Four COVID-19 Changes Wrestling Should Keep After Lockdown

Jason Auld hopes wrestling retains a few aspects of their lockdown product when things are back to normal.

photo: WWE

In 2019, lockdown was just an ill conceived idea for a TNA PPV. In 2020, unlike Impact Wrestling, it’s impossible to ignore.

The current global pandemic has shut down most media but even a killer virus can’t stem the relentless march of wrestling.

One of the only forms of entertainment still running, it hasn’t been without its share of obstacles to overcome and I’ve been personally impressed with the lateral thinking and improvisation on show.

Wrestlemania has probably been the biggest success of the isolation era as WWE found themselves facing a massive fall, like Rey Mysterio being thrown from the roof, only to land comfortably and conveniently on an unsuspecting mezzanine floor.

The Oulipo is a French movement amongst writers, who seek to create works using clearly defined creative constraints. Maybe they’re only allowed to use one vowel. Maybe each line must start with the same letter.

The theory being, true creativity comes from working around restrictions and not when anything goes (I’d be happy to help you with that, if that’s what you want – Ed). I promise that’s the most pretentious reference I’ll make in this article.

So, rather than clamour for a return to wrestling prior to isolation – a product that was riddled with problems anyway – perhaps we should focus on the successes that have come from the constraints of lockdown and look to work some of the positives into the product once normality returns.

Here are four key areas which for me exemplify this:

Wrestlemania over two nights, shorter runtimes

I’m going to start with the aforementioned Mania. It really was the biggest challenge WWE could have been presented with.

Sure, scrapping angles week to week on Raw or rebooking lower tier PPVs due to injury has been routine in recent years but to have to shift the Superbowl of wrestling, a weekend long international festival, from a huge stadium to a small gym in Florida was a herculean labour.

Regardless of match quality, one of the major pluses of this year’s Mania was its run time. Split over two nights, it essentially allowed for two main events and less “let me up” ring time.

The Money in the Bank PPV was a streamlined 2.5 hours, which including ad breaks is shorter than Raw! I think we all get a bit of fatigue when asked to consume wrestling in an eight hour time span.

It reminds me of MMA fighter Chael Sonnen’s soundbite. When speaking of watching MMA for five, 5 minute rounds, he explained: “I like chocolate cake but I wouldn’t want to eat it for 25 minutes”.

Ignoring the emotional rollercoaster that comes with the culmination of great rivalries and intense storylines, watching anything for eight hours is a chore. Just ask anyone who binges Netflix. New Japan also switched to the two-day model with Wrestle Kingdom this year and that wasn’t motivated by social distancing.

I appreciate that logistically, for the production team and for travelling fans, running an event for two days presents its own challenges but purely from a viewer at home’s perspective, splitting eight hours of Mania over two days is bound to inject life into match ups that otherwise would result in lethargic applause or resentful apathy.

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Cinematic matches

Lockdown has been defined by cinematic matches in WWE. We got the Boneyard Match as our main event of Mania night one and the Firefly Funhouse redefined what a “wrestling match” could be on night two. We should have had Taker bury Matt Hardy instead, just so he could spin in his grave at the critical acclaim.

In all seriousness, cinematic matches are nothing new but they have certainly been given a new lease of life in this period. Vince has always claimed to “make movies” and there are obvious advantages that come with being able to utilise a variety of camera angles and editing techniques, elaborate and unique sets and eliminating mistakes through cuts and multiple takes.

I loved the Undertaker as a kid, I’m even one of those weirdos that enjoyed the American Badass but he’s 55 years old and there’s no shame in saying he can’t work a match like he did in his 30s or even his 40s.

I would, however, happily watch another couple of Boneyard-style matches from him and I’m certain I’d be entertained by them.

Cinematic matches will allow veterans’ star power to be harnessed for big events, without the fans having to sit through 20 minutes of a younger talent trying to cover up their shortcomings.

Maybe the ship has sailed on Undertaker vs Sting but if we went back five years, can you imagine them in a cinematic match? Or maybe we could see some kind of double retirement “drag me to hell” match between the Brothers of Destruction.

As for the Firefly Funhouse; I’m not about to write a philosophical analysis or even have a debate on whether it was good but no one can deny, it opened the door for unique and creative storytelling that simply wouldn’t exist in a live event setting.

Like everything in wrestling, we’ll get sick of this if overused but if you save the cinematic matches for inventive concepts and marquee PPVs, they deserve to stay, even once the traveling circus is back on the road.

Inventive match types

I’ve showered Mania in praise, instead reserving disdain for Money in the Bank. It was fine. Perhaps the problem was, my expectations had climbed after the success of Mania and were dizzyingly high by MITB.

I am a fan that likes a bit of pantomime in my wrestling. I used to love Lucha Underground because of it’s high production value, it’s effective use of more traditional filming techniques and it’s mystic Aztec silliness.

The reason I enjoy shoot combat sports is not the same reason I enjoy pro wrestling, so I’ve never understood the comparisons.

I’m a huge martial arts movie fan and I’d compare the theatrics and choreographed physical storytelling of Jackie Chan to wrestling far quicker than I would compare it to Ali vs Fraizer.

Money in the Bank was supposed to be wrestling “Die Hard” and I loved that idea. Rather than just another ladder match, a stipulation that arguably suffers most from the lack of audience, they thought outside the box and it’s more of this thinking that is required post lockdown.

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The predictable cycle of gimmick PPVs has meant we’ve lost so much of the spontaneity and climactic build that used to exist. Cactus called for a Hell in a Cell match because he wanted to finish off Triple H once and for all, not because it was October.

That and the organic and symbiotic metamorphosis of the original TLC matches is lost in the current commoditisation of WWE’s biggest gimmick matches.

Instead, we need another match that fits the PPV format, so stick Randy Orton vs Jeff Hardy in a cage and be done with it. I’m not arguing that inventive equals good because I’m old enough to have lived through WCW Road Wild.

However, with seven hours of WWE television per week, doing things differently and injecting some spontaneity into the match ups could work as a fresh coat of paint for the product.

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Improved dialogue & overall acting in-ring

In recent years, I’ve noticed how sensitive the ring mics are these days. It has been a never ending source of Botchamania clips for those competitors who can’t keep their voices down, so when the roar of the crowd was silenced, I had little hope that ring chatter would be subtle.

Quite the contrary. Some of the dialogue in the ring, outside of the conventional promo structure, has been great. Drew McIntyre has quite clearly loved a little ad lib to camera, pre and post match. Rhea Ripley’s painful screams during her match with Charlotte, although a little over the top at times, really made the final submission impactful.

Even something as simple as the wheezing of a winded Seth Rollins after receiving that incredible splash from Kevin Owens at Mania really contributed to his selling in a way we would have missed with an overpowering crowd soundtrack.

Wrestlers have been forced to think about the small stuff; the connective tissue between the big spots and the detail has helped flesh out characters and feuds.

Steve Austin openly admits he has no idea what he used to aggressively mutter on his way to the ring and I’m sure the reality would never live up to our imagination anyway, but now wrestlers are faced with empty echo chambers and must either keep schtum or make those words mean something.

Perhaps it’s been coupled with the office allowing a bit more freedom in the presentation of a character but the package has made for more entertaining segments.

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Whether you agree with the execution, some of the concepts explored during lockdown, out of necessity, have brought a new lease of life to wrestling and I’d love to see them continue.

Is there anything you’ve seen during lockdown that could make the product better in future? Maybe you think everything about it is worse? Whatever you think, let’s hope wrestling not only survives this monumental event in history, but thrives from what it has learned during it.

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