10 Unanswered Questions About a Fan-Less WrestleMania

The Week in Wrestling: WWE’s tough task of delivering an entertaining WrestleMania without any fans, the coronavirus ends an indie wrestler’s career and more.
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What does an empty-arena WrestleMania mean for fans?

Eighteen years ago—almost to the day—more than 60,000 people packed the SkyDome in Toronto for WrestleMania 18.

The show will forever be known for its showdown between Hulk Hogan and The Rock, which generated an incredible response from the sell-out crowd. 

It is impossible to imagine that match taking place in an empty arena.

This year’s WrestleMania will take place as advertised, but no longer at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

About an hour before the start of Monday’s Raw, WWE officially announced that WrestleMania 36 will be held at the company’s Performance Center in Orlando, with only essential personnel present.

What does this mean for fans?

Will the lack of a crowd impact booking decisions? Is going on with the show the right choice for the health of everyone involved? Will a WWE broadcaster ever utter the word, “coronavirus”?

With the Hall of Fame ceremony and NXT TakeOver moved to a future date, and indie shows in a situation where they are forced to cancel, WrestleMania is currently the only show in town. Here are some of the pressing questions surrounding what a move to the Performance Center—if WWE actually goes through with that plan—means for fans eagerly anticipating WrestleMania.

1. Is WrestleMania actually going to take place at the Performance Center?

This is a valid question.

A rumor surfaced Tuesday that the idea of announcing WrestleMania at the Performance Center is nothing more than a way of demonstrating real losses for insurance purposes.

WrestleMania is the most special event in all of wrestling. I still cannot envision a scenario where WrestleMania is held in front of no fans. The logical scenario, then, is that the show would be postponed—but until when? The situation with the coronavirus is far too fluid and uncertain to make plans for May, June, or perhaps even July.

Would a WrestleMania at the Performance Center tarnish its image? Vince McMahon is adamant against canceling, and rescheduling presents a new set of challenges with so much uncertainty surrounding the immediate future.

Given the limited options for live entertainment in our new world of social isolation, WrestleMania will be an especially highly anticipated event. Even if it meets all of the city of Orlando’s requirements, and takes place without putting the health of the talent at risk, which are both major concerns, then it will be extraordinarily hard to meet the expectations set in years prior.

But, if the show does run, people will be watching.

2. Will there be any fans in the stands of the Performance Center?

No. And this creates all sorts of difficulties for the on-air product.

Wrestling specifically functions with a live fan base, and the atmosphere feels disconnected without it. An empty arena changes the entire dynamic of WrestleMania. On a business end, how does this affect payouts for talent without a live gate?

WWE has three weeks to plan out a spectacular show that will compensate for the lack of crowd energy.

3. What will the Performance Center look like on Sunday, April 5?

If the PC is truly the host of the “Showcase of Immortals,” then the venue needs to look entirely different for WrestleMania.

After an expectation of sold-out football stadiums filled with thousands of fans from across the globe, this year’s WrestleMania is in a workout facility. So ’Mania is fighting an uphill battle in terms of presentation.

Maybe you remove all the seats. Or completely reconfigure the entrance and ring set-up. No matter what decision is made, WrestleMania needs to look completely different than Raw, NXT, and SmackDown. And it desperately needs some pomp and circumstance to remind viewers that this is the biggest, most important show in wrestling.

4. Does holding WrestleMania in a venue without fans change the booking decisions?

Holding WrestleMania in an empty arena does not change booking decisions; it reinforces them.

Roman Reigns is a prime example. There was a distinct possibility that Reigns was going to be cheered in his match against Goldberg, but whether he was or wasn’t is now rendered moot. Reigns will defeat Goldberg for the Universal title, and the narrative on commentary and ensuing celebration will project in the exact manner in which WWE wants. They could even have other stars give Reigns a standing ovation in the ring, or drop confetti, or have him cut a promo following the victory (and he has been tremendous lately on the mic).

There are no guarantees that it connects with viewers. But with upcoming editions of Raw and SmackDown taking place in the Performance Center, including the Raw after WrestleMania, WWE has an opportunity to present its talent in a very precise manner.

5. Will any of the performers choose not to participate in WrestleMania?

This is unlikely.

