by Preston Tolliver
Professional wrestling exists in its own universe, one free of disbelief, where all arguments end in some form of fisticuffs instead of rational conversation. The problems inside the wrestling ring are not like the problems outside of it; in fact, the world outside the ring hardly exists to a wrestler once they step inside those ropes. Wrestling is, of course, at its core, theater. It’s television, not competition (at least not in the traditional sense). It’s a fictional world, where fictional problems exist. Not real ones.
The problem, of course, is the real one. The empty-seated elephant in the arena; that the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just ruin the plans of tens of thousands of wrestling fans planning to attend the event set in Tampa this year, but that it also adjusted the way the company had to approach the show - and its storylines - entirely. What do you do when fears of a deadly virus remove your biggest star from your biggest event, or when social distancing rules prohibit a match you’ve been promoting for weeks?
The answer for WWE has been to change everything while acknowledging nothing at all. To steer the course and run business as usual, within the restrictions you’ve been given. To play the hand you’re dealt without acknowledging you’re even sitting at the table. Even though their biggest star, Roman Reigns, announced weeks ago that he would miss Wrestlemania because of concerns he is immunocompromised (the real-life Joe Anoa’i recently survived leukemia), the company promoted his bout against Bill Goldberg until the night before the scheduled event. And on that night, they simply announced that Bill Goldberg would take on Braun Strowman, with no mention of Reigns or the situation that caused him to bow out of what WWE bills as its biggest night of the year. There were multiple other instances in which the company would have done well to acknowledge the world outside, from the limited number of talent they could have in the area of the ring at one time to the open of Night 1, in which WWE Chief Brand Officer and heiress to the throne Stephanie McMahon stated that simply due to “the current circumstances,” that the event was different this year. It’s a level of denial unmatched outside of the White House.
But perhaps that’s what we needed this weekend, entering week three or four (depending on where you’re at) of this new life of self-isolation. Professional wrestling is nothing if not persistent in its denial of everything that happens outside its own ropes; for a couple nights, it was nice to pretend alongside with it.
As for the event itself - the one that WWE tried to save by billing it as “too big for just one night” - it certainly didn’t feel like Wrestlemania, nor did anyone expect it to. This weekend’s shows lacked the pageantry and stakes we’ve become used to. It was like watching the Super Bowl happen in your back yard, with no onlookers and not enough room.
Despite its name and the giant signs that adored the WWE Performance Center, it wasn’t Wrestlemania. It wasn’t a bad show, but it wasn’t the biggest or the best of the year. Like any other WWE show, it had its highs and lows. It was entertaining, but only as entertaining as the circumstances could allow. But more important than all that, it was a distraction - and this weekend, that was enough.