There has never been a WrestleMania quite like WrestleMania 36.

For the first time in WWE history, WrestleMania is a two-night affair in front of an empty arena. The wrestlers worked extremely hard to perform to their highest level in the ring, though that challenge was magnified by the lack of a crowd. While it certainly does not detract from the effort or passion poured into the show, a wrestling match is simply incomplete without an audience to respond to the performance. There were still standout moments and matches, as the show started off with a very strong tag match that saw Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross win the Women’s Tag Team Championship.

Other highlights included Becky Lynch retaining her SmackDown Women’s Championship, Kevin Owens with an emotional victory against Seth Rollins, and John Morrison returning to WrestleMania for the first time in nine years to win a compelling ladder match against Kofi Kingston and Jimmy Uso.

This show will forever be known for its main event, which was the “Boneyard” match between The Undertaker and AJ Styles. After years of struggling to connect in the ring, The Undertaker delivered a throwback performance. WWE’s production team also created a fun, captivating, and sometimes even hokey–aren’t those some of WWE’s trademarks over the past 36 years?–match that stood out for all the right reasons.

Already an elite talent, Styles shined in defeat. The potential now exists for him to challenge The Undertaker in a rematch at WrestleMania 37. That match could take place in a ring–and it would mark Taker’s first back-to-back WrestleMania series since his program with Triple H at WrestleMania 27 and 28, though nothing can compare with his back-to-back ‘Mania matches with Shawn Michaels–if WWE creative chooses to go in that direction.

Braun Strowman is also the new Universal Champion.

After a weak explanation for Strowman’s appearance, which was noted on the pre-show as “a change among plans,” the “Monster Among Men” destroyed Bill Goldberg to win the belt in just over two minutes. Strowman appears to now be a heel, which gives some of the more traditional protagonists on the roster, including Kevin Owens, a chance to challenge for the title.

A main event wrestling fans won’t soon forget

Given the circumstances and conditions surrounding this WrestleMania, WWE offered a very unique presentation of pro wrestling with its main event.

“It was the right call not to do Undertaker vs. AJ in the PC like all the other matches,” said New Japan Pro Wrestling star Rocky Romero, a co-host of the Talk’n Shop podcast with Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, who added to the chaos of the “Boneyard” match but ultimately met their match in The Undertaker. “It was a great presentation of The Undertaker at WrestleMania, and we’re already used to seeing him in some kind of interesting scenarios where he does something out of the norm. I thought it was really cool, it was obviously a lot of hard work to do what they did. I thought they could have gone even further with the cinematic presentation, and hire some crazy Hollywood stunt people to go all-out. But it was well-rooted in professional wrestling in its presentation.”

The match had backstage producer Jeremy Borash’s fingerprints all over it. Borash was called upon by Matt Hardy to help create a lot of the more memorable videos in Hardy’s “Broken Universe.”

“It definitely had that ‘Hardy Compound’ feel to it,” said Romero. “And that’s really interesting, because look at how much Hardy has helped change wrestling in the last couple years.”

Romero, Gallows, and Anderson have a new episode this Sunday of “Talk’n Shop,” featuring an in-depth discussion of Tiger King, and next week’s episode may very well be appointment listening for wrestling fans.

“This week we’re with Robert Langdon, who has spent a lot of time with the ‘Tiger King’ and is someone Gallows and Anderson know well,” said Romero. “It’s a very interesting ‘Talk’n Shop,’ and then next week we’ll dive into WrestleMania and the ‘Boneyard’ match.”

Even in defeat, Styles reminded the wrestling world that there are few more elite talents than “The Phenomenal One.” Romero felt like this match was the perfect opening chapter for a longer feud between Styles and The Undertaker.

“Something that really struck me during the main event was that this is a great taste of what next year’s WrestleMania could be,” said Romero. “Having Undertaker-AJ and developing it over a year, instead of pushing it together, in front of 70,000 people, that is what I would do. That would be one of the most memorable matches of all time, especially after what we just watched happen. It was the perfect setup for next year.”

The best of the rest

WrestleMania has built a reputation as the “Showcase of Immortals.”

But it simply does not feel that way in the Performance Center. Wrestling is disjointed, and even hollow at times, without a live crowd. The wrestlers are taught to play off the emotion of the audience, which is impossible when there is no audience. And WWE has set an incredibly high standard of first-rate presentation at WrestleMania, with outstanding sets, pyro, and turning into a larger-than-life spectacle.