The majority of WWE’s top stars are already committed to the show. There are notable exceptions in Daniel Bryan, Kofi Kingston and Braun Strowman, but they have all yet to be booked for storyline purposes, not because they are choosing not to wrestle.

Right or wrong, the talent is taught to always perform. Although there have been instances where stars—like Bryan and John Cena—chose not to travel to Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia in 2018, that does not appear to be a problem as of now regarding WrestleMania and the potential spread of the coronavirus.

6. How do you watch WrestleMania?

The show will be streaming live on the WWE Network and available on pay-per-view.

It is a surprise that WWE chose not to be more creative in its distribution of WrestleMania. Is the fact that this show is not exclusively available on pay-per-view a sign that WrestleMania will not run as scheduled at the PC? Demand for the PPV broadcast would likely be high. The event is always special, and even more so this year with stoppages all North American sports. 

If we are to believe the current plan, then one part makes complete sense: It will be a Vince McMahon-run event, in a building he owns and streamed on his very own network.

7. What happens if a WWE talent tests positive for the coronavirus?

This, obviously, would alter the entire event.

WWE can recommend that its talent self-quarantine, but an appearance on Raw, SmackDown, or NXT leaves people open to the threat of catching and spreading the disease, including to non-WWE employees. People’s health should be the number one priority, and if one talent or staff or crew member has the coronavirus, then the whole status of WrestleMania is put in jeopardy.

“In consultation with WWE Medical Director Dr. Maroon, WWE Associate Medical Director Dr. Dugas and ringside physician Dr. Westerfield, as a best practice and precautionary measure all WWE performers and staff are required to participate in medical screenings prior to entering WWE’s training center, which is now operating as a closed set,” WWE said in a statement when asked by Sports Illustrated if talent and staff are being tested for the coronavirus.

Additional contacts close with WWE have informed Sports Illustrated that WWE has established a series of protocols, based on guidelines set by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to minimize risks and protect its performers and staff. Due to the lack of testing for people in need, contacts close to the situation told SI that WWE is not testing those that are asymptomatic.

8. Without a TakeOver, will there be room for NXT matches?

NXT is WWE’s third brand, and it would only make sense for that talent roster to be involved at WrestleMania.

The event could include performers from the black and gold brand like Keith Lee, Tommaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano, Adam Cole and Finn Balor. With no ladder match currently scheduled for WrestleMania, would WWE consider adding the NXT women’s number one contender ladder match to the ’Mania card? That would be an outstanding platform to further introduce the world to some of NXT’s rising stars like Tegan Nox, Mia Yim, and Chelsea Green.

But I would go a different route. I wouldn’t include the NXT stars in the “Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal,” nor would I squeeze in a couple extra matches on the card. The only active NXT star set to receive a spotlight at WrestleMania is Rhea Ripley, and I would keep it that way.

Adding in the stars from NXT will only put them in the shadow of talent from the main roster, which is not the right move, considering NXT has bona fide, genuine stars on that roster that should never be positioned as less than when compared to the WWE talent.

9. Could WrestleMania be a tighter, shorter card this year?

Probably not.

Eight matches are already scheduled to take place, and that is without the tag team title matches or a United States title match.

Here is the current card:

  • WWE champion Brock Lesnar vs. Drew McIntyre
  • Universal Champion Goldberg vs. Roman Reigns
  • Raw Women’s Champion Becky Lynch vs. Shayna Baszler
  • NXT Women’s Champion Rhea Ripley vs. Charlotte Flair
  • John Cena vs. “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt
  • The Undertaker vs. AJ Styles
  • Edge vs. Randy Orton in a “Last Man Standing” match
  • Kevin Owens vs. Seth Rollins

If the show operates in a four-and-a-half-hour timeframe, then there is enough time for 12 matches.

Bayley also needs to defend her SmackDown Women’s Championship, Sami Zayn should put the Intercontinental title on the line in some type of rematch against Braun Strowman, and someone—Rey Mysterio after his non-title win on Monday? Aleister Black finally getting a chance at gold?—will challenge Andrade for the U.S. title. That puts the card at 11 matches.

Rob Gronkowski and Mojo Rawley will be part of the card, though their match is likely to be short. Facing the team of The Miz and John Morrison in a SmackDown tag title match is an early candidate for their spot on the show.

