Wednesday, April 8, 2020

RambleMania 36

So we live in interesting times at the moment. There's a worldwide pandemic that making thousands sick and killing a fraction of that number. Businesses are shutdown for extended periods. Live events and sports have been postponed until further notice. Everyone is being told to stay at home. And we watch as everything around us slowly becomes a police state and who knows when things will be back to normal, if at all.

This naturally affects pro wrestling, as a lot of independent promotions had been forced to cancel events, leaving many independent contractors out of work and unable to make money. However, some have tried to get in as much content as they can in the can before they're forced to shutdown. One of them being WWE, who were supposed to hold Wrestlemania at a big stadium in Tampa, but after some back and forth, cancelled that event and decided to hold it at their Performance Center with no fans... as a pre-taped program... that's too big for one night... or something.

The debate as to whether they should've cancelled or postponed the event until we can have crowds back will be debated until the end of time, but regardless, WWE did their Mania show and whether it turned out to be a complete disaster or an utter miracle, it was going to be unique if nothing else... and as such, I break my modern WWE moratorium with Wrestlemania 36... we'll skip the one week of TV that I watched because those were pretty useless.

A word of warning: much like the Ramblemania entries of the past couple years, this is going to be a very long read, as I've opted to cover both nights in one single entry. Anyone who has followed the PPV Musings over the past couple years will know that I used to watch the longer WWE shows over the course of several nights and those would be noted in the posts, so this isn't any different from what I've done before. However, considering the circumstances, and in an effort to try and make this as timeless as possible, this one is going to be particularly meaty as I try to include some context to the mix. There is a lot to digest here and I want to get down as much as I can.

Saturday, April 4th, 2020

Alexa Bliss & Nikki Cross defeated Women's Tag-Team Champions Asuka and Kairi Sane where Bliss pinned Kairi to win the tag titles. It was a perfectly acceptable wrestling match that is marred by irritating shouting and an empty arena with no crowd reacting to it. Not sure how I feel about the new champs, which I believe are the first two-time champs of those titles... eh, largely indifferent.

Elias beat Baron Corbin with a handful of tights... apparently, Elias took a huge fall on Smackdown and his presence would be in doubt. Fortunately, the Drifter showed up so that we can have this horribly boring match made even more so by the fact that there's no crowd to curtail this. They do scream a whole lot, which is making Iron Mike Sharpe proud in the heavens above... but yeah, this wasn't very good and didn't put a smile on my face. Even under normal circumstances, this would've sucked, so it's nothing out of the ordinary.

RAW Women's Champion Becky Lynch defeated Shayna Bazler to win the title... okay?

I mean, the match was fine and all... but this should've been the Shayna ascension or whatever to give us a new threat for the women to fight and now she's just another victim of bad booking. I mean, I like Becky when she has good material, but I don't know what you could do with her as champ at this point. A year as champion and nothing sticks to me as memorable... not a good sign for someone who main evented Mania a year ago.

Actually, just thinking about that makes my brain hurt.

Intercontinental Champion Sami Zayn... oh, hey! I didn't realize Sami Zayn was the IC champion... or maybe I did and just forgot about it. That's how "in tuned" with the WWE product I'm with these days... still, good for Sami. I'm happy to see that he won a title on main roster WWE. Kinda wished he won one a year or two ago when I would've cared and more people were watching, but better late than never, I suppose.

So, Intercontinental Champion Sami Zayn defeated Daniel Bryan Danielson via outside distraction due to a bunch of guys beating some other guys (Cesaro and someone else beating up Drew Gulak, I think?) to retain the title. Again, this was a perfectly acceptable little wrestling match that would've been a great match had there been a crowd to react to... well, that and a proper finish as opposed to the fuck finish that made Bryan into a geek, but whatever.

And then we get this match... a Triple Threat match for the Smackdown Tag-Team championships between champion John Morrison, Jimmy Uso, and Kofi Kingston. Why, yes, they did have the TAG TEAM TITLES on the line in a SINGLES THREE-WAY... with no explanation as to why. Behind the scenes, this was supposed to be a tag-team three-way between the champs Morrison/Miz, the Usos, and the New Day... but Miz was sick before they taped the match, so they just made it a singles three-way... okay, that was weird. In any event, Morrison wins the match to retain the titles for his team in a pretty good ladder match that only makes me wonder why Morrison isn't doing anything better than carry Miz around.

