the best it could have been but continued this story, with well placed interference and a nice atmosphere throughout (thanks to being able to hear the bumps and Sami’s battle cries). A good night for “the artist collective”.

6. WWE Smackdown Tag Team Championships Ladder match – John Morrison (c) vs. Jimmy Uso vs. Kofi Kingston

Initially a three way tag between Miz/Morrison, The Usos and The New Day, plans changed last minute due to illness, so we got this unusual alternative but this triple threat was really where the night kicked into gear (mostly). Featuring some insane spots (John Morrison has not lost a step!!) and incredible hard work and chemistry between these three amazingly athletic superstars, this one was a lot of fun to watch. Plus the crowd-free environment really elevated the danger audibly, it was a metal-clanging war, with a different finish well suited to Morrison’s heel antics. Hey Hey Ho Ho!

7. Kevin Owens vs. Seth Rollins

“The Monday Night Messiah” had owned Raw for months leading into WM and his Messiah character has elevated Rollins to a new game and has worked wonders for Owens too as a rebel figure, who has aptly inherited the stunner as his finisher. This match had great hype and it delivered. The Performance Center was actually perfect for these two to do battle in and they essentially called the action themselves talking through the match, which added to its heated feel. A mid-match altering to No Disqualification rules could have backfired (the initial finish was a real “hell no” moment as Rollins got disqualified) but added to the action and Owens’ death-defying dive off the WrestleMania sign onto Rollins through the announce table essentially ended the match in memorable fashion. Rollins and Owens worked really hard here and it was a gratifying Mania face-off!

In the interim, Gronk and Mojo chatted with 24/7 Champion R-Truth on the balcony, naturally chaos ensued and Mojo took the title from under his pal’s nose. Alrighty then.

8. WWE Universal Championship – Goldberg (c) vs. Braun Strowman

This was Roman vs. Goldberg, that was the plan, The Fiend was very nearly killed to make it happen but safety must come first and in this climate Roman wisely pulled out. Bafflingly WWE left it until the night before to announce Strowman was replacing and did so in the most nonchalant way imaginable! One can only think, they just wanted to get it done and reset but how random. The match itself was a short finisher fest and like playing a video game with unlimited finishers available, nothing to really write about here at all and it was clear that this was just being done out of necessity to finish the ultimately pointless Goldberg title run. I will say though that Strowman’s win was a long overdue title victory for him, as he was at one point the company’s biggest monster in years. Maybe he will be again off this. His current post-Mania feud certainly points to great things.

9. Boneyard Match – The Undertaker vs. AJ Styles

When AJ Styles shattered the mystique of The Undertaker character and spoke some hard-to-hear truths mixed with disrespect weeks earlier, the hype here really started brewing. AJ relished playing the bitter fan-esque baddie here and The Undertaker’s character began changing to his Biker-like days to accommodate this rivalry, then it was announced as a “Boneyard match”. What was it? Could this work? Well, not only did this work, it stole Night #1 (and maybe even WM as a whole). Taking the cinematic match quality of work like TNA’s The Ultimate Deletion and upping the ante creatively and ambitiously, the match was a kind of buried alive brawl that took place in a graveyard/abandoned shack and it was like an action/horror slasher short come to life, with a score, special effects and some fantastic action. As AJ mocked Taker with a hearse entrance, Undertaker rode in on his motorcycle to Metallica (don’t edit this out of the DVD WWE please) with his unholy trinity character (being his real life self mixed with The Deadman and the American Badass all in one) and became WWE’s answer to Ghost Rider. AJ and Taker told a great story of legend, revenge and time, while the production was exceptional and gave this brawl a mad, compelling and exciting novelty and every inch of it was so cool to witness and had the blood of pure pro wrestling joy running through its veins. Some visuals here, will become a part of wrestling history. The response online afterwards only further cements the impact. A badass blast that saw WWE deliver a perfect kind of contest for the unprecedented circumstances they faced and this was the kind of match we all needed at a time like this. Badass.

