Before WrestleMania 33, I had never seen a moment of professional wrestling in my life. It was 2017, and I was the proud owner of a huge bag of dried peaches, a brand new subscription to WWE Network, and absolutely no idea what to expect. Eating that much dried fruit that quickly turned out to be one of my worst choices, but watching WrestleMania was one of my best.
I had very little idea what was going on, but I was quickly enthralled by AJ Styles’ shiny, flowing hair and his sparkly pants. As soon as he flew off a rope for the first time, I started to understand the appeal. Watching a grown man or woman repeatedly soar through the air and land on another grown man or woman is physically unbelievable. And yet, I was watching it happen. So it didn’t seem like a huge leap to ask me to believe that the cult leader Bray Wyatt was partner to a dead witch named Abigail, and that he had to fight Randy Orton, who had joined the cult and then burned down Wyatt’s house.
The fantastical stories are based in physicality. I felt it in every body slam, every elbow drop, every RKO, and especially in Triple H’s sledgehammer to Seth Rollins' knee (I still feel that). But what stood out to me the most was the nostalgia embedded in it all. These decades-long storylines connect people to their past. Fans remember watching their favorite wrestlers as a kid, so when he or she comes back, it’s like Santa just pulled up a chair to Christmas dinner. A packed stadium lost its mind when a 50-year-old Goldberg stepped into the ring, transporting adults back to memories of watching him — perhaps with their parents, perhaps now with their own kids — every time he poked Brock Lesnar with his spear.
This year more than ever, with no fans in attendance, it was the wrestlers’ mental and physical talent that carried the two-night show. Without the energy of the crowd, they had to bring it themselves. And since there was no noise to drown their voices out, we heard absolutely everything, which included Kevin Owens yelling, “Those weren’t the actions of a god, those were the actions of a little bitch,” at Seth Rollins. I fully intend to say that to the next person who uses the word QI in Scrabble against me.
Rob Gronkowski, the former star tight end for the New England Patriots (greatest dynasty ever, I said it), hosted the two-night event. His wraparound shades and teal, tiger-striped jacket projected my ideal aesthetic, which one of my Twitter followers pointed out is that of an 80s ski instructor. I recently watched Gronk dance onstage at his Gronk Beach party in Miami for seven hours straight — not to brag — so I believed him when he told viewers at home that he knows how to “start a party on a Saturday night and end it 30 hours later.” On night two, he jumped off an elevated announcer platform onto a group of 10 men, pinned one of them, and won something called the 24/7 belt. A two-sport champion.
I want to spend most of my time here on the two off-site matches, because those were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, but first I have to talk about a few moments that really stood out to me, in no particular order. So here are….
... A few moments that really stood out to me, in no particular order
1. The feel good moment of the entire show was when my one true love, Otis, took revenge on Dolph Ziggler for ruining Otis’ Valentine Date with Mandy Rose. For his finishing move, Otis — a large man with long hair and the face of someone perpetually surprised to be at the party — flops up and down on his belly. It’s like watching your uncle dancing at a wedding. After securing the upset victory, Otis picked up Mandy Rose and gave her a big kiss as I cheered, alone in the basement of my parents’ house.
2. Seth Rollins, in all-white spandex, disqualified himself during his match against Kevin Owens. Owens was not happy about this, which is why he called Rollins a little bitch, to which Rollins tauntingly responded by calling him “Kev.”
Look, I’ve long believed that the rudest thing you can do is call someone a slightly different version of their own name (using Katie on someone named Kathy, for example) or even call them a completely different name altogether, like, say, "Chris" instead of "Jim." (Today is the anniverary of that moment, by the way.)
But after watching that match, it’s clear that the rudest thing you can do is call someone by their nickname while you’re trying to beat them up. Kevin Owens seemed to agree with me, because he launched himself OFF OF THE WRESTLEMANIA SIGN AND ONTO SETH ROLLINS FIFTEEN FEET BELOW HIM.
3. Instead of describing how, during the ladder match, John Morrison ran across the top rope of the ring as though it were a tightrope and body slammed Kofi, I’m just going to drop a photo of my raw notes in here:
4. Becky defeated Shayna Baszler, and I teared up. Apparently I’m in an emotional state where I could really use a couple wins for the good guys. And Becky is a good guy. The goodest guy, even. The Man! Long live Becky.
5. While this isn’t a single moment, I want to take a second to shout out the numerous massive dudes who wrestled each other. Brock Lesnar vs. Drew McIntrye, Edge vs. Randy Orton, Goldberg vs. Braun Strowman — all these men are the size of refrigerators.
When you watch wrestling, it’s easy to be like, “Wow, cool, that guy picked up another guy,” and then keep eating your dried fruit. But when you stop and think about it, that 300-pound guy just picked up another 300-pound guy, put him on his shoulder, and flipped him over his head. I couldn’t even get a 300-pound guy an inch off the ground. Important perspective.
6. Charlotte Flair remains the GOAT. The match between her and Rhea Ripley was a masterclass in old-school wrestling technique. I know some fans wanted Rhea to win because it was her WrestleMania debut and Charlotte has many titles. But I think, from a completely unbiased perspective, that any time someone named Charlotte can win, she should.
7. Elias smashed a guitar on King Corbin’s head. This won’t matter to most people, but I’ve always wanted to smash a guitar. Looks like it releases a lot of tension.
There were lots of great moments, but it was the outside-the-box thinking that really allowed the show to live up to its standard of over-the-top grandeur. The Boneyard Match between The Undertaker and AJ Styles was the single greatest moment in WWE history as far as I’m concerned. The trippy Firefly Fun House match might be a close second. I know I’ve only been watching wrestling for three years, but I stand by those statements. Let’s get into it.