Instead of adding more matches to an already crowded show, the “Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal” should be re-imagined. Instead of simply a battle royal where everyone starts in the ring together, WWE needs to show creativity in the way it books the match, which was accomplished perfectly at All In—the show led by Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks—in September 2018.

There is certainly plenty of room for a new approach at WrestleMania 36.

10. Will the moments still stand out?

Having your “WrestleMania Moment” in front of an empty arena cannot be what Drew McIntyre envisioned after he won the Royal Rumble.

This was McIntyre’s opportunity to have his hand raised in front of 70,000 people at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, and it appeared to be a dream situation for Shayna Baszler, who is likely to rip Becky Lynch apart in the upset of the night.

But there will be no crowd at this year’s ’Mania, and WWE has its work cut out to provide viewers with a show to remember. Every element of the show, from the broadcast to the décor to the execution in the ring, needs to be outstanding in order for this WrestleMania to be more than simply one that was ruined by the coronavirus.

Kevin Owens was left off last year’s WrestleMania card, and that undoubtedly has him hungry to prove he is worthy of his spot this year. Owens, along with a collection of some of the best wrestlers in the world, seeks to make this show stand out for all the right reasons inside the ring.

Coronavirus cancelations mark the end of Erick Stevens’s career

The wrestling career of Erick Stevens did not end as planned.

Stevens was scheduled to wrestle his retirement match in a fitting manner, wrestling Chris Dickinson at Beyond Wrestling’s “Big Balls” show that was planned to run directly opposite WrestleMania in Tampa.

The idea of wrestling in front of an intimate, dedicated group of fans, all while WWE was performing its biggest show of the year, felt right to Stevens. Plus, after nine years away from the business, he would have started and finished his comeback against Dickinson.

But his plans were suddenly ripped away from him when the coronavirus forced mass cancelations across the entertainment world, including independent wrestling.

“The decision was made for me,” said Stevens, who had made plans a year ago to retire from wrestling during WrestleMania weekend in Tampa, the site of his first match. “This is definitely not how I pictured things ending. If you told me a year ago that my comeback would have been cut short by a global pandemic, I would have laughed. It’s a hard pill to swallow, and I’m still not completely at peace with it.”

Stevens’s disappointment does not lessen his accomplishments over the past year, especially considering he was able to make a name for himself, again, in pro wrestling, which was remarkable after stepping away for almost a decade.

“I’m proud of what I did and I’m happy I decided to come back, but there still needs to be some closure,” said Stevens. “I don’t know what that means. It’s definitely not the way I saw it ending, but I was wrong to look at this whole run as me writing an end to the story of Erick Stevens. In reality, it was the end of another chapter. Will there be another chapter? It’s hard to say. There is so much up in the air with our daily lives right now. But this is definitely not how I pictured it ending.

“As a competitor, I was not sure if I was going to be able to come back at all. From the moment I had that first match with Dickinson, to my last match, I gained confidence. Each match, I felt more like my old self. By my last couple matches, I truly believed that I was better than I was in the prime of my first run. I got a taste for wrestling again, and once I got that first nibble, I just wanted more. It needed to come to a final crescendo, and then the rug got yanked out from underneath me before I could finish.”

A moment from the return that Stevens will not soon forget is the feeling he experienced in a hard-hitting, memorable match against David Starr from this past New Year’s Eve show in Beyond Wrestling.

“New Year’s Eve will always stick with me,” said Stevens. “I had wanted a match with David Starr. He is the name, the guy, in independent wrestling. We went out there and had a fun physical contest. I’d never had money thrown into the ring after my match until that night, which was a surreal moment. To feel the appreciation and respect for you as a performer, that will stick with me forever.

“The reason I got into wrestling is because of the way I would feel when watching. They made me feel so inspired and so good, it was so entertaining. All I ever wanted to do was never to make money, it was to make people feel the way I was made to feel. Getting to do that was an incredible opportunity.”

As for what comes next, Stevens returns to his real persona—Eric Koenreich—and his full-time work, which is running Kookies & Kream, and creating some delicious cookies and ice cream, with his wife Kelsea.

“I love food, especially cookies and ice cream,” said Stevens. “When I eat really good ice cream, that feeling is so great. That’s my job, and it is doing very well. I’ve made a lot of new fans of my cookies in wrestling, and I’m thankful for all the people who appreciate my work.”

