While I’ve written about every WrestleMania since number 31 in 2015 there’s no denying that for a few reasons the 36th edition of ‘the showcase of the immortals’ in 2020 is (hopefully, at least) entirely unique.
Originally slated to take place at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Sunday 5th April the ongoing situation with the Covid-19 pandemic meant a major change with the show moved (mostly) to the WWE’s Performance Center training facility in Orlando and taped in advance ‘behind closed doors’ with no live audience.
While there are debates as to whether the event should have taken palace at all I won’t dwell on that as I have my view but, either way, I remain a wrestling fan and was glad of the distraction, as was the supposed intent of the WWE and, whatever side I fall on, it has taken palace and we are getting to watch it.
While I honestly don’t think it was inspired by it there is also a parallel with this year’s NJPW Wrestle Kingdom that was also split across two nights but for WrestleMania this has made it instantly far more digestible from the often bloated seven or eight hour marathon it has become in recent years, and so, onto the first day…
Drew Gulak vs Cesaro
With the kick show shortened to one hour we only got one warm up match this year and it was one directly linked with the storyline taking place around the Intercontinental Championship on the main show as Drew Gulak clashed with Cesaro.
While only a warm up match both put on as fine a show as time allowed with a solid story of Gulak’s famed technique opposed to Cesaro’s power that saw the smaller grappler focussing his attack on the Swiss wrestler’s arms looking for a submission only to be countered at regular turns by power moves.
With the climax coming as Cesaro delivered an impressive, ‘no-handed’ inverted airplane-spin, aka The UFO, to gain the win I couldn’t help but think this is a pairing that, given more time and dedicated impetus, could be terrific.
Following an introduction from Stephanie McMahon around the so-called ‘current circumstances’ and how WWE is hoping to provide a diversion and ‘sense of hope’ (while maintaining at least some of their advertising revenue, says the cynic in me) we got a montage of past performances of America The Beautiful featuring, amongst others, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight and Willie Nelson, that ended up being far better and more interesting than the usual America-fest that opens the show every year.
We then got the usual kind of introductory hype video that felt a little odd given the change of situation with it still referencing the piratical theme of the Tampa setting and some Captain Jack Sparrow referencing feeling a good decade out of date.
This was followed by a mercifully brief introduction from American Football player Gronk, the identity and presence of whom likely means nothing to anyone outside the US (some things never change).
WWE Women’s Tag Team Championship
Kabuki Warriors: Asuka & Kairi Sane (c) vs Alexa Bliss & Nikki Cross
After a slightly scrappy start where it was hard to get a handle of the heel/face dynamics the match settled down into a more standard tag team affair as the Kabuki Warriors got the upper hand.
While the hot Tag from Bliss to Cross felt somewhat strange with no crowd pop the action was at least solid.
The second half of the match picked up further with both Kairi Sane’s Insane Elbow Drop and Alexa Bliss’ first Twisted Bliss of the match looking great and a powerbomb/flying forearm version of the Doomsday Device being particularly impressive.
Despite some good action the end, a swinging neck breaker from Cross followed by another Twisted Bliss to crown new champions, felt a bit perfunctory as it seemed to come from nowhere without sufficient build, I suspect though this was more to do with the lack of live audience than anything the performers were doing and was something I would grow more accustomed to as the show went on.
King Corbin vs Elias
The first of what looked like entirely random matches on the show this year came as King, formerly Baron, Corbin clashed with Elias, but, given Corbin’s actions on a recent edition of Smackdown it was clear the King Of The Ring was expecting an easy night and a win by forfeit.
This wasn’t to be though as the match began with Elias smashing his guitar over Corbin’s back and getting the early upper hand.
It wasn’t long before Corbin regained the advantage though and I’m pleased to see he has improved somewhat but in this rather generic character and storyline neither man had much to work with.
With a few hope spots through the match it was Elias who got the win with a quick roll up supposedly getting revenge on his rival but as a whole the match felt like rather unnecessary filler.
