My relationship with WrestleMania certainly is not what it once was. Whereas it used to be the event that gave my pro wrestling fandom its yearly shot of adrenaline, helping me get through the doldrum periods of a never-ending calendar of events, in recent years my philosophical disagreement primarily with the usage of modern stars and the bloated, “more is more” presentation style left me jaded with wrestling’s grandest stage. Without the medicinal boost of enthusiasm each spring, my WWE fandom was dying.
WWE has played a huge role in my existence, as those who know me best can attest. If I’m passionate about something, I take it very seriously; in accordance with that mindset, if something causes one of my passions to sour, it is to me very serious. My message to my kids in the dedication I wrote for my second book stated, “Nothing you are passionate about is trivial” and I stand by my unbridled enthusiasm for this wonderfully whacky performance art-form. Only through writing this article did it fully sink how awfully weird it has been to have reached a place where AEW and even New Japan rather than WWE are my go-to sources for pro wrestling. WWE’s brand of sports entertainment is my oldest past-time, dating back to 1987.
A separation from my WWE fandom needed to happen, though. Some can watch and be alright with WWE doing the equivalent of, if the NBA was scripted, “booking” Michael Jordan at 50+ years old and a shell of himself for the NBA Finals every year (and extending the Playoffs to include every team, too, #endrant). I no longer could. To paraphrase a famous Triple H promo, “Evolution passed WWE by.” CM Punk once said, “Everything that happens in WWE could be better.” When I started to feel like the vast majority of everything happening in WWE could be WAY better and the product had suffered from a half decade of devolution, that was when I knew it was time for a change.
WrestleMania this year, however, took on a very different context, what with the stressors of real life quite challenging to escape.
Like a lot of things I had been grappling with, my recent issues with WWE did not seem to matter and I was borderline desperate for their brand of escapism, especially in the absence of any other sports to consume as healthy distractions; that dynamic combined with several months spent recharging, ironically, through isolating myself from the WWE product made me more than willing to give WrestleMania a clean slate to connect with me on as deep a level as it could.
Knowing their backs were against the wall, I went into the show with my curiosity piqued to see how they would handle the adversity of having no crowd. Personally, I had already been conditioned through AEW Dynamite for three prior weeks to watch wrestling with zero live audience factor, so the weirdness was largely gone already for me (though I, myself, have written for a decade that the level of audience participation is one of the key factors in evaluating the overall success of the pro wrestling performance). To be a wrestler, though, whose professional existence has been built on engaging people to elicit their reaction? And at an event like WrestleMania known for packing 75,000 or more into a football stadium fashioned by WWE for ultimate exhibitions of grandeur? The lack of a crowd, for wrestlers and for WrestleMania, was an enormous hurdle to leap.
WWE had not faced any significant adversity in a long time. It is a company that I feel has coasted on its historical reputation for years now, content to milk nostalgic resonance for its past at the expense of its present product’s quality (albeit not its financial bottom line). COVID-19 forced WWE out of its comfort zone like nothing else in a decade has. I think that, as they often have in eras gone by when they needed a big hit, WWE and its performers truly stepped up last weekend. WrestleMania was innovative, splitting up the event across two nights instead of exhausting its loyal viewers with another monstrous 7 straight hour spectacle and using the largely untapped genre of cinematic wrestling (as modern pioneer Matt Hardy dubbed his baby) to put a uniquely definitive stamp on the 36th Showcase of the Immortals. It also, to my immense appreciation, put the bulk of its focus – from the opening video montage to the run-times of the matches to the chosen victors of said matches – on the current generation of stars.
I’m thinking only hindsight will fully contextualize the following statement, but I loved WrestleMania this year and walked away from it feeling as good about where WWE is headed as I have in several years. Most importantly, I just had a blast watching it in the moment. I watched Night 1 on Saturday live and then Night 2 Tuesday without spoilers, giving myself the most opportune times on my schedule to best appreciate their presentation and avoid getting sucked into my old critical patterns. My second favorite act of all-time, Edge, came back from a nine year retirement and had a match that I thought echoed Bret Hart’s praise of it looking and sounding like a real fight; my namesake, Drew McIntyre, won the WWE Title in the main-event; my daughter’s favorite wrestler, Charlotte Flair, furthered a legacy that is beginning to legitimately look like her father’s; and again those cinematic productions were tremendously well put together (see more in-depth match thoughts here at my old stomping grounds). I needed catharsis, and WrestleMania was cathartic.
Going through the rough patch in my relationship with WrestleMania has been akin to having an on-going political argument with a best friend that neither of us could quite move beyond to resume our friendship as it was previously, and COVID-19 subsequently became the thing that made us realize that our squabble no longer mattered enough for it continue impacting our relationship. I’ve made some new friends, if you will (in AEW and New Japan), that I enjoy hanging out with a bit more than WWE right now, but it feels good to know that a trying time has built a bridge for me and my old pal WrestleMania to reconnect and get back on good terms.