Stevens is extremely passionate, putting an intense amount of care into his work, which makes his departure from wrestling so difficult.

“I care about professional wrestling so much and I love professional wrestling so much,” said Stevens. “That’s why the end of this comeback was so brutally bittersweet. This whole comeback was my love letter to professional wrestling. I came back because I love it. Now hopefully I can make a name in food like I made a name in professional wrestling.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Here is refund information regarding those who purchased tickets for WrestleMania 36
  • Steve Austin brought back memories of his beer-drinking, ass-kicking days on Monday Night Raw, making the most of his Raw appearance on Monday, which shared a little bit of the spotlight with Becky Lynch—and placed Byron Saxton in the role Vince McMahon used to play.
  • Austin interviewed Bret Hart on the newest edition of The Broken Skull Sessions, and Hart was open and honest about his relationship with Vince McMahon and his time in WCW. 
  • Edge vs. Randy Orton in a “Last Man Standing” match at WrestleMania could be criticized as a tone-deaf decision, but I have heard from multiple sources that it was the originally plan before the spread of the pandemic. 
  • Edge delivered an excellent promo on Raw, which we later learned was coming off a 17-hour drive to Orlando.
  • Bray Wyatt deleted his tweet challenging John Cena to a fight at Hooters in the event that WrestleMania was canceled, but Cena had some fun with his reply. 
  • Worlds collide as NFL insider Adam Schefter tweets about Rob Gronkowski’s next WWE appearance, which is set for this Friday on SmackDown
  • I have enjoyed every piece of the build for AJ Styles and The Undertaker’s match to WrestleMania, especially Styles’ promo on Raw, with one glaring exception: Why does this whole story need to be the fault of The Undertaker’s wife? Perhaps it is a way to address ’Taker coming back for big paydays without actually calling him out for it.
  • CM Punk offered his take on a WrestleMania without fans. 
  • AEW and NXT will both air Wednesday, and it is a perfect time to unveil the Dark Order’s “Exalted One.” 
  • Ring of Honor has canceled all live events through May 31. 
  • Pro Wrestling Tees continues to support wrestlers, even creating some new t-shirts directly aimed at battling the coronavirus. 
  • · Nice to see Chris Jericho—and a number of other wrestlers—supporting WrestleCon as the Marriott Hotel attempts to profit off of the misfortune of a group suffering due to a global pandemic. 
  • After working the empty arena SmackDown on Friday, Sami Zayn started a tremendous thread about memories of working shows in front of small audiences. For me, as a child, I remember my father taking me to shows of under 30 people with Scott Taylor as the headline act (he worked a fantastic “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels routine) years before he starred as Scotty Too Hotty. 
  • If you’re in need of a distraction, here is Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins singing “Shake It Off.” 
  • For those seeking another way to pass the time, here is another great clip.

Conrad Thompson previews this week’s edition of “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard”

A new episode of Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard drops this Friday at noon, and this week, fittingly, is an “Ask Bruce Anything” show.

“A lot of our listeners want to hear about what is going on with the coronavirus,” said cohost Conrad Thompson. “Now in reality, by the time we tape and air this, the whole situation could change again. I’m sure the WWE has had three or four different plans, and they’ve had to adjust those as the situation has changed. And even though we specifically say we’re not going to talk about any new stuff, there is a lot of new stuff to talk about it. I’m going to slip in as many of those questions as I can, but I do expect most of the Q&A to be about the ‘golden era’ of the WWE in the 1980s and the ‘Attitude Era’ of the late ’90s.”

Since we are officially in the midst of WrestleMania season, Thompson expects the discussion to largely focus on Prichard’s memories of some of the most iconic moments in WWE history.

“Some of Bruce’s favorite WrestleMania moments, from WrestleMania IV on, will definitely be covered, and even the shows that he missed, will be very interesting to discuss,” said Thompson. “I like the Q&A format because we get to touch on topics that maybe otherwise wouldn’t merit their own longform show. We had to call an audible to the show last week with the big change to SmackDown, so the idea that we can also focus on the Handbaby and Mae Young this week could also be fun.”

Tweet of the Week

Hangman Page gives his recommendations on how to combat COVID-19.

Stay safe, everyone.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.