However, that doesn’t mean the show wasn’t meaningful. There was real emotion from Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross, who opened the show by winning the Women’s Tag Team Championship in a fantastic match against Asuka and Kairi Sane.

Sami Zayn had his moment with Daniel Bryan, and John Morrison also returned to WrestleMania after a nine-year absence to win the triple threat ladder match against Kofi Kingston and Jimmy Uso, absorbing a painful spot to make for an enduring moment of the year as he fell onto a ladder for the victory. The picture of a distraught Shayna Baszler, following her loss to Becky Lynch, was also a powerful visual.

This was a WrestleMania for the fans at home, but also for the performers to showcase their hard work and perseverance to reach the highest level in pro wrestling.

Elias kills the King, but not the moment

Elias won his match against King Corbin, but unfortunately this felt like it belonged on the kickoff show or just off the card altogether.

Last year, Elias worked a spot at WrestleMania 35 with John Cena. He has a great look, can work in the ring, and he is charismatic. Yet, for the past couple years, there is simply no sustained push for Elias. Perhaps he’ll be able to build off the momentum of a victory at WrestleMania.

Gronk mostly stays out of the spotlight

King Corbin did not continue his feud with WrestleMania host Rob Gronkowski.

Corbin is a former NFL player and dedicated Kansas City Chiefs fan, so there was plenty of potential for him to have a better moment with Gronkowski than they shared during their segment together a couple weeks ago on SmackDown.

WWE was smart to limit Gronkowski’s appearances. He welcomed the crowd at the start of the show, and eventually was tossed aside by Mojo Rawley when R-Truth brought out the 24/7 title, but we never saw too much of Gronk.

Gronk is likely to have at least one run with the 24/7 title, beginning–and likely ending–on night two of WrestleMania. Overall, he had a good showing in his first night as host.

Ignoring the absent elephants from the room

My only other big complaint was the lack of story regarding the absences of Roman Reigns and The Miz.

WWE’s policy is not to make mention of the coronavirus, but it was still disappointing that there was not some creativity involved in explaining the lack of appearances from two major stars.

Also, how did Braun Strowman instantly become a villain? There were definitely some subtle-but-important parts of the story that Vince McMahon glossed over at WrestleMania.

Strowman quickly ascends—perhaps too quickly

Braun Strowman is the new Universal Champion.

Strowman wiped out Bill Goldberg in just over two minutes in a match Wrestling Inc. owner Raj Giri could immediately tell was booked by Paul Heyman.

“This was clearly a Paul Heyman booked match,” said Giri, whose site is incredibly strong at providing up-to-date and breaking news, as well as providing a different look at the business with podcasts and interviews. “If you watch Goldberg’s match with Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 33, it was very similar. It was a bunch of big moves and then the finish in just over two minutes.”

Giri understood the desire to take the belt off of Goldberg, but he would have preferred more of a story in Strowman’s first opportunity with a top title.

“They barely mentioned that Braun was going to be in the title match, but they needed to get the title off of Goldberg,” said Giri. “He’s obviously an expensive talent. Forbes released the top-ten highest paid wrestlers, and Goldberg made three million last year. That was only two matches. He’s not cheap, with a lot of uncertainty, they don’t want that expense right now.”

Traffic for Wrestling Inc. traditionally peaks during WrestleMania, and that will again be the case this year.

“We do between 20-25 million page views per month, but with WrestleMania, it’s closer to 30 with a couple million per day,” said Giri. “It looks like it will be even bigger this year, and that’s because of the second night of WrestleMania. And we’ll have podcasts following each night of WrestleMania, an interview with Ric Flair coming up and tons more, so keep checking out WrestlingInc.com.”

Giri added that the decision to turn Strowman into a heel opens up a lot of possibilities, especially when looking back on his past runs as a villain.

“He’s more effective as a heel, and they could use a big heel right now,” said Giri. Seth Rollins has kind of fallen off a little bit. Bray Wyatt is kind of a heel. But I like the direction for Braun.

“It will be interesting to see what they try to do from here, and Braun-Roman would be a money match at SummerSlam. Braun really credits Roman for helping him improve and kind of putting him on the map, so that would be huge to build toward.”

Owens makes the most of WrestleMania return

Kevin Owens spoke with Sports Illustrated this past August ahead of his SummerSlam match against Shane McMahon.

Owens won that match, but his start-and-stop booking has not led to consistent momentum. Now, following his WrestleMania win against Seth Rollins, he appears headed toward a Universal title program with Braun Strowman.

