WrestleMania 36, or, How I Learned To Love Sports Entertainment

Nathan Tucker
nrtucker@lc.edu

 

A regular reader of The Bridge’s sports vertical will notice that since my arrival to the paper last year, there has been an uptick in professional wrestling coverage, as I have been attending and reporting on Saint Louis Anarchy wrestling events in Alton.

So since I obviously cannot attend and report on live, local wrestling in our world of quarantine, I figured I’d shift gears a bit and write about WWE. 

Now one might think that’s not much of a shift, but this past weekend’s two-night WrestleMania 36 was a perfect example that WWE is not traditional professional wrestling. The world’s biggest wrestling promotion has now evolved fully into a term those running it coined themselves.

WWE veered hard into a new kind of “sports entertainment” with this weekend’s WrestleMania. An entirely pre-taped version of their biggest show of the year, and the best “matches” weren’t wrestling as most people understand it. 

“Sports entertainment” removes the wrestling from the wrestling, as critics of the phrase would put it. This past weekend, WWE leaned so hard into “sports entertainment” that their two best matches were filmed and scripted productions, more like movie fight scenes than professional wrestling.

Now sure, there were several (actually far too many) somewhat normal wrestling matches, or at least as normal as wrestling can seem in an empty building without crowd feedback. Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley had a great normal wrestling match for the NXT Women’s Championship to start night two, but hardly made anyone who wasn’t a fan of theirs notice.

The finale of night one of WrestleMania was a never-heard-before “Boneyard Match” between WWE legend Undertaker and eventual wrestling legend AJ Styles. Undertaker has become a character bigger than pro wrestling over the years, and this match was potentially his finest hour.

While the weekend of WrestleMania was hosted from the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, the Boneyard Match took place in what looked to be a shut-in’s swampy backyard cemetery, complete with rusting barn and open grave. A boneyard suitable for Tiger King’s Carole Baskin to (allegedly) bury her dead husband in.

A hearse pulls into the boneyard as Undertaker’s mournful theme begins to hum, and a casket opens to reveal AJ Styles, and suddenly the music track switches to his imitation hip-hop entrance “Phenomenal” boasting the chorus “THEY DON’T WANT NONE, THEY DON’T WANT NONE!” as he hops out and assesses his surroundings. 

AJ begins to wonder where Undertaker is when he hears a familiar sound: a motorcycle in the distance. “American Badass” Undertaker, potentially more of a representation of who Undertaker really is, was making another ride, complete with what sounded like a Metallica cover band theme.

The match itself is not wrestling, in the definitive sense. This was not a match involving headlocks, grappling, or most of wrestling for that matter. This was a fight scene from a B-movie that the Mystery Science Theater Guys would have laughed at on Sci-Fi network 25 years ago. 

But you know what? That was exactly what it needed to be. AJ’s henchmen, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, opening up a bright barn filled with druids and forcing Undertaker to fight them off one-by-one is far more entertaining than watching the now 55-year old Undertaker try to huff and puff through an actual wrestling match with a man thirteen years his junior. 

The match really ramped up when Styles thought Taker was literally dead and buried, Styles was in a tractor trying to fill the grave he had just thrown Undertaker in, when “The Dead Man” himself appears in the light behind AJ, creating one of the best still images in recent wrestling history, one that’s already become a meme circulating around the internet.

The match was all Undertaker from there on out, and he eventually would be the one to bury AJ Styles and reveal that AJ’s name was on the headstone of the grave the whole time. 

As Taker heroically departed on his motorcycle, the Undertaker logo shined bright on the rusty barn, and AJ Styles managed to reach a glove out of the grave. The credits rolled and wrestling fans collectively lost their marbles.

Some praised the production, likening it to when Matt Hardy and Jeff Hardy had a “Final Deletion” match in Impact Wrestling a few years ago. Like the Boneyard Match, this was a madcap romp through a remote backwood that at times didn’t really make sense.

Both the Boneyard Match and the Hardy Brothers’ Final Deletion were examples in how wrestling doesn’t need actual wrestling to entertain. Ironically, both Hardy Brothers’ left Impact for WWE, but never rekindled the “wrestling without wrestling” flame. 

What happened on night two of WrestleMania was a different kettle of fish entirely. Night two saw “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt host a “Firefly Funhouse Match” against WWE legend and now actor John Cena, and there was a lot of speculation of what that would mean.

Many thought it would be a second iteration of Wyatt’s largely failed WrestleMania 33 match, against St. Louis’s own Randy Orton. In that match, bugs, worms, and other “horrifying” images were projected on the ring to, uh, I guess scare Randy Orton?

There were no bugs, but the “Firefly Funhouse Match” felt almost like watching a glitch in the matrix. John Cena’s music hits to start the match, and as he looks around and observes the empty WWE Performance Center staging area, he begins to shout “Welcome To WrestleMania!”, when you realize this isn’t what it seems.

Now, for the diehard WWE fans who’ve seen and known about Bray Wyatt’s “Firefly Funhouse” segments on WWE television, this type of match was probably more expected. But for the millions who watch big WWE shows and largely don’t follow the week-to-week televised product, this match was compared to an LSD trip.

The Firefly Funhouse distorts reality, because it’s not reality, it’s The Fiend’s reality. As soon as Cena steps into the Firefly Funhouse, he knows he’s in for something he’s never done before in his illustrious wrestling career. 

