2020. The strangest and most intriguing time to he a wrestling fan that there has ever been.
The last couple of years have brought about so much development within the industry. Whether it be changes to the WWE product, the womens evolution, the ever-impressive rise of NXT, the birth of AEW resulting in arguably the company’s most substantial competition since the early 2000’s or the current circumstance of our planet & the pandemic we now face as a society. Of all the changes, the latter is probably the most noteworthy and is the basis for what this article is based on.
Facing the global pandemic for the coronavirus (or COVID-19, take your pick) has affected so much more than simple television viewing, and in no way is any of this to position the state of professional wrestling over the state of the lives of so many people during this time of crisis. It’s a time when everything we love or hold dear is different, maybe even non-existent for the time being, and like anything else professional wrestling fans such as myself are looking in on an industry being presented like never before.
I’ve been watching wrestling since before I can remember. Since the fondest days of the Monday Night War all the way to now, where most of what we’re used to seeing has been stripped away from weekly programming. Wrestling isn’t what it once was, and likely won’t be the same for a long time like so many other things but it’s given me a good chance to look at the business from an angle I’d likely never see if not for the circumstances. With what’s usually considered the heart of each show, the fans, currently watching wrestling from home, I've learnt a few things about what makes a show like this so special and I thought I’d break down what sticks out the most from this very peculiar time.
Everything Just Feels Quicker
To start off simply, the pacing of almost every wrestling show has been flipped upside down, whether for better or worse is your own personal call, but the manner in which things flow has certainly changed a great deal. Without a live audience it’s clear that operating things under the same pattern as before would crush any momentum, so every company and the business as a whole has forced changes to how we know a wrestling product to be:
• We are seeing substantially more squash matches than ever before.
• Promos are no longer overly long & crammed to the brim with too much content to actually care about.
• Entrances are a third their usual length due to smaller production stages.
• With no audience to cover it up with noise, the impact of every punch & kick is felt with great physicality.
• The role of managers, or having personalities around ringside, has been more pivotal than ever before.
Personally, I like the new format and am enjoying wrestling more than I have in a very long time. These 2 and 3 hour shows absolutely fly by now, as opposed to a year ago when you felt every single second of a RAW broadcast dragging by.
Match Lengths Have Changed Drastically
We all love a good, long professional wrestling match, or any lengthy contest from any kind of action-based sport for that matter. Whether it’s wrestling, MMA or boxing, a lengthy bout is what a lot of fans pay their money to see. The longer the match, the more grueling the action generally gets, it draws the crowd investment to new heights as the intensity surges & as a result it gives the competitors more energy to feed off of as they fight on. However, wrestling in an arena with no crowd, is an entirely different story.
If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from the last month or so, it’s that under these circumstances, it’s that sometimes-performing matches ranging above 30 minutes in an arena with no audience isn’t always the smartest idea. Without an audience presence the focus of your match no longer hinges on the fans sat in the audience, but is now re-directed to what’s going on in the ring, and unless completely warranted through effective storytelling, the performance you put in may not be enough to hold the viewers watching through their screens.
Edge vs Randy Orton from WrestleMania 36, the AEW World Championship bout between Jon Moxley & Jake Hager and the supposedly final encounter between Johnny Gargano & Tomasso Ciampa pose the perfect examples of how match length can work in your favour but also sometimes work against it. Edge & Randy Orton managed to hold interest not just due to it being the most well thought out & built storyline for the first part of the year but also the nostalgia of having the ‘Rated-R Superstar’ back in a ring for the first time in 9 years and as a result, despite still having my own issues with the match, it mostly warranted the 40-minute length it ended up going.
Gargano & Ciampa however, had very little going for them in terms of stakes. The storyline possessed the aura of being completely forced from the setup it received at the Takeover show prior, as well as being an unnecessary chapter to a rivalry that was well past its expiry date and ended at the perfect time & place.
On the other hand, you have Moxley & Hager’s AEW bout which simply overstayed its welcome due to a lack of tension, as well as the clear hindrance in Hager’s ability to hold a match longer than 15 minutes due to his arsenal not being the most diversified. It certainly had its moments but felt more like a chore than a piece of entertainment.