WWE Raw Women’s Championship
‘The Man’ Becky Lynch (c) vs ‘The Queen Of Spades’ Shayna Baszler
After a nicely done hype package and the somewhat out of place looking arrival of ‘The Man’ in a large truck (I’d imagine in the stadium it would have worked better) Becky Lynch faced off with Shayna Baszler in a match that felt like a genuine continuation of last year’s WrestleMania main event where Lynch captured the championship from Baszler’s team mate Ronda Rousey.
With Lynch having all the WrestleMania finery Baszler looked the more focussed and straight forward from the off and, in a nice touch, maintained advantage in the ring with the ‘wrestling’ side of things while Becky had the advantage out of the ring, at least in the early stages.
A big knee strike gave Baszler the advantage and she looked increasingly like she would be getting revenge for Rousey and ending Lynch’s lengthy reign until the champion rolled through on a ‘Kirafuda Clutch’ sleeper attempt to pin the challenger.
Unfortunately the match, which had a lot of promise and two very talented performers, never seemed to really get out of second gear and didn’t have time to so ultimately it fell a bit flat and I hope this isn’t a sign of the former NXT killer champion Baszler lapsing into relative obscurity on the so-called ‘main roster’.
WWE Intercontinental Championship
Sami Zayn (c) (w/Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura) vs Daniel Bryan (w/Drew Gulak)
With two men who have wrestled in pretty much every situation you can think of over the years in the ring, and a collection of similarly talented performers outside, this one had a lot of promise and, as Zayn kicked things off with some terrific heel work, trying to avoid the serious and focussed Bryan, it certainly looked like it was going in the right direction.
As things went on and Bryan finally got his hands on the champion we were treated to some typically stiff looking strikes and the pair using the quiet to include a form of dialogue in the match like you don’t normally hear at a WWE show.
With Zayn’s entourage neutralised, it looked like the challenger’s technical viciousness would get him the gold but Bryan was distracted by a returning Nakamura and Cesaro allowing Zayn to connect with a version of his Helluva Kick and retain his title.
While this was the first match to properly negate the lack of crowd and become something that worked with the situation, it didn’t have the time to reach the heights I feel those involved could have done, but nonetheless it marked the beginning of an upward trend for the night.
WWE Smackdown Tag Team a Championship
John Morrison (c) vs Kofi Kingston vs Jimmy Uso
With various members of the respective teams unavailable due to the prevailing circumstances the decision was made, somewhat awkwardly, to make what was billed a tag team ladder match into a single one, but still with the Tag Team Championships on the line.
With a fast paced and athletic opening sequence between the three things started well but quickly the pace slowed as the ladders became involved.
From there it became more focussed on the spectacular stunts than any real logical storytelling but these did just about carry the thing through, though did feel odd without the live crowd reactions.
Highlights came with Morrison hitting a twisting splash from the ring-post onto Uso who was laid out on a suspended ladder, a tightrope walk into a Spanish Fly and Kingston delivering a huge springboard hurricanrana to Morrison off the ladder.
The closing of the match was a new one for me that seemed to not come off quite as well as intended but made a nice change and, while the match featured more than its share of spectacular moments and was well delivered, it more than any other contest felt odd without the crowd reactions to the big moments.
Seth Rollins vs Kevin Owens
As pure ‘pro-wrestling’ matches go this looked to be the one that could provide the highlight on day one of WrestleMania with brilliantly obnoxious heel Seth Rollins facing up against the face by default but always reliable and entertaining Kevin Owens.
As with Bryan and Zayn the pair filled the silence with a kind of dialogue and quickly upped the ante of physicality as Owens hit a pair of nasty looking sentons before being driven into the ring apron himself with a Falcon Arrow.
As the match went on Owens regained the upper-hand and even hit his Swanton Bomb from the top rope as this became the fist match on the show to really feel like a classic ‘big match’ with near falls and seldom seen moves connecting — that was until Rollins grabbed the ring bell and smashed it into Owens to end the match by disqualification.
At this point I was left thinking this was going to be another match with a lot of promise not living up to it on this show but soon Owens had the microphone and challenged Rollins to restart the match with no disqualifications.
In this situation Owens mini-promo made the whole thing feel all the more personal and as the two renewed hostilities it became just that with a steel chair and the ring bell soon introduced into proceedings along with a particularly nasty looking shot from the steel stairs to Owens.
