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‘Wrestlemania’ With No Audience is Really Strange

Sometimes you don’t realize how important something is until you take it out. For instance, the live audience reactions and laugh tracks on TV shows. Sometimes they’re really bad, like on Sports Night or How I Met Your Mother. They even released MASH without the laugh track, which makes the show better overall. But if you take the laugh track out of a traditionally filmed multi-cam sitcom, it’s an absolute train wreck full of awkward conversational pauses for no reason.

It turns out that professional wrestling is the latter.

As someone who used to like pro wrestling quite a bit in the 90s, I thought I’d take advantage of my free WWE Network trial to watch Wrestlemania 36. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life.

The introductions to the night with Stephanie McMahon and Rob Gronkowski weren’t really that unusual for pro wrestling, although the normal fanfare of Wrestlemania being replaced with something that felt more like WWF Superstars set a strange tone.

The weirdness of no audience being present was somewhat offset by night one of the two-night event starting with a great women’s tag team championship match. I don’t normally watch wrestling to know who is who and the match had virtually no introduction, so I’m guessing that The Kabuki Warriors are the heels and Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross are the faces because Asuka and Kairi Sane were the most entertaining wrestlers in the entire event and they dropped their titles to two women who didn’t appear to know a hammer lock from a ham sandwich.

I don’t know who decided it was a good idea to have Bradshaw do the color commentary for Wrestlemania, but good lord was he uninspiring. I know Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon are dead but there are options. Get Jesse Ventura or Jerry Lawler; hell, I’ll take Jim Cornette’s folksy boomer racism at this point.

The rest of the first night was a bit of a slog. A lot of wrestlers have crowd appeals built into their routines and did absolutely nothing to change those routines when there’s no audience. I couldn’t help but imagine what a sociopath Hulk Hogan would look like cupping his hand to his ear in an empty studio like this.

A lot of the spectacle and pyrotechnics seemed especially out of place in this audience-free performance. As an example, Becky Lynch drove the cab of a truck about 20 feet in an empty parking lot. I’m sure it seems cool when there’s an audience cheering for you but this just highlighted how silly some of these things are.

The first night ended with what can only be described as the most bizarre thing I’ve ever see on pro wrestling. The Undertaker fought AJ Styles in a graveyard and it was filmed like a TV drama. The problem is that wrestling choreography is really impressive in a boxing ring but not so much in a TV drama. I’ve seen Sarah Michelle Gellar in more entertaining fights. It was a real low-note to end night one on.

Night two started by confirming what I had already believed from night one, that women’s wrestling is better than men’s wrestling now. Charlotte Flair fought Rhea Ripley for the NXT Women’s Championship in an opening match was the highlight of the evening. Being a Flair, Charlotte really knows how to put on a show. It was the first time I’d ever seen her wrestle and she did not disappoint.

If you’ve ever thought wrestling is kind of gay, you should check out the last man standing match between Edge and Randy Orton; I’ve seen gay porn that was less homoerotic than that match. Orton kept telling Edge he loved him before the match turned into sweaty dudes grunting in a gym. It was also about 10-15 minutes too long. There’s only so long you can watch dudes hit each other with whatever they find lying around backstage and have it be entertaining.

There were two heavyweight championship matches and they were both around a minute long, which was crazy. Definitely the shortest matches of the night, but it was kind of a relief after watching whatever the hell that Firefly Funhouse thing was. I had never actually seen John Cena wrestle before tonight and I still haven’t. He did fight a puppet and I found out you can say s**t but not f**k on WWE Network, but I still have no idea why everyone hates John Cena.

All in all, I can’t say I recommend watching wrestling without an audience. The women’s matches were all great, as was the tag match between the Street Profits and Angel Garza and Austin Theory because they all reminded me of the type of wrestling the WCW Cruiserweight division used to do. The Fatal Five-Way match for the Smackdown Women’s belt was the only match in the entire two night, six hour event to take advantage of the lack of audience and have the wrestlers talk through the match. But it’s just too weird for me. And coming back to watch some wrestling after two decades to these empty-house shows just didn’t make think I’d missed anything.

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