I would best compare the structure of this “wrestling match” to a mix of a David Lynch-like psychological thriller and an episode of a late night TV show, attempting to copycat the bizarro-world humor of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s varying Adult Swim series. 

The subject matter at play was the colliding careers of the two wrestlers in “action” here, Bray Wyatt and John Cena. Cena, the WWE posterboy who turned his wrestling into a bona fide acting career, and Bray Wyatt, who was thought to make claim to the WWE years ago but has been languishing, losing, and never seeing the spotlight he feels he deserves.

Wyatt calls back several moments throughout Cena’s career, forcing Cena to relive moments of his WWE career he’s wanted to forget. At one point, Wyatt channels Kurt Angle, who made an open challenge on SmackDown and was met by a young Cena, at the time known as “The Prototype”. When the flashback cuts back to the ring, Cena is in “The Prototype” gear, and is flailing and missing in his attempts to hit Wyatt.

Cena is then flashed forward to his “Basic Thuganomics” days, where his wrestling angle was that of a battle rapper who wore throwback jerseys and could only speak in rhymes. Wyatt claims Cena will do anything for fame, and Cena attempts to attack him, only for Wyatt to disappear. Wyatt then appears behind him with a chain around his fist, and knocks Cena to the ground in one blow.

Wyatt’s main inspiration for wanting to put John Cena into a headspace he’s never been before dates back to WrestleMania 30, where John Cena defeated an up and coming Bray Wyatt who had captivated WWE fans with his pseudo-Southern Gothic style that was quite unique in the wrestling world. 

Back in 2020 or wherever the Firefly Funhouse exists, Wyatt tells Cena that he should have finished the job six years ago, where Cena refused to hit Wyatt over the head with a steel chair. This time, Cena tries to take the swing at the kneeling Wyatt, now donning his old attire, recreating that 2014 scene. Wyatt disappears again. 

You start to feel Cena’s mind slipping from his grasp. The Fiend wasn’t giving him a physically punishing wrestling match, he was giving him a psychologically draining mental obstacle course, forcing Cena to relive the past of both pro wrestling and his own career.

The Fiend’s imagination continues to run wild to drive Cena mad, living out fantasies where Wyatt and Cena are a tag team in 80s WWF, on Saturday Night’s Main Event, where Cena plays Johnny Largemeat, who is essentially himself but can only talk in 80s wrestling catchphrases and can’t stop doing insanely fast bicep curls. The unrelenting bicep curls eventually cause Cena/Largemeat to lose the function of his arms to the joy of Wyatt, as Cena slides back into unreality.

Seemingly out of nowhere the WCW Monday Nitro theme hits, and Bray Wyatt, channeling his inner Eric Bischoff, is seen in the ring in a classic Bischoff fit. NWO shirt, leather jacket, jeans, ready to introduce the hottest wrestler on the planet. That wrestler is, of course, Cena, donning classic NWO gear himself playing the role of Hulk Hogan, complete with air guitar on an NWO spray painted WCW heavyweight title.

As he’s soaking in the adoration of a crowd that doesn’t exist, Cena starts to have vivid flashbacks of his career failures, titles lost, injuries suffered, “IF CENA WINS WE RIOT” signs, arenas, stadiums, thousands if not millions of people chanting “CENA SUCKS” at him. He loses it, and attacks Wyatt with a flurry of punches. When he stops having flashbacks, Wyatt is now a pig puppet, and Cena is now in his standard wrestling gear.

At this point, Cena has fully lost the plot, as the Brits say. Sensing this, the personification of Bray Wyatt’s ego, The Fiend, appears, and puts Cena in the mandible claw hold, one of wrestling’s historically most vicious maneuvers. 

As The Fiend holds Cena’s lifeless body in his arms, the camera locks onto Cena’s face and his promo against Bray Wyatt from SmackDown almost a month ago plays.

“This WrestleMania match is gonna accomplish what should have happened six years ago,” said Cena on the March 13 episode of SmackDown. “ending the existence of the most overhyped, overvalued, over-privileged WWE Superstar in existence.”

As “overhyped, overvalued, over-privileged” is heard, the camera focuses more and more on Cena’s face.

It is Cena, not Wyatt, who fits that bill, at least in this reality. The words Cena directed at his opponent have been turned against him to reflect the career he’s had, where many wrestling fans have felt he was chosen over better wrestling talent based on his looks and acting ability. 

Whether Cena actually is the most overhyped, overvalued, over-privileged WWE wrestler in existence is a matter of debate for a different article, but the story execution here could not have been more perfect. If Cena had lost against Wyatt all those years ago, the landscape of the entire promotion would be vastly different, and both their lives would have drastically changed as well. 

For many wrestling fans, Cena was the safe choice instead of the new option, and always was the safe choice, instead of wrestling darlings like CM Punk, or Daniel Bryan, who were perceived to be overlooked so Cena could shine in the spotlight. While Wyatt might not have the wrestling chops that those two hold, he’s captured the WWE in a way that only works when the promotion wants to try new things.

File both the Boneyard Match and the Firefly Funhouse Match into the “trying new things” category.  These matches were the absolute end-all-be-all of the phrase “sports entertainment”, where wrestling isn’t necessary to have a wrestling match. 

At the beginning of this recap I stated that there were many other, normal wrestling matches on this show. While none of them were unwatchable, and some even quite good, these fever-dream fantasy sports entertainment productions put me in a headspace I’ve never before felt while watching WWE.

This was sports entertainment, and WWE, at it’s true pinnacle, and I left craving more.

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