The highlight and true ‘WrestleMania’ moment though came as, with Rollins laid out on the announcers table, Owens scaled the WrestleMania sign and leapt from it driving Rollins through the desk.
From there it was a Stunner in the ring that secured the win for the ‘prize fighter,’ capping off a match that not only used the current situation to its own benefit but was, for me, the match of the night, and certainly the best conventional match of the night.
This was followed by a mercifully brief skit with Gronk, R-Truth and Mojo Rawley involving the 24/7 championship and then a promo for the second night WWE Championship match from Paul Heyman that brought things back up quality wise as only ‘Paul E’ can do.
WWE Universal Championship
Goldberg vs Braun Strowman
With Strowman having been inserted into this match as original challenger Roman Reigns had chosen to pull out due to the non-WWE Universe situation, any sense of hype was really lost, particularly when combined with the fact that both competitors main attraction is their short and, technically, less than stellar matches.
Once both men had made their way to the ring, including Goldberg exiting a locker room that looked suspiciously like the car park, the match involved about 10 moves as Goldberg got a near fall after a trio of Spears before Strowman delivered four of his trademark powerslams to win the match and the championship.
About the best I can say of the match is that didn’t last long and put the Universal Championship back on a full time competitor, but it’s hard to escape the fact that Braun probably just has it until Reigns can come and claim it properly and it continues the less than impressive booking lineage of what, at first, looked like such a promising new title when Finn Balor became its inaugural holder a few summers ago.
Undertaker vs AJ Styles
After a terrific hype package where we got to see AJ Styles at his heelish best baiting the legendary Deadman, we headed out of the WWE Performance Center for the Boneyard Match that, after much online debate and discussion, turned out to be a Buried Alive Match taking place on location in an ‘actual graveyard’.
Following obviously in the footsteps of the Matt Hardy ‘Broken Universe’ matches of the last few years but with a lineage going back to Undertaker’s Boiler Room Brawl match with Mankind in 1996, the whole thing was shot more like a move with clear cuts, editing and special effects along with more dialogue than is usual.
While the action was, necessarily, mostly basic striking the setting, shooting and trickery made this a real highlight as the pair battled around the ‘boneyard,’ wrecking a hearse and both ending up in the grave only to survive due to various shenanigans including involvement by Styles’ stablemates Gallows and Anderson and ‘Taker’s own ‘mysterious powers’.
With the climax seeing Styles being buried alive as Undertaker rode off into the night on his impressive motorcycle it raised as many questions as it answered about what happens next but, as a stand alone spectacle, there’s no denying the Boneyard Match was hugely impressive and marks WWE’s first successful attempt at something quite like this rounding off the first night of WrestleMania 36 on a spectacular high.
Natalya vs Liv Morgan
Compared to the first night’s ‘warm up’ match this one felt far more thrown together as there’s no real ongoing story directly between Natalya (Neidhart) and Liv Morgan.
That said the match was decent enough once it got going with a good veteran vs rookie kind of feel to it.
Natalya got the bulk of the offence in and carried things for the most part but Morgan’s final, victory claiming, roll up was convincingly executed and no doubt gives her a boost within the WWE women’s roster.
After another brief message from Stephanie McMahon, a somewhat pointless feeling replay of the same intro video that opened the first night and a thankfully brief hello from Gronk we were back into the action with one of the most highly, to me at least, anticipated matches.
NXT Women’s Championship
Rhea Ripley vs Charlotte Flair
A great hype video made for a strong start to the in ring portion of the show as the NXT Women’s Championship was defended at WrestleMania for the first time.
The match began with both wrestlers trying to one up the other with some great vocalisation going on and Ripley even hitting her signature Riptide pump-handle powerbomb early on for a near fall.
After a good scrap outside the ring Rhea maintained the upped hand until Flair was able to attack the champion’s previously injured knee and that then became the theme for the match.
The back and forth nature remained but with every move it was clear Ripley was taking more damage to her knee which finally led to Flair locking in the Figure-8 Leg Lock for the submission win.
