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In the pandemic, empty-arena era of professional wrestling, the only constant for the WWE has been the notion of adjustment. With guidelines, quarantines, positive COVID-19 tests, and change around every corner, the ability to adjust at a moment’s notice has kept the company afloat.
From zero fans at WrestleMania to piped-in crowd noise within the “Greatest Wrestling Match Ever,” and everything in between, WWE has been forced to think outside the box during these times in order to deliver a serviceable product to wrestling fans and television network partners.
The execution of cinematic wrestling matches has been the most intensely debated idea sparked during this era of wrestling in WWE. When they needed to pull a rabbit out of their hat at WrestleMania, WWE leaned on the concept, and the result was a successful piece of business between The Undertaker and A.J. Styles in the Bone Yard Match. This match was well worked by both talents, smartly shot, properly edited, and ended up being the highlight of WrestleMania 36.
Since then, WWE has tried to replicate its success with matches like the Money In The Bank Ladder Match at their corporate headquarters, the tag team match between the Viking Raiders and Street Profits at Backlash, and they presumably are looking at the style again for the Swamp Match between Bray Wyatt and WWE Universal Champion Braun Strowman at Extreme Rules.
Proceed with caution, WWE. Be careful. Be patient.
It is possible to have too much of a good thing. If the swamp affair between Wyatt and Strowman ends up as a cinematic endeavor, WWE fans will have seen four of them in the last four months. By my calculations, before WrestleMania 36 this year, WWE fans had been treated to only two – Randy Orton vs. Bray Wyatt in the House of Horrors match and Bray Wyatt vs. Matt Hardy in the Ultimate Deletion.
Without knowing when the global pandemic is going to end or when fans will be allowed back into arenas, it’s important for WWE not to burn the cinematic candle too hot. They might need to light that candle in a pinch, and if they burn it out now, what do they have? Furthermore, fans have accepted the uniqueness of these cinematic matches given the circumstances, but the style is something that can wear over time if it’s constantly being presented as a major element of monthly shows.
Part of the charm of cinematic matches is their uniqueness and that they were born out of a necessity for new. If these matches continue with regularity, that uniqueness and sense of new fades away and they become exponentially less effective.
The other piece of this puzzle to consider is the talent involved in these matches. The Undertaker and A.J. Styles appropriately kicked things off, but since then Asuka, Shayna Baszler, Nia Jax, Lacey Evans, Carmella, Dana Brooke, Rey Mysterio, Aleister Black, King Corbin, Daniel Bryan, and Otis have been the participants. Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman are about to take a stab at it as well. Don’t get me wrong; there is talent in that list, but it’s not exactly a “Who’s Who” of future Hall of Famers.
This is the wrong talent to feature. The great part of the cinematic bouts is that they eliminate the need for true bumping and can feature pinpoint editing and post-production to insure a pristine performance. Because of this, the cinematic matches can extend and reignite careers. How about Sting vs. The Undertaker someday? Another Goldberg match? DX reunited once again? Heck, maybe even Stone Cold Steve Austin would lace up the boots within an environment like this to have one more match without actually having to have one. Those are the types of stars and the level of matches to wait for. If too many take place now, interest in the style will wane before they can happen.
Guys like Bryan, Wyatt, Strowman, and Baszler can all work regular matches. It’s certainly not perfect, but for better or worse, the WWE wrestlers have figured out how to functionally wrestle in the empty arena environment. Let them do that, and let’s save the cinematic stuff for returning legends and draws that can’t.
Fans have been willing to give WWE wide latitude to explore and find their way through the pandemic. Less so once it became clear they had skirted coronavirus protections, but latitude nonetheless. Many new concepts and adjustments during the empty-arena era have been polarizing. Some have worked well, others haven’t, but that’s the nature of unique ideas.
Because of the cinematic style’s success, WWE has money and opportunity tied up in potential high-level matches with returning stars and a safety net if they ever need it as the pandemic carries on.
COVID misfires aside; WWE should be congratulated for their outside-the-box thinking during this strange year. But from here on they should be a bit more patient, a bit more selective, and wait for opportune moments to offer more of their “new.” Running cinematic matches at the clip they are and with the stars they are, waters down that style and dilutes the opportunity on the table.
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