Unlike pro sports, pro wrestling is a profession where even the most gifted can be held down. A popular reason is politics, or the belief that someone is out to get your spot.

Owens had every reason to be bitter when he was left off the card last year at WrestleMania 35. But he didn’t use the disappointment as a reason to be bitter.

“Missing WrestleMania was such a blow,” Owens told Sports Illustrated. “I don’t think anybody can fault me for saying that. Anybody who misses WrestleMania and isn’t bothered by it probably needs to look at their priorities.

“I don’t want to be so arrogant to say it was probably worse for me than it would have been for anybody else, but it was probably worse for me than it would be for anyone else. I’m really obsessed with this. It’s borderline not healthy.

“Up until the night before, I was still hoping that they’d come to me and say, ‘Hey, we just didn’t tell you, but this is what you’re doing.’ But that never happened. I flew home Saturday night before WrestleMania to be with my family, and that helped make everything a lot easier. Then the next morning, it was time to move on. From here on out, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that never happens again.”

Owens vowed to never let another WrestleMania opportunity slip away from him. He stayed true to his words this year, as his spot off the WrestleMania set was dangerous but effective. At WrestleMania 36, Owens made the most of his moment.

Lynch continues her reign to halt Baszler’s momentum

The work of Becky Lynch and Shayna Baszler caught the eye of WWE Hall of Famer Amy “Lita” Dumas.

Despite the popular notion that Baszler would dethrone Lynch, the finish saw Lynch outsmart her opponent by countering Baszler’s Kirifuda Clutch submission hold into a successful pin fall. This Tuesday will mark the one-year anniversary of Lynch winning her title, which is a remarkable run with a title in the modern era.

“Regardless of her storyline, people are just drawn to Becky,” said Lita. “She’s so real.”

Dumas was a trendsetter in WWE throughout her career, with an innovative style in the ring that forced her peers to continue to evolve. She sees a lot of similarities with Lynch, who has seized every opportunity she has been given to become one of the most recognizable faces of WWE.

“Becky has been able to maintain being the face of the company and stay in the spotlight,” said Dumas. “I’ve seen women and men have their day in the spotlight and be in the main event for a minute. But to be able to stay there is a totally different ballgame. She’s got past her 15 minutes, past people saying, ‘Isn’t that cute? The kid from Ireland set out on a world journey to be a wrestler!’ No, she got there and she’s stayed there.”

Dumas is busy working on her dream project, which is turning the KAYfABE project into a reality. Though still working on funding, KAYfABE has the potential to be an original, thought-provoking television series, shared from a female perspective and inspired by true events.

“The beginning of our launch was when the coronavirus began to spread, and we’re very thankful for those who have donated, but we backed off the gas soliciting people for money as they were uncertain with their jobs and futures,” said Dumas. “It’s still open, but we are looking at other options to get this project made. We’re definitely going to move forward, and we’re going to bring it to life for the fans.”

Dumas’ attention is now turned to tomorrow’s showdown pitting Charlotte Flair against NXT Women’s Champion Rhea Ripley.

“Charlotte has proven time and time again, whatever situation she is given, she delivers,” said Dumas. “She knows exactly what to do when she is the ring.”

That match will be the WrestleMania debut for the 23-year-old Ripley, but Dumas offered a veteran’s perspective when she explained that the brunt of the pressure falls on the shoulders of Flair.

“Charlotte holds the stigma of, ‘She gets to do everything, she always gets to be in the spotlight,’” said Dumas. “As much as Charlotte constantly delivers, you still hear, ‘That’s because she’s Ric Flair’s kid.’ No. As proud as she is of her father, every time she goes through the curtain, she is building her own legacy. That’s her mentality every single time she’s out.

“Rhea has it a little easier. She’s newer to WWE, so if she doesn’t deliver, she wasn’t expected to. But she has shown all of the makings of a long, solid, really great career in WWE. So this match could be equally beneficial for them both. They’re fresh opponents for each other, two new bodies of energy attacking each other.”

Night One gets the job done

Overall, the first night of WrestleMania was enjoyable.

Although the show is missing the grandeur of a traditional WrestleMania, WWE’s collection of talent poured out their hearts in the matches, and the “Boneyard” special was certainly a unique way to end the night.

All eyes now turn to the second night and potentially breakout nights for Drew McIntyre, Rhea Ripley, and Aleister Black–and the emotional return to WrestleMania for Edge.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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