While she may have lost here, Ripley, the younger up and coming star, looked terrific and more than held her own so I remain excited to see what happens for her next, while a win here can hopefully breathe some new life into Flair’s career which seems to have already reached a point where there is little more for her to achieve.
Aleister Black vs Bobby Lashley w/Lana
Like more than a few matches across the weekend the clash between powerhouse Bobby Lashley and precision striker Aleister Black didn’t really seem to have much story or purpose but, being a fan of Black, I was looking forward to seeing him in action at least.
The early part of the contest saw Lashley use his superior size and power to take the advantage and he certainly did look physically very impressive doing so.
The tide turned when Lashley attempted a Spear but was countered with a stiff knee strike leading to a flurry from Black, however Lashley’s power soon came to the fore again until, with Black set up for the Dominator he instead let him go and attempted another Spear at the urging of his wife/manager Lana only to be caught running in with a Black Mass spinning kick giving the Dutchman the win.
As a whole the match was fine if nothing special but it was hard to avoid it feeling like rather unnecessary filler.
Otis vs Dolph Ziggler
After a rather optimistic advert for WWE’s next ‘pay per view’ show Money In The Bank, slated to take place on Sunday 10th May, we got the culmination of the rather silly but largely entertaining looking story concerning the ‘unlikely romance’ between Otis and Mandy Rose that has drawn in both Dolph Ziggler and Rose’s tag team partner Sonya Deville.
The match itself was a classic size vs speed affair with very little of a remarkable nature, save for an awesome drop kick from Ziggler before Otis took the advantage.
The climax came as Sonya and then Mandy got involved allowing Otis to claim victory and ‘get the girl’ and the whole thing was entertaining enough if rather perfunctory.
Last man standing match
Edge vs Randy Orton
Going in, this match between two veterans had the feel of a proper feud, drawing on Edge and Orton’s relationship in the past with the added wrinkle of the Canadian grapplers surprise return to the ring in January following a retirement due to injury nine years ago.
Things started fast and strong with a pair of surprise RKO neckbreakers before the fight spilled from the ring, never to return as they fought their way around the WWE Performance Center showing quite what an impressive complex it is.
If I had a criticism of the match it would be that it went on just a bit too long as the walk and brawl parts between set pieces became rather repetitive but, a little like the previous night’s Boneyard Match, it was good to see WWE build on its usual formula (albeit to a slightly less degree in this case).
The climax, atop a large lorry, was suitably satisfying though as it looked like Orton had the upper hand and was going to deliver a ‘Con-chair-to’ to Edge to claim victory but he was caught in a Gator style sleeper hold allowing Edge to use the chairs and claim revenge and the win.
While the high spots in the action were all great it was the emotion in the performance from Edge that provided the real highlight of this match that, at its best moments, was as intense as you could want from such a rivalry.
After such a lengthy and intense battle a bit of levity was needed and came as new 24/7 Champion Mojo Rawley entered the arena pursued by a number of lower card wrestlers all looking to one up him and win the belt.
Fairly predictably it wasn’t one of the wrestler but WrestleMania host and friend of Mojo, Gronk, who managed to claim the title after a dive from the balcony before escaping and, if I’m honest, this is the best way they could have used the American Footballer without getting in the way of the more serious stuff.
WWE Raw Tag Team Championship
Street Profits (Montez Ford & Angelo Dawkins) (c) vs Austin Theory & Angel Garza (w/Zelina Vega)
A further bit of palette cleansing came next with the somewhat cobbled together match for the Raw Tag Team Championships.
While the technicalities of the story may have been lacking, particularly on the challengers side, the presence of manager and mastermind Zelina Vega helped hold it together while all four men are good at what they do.
The match itself was brief but being fast paced and with a fair share of spectacular jumps and dives made it an exciting and fun watch.
Ford particularly impressed with his jumping ability before the end came as Austin Theory looked to have the victory after a TKO on Dawkins but a flying Ford broke up the pin fall and allowed his team to retain.
After the match the heels began a beat down on the champions before Bianca Belair (real life wife of Ford) made the save setting wheels in motion for the story to continue in one form or another down the line.
