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Bidding Farewell To Wrestling’s Pandemic-Era

WWE WrestleMania 36

AEW recently said goodbye to Daily’s Place. The home of the Jackson Jaguars has been home to AEW for the past 16 months.

As the final show before they head back on the road came to a close, they aired a video package that beautifully showed everything that took place during AEW’s residency of Daily’s Place. It was amazing and shocking to see the number of significant moments and angles that happened during this time.

Not only did it show the many monumental occasions like the Blood and Guts match and Sting’s surprise signing, but it set off a torrent of seemingly forgotten memories that happened over the past year due to the timeless oddity that was 2020/2021.

WWE, AEW, and IMPACT are welcoming back fans as we seem to be heading out of the ‘Pandemic Era’, so we take a look back at this crazy time. There have been shocks, surprises, title changes, and positive COVID tests along the way.

The pandemic had a profound effect on the world, and it will be a time that we will remember forever. The world literally shut down overnight. Businesses shut their doors, restaurants, bars, cafes closed, and sporting events ceased – all except wrestling, that is. The grey area in which wrestling exists allowed it to continue. Sitting in between the worlds of sport and entertainment, professional wrestling was exempt from closure. Therefore WWE and AEW remained active.

The effect the pandemic had on wrestling was evident from the beginning. In WWE, 3/16 day went from a collaborative drunken celebration of Stone Cold Steve Austin to the Texas Rattlesnake drinking beers with Byron Saxton in an empty warehouse in Florida. On the AEW side, Cody addressed the audience to the troubles that we were all to face in a vacuous and blacked-out Daily’s Place.

One of the most significant impacts of the pandemic era was WrestleMania 36. The event was gearing to be one of WWE’s grandest spectacles with giant pirate ships and such. Then to have it at the Performance Center in front of zero fans was a jarring experience, to say the least.

Two WWE Superstars who were greatly affected by the pandemic were Edge and Drew McIntyre. Their respective moments at 2020’s Royal Rumble were epic, yet their WrestleMania moments nowhere near what they should have been.

Looking back, AEW clearly held the advantage over WWE. The empty PC shows are virtually unwatchable in retrospect. The unprecedented situation birthed some stellar performances, with Zelina Vega and Bayley particularly standing out. Despite the efforts of the talent, something just wasn’t working, and it was that something AEW quickly rectified.

In their short history, the promotion held more events under pandemic conditions than in full capacity arenas. The young promotion promptly adapted to the lack of audience and replaced wrestlers as fans around the ring. The move gave AEW a fresher and more familiar feel and one that WWE would replicate, especially for NXT.

NXT suffered during the pandemic. The brand was unable to flow as it once did due to ad-hoc booking and short-term storytelling. The in-ring action was unquestionable as always, but the fact it took place in an empty warehouse was a major negative for the viewer. NXT did change things by adding other wrestlers as fans and then creating the CWC complete with a video wall of virtual fans. The move thankfully re-energised NXT and complimented the stellar action in the ring.

The fan-less shows forced the promotions to think outside of the box. The evolution of the cinematic match produced some historic moments. The Boneyard match, The Firefly Fun House match, and Stadium Stampede were all great never-seen-before spectacles that a “normal” wrestling show would be unable to pull off.

WWE continued to think of new ideas and thankfully removed itself from the PC and to Tropicana Fields to create the ThunderDome. The move rejuvenated WWE but was not without its problems. In the early days, the screens were infiltrated by some questionable and indecent imagery that made WWE tighten its control over the audience and therefore add an inorganic feel to the experience.

Another causality of the pandemic era was the “Wednesday Night Wars”. Ever since AEW’s inception NXT was moved to a live format at the same time on the same night. The two rival promotions went head-to-head for most of the pandemic to varying degrees of television ratings success. However, USA Network moved NXT to Tuesday nights, making AEW the winners by default.

IMPACT Wrestling took a brief hiatus but was able to continue and delivered some matches and angles. Jordynne Grace and Deonna Purrazzo had a great feud over the Knockouts Championship while Rich Swann, Moose, and Sami Callihan carried the men’s division. However, the fact they were in an empty arena still made it a tough watch at times. Thankfully, they welcome back crowds at their next pay-per-view Slammiversary.