The Boneyard Match
The boneyard match started with a great set-up: AJ and his luscious hair had been chirping Taker for a while, saying he was washed and that Taker’s wife ruined his legacy by encouraging him to continue wrestling. Now, I’m old enough to remember when Taker “retired” at WrestleMania 33, so I could see where some fans may think AJ has a point. I am also, however, a big Taker guy, so while I admire AJ’s hair, I do not admire his attitude.
Neither did Taker, who showed up to kick AJ’s ass in a graveyard. AJ arrived for the match by popping out of a coffin in the back of a hearse, while Taker rode a motorcycle down a long road. This was a very clever way of recreating an entrance similar to one he would have gotten at a live WrestleMania, where he normally rides down a long ramp to get to the ring. The sound of crickets, the rickety barn, the Spanish moss dripping off a live oak, and the ominous fog added a particularly sinister vibe.
You might be asking, “Was this when you knew this match was something special, Charlotte?” No, my friends. I knew it was something special when Taker smashed the window of the hearse with his hand, then pulled his arm out and said something along the lines of, “What a drag,” before punching AJ into an open grave.
Things only got more metal from there — AJ’s henchmen showed up at one point, and so did a bunch of hooded figures who reminded me of the dementors from Harry Potter. AJ eventually pushed Taker into the grave and then hopped onto the tractor waiting near the opening with its bucket-thingy filled with dirt. As AJ began to pull the tractor’s lever, I yelled out loud to myself, “THIS CANNOT BE HOW TAKER ENDS!”
It wasn’t. Right as AJ was about to bury him alive (wrestling is incredible), Taker teleported out of the grave to stand behind AJ, who must’ve felt Taker’s old man strength breathing down his neck, because he suddenly looked very scared. Then Taker absolutely demolished AJ’s henchmen, the dementors (who somehow came back), and AJ himself. He tossed AJ off the roof of the barn, and then went into this incredible monologue which included the lines, “What’s my wife’s name? You remember her name now? Huh? You remember? Why don’t you tell me how old I am? This gonna hurt my legacy? Huh? Stay with me boy. Stay with me. We’re not done yet. We’re just getting started. That’s what you told me.”
I mean, my god. I’m not sure there is any greater trash talk than, “What’s my wife’s name?” I don’t care if you don’t have a wife, use that on your enemies.
The only thing better than Taker’s speech was when he buried AJ alive and AJ’s hand was left sticking out of the dirt. And the only thing better than that was when Taker hopped on his bike and put his fist in the air as the barn exploded behind him. That’s how I intend to make my entrance at the first party I go to once we’re allowed out of the house again. Minus the explosion. And probably the motorcycle.
So, okay fine, I’ll just walk in wearing a leather vest with my fist in the air and a bandana tied around my head. It’s the spirit of the thing, not the thing itself.
Firefly Fun House
While it wasn’t possible to top the boneyard match, WWE came close on WrestleMania’s second night with another pre-taped, off-site match called Firefly Fun House. I’m not sure how to describe this to you if you didn’t see it, but the closest I can come is that it existed in a universe that was some combination of 90s sitcom, children’s show, and horror movie.
The match was ostensibly between Bray Wyatt (who transforms into this terrifying masked character called The Fiend) and John Cena, but there wasn’t much wrestling involved. The whole thing started out in a house meant to look like Mr. Rogers’, if Mr. Rogers had terrifying puppets in the windows. Vince McMahon himself even showed up in puppet form, as did a bird wearing a Hawaiian shirt (???).
The whole experience was far less about a narrative you could actually follow and more about paying homage to the biggest moments of Cena’s career and how they had affected others, specifically Wyatt. We saw original footage from Cena’s WWE debut, and then, in a dark ring, Wyatt repeated the same things the announcers said years ago. The general idea seemed to be that Wyatt was a rising star until he ran into Cena at WrestleMania 30, when Cena’s win derailed Wyatt’s career. Wyatt still has a chip on his shoulder, and this neon dream-slash-nightmare was framed as his chance to psychologically torture Cena.
It seemed to work. Cena got progressively sweatier and more exasperated as he tried to fight Wyatt, only for Wyatt to disappear and Cena to realize that he was punching a creepy doll. It was a big weekend for teleportation! The match also contained trippy montages, such as when Cena and Wyatt lifted weights in a cage in the style of an 80s workout video. I don’t quite know what was happening, but I do know that I gasped and say, “holy s---!” out loud to myself when Wyatt showed up as the Fiend behind Cena. Then the match just ... ended. Incredible stuff.
From the general fan reaction online, WrestleMania 36 showed that people who love wrestling love really weird wrestling. As someone on Twitter said to me, “I left both nights saying, ‘What the hell did I watch?’ And I absolutely loved it.” While off-site matches are obviously difficult in live settings, perhaps the boneyard match and the Firefly Fun House could be the beginning of an exciting new direction for big shows in the future. The production level of both off-sites was off the charts, from the pyrotechnics involved in blowing up a dang barn to the expert editing portraying Cena’s mental anguish. Someday I will embroider “the weirder, the better,” onto pillows with a picture of AJ Styles’ hand sticking up out of the dirt and sell them on Etsy.
This year, WrestleMania provided an alternate reality fans could dive into when the nation’s actual reality feels so bleak. The WWE figured out how to bring its signature flair (Flair) to an unimaginable situation. While fans who were lucky enough to be quarantined at home watched from the safety of their couches, the superstars gave it their all. They called upon the upper limits of their athleticism and physicality (and in some cases, pain threshold – looking at you, Edge), as though a crowd of 80,000 cheered them on. We heard every grunt. All the trash talk. And Otis got the girl.