Kevin Owens defeated Seth Rollins in a thing that happened. They had a false finish where Seth hit KO with the bell for the DQ, but KO demands a no-DQ match so that they can do the brawl in the empty seats and that leads us to KO splashing Rollins through the table via high jump from the stage... and then they go back to the ring so KO can KICK! WHAM! STUNNER! Rollins for the pin, which seems very anticlimatic and stuff. The match before the DQ was perfectly acceptable wrestling fare, but the stuff afterwards... didn't do much for me. Not even the big jump towards the end, which felt like a waste if that wasn't going to be the finish. Oh well.

Braun Strowman defeated Blue Belt Champion Goldberg to win the title in a match that involved Strowman kicking out of a couple Spears before giving Goldberg several power slams for the eventual pinfall... and one wonders if this was how the originally-scheduled Roman Reigns vs. Goldberg match would've played out had Roman not pulled out due to concerns over the pandemic considering his past battles with leukemia. I'd imagine a match like this wouldn't have gotten over with the crowd all that much... but yeah, Strowman is a Universal champion despite being a very last-minute replacement for Roman... as in, they only announced Strowman as a "new challenger" for Goldberg on the go-home Smackdown that took place 24 hours before Night One!

I suppose I should be happy to see Strowman finally get a World title under his belt, even if it happened long past the point of it meaning a thing and done mostly as a throwaway moment on a throwaway show. I don't see this reign lasting too long, though. But then again, who knows how long things are going to be the way they are?

And in the main event of Night One, the Undertaker defeated AJ Styles in a Boneyard Match; essentially a mini-movie of sorts where Undertaker and AJ are fighting in a graveyard set for a good ten minutes or so before AJ get buried... for the reals. So, this turns out to be a Buried Alive match, but in a cemetery. Fair enough. There were druids involved, there were Anderson and Gallows, there was a bit of Metallica as Taker made his way to the Boneyard... this was, for all intents and purposes, produced as a little action flick and it was easily the highlight of the night.

A regular match between Taker and AJ would've been the drizzling shits even with a crowd on hand. And so, in a rare bit of foresight from WWE, they took advantage of the current situation and crafted a little production that veered more into mini-action movie territory. It's the same sort of what they're calling "cinematic wrestling" style that you'd get with the Broken Hardy stuff, but less goofy. And this is exactly what it needed to be; they went crazy, they had a fight in a unique setting, they put some production behind it, they made it to be this elaborate set-piece, and really took advantage of the situation they were in. It was something that would NEVER happen under the usual circumstances, but since we're not in the usual circumstances and they needed SOMETHING to make this show worthwhile, they came up with this Boneyard production and it was amazing.

Quite frankly, if WWE did nothing but these filmed segments for the foreseeable future, I'd imagine more people would care. Mind you, I'm not saying this was GOOD or anything. I could do without the ADHD-fueled camera cut barrage or the rather enlongated fight, but as a production for the television masses, it was entertaining enough and it did put a smile on my face. So they got that going for it.

And that concludes Night One, which is off to a good start despite some hiccups... on to Night Two.

Sunday, April 5th, 2020

Full disclosure: I was watching this Monday morning and only half paying attention... so don't be surprised if I just skim through some matches.

Baby Flair defeated NXT Women's Champion Rhea Ripley to win the title because of course she did. Why are you surprised? Despite this pandemic, I'm pretty sure we'll be seeing Baby Flair be a 20-time champion before year's end... and look, the match was fine. It was a good match, but honestly, I'm so disconnected with Baby Flair matches that the technical bits don't matter if the ending is coming and you don't care.

Aleister Black defeated Bobby Lashley because Lana gave Lashley bad advice. I'll be honest; I didn't pay too much attention to this one. Probably because I didn't care... but from what I saw, I didn't miss much.

Otis defeated Dolph Ziggler via an assist from Mandy Rose who punched Dolph in the balls, resulting in Otis and Mandy getting together after weeks of miscommunication and deceit and stuff. I'd probably care more if I were following the storyline, but eventually the big guy got the win and the girl, so I guess it's a happy ending.

