Speaking last week to the Asbury Park Press, Edge described WWE as ‘flying blind’ in the build to this year’s WrestleMania.
He wasn’t talking about the company’s apparent lack of direction as we approach the Showcase of the Immortals - although we’ve all seen and shared plenty of opinions about that. Edge was referring to the lack of a live audience over the last year, and the crucial feedback this usually provides to a wrestling promotion.
At first, I found this quite a strange position. In the age of social media, surely more feedback is available to WWE than ever before, even without the instinctive reactions of a crowd to rely upon. We’ve all been accosted by the occasional WWE.com survey, haven’t we?
But ultimately, Edge has a point. The online wrestling community may be a growing part of WWE’s viewership, but it’s still a smaller one than we often assume. The feelings projected by our bubble don’t necessarily reflect those of the wider audience. Sometimes they align, but as we approach WrestleMania 37, we’re really just as clueless as WWE. How will the live crowd react, and just as importantly, how will this affect the show?
Appropriately, Edge’s match is central to this discussion. When he, Reigns and Bryan square off in the main event of Night Two, we don’t quite know how they’ll be met. Logic would dictate that as a company legend and the middle-man of the dynamic, Edge will be booed when he stands in the way of a Bryan victory, and cheered whenever he goes after Roman. But it’s not that simple, is it?
To borrow a phrase from Booker T, our boy D-Bry will almost certainly be cheered. It’s Daniel Bryan. But Reigns could well find himself cheered too, which would ironically go against WWE’s wishes, despite many years of the promotion trying to manufacture such a response. It’s exactly what a LOT of people suggested in the mid-2010s: the only way to get the masses behind Roman would be to turn him heel and allow him to excel in the role. We’re about five years behind schedule, but apart from that, it’s all gone as expected.
How will this translate live? Will the crowd play ball and boo the Tribal Chief, or have his performances garnered too much goodwill? WWE will certainly be considering all the possibilities, especially given the match’s key status as the show-closer.
The bout’s saving grace is that the build has embraced this feeling of uncertainty. We’ve seen various shades of grey; Bryan has been heroic and opportunistic in equal measure, while Edge has gradually descended into manic desperation. His match may well be best-equipped to deal with the unknown, but Edge’s ‘flying blind’ statement most certainly extends to the rest of the card.
Over on Raw, the men’s title picture looks to have been greatly affected; WWE have seemingly changed their plans in an attempt to second-guess the live crowd in Tampa. The recent decision to break up the popular Hurt Business and instead align Lashley with King Corbin is surely born out of a fear that Bobby would be cheered otherwise. This worry is understandable, especially with Drew McIntyre built up for well over a year as the next big hero. It doesn’t excuse the clunky storytelling, but if Drew gets the desired response this weekend, its unlikely WWE will care about that.
In normal times, McIntyre could perhaps have relied upon the international ‘Mania contingent to give him a helping hand, and that’s another thing to look out for. WWE aren’t just dealing with their first large-scale live reactions in over a year; they’re dealing with a WrestleMania crowd of unfamiliar make-up. Whereas the ‘Grandaddy of Them All’ usually boasts a large and diverse audience, this year’s will be comparatively small, and certainly lacking the global feel of a modern ‘Mania.
This throws up a whole new dynamic, as a limited audience could well make the event less ‘smarky’ (for lack of a better term.) Maybe they’ll cheer and boo exactly who they’re expected to, which would seem to play right into WWE’s hands. However, as much as Vince McMahon may secretly hope for one, I’m not sure a more obedient crowd would help the company. Would it really be a good look for WrestleMania to have the same atmosphere as a tame B-pay per view?
Knowledgeable, boozed-up, international crowds have given recent ‘Manias a much-needed hard edge, preventing the event from plunging into sterilised Sports Entertainment totality, and reminding us that deep down, it’s still a wrestling show. WWE are contending with a lot of factors this weekend. As I suspect I’ve shown in this article, we really have no idea what the response is going to be. But amidst all the confusion and last-minute booking changes, there’s a glimmer of hope.
It’s been over a year since WWE’s last ticketed event, an NXT show on March 11th, 2020. Simply put, most fans have gone a long time without live wrestling - and because of that, there’s every possibility that we could see a ubiquitously positive atmosphere.
Perhaps we should forget concerns over whether the crowd will cheer or boo Bad Bunny; over the course of an immensely difficult year, we’ve all just wanted a return to normality. And while WrestleMania 37 might not exactly provide that, it’s at least a nudge in the right direction.