It’s a strange thing to contemplate, but WrestleMania has become bigger than wrestling.
‘Mania had occasionally flirted with stadiums in its past of course, but the late-2000s saw that relationship blossom into an annual trend. With the obvious exception of last year, WWE has held every WrestleMania since 2007 in a cavernous stadium - never claiming an attendance less than 70,000. The show itself has evolved as a result.
The move to consistent stadium shows has lent ‘Mania a worldwide sheen, for better and worse. It is no longer the culmination of a handful of feuds and storylines. Nowadays, the word 'WrestleMania' is synonymous with special entrances, fireworks, jaw-dropping set designs, Pitbull, Flo Rida, and any number of other bells and whistles you care to mention.
That's because WrestleMania is no longer just a wrestling show, and it’s certainly not just for wrestling fans.
Every year we see the Super Bowl draw an audience far beyond regular followers of the NFL; every four years we see the FIFA World Cup pull in a colossal global viewership. Modern ‘Manias follow that same blueprint, drawing an army of lapsed followers, part-time casuals, and curious non-fans dragged in front of the TV by their friends. We’ve known for a long time that we - the ‘hardcore’ followers of the product - are not WWE’s target audience. Never is that more apparent than at WrestleMania.
The rapid engorging of ‘Mania is not just limited to its shiny bonus features; there’s been a direct effect on the wrestling itself. Not since Miz vs. Cena in 2011 have we seen a main event between regular, full-time roster members. In the decade since, the top of the card has been dominated by mainstream-courting figures, industry megastars of the past, or a combination of the two. That list includes The Rock, Batista, Lesnar and Undertaker - wrestlers who had already headlined WrestleMania in their younger years. Ronda Rousey is the odd one out, but her obvious natural talent probably mattered less to WWE than her huge crossover appeal.
This repeated inclusion of big name part-timers has resulted in a mixed bag. WWE’s policy hasn’t exclusively churned out bad results, but it hasn’t been wholly positive either. Above all though, match quality and clever storytelling isn’t really their goal. It’s all about getting as many eyes on the product as possible.
Then last year, of course, everything changed.
The madness of 2020 forced WWE to completely subvert the modern WrestleMania experience. Gone were the mega-venues, replaced by a Performance Center so empty and quiet, it was actually hard to process at first. The ever-expanding runtime was slashed in half, leaving us instead with two days of decidedly normal length. No fireworks, no charming pop-rap performances - just commentary over silence, punctuated by occasional bumps and taunts from the stars of the show.
It could not have felt more different, and given the absolute carnival ‘Mania has become over the last ten years, the irony was palpable.
But the response was largely positive. The general consensus was that, despite WrestleMania 36 not being a perfect show, WWE had certainly given it their best shot. They’d made the best of a terrible situation, and even thrown in a couple of well-received cinematic matches (before the concept started to feel tedious).
In 2021, however, WWE are taking a step towards their usual towering WrestleMania aspirations. The stadium setting is back and fans are allowed to attend, although nobody seems to quite know the specifics at the time of writing. On the celebrity front, Bad Bunny looks set to appear, and maybe even wrestle.
It’s not a total reversion to the ‘Mania norm, but we’re certainly heading in that direction. After a year of global stress and suffering, this should feel like a celebration. So why does this year’s build feel so muted?
At the moment, there are just four matches confirmed for a two-day show, amid reports of a scrapped card that is apparently being rebuilt as we speak. There are a couple of feuds chugging along, but for the most part, it looks as though we’ll have to wait until after Fastlane for the picture to become more clear. (Seriously, what is the point of Fastlane?)
WrestleMania 36 was forgiven, even celebrated, for being a complete novelty. WrestleMania 37 is caught in no-man’s land, still very much taking place in a COVID-affected world, but wearing the usual ‘Mania guise. In committing to the type of show that cannot live up to our usual expectations, WWE are taking a big risk.
I’ve been fortunate enough to attend two WrestleManias. Neither are considered classics, but that didn’t matter. The first, in 2016, is definitively thought of as a bad one, but the wrestling itself was secondary; I mostly remember the sheer scale of the occasion. Austin was there, as was The Rock. Undertaker had a Hell in a Cell match, and Shane jumped off the top. Who cares if the booking didn’t generally deliver?
The following year, WrestleMania 33 was theoretically a superior show. Attending live was still a great experience - but compared to Dallas it felt a little flat, the Hardy Boyz’ return aside.
This is because after just one live ‘Mania I’d become conditioned to expect those huge moments, regardless of whether they made for a good show.
I worry that this year’s WrestleMania will suffer the same effect, in far more glaring fashion. It cannot measure up to the 2010s in terms of star power - or even to last year’s deserted showcase, which still featured Lesnar, Goldberg and Undertaker. Dave Meltzer recently reported that apart from Edge, no big names are set to appear this time around. While we may despair when the appearances of big old-timers are announced, the way they’ve been utilised is now fully ingrained. They contribute to ‘Mania feeling like ‘Mania, so how will we react when they’re taken away?
But there is an upside.
This could be the first WrestleMania in a long time to be aimed at us. If the show is filled with current roster members, is that not exactly what we’ve been asking for?
Because as we all know, the biggest downside of WWE’s star-powered strategy is that the spotlight is always taken away from the current roster. Network documentaries and interviews like to glorify the idea of making oneself a star, seizing the opportunity, and all the rest of it. That’s probably quite difficult when you’re always booked to make an Attitude Era name look cool and strong.
But in a few weeks, we may be looking at a ‘Mania that satisfies us, while disappointing the wider public - the complete reverse of what is usually expected. Such a result wouldn’t please WWE, but could well benefit them in the long term, refocusing the product onto the actual roster and rebuilding a trust with their hardcore fans. After the excess we’ve seen over the past decade, I’m all for a break this year. I'd value a great wrestling show over the showcasing of any pesky immortals, active or otherwise.
But being brutally honest, as things stand, WWE will have to turn things around dramatically to deliver a great show. Things aren’t looking good at the moment, especially on the Raw side of things, with the red brand showing a startling lack of direction in recent weeks.
Shane is tussling with Strowman, sort of, and the Fiend continues to taunt Orton via Alexa Bliss - but generally, Raw storylines feel like they only have a beginning and end, with nothing of substance to connect the dots week-to-week. SmackDown is faring slightly better on the whole, but let’s not forget that Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair’s title feud is centred around Carmella’s ex-sommelier, for whatever reason.
The major positive, however, is this: if they’re able to produce a good event, it won’t be the first time WWE have snatched a killer ‘Mania from the jaws of mediocrity. I’m thinking mainly of 2014 and 2015, and the sudden ascent of Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins respectively. Like this year’s show, both were met with scepticism in the build-up, only to nail it on the night. Hopefully, for the sake of WrestleMania 37, WWE can pull that off again.
To do so, it looks like Vince and co. are going to have to rely less on star power and more on good pro wrestling. If they can come to terms with that, we - the hardcore element - could be in for a particularly enjoyable show.
Whether they actually do so remains to be seen.