WWE Smackdown Women’s Championship
Bayley (c) vs Sasha Banks vs Lacey Evans vs Tamina vs Naomi
On paper a five way elimination match for the Smackdown Women’s Championship could easily have ended up being a messy and clunky affair, not as may have been the case a few years ago simply because it is a women’s match in WWE, but because multi-person matches often go that way and, during the first section of this, it felt worrying like it might.
Thankfully, as it settled down it became something of a low key highlight, particularly as the story of Bayley and Sasha Banks seemed to begin a new chapter.
The first section saw Tamina booked in the monster heel style who it took all four others to eliminate, though I’m not sure she’s actually convincing in that role she certainly looks the part.
We then got a nice sequence with Naomi fending off a double attack from Bayley and Banks only to succumb to a submission before miscommunication led to Sasha being eliminated by Lacey Evans.
The final section saw the champ and Evans go back and forth but with Evans looking poised to claim the championship only for Banks to return and hit a backstabber allowing Bayley to claim victory and retain her gold.
After the match there was an air of disagreement between the Bayley and Banks and, while I’m not a fan of the character, it was good to see Lacey Evans having developed further as a wrestler over the last year or so.
Firefly Funhouse Match
‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt vs John Cena
After the previous day’s Boneyard Match that took the action to a different location the Firefly Funhouse Match looked set to do similar as John Cena renewed a rivalry from WrestleMania 30 with the now ‘Fiend’ Bray Wyatt.
What followed I will find hard to describe as, while it did set its action in part outside the ring, it was a far more fantastic and supernatural feeling affair, in some ways being like WWE’s answer to Twin Peaks‘ Black Lodge.
Across the match time and space seemed to jump around Cena and Wyatt with WWE even toying with sending themselves up (to a degree) in a way I’ve never really seen before.
So we got throwbacks to Saturday Night’s Main Event in the 1980s and WCW/NWO Nitro in the late 90s, as well as key moments in both Cena and Wyatt’s careers interspersed with entirely convention breaking moments of In ring action.
Ultimately it seems that The Fiend bested Cena with a combination of the Sister Abigail and Mandible Claw but what that means going forward is at best unclear and I’m still not sure if this was something clever and genre bending or just WWE having a stab at something and instead ‘jumping the shark,’ but there’s not denying as a long term fan I was captivated throughout.
WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Brock Lesnar (c) (w/Paul Heyman) vs Drew McIntyre
While the final match of the weekend shared similarities with the first day’s Universal Championship match as a pair of bonafide heavyweights, one of whom is at best part time, clashed for the gold, this match had a lot more going for it from the off.
While Lesnar was ever the unconquerable ‘beast,’ Drew McIntyre has developed into a kind of folk hero type role who’s fought his way back from the bottom to win the Royal Rumble and face WWE’s ‘final boss’ on the biggest stage, and this story has been told terrifically if the hype video is anything to go by.
With both men intense and focussed I don’t think anyone was expecting a lengthy, Omega/Okada style war here and as the big Scotsman hit his Claymore kick following an opening Lesnar flurry it looked like that might be it.
Of course it wasn’t but following a series of suplexes and three F-5’s that McIntyre weathered, he hit Lesnar with a further three Claymore kicks to capture the WWE Championship and become the first Brit, and the first Scot let’s be honest, to win the big one in ‘the Fed’.
What really separated this from Goldberg’s clash with Strowman the previous night was the performance of the three men involved, including Paul Heyman, that gave it an emotional honesty and grounding that was entirely convincing and sold the match as being crucial for both men.
While the situation may have meant the climax wasn’t quite as emotionally cathartic as it could have been, as Drew looked down the camera it sure came close and with the belt in his hands it, once again, feels like something new for WWE which I hope they now run with and is a success.
While the 36th WrestleMania may not have been exactly what was originally intended or envisioned in several ways the final product was, at least in part, one of the most enjoyable and boundary pushing I can recall and while it may have had possibly more than its share of filler there were more than enough positives, both in-ring and beyond, to make it an event worthy of being WrestleMania, which I’ll admit I didn’t really expect.