WrestleMania 36 (night 1)

This was always going to be a weird one. I’ll admit, I haven’t watched a full WrestleMania since number 20, back in 2004. To be honest, the only reason I was watching up until that point was the insane physicality (strength, agility and that absurd physique) of Brock Lesnar. When he left, I did. And with Randy Couture and Mike Van Arsdale in UFC at that time, real fights actually had better wrestling content than WWE did.

But I’ve been watching for the last few months, with some interest. The matches are not great, but the TV is pretty compelling. And with no actual sport happening, WWE (and their superior rival AEW) have the market pretty much to themselves. They just have no audience in person.

So this was always going to be a weird one because, instead of the stadium shows they usually have for this event, this year’s WrestleMania took place in their own Performance Center (sic), with no audience. The test, therefore, was in making this seem like the annual epic flagship show rather than some local broadcast. Also, as all the commentators had to constantly remind us:

THIS IS TOO BIG FOR JUST ONE NIGHT

The first match did a pretty good job as an opener. The general rule is you want to open a show with an exciting, fast paced match that won’t be so epic as to upstage the main event(s). Here, we had a women’s tag team title match between Kabuki Warriors (Kairi Sane and the brilliant Asuka) and Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross. And it really did the job. The heels (bad guys) had some very good sections of offence on one of the babyfaces (good guys).

The idea is you want the other babyface to tag in and get some revenge on the heels, so it’s all about building that anticipation, with jerk moves, near tags and things like that. Asuka and Sane are such great heels that this worked really well, especially with plucky Alexa Bliss playing the underdog so well. I was a little surprised that the heels didn’t successfully defend, as they are awesome, but the “hot tag” was had, there were some pretty high impact moves leading to the finish, and if there had been an audience, they’d have been satisfied by the outcome. I just like the bad guys, what can I say.

Then things went a bit weird, and there was a sequence of what should have been grudge matches that felt slightly flat. Perhaps this is where a really hot crowd would have picked things up, both in generating atmosphere for the audience at home, and giving something for the TV audience to feed off.

So there was Elias vs. King Corbin, which was thrown together by Rob Gronkowski of all people. It was supposed to be a grudge match, but all I could garner from it was Elias plays annoying songs as his gimmick, Corbin won King of the Ring and is a bit arrogant, and they don’t like each other. The match itself was a bit back and forth, and Corbin won it with a roll-up. I’d actually forgotten that finish a few hours later, and had to look it up for this write-up.

There was Becky Lynch vs. Shayna Baszler, which was supposed to be an uber grudge match, given that Baszler kept attacking Becky, was the first woman (or person?) ever to eliminate everyone else in Elimination Chamber, and was positioned as the greatest threat ever to this distaff Hulk Hogan. Match was okay, and the ending was clever, as Becky countered Baszler’s rear naked choke – with which she’d been putting everyone to sleep – into a pin. It surprised Baszler enough to get the three-count. Surprisingly technical end to what was largely a brawl, and was pretty much another roll-up.

Next was a disappointment between Daniel Bryan and Sami Zayn. This should have been great, but was just Zayn playing chickenshit heel and stalling while Bryan tried wrestling. Decent finish, as Zayn kicked Bryan out of the air as he came off the top turnbuckle, but otherwise not much of a thing.

There was a bizarre ladder match, the exposition of which I seem to have missed. My bad. It was for the SmackDown! men’s tag team championship, but only one member of each team was in the thing. (Oh, Miz of the defending champs fell ill, so it was one from each team.) Again, it wasn’t an epic, but again there was a clever finish. See, to win a ladder match, you need to incapacitate your opponent(s) to a degree sufficient that you can climb a ladder and grab the belt(s) dangling above the ring.

The conclusion of this one saw all three men climb ladders and all grab the belt or the ring it was hanging from. The two babyfaces smacked the heel (John Morrison, the non-Miz half of the defending champions) in unison, sending him flying – but he was holding the belt! Even though he was pretty much unconscious, ridiculously ripped body dangling limply on a horizontal ladder, Morrison retained the titles for his team. Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon or Edge and Christian vs. The Hardy Boyz this most definitely was not.*

Kevin Owens (kind of the people’s wrestler, as he’s a bit softer-built than most) vs. Seth Rollins (annoying pretty boy who’s actually well cast as the pompous “Monday Night Messiah”) was another grudge match. Because they started with big moves, after about two minutes, both wrestlers were in “I’m dead” mode.

Rollins got disqualified after hitting Owens with the ring bell, so Owens got the match restarted as a no disqualification one. As is usually the case with no DQ matches, we had one massive shot, a lot of lying about, rinse and repeat. Again a touch anticlimactic, as they followed up a very impressive elbowdrop from the top of the stage decoration with a bit of mucking about where “KO” dragged Rollins into the ring, hit him with a stunner and pinned him. It would have been more impressive if they’d made a call that falls count anywhere and the pin came after the big spot.

I almost forgot about this one (sorry, this is a long post): Goldberg vs. Braun Strowman. Strowman, like Dolph Ziggler, Jack Swagger and Brodus Clay, has one of those awful made-up names that is neither a real name like Brock Lesnar or Kurt Angle, nor a proper “wrestling” name like Randy Savage or the Ultimate Warrior. Oh well.

This one came about because Goldberg – two decades past his prime – inexplicably beat the Fiend (Bray Wyatt) for the universal title, so named because I guess that’s more impressive than a world title, and his challenger Roman Reigns dropped out because of self isolation. So Strowman stepped in because reasons. The match itself was embarrassing. Goldberg hit a few spears which Strowman kicked out of, and then Strowman hit Goldberg with a few powerslams, which he failed to kick out of. Great.

The night finished with an absolutely pathetic match between two legends: The Undertaker and AJ Styles. Anyone who knows wrestling knows that these two have been awesome. Styles carried the TNA (ugh, actually stood for Total Nonstop Action until they rebranded as Impact Wrestling) brand almost singlehandedly since about 2002. And Undertaker has been one of the most iconic WWF (then WWE) wrestlers since his 1990 debut.

But for whatever reason, the ageing (aged?) Undertaker was in need of an ego trip. So their “boneyard match” was an embarrassing pre-taped Z-movie fight scene in which Undertaker not only destroyed (wrestling lingo for ruining someone’s career is “burying” them. In this one, Undertaker literally buried Styles. In a grave) Styles, but he also embarrased Styles’ crew and – when a bunch of hooded figures appeared – he beat them all up too. Because, you know, he’s a tough guy!

I don’t know if this was an “epic” way for Styles to retire (shot like an episode of Dog: The Bounty Hunter), or if he somehow has to continue his career after this humiliation, in which he was beaten, bloodied and begging. I’m intrigued to see what happens next, as Undertaker clearly isn’t a full time wrestler anymore.

So excited for night two, right?

* I know we shouldn’t mention the guy who killed his family, but if we’re talking ladder matches, the best one ever is, gulp, Chris Jericho vs. He Who Must Not Be Named from Royal Rumble 2001

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