There were hirings and firings galore during the pandemic, especially on the WWE side. The company has mercilessly released multiple talents since last year. However, they were not the only ones to lose talent; IMPACT Wrestling released Tessa Blanchard while she was still World Heavyweight Champion. NWA, who made a great return to the airwaves in 2019, was hit big by the pandemic. Halted when they were just getting going, the promotion closed its doors for months. During this time, they lost several big-name talents such as Ricky Starks, Eddie Kingston, and Eli Drake. Luckily they are able to bounce back and forward to welcoming fans back soon.

The worst part of the pandemic era has to be the tragic passing of Brodie Lee. His arrival in AEW brought legitimacy to the Dark Order. As the ‘Exalted One’, Lee was allowed to spread his wings with new character traits and promos. His destruction of Cody to win the TNT title was a watershed in AEW history. The way the promotion handled his passing and celebrated his life was a heartbreaking yet beautiful tribute to a man who meant a lot to a lot of people.

Hana Kimura’s death sent shockwaves through the wrestling world and drew attention to the awful online abuse those who want to entertain us suffer. Kimura was a future megastar who was taken far too soon. WWE mourned the loss of Pat Patterson, Howard Finkel, and Shad Gaspard. Legends such as Joseph “Animal” Laurinaitis, Kamala, Tracy Smothers, and “Bullet” Bob Armstrong all left us over the past two years. Josephus, New Jack Butch Reed, and The Patriot also tragically passed away.

For much of the horrors the pandemic brought to the wrestling world, it did bring some most excellent moments, matches, and memories. Love was most certainly in the air during the pandemic. Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch, Renee Paquette and Jon Moxley, and Brandi and Cody Rhodes all became parents.

AEW, NWA, IMPACT, and NJPW opened the “forbidden door” and worked together in a move not seen in wrestling for decades. Thunder Rosa kicked the door open when she appeared on AEW as the NWA World Women’s Champion. Serena Deeb would win the title and defend it multiple times in excellent matches on AEW. Kenny Omega’s heel turn in defeating Jon Moxley for the AEW Championship saw him side with Don Callis and regularly appear on both AEW and IMPACT. The Good Brothers followed suit before forming the ‘Super Elite’ along with the Young Bucks. NJPW talent KENTA surprisingly attacked Moxley setting up their feud for the NJPW United States Championship on AEW television.

Staying with AEW, they continued to shock the wrestling with the surprise return of Sting. The moment was the talk of the town for weeks and has given the legend the last run he deserves.

Changing lanes to WWE Roman Reigns is easily the best act they have. The change of circumstances made WWE alter their course for the uber babyface he was portrayed as before his return. The new ‘Tribal Chief’ Reigns is a phenomenal turnaround. His mafia boss-esque control over his cousins is the highlight of SmackDown every week. Bayley and Sasha Banks ran the entire show during their run as the ‘Golden Role Models’ while the return of MVP revitalised Bobby Lashley’s career and led him to championship gold.

Surprisingly, AEW were the first promotion to welcome back fans. In August of last year, they welcomed back fans at minimum capacity. The crowds steadily grew and returned in full force for at Double or Nothing. AEW, therefore have the advantage in knowing what their audience wants going forward.

For months, wrestling promotions have booked as they see fit without having an audience as the barometer. WWE especially used filtered crowd noise and orchestrated fan participation to their will and could be in for a shock once the crowds return.

Despite WWE’s efforts beyond the ThunderDome (see what I did there?) the promotion did little to elevate their game. The booking has been criticised until very recently on the red brand in particular for remaining stagnant, with the matches and feuds repetitive – but with no organic crowd reactions to tell anyone otherwise, the product exists in somewhat of its own bubble. Hopefully, as the crowds return, a symbiotic relationship between company and fans allows WWE to see what is working and what isn’t, and work to improve.

The “Pandemic-Era” has brought ups, downs, and everything in between. Despite its many pitfalls, it will go down as one of the weirdest and memorable eras in wrestling.