While I’m by no means inciting that every match should be relegated to being below the 15-minute mark, it’s pretty clear that the creative teams are working within a limited field creatively, and since their storytelling will struggle to expand itself for a little while maybe following the mindset of ‘quantity over quality’ isn’t the wisest approach for the time being. Sometimes short & simple is all this sport needs.
Wrestling Is A Cinematic Experience
I think being held up in the mindset that you’re watching a ‘real’ sport or seeing competition in front of a live audience places us wrestling fans in a different place of perception. We’re constantly in the framework of what we’re watching being something legitimately competitive, when what we’re actually watching is more like a blockbuster. Not to say there isn’t a competitive element to wrestling, just not the same as other sports worldwide. Wrestling is a collision of larger-than-life personalities, storylines, presentation & action all for the purpose of encapsulating the audience to the furthest extent, much like what todays biggest blockbusters are to most of us.
WrestleMania 36 in particular gave us a return to the more ‘cinematic’ style of wrestling, much in the spirit of ‘Broken’ Matt Hardy facing Jeff Hardy back in Impact during 2016. Matches such as the Boneyard Match between Undertaker & AJ Styles or the Firefly Funhouse between John Cena & Bray Wyatt weren’t just beautifully produced or well thought out, they were matches that encapsulated the absurdity of the industry while also making them cool enough to be something truly memorable that also shifted the characters forward in a new direction. Removing those matches from the confines of an arena gave the creative teams something truly unique to work with, as a result delivering the two best matches from the overall show by a mile. If there’s anything this period will teach wrestling fans looking back, it’s that the more creative a product gets the more memorable it becomes, especially in this industry. If only it wouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to make a company like WWE realize that.
Wrestling Promos Are Weird
Let’s face it, wrestling promos, they aren’t exactly Shakespeare. They aren’t the kind of thing most generations will quote on a whim when they want to stand out among the crowd. However, they always have one saving grace, the paying audience. Long gone are the days of Chris Jericho's infamous WCW promo cut on Dean Malenko... promos these days just don't seem to mean as much.
Having a paying audience live for a wrestling promo generally saves us from the cringe-inducing dialogue so many wrestlers have to spout on a weekly basis, whether heel or babyface. Their reactions and interactions amongst each other often alleviates just how awkward some of these promos truly are. The likes of John Cena, The Rock, Steve Austin, Randy Savage, Chris Jericho, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes & CM Punk to name a few haven’t just been made purely because of their ridiculous passion behind their delivery, but their respective audience of fans that hang onto every word. Without the audience, promos have gotten a bit strange at the moment.
Promos under the global pandemic haven’t been all terrible, the likes of Bray Wyatt, Edge, John Cena, Becky Lynch & Asuka have held their own at this time but the same can’t be said for the likes of Braun Strowman, whose promos aren’t exactly their forte. Without an audience there to provide some form of reaction it seems that someone like Braun just doesn't come across as the imposing force he generally should be. The content of his promos has been weak and failed to reflect the kind of character he should truly be. This also applies to other stars such as Shinsuke Nakamura, Lana or King Corbin who have used the crowd as a crutch to their characters for the longest of times to garner a reaction. It’s just a stark reminder of the importance of an audience & the advantages they provide in a form of entertainment such as this one, where they’re just as big a part of your story as the characters within them.
It’s An Incredibly Strange Time To Be A Fan
As mentioned earlier, the creative chops of WWE or other companies are finally flaring, more than they have over the past number of years in fact. Despite the unfortunate scenario we’re in at the moment, it’s placed products & companies in quite the predicament, one in which they’ve essentially been forced to adapt to their surroundings and put on a show unlike any we’ve ever seen. The lack of audience doesn’t mesh well to some, admittedly I do find it distracting at points, at the very least however it’s brought out a new spirit in the creative team that seems to be doing something fans clamor for all the time, try new things & take risks!
Whether that be the more cinematic matches, hysterically over-the-top evenings such as Steve Austin’s 3:16 day celebration, matches that spill all over the arena, debuts being presented in dozens of different manners or being able to feel the true impact of each individual match. It’s a bizarre but incredible time to be watching any wrestling product, whether that’s WWE, AEW or even TNA, to witness companies continue to put on shows solely for the cameras and viewers at home is surreal but also wonderful knowing that this is something we’ll likely (or hopefully) never see again.