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Theatrical Pro Wrestling and WWE’s COVID-19 Adaptation

“Necessity is the mother of invention” ~ Plato


When times are tough, you have to find innovative ways to thrive and survive in a new, unstable environment. COVID-19 has changed the landscape of combat sports, bringing all events to a standstill … or nearly all combat sports that is. WWE and professional wrestling in general has somehow managed to stay active through some adaptations and innovations.

The state of Florida’s decision to categorize sports as essential businesses has allowed WWE to continue operations, albeit with no live audience in attendance. WWE has also adapted by creating “theatrical matches”, and idea which, in most cases, I absolutely love. Pro wrestling, after all, is all about story telling. When The Undertaker fought AJ Styles at WrestleMania in a “Boneyard Match” it was almost like creating Frankenstein’s monster: 1 part horror film, 1 part Bruce Lee movie and 1 part pro wrestling.



I was also amazed by the John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt production. I call it a “production”, because I’m not even sure you can call it a wrestling match. I’m not sure what to call it, but it had me intrigued and fascinated the entire time, and that’s difficult to do, even in a traditional wrestling match. To me it seemed more like John Cena had stepped inside the demented mind of Bray Wyatt when he entered the “Firefly Funhouse”. He was completely at the mercy of Bray, who had complete control in this realm.

These matches were great to watch, but others were complete flops. To me there’s not really much of a difference between the “backyard wrestling” I was doing behind my parent’s house when I was 16 years old and the “Last Man Standing” match between Edge and Randy Orton at WM 36.

And while I give an “A” for effort to the concept of the “Money in the Bank Ladder Match”, I still rate it as a fail simply because of the overly-fake aspect of wrestling inside of an office building. It’s not the wrestlers’ fault. It’s simply just impossible to pull of a shred of credibility in a match like that. You either need a different gimmick every couple of minutes to keep people entertained or you need to do it really hardcore with blood and weapons and real violence, and WWE is not going to go the latter route. I will admit though, that I really enjoyed the food fight scene.



We should remember, though, that theatrical matches are not necessarily something new in professional wrestling and they are not an invention of the WWE. Matt Hardy is generally credited with their inception when he did the “Final Deletion” four years ago. However, if we look even further back there have been a number of other such wrestling matches. Who remembers the campground matches DDT filmed in Japan? Or the original empty arena match between Terry Funk and Jerry Lawler in 1981? “My eye! My eye!

There was also the over-the-top “King of the Road” match between Dustin Rhodes and the Blacktop Bully in WCW which took place more or less in a pig pen constructed on the back of a moving flat bed truck that was driving down the road, the ultimate gimmick match if there ever was one.

And although WWE may be relying on these sorts of matches more and more during the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s not like they haven’t done these kinds of matches before in the past. If you haven’t seen them, you definitely need to take a look at the “Hollywood Backlot Brawl” at WrestleMania 12 which saw WWE’s version of the O.J. Simpson white Ford Bronco car chase.

There was also the “Hog Pen Match” (which is exactly what you think it is) and the Undertaker, perhaps the king of the theatrical match, has been in a number of bizarre matches over the years, everything from buried alive matches and casket matches to my personal favorite, his “Boiler Room Brawl” with Mankind at SummerSlam 1996.

All of these matches took place off site (filmed on location), or were mostly out-of-the-ring type of matches. But as with all gimmick matches, I’m not sure you can actually make a full event with nothing but matches like these. It would be overkill. These are special matches that should only happen from time to time. Which is exactly the conundrum WWE and all other active pro wrestling organizations are facing right now. Without a live audience pro wrestling is unwatchable. So, unless you can find an innovative way to present professional wrestling without a crowd, theatrical matches and gimmick matches are most likely going to be a regular staple and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing for the business as a whole.


- Daniel Austin










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