I made a Facebook post last year jokingly bragging about Walker County's “New Era Wrestling Anniversary II” drawing more fans than WrestleMania 36. While it may be factually true, it does include a Performance Center-sized asterisk.
WWE really struggled to figure out how to handle life in the COVID-19 pandemic. While at home NEW and other Alabama-based companies ceased operations for a while, national promotions with massive, life sustaining television contracts were not able to do that. WWE has no other choice to than to figure out how to present wrestling without its lifeblood, the fans.
It was, to be frank, terrible. Some of my favorite moments in WWE history come from crowd reactions. Don't believe me? Pull up WrestleMania X-8 on Peacock, mute your tv and watch The Rock vs Hollywood Hulk Hogan. This is nothing against Hogan, who is a legend in the wrestling world, but at his age, even in 2002, there are limitations to what he can do. The Rock, known today by his real name Dwayne Johnson, carried Hogan through a match that was mediocre at best. But, the crowd that night in Toronto made it one fo the greatest moments and matches in WrestleMania history.
By comparison, WrestleMania 36 at the WWE Performance Center in front of absolutely nobody had some incredible matches that, because of the absence of fan reaction, fell completely flat. (Drew McEntire deserved so much better.) While the younger and smaller All Elite Wrestling mostly thrived in the pandemic by having lesser-used wrestlers at ringside to simulate fan response, WWE's product suffered.
The Thunderdome was a mild improvement, albeit artificial. WWE installed massive LED boards around the the arena with fans watching on from the webcams. It was, well, strange. To make it even stranger, every bit of crowd noise heard was piped in by the WWE production team. It at least made the product watchable again.
Tonight, however, WWE welcomes fans back for WrestleMania 37 in the first part of a two-night event from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. No, it won't be sold out, but we will for the first time hear real reactions. And it couldn't come at a better time.
One of WWE's yearly highlights comes in the form of the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Instead of going to a small venue with current superstars in the audience to honor the veterans, WWE used the Thunderdome and piped in artificial crowd noise. It was even worse than the silent WrestleMania a year ago.
Vince McMahon is many times on record stating what the fans mean to the WWE product. All those times it might have seemed like he was playing up to his audience, but the past 13 months have proven that the world's most successful and well-known wrestling promotion has absolutely no clue how to function without its fans.
As someone who enjoys chaos, I'm intrigue by the question if the fans in attendance will respond the way WWE wants them to. Edge, who had previously retired and returned at the 2020 Royal Rumble, recently turned heel (bad guy) as he heads into a triple threat match for the WWE Universal Championship. If McMahon thinks fans are going to boo the “Rated R Superstar” at WrestleMania, I have a feeling he is going to be very unpleasantly surprised.
I've watched wrestling since for as long as I have memories, going back to old WCW Saturday Night and Monday Night Raw in the Manhattan Center. I've seen countless wrestlers talk about how important the fan response is to what they do. Even locally at New Era Wrestling, wrestlers here will say the same thing about the fans in Walker County. I've stood ringside with a camera and felt the energy of the crowd and gotten an adrenaline rush and I'm not even remotely a part of what is going on.
WrestleMania is a spectacle, even in its worst years. What we saw last year at the WWE Performance Center will always be remembered as something that is WrestleMania by name only. Tonight, we get to see, even if limited, WrestleMania as it is meant to be.
Finally, the fans have come back to WrestleMania. As it should be.
Jeffery Winborne is the Social Media Coordinator at the Daily Mountain Eagle and a lifelong fan of professional wrestling and all things geek. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 205-221-2840 and on Twitter at @JLWinborne.