Night #2

1. (Pre-show) Natalya vs. Liv Morgan

This was kind of put together last minute but was fine. Natalya is reliable and it was a good win for Liv on paper, who is improving.

After another Stephanie McMahon intro and that same unusual video package opening, we arrive at the Center with a more welcomely restrained Rob Gronkowski opening up the main show of Night #2

2. WWE NXT Women’s Championship – Charlotte vs. Rhea Ripley (c)

This one was unlikely to disappoint from an in-ring standpoint and it most certainly didn’t. From a wrestling stance this was one of the entire weekend’s finest matches, and many have called it WM36’s best match. Charlotte claiming gold (again) in the decision was controversial and maybe not what many would have hoped for but whatever the case, this match made a star out of Ripley. She and the ever brilliant Charlotte delivered an impactful, back and forth, riot of a fight and Ripley looked like an absolutely driven force of nature. The empty arena almost made this one even better, as you heard the roars of both women and the thuds as they laid each other out with powerful gruelling offence. This was just a fantastic match all round and one that hopefully will set up a rematch in the future, The Queen had better watch her crown…

3. Aleister Black vs. Bobby Lashley (w/Lana)

This was random as heck but in spite of that, it was great to see Aleister on the show and his entrance is genius in that it is cool but is also so restrained that it can be done anywhere. I digress, Black and Lashley had a fun little battle here, nothing rulebook ripping but engaging. Black was given a good test by the “all mighty” but the ever wince-inducingly forceful black mass (WWE’s best current finish?) floored Lashley, after a distraction by Lana. Well, looks like this husband and wife (wink wink) may be set for a split in the near future.

4. Otis vs. Dolph Ziggler (w/ Sonya Deville)

You have to give it to WWE, this Otis/Mandy/Dolph love storyline has been effectively delivered. The generously paced build had grasped audience sympathies and created a super babyface in Otis and – in Randy/Elizabeth fashion – this one was all about the fell-good and hopeful post-match kiss between Mandy and Otis. Frankly, this one did deserve a crowd to join in the moment but I’d be lying if I said that the payoff didn’t still work (awww). As for the match itself? Well it was fun and played out very well, with Sonya getting her comeuppance and Otis being a raging bull and Dolph rocking the villain role, incredibly this was Dolph’s first ever singles match at WM!

5. Last Man Standing match – Edge vs. Randy Orton

Well, we got there people, Edge back in one-on-one action after 9 years; surreal and marvellous. The hype for this one was arguably bigger than almost anything else at this year’s WrestleMania and these two were fully invested in this great, fierce and poignantly-tinged feud, so might we take it as a given to expect excellence? Well, oddly, of all the matches at this year’s event, this one has proved the most polarising, with some praising its payoff to this personal comeback rivalry and others calling it a big long disappointment. Well, I am firmly in the former camp. This was like one of the old school arena-spanning hardcore brawls meets Halftime Heat, infused with emotional storytelling and sustained intensity. To say they called it as they went along (as initial plans had to be scrapped late on), Edge and Orton delivered! I loved it, yes it was epic in length (at over 30 minutes) but Edge and Orton showcased some innovative moments as they wrecked the performance Center gym, board rooms, interview stage and parking area and ended the fight with a powerful closing image atop a lorry that saw Edge do the necessary with a Con-Chair-To to keep his former friend down for the count. I was gripped by this one and thought it was a perfect finale to this rivalry. Although I will say Byron Saxton and Tom Phillips’ commentary was spectacularly dreadful, both sounded bored out of their minds and risked draining energy from Orton and Edge’s action, all I could think was “imagine 2002 JR and King with this one”, this needed that kind of investment. Thankfully, I still loved the match regardless of that issue. Welcome back Rated-R Superstar.

As we await the next contest, a mass brawl broke out at the PC for Mojo’s 24/7 championship and our host with the most (…jazzy dance entrance theme) finally makes good on his promise, diving off the balcony onto the horde and claiming the belt! Gosh even Gronk felt the need to go high risk tonight, mind you after Last Man Standing perhaps he was inspired. Titus O’ Neil would replace “The Gronk” as host following this, ok why not?