Edge defeated Randy Orton in a Last Man Standing match that took place all over the empty Performance Center. You know... props to Edge for coming out of retirement and doing his best. To his credit, he looked good for the most part. And Orton, when motivated, can be great... but this was long and boring. It was so boring that I had forgotten that there was a hanging, which... isn't a smart thing to do in a post-Benoit world. It was a 30+ minute match that would've been best served as a nice 10-15 minute brawl tops instead of the impromptu and subtle tour of the empty Performance Center that this ended up being. Nothing of note happened, it wasn't entertaining, and I'm sorry, but this is a pre-taped match; they could've trimmed it down considerably. And don't give me any crap about "just appreciate they did this match during trying times." I ain't giving away participation trophies for risking your well-being for a silly wrestling show during a pandemic.

Folks, you want an entertaining empty arena match? Go watch Halftime Heat from 1999 and watch the match between Rock and Mankind. That was a fun empty arena match... or, you know, any TNA house show that someone taped and put on Youtube.

Hey, wasn't there a match in Japan where two guys were staring at each other for 30 minutes before any semblance of physical contact was made? Anyone know where I can watch that?

RAW Tag-Team Champions Street Profits defeated Angel Garza/Austin Theory in a tag-team match to retain the titles. This was a thing that happened and I didn't pay much attention... but hey, at least the tag titles were defended in a tag-team match.

Smackdown Women's Champion Bayley defeated Lacey Evans, Sasha Banks, Glow Girl, and Tamina in a five-way elimination match to retain the title... in a thing that happened. This was another one that went too long and I just phased out. This is all pre-taped, by the way.

And then we have the "other" cinematic match between John Cena and Bray Wyatt... the Firefly Funhouse match, where there are lots of "crazy edits" and wacky skits cobbled together to create a thing that ends with Wyatt pinning Cena to "win" or something... I like the callbacks to Cena's past gimmicks as well as those of Wyatt. I like the "throwback" to Saturday Night's Main Event, complete with Obsession playing instead of whatever overdubbed theme song they have on the Network (I'd imagine that'll show up on the replay done the road), and I got a chuckle or two out of some of it... but when it was all said and done, I was left wondering what the fuck I just watched... and not in a good way.

Here's the key difference; the Boneyard match was kind of cinematic and had some issues, but it was a straight-up fight with some goofy bits and it was easy to follow. You knew what was going on, you knew there was a fight, and you knew who won this thing decisively. The Firefly thing... I had no fucking clue what was going on and while I chuckled, the smile was ever briefly and I was left befuddled. This did not work for me... at all. It might've worked better as something that you use to build towards a match between Cena and Wyatt, not the actual match. People can claim all they want that it was "creative," but honestly, there was nothing creative about this. It was just random nostalgic references for the sake of nostalgia and artsy-fartsy storytelling from a company who couldn't keep continuity straight if it bit them in the ass. Not a fan of this one, at all.

And in the main event, Drew McIntyre defeated WWE World Champion Brock Lesnar in the stock Brock Lesnar match featuring finisher kickouts, suplexes galore, and just the usual lazy style of match to retain the title. Much like many of these matches, the lack of a crowd hurts this one considerably and only accentuates the lethargic and tedious flaws of the match. Good for Drew, however, glad to see him win the big one, even if it's in an empty house.

And so... that was Wrestlemania 36, a hodgepodge of pre-taped, empty arena matches with perhaps only a couple highlights at most. For what it's worth, the overall show was not the complete disaster that people were dreading it to be... well, the Saturday show had its moments and the Sunday show was completely and utterly worthless even under the best of circumstances. But even with that having been said, I would definitely rank this as one of the weaker Wrestlemania shows... if only because as good of a show it turned out to be, it certainly wasn't worthy of the Wrestlemania moniker.

Would this have been better off as a stadium show with people? I'd imagine a lot of these matches would've benefited from the extra noise. WWE crowds are quite worthless nowadays, but they usually make a difference between a good match and a great one. A bunch of moments would've been best served in front of a live audience to react to it. Without that atmosphere, a lot of this stuff feels flat and uninteresting; especially when they're doing the same match in an empty arena that they would've done if there's a crowd to react to.

One thing is for sure; this Wrestlemania is certainly unique. For the past few years, these shows tended to blend together because they all feel the same, with the same folks dominating the same spots over and over again. You certainly don't have that problem here and... if I can toss another positive, I sincerely hope they stick with the two-night format from hereon out. Two nights, three hours a piece, perfectly digestible material, and it went by easily... well, Night 1 did. Night 2 went as badly as everyone expected.

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