6. WWE Raw Tag Team Championships – The Street Profits (Angelo Dawkins and Montez Ford) vs. Angel Garza and Austin Theory (w/ Zelina Vega)

This one was kicked about a bit in the planning, with Andrade being replaced and whatnot, but was an entertaining match, moving at a fast pace, albeit being very short. Though the closing shock as NXT’s Bianca Belair came out in aid of her fella and arrived on the main roster was unexpected and great…as were Zelina Vega’s amazing golden skull shoulder pads!

7. WWE Smackdown Women’s Championship Fatal 5-Way Elimination Match – Bayley (c) vs. Sasha Banks vs. Lacey Evans vs. Naomi vs. Tamina

This was far better than I was expecting (fearing it would be a repeat of the utterly forgettable, over-crammed and rushed WrestleMania 33 Smackdown multi-woman women’s title match) and, all the ladies worked hard to deliver some good action and were given a surprisingly good amount of time to work with, which made a real difference. The real meat of this match was the trigger nearly being pulled on the overdue Sasha vs. Bayley match (a shoe-in for Summerslam surely?) and that incredible tease. Side note: Bayley and Sasha have thrived in a no-fans environment, with their in-match dialogue being a constant hoot.

8. Firefly Funhouse Match – “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt vs. John Cena

The build to this one was reliably excellent and defied the many issues that have plagued the no audience shows through innovativeness and creativity, and in this “Firefly Funhouse Match” those two terms were the order of the day. Some have called it more of a segment than a match and there is a point there but this was a match of a whole different kind…it was a match of the mind. A breathtakingly original and ingenious deconstruction of John Cena’s career, Bray Wyatt’s booking, audience perception of the product and the business itself. I was in absolute awe of this and it cements Bray Wyatt as one of the most brilliant minds to ever grace the wrestling industry. Cena is really a great sport here, as his highs and lows are pastiched and parodied and as the match races crazily along from expertly constructed scene to scene. Cena battled his own insecurity, ego, hopes, dreams and fears, before The Fiend finally put him out of his misery. This was hilarious, haunting and just ingenious and absolutely stole night #2 and not only repaired The Fiend damage after the Goldberg debacle but strengthened the character tenfold. The finality of this one left many wondering whether it will be Cena’s last match? Perhaps not, but if it were, then I can think of no greater way to go out for “big match John” because this was big, bold, daring and endlessly creative. This and day #1’s Boneyard match absolutely made WrestleMania this year!   

9. WWE Championship – Drew McIntyre vs. Brock Lesnar (c)

And we come down to the prizefight of Wrestlemania 36, as Drew McIntyre faces Brock Lesnar for the gold. After his incredible Rumble moment, it is a crushing shame that a capacity crowd was not here to make Drew’s big moment bigger and louder but the right call was still – finally – made, as Drew became the first ever British and Scottish born WWE Champ! The match itself took the finisher-fest approach and could have been longer and given more of a chance to spread its wings, however the job was done and it was still a proud moment and a wonderful end to a fun weekend. Made quite touching by Drew’s subtle motion to camera, which made it clear that in this impossible time, the world was still with him on this night. A great touch from the future (well, now he’s the present) of WWE. Congratulations Drew, thoroughly deserved.

Overall, Wrestlemania 36 could have been a monumental bust and in times of unprecedented panic, confusion and uncertainty, the WWE pulled off their biggest show of the year and made it feel distinctive, special, unusual and memorable. Sure to be the weirdest Mania ever in the history books, this two-night event was a blast. Taker/Styles’ Boneyard match and Cena/Wyatt’s Firefly Funhouse match will be long remembered as creative masterworks, while Owens/Rollins, the SD Tag Title ladder match, Last Man Standing and Ripley/Charlotte shone amongst a crowd of mostly fun to great matches. It was not without its flaws for sure but WrestleMania 36 was a thoroughly enjoyable ride and a weekend I’ll certainly never forget.

4.5/5
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