With World Wrestling Entertainment’s return to live tapings from venues across the country beginning July 16, a short but distinct era in its history ends. The Pandemic Era saw WWE pivoting quickly to crowdless shows filmed first at the WWE Performance Center, and finally the technologically sophisticated Thunderdome at Amway Center. The COVID19 pandemics demands-eliminating crowds, and travel-seemed directly contradictory to the nature of pro wrestling. Crowd participation, and the relationships between performers and their crowds in different cities, play an integral role in the art form.
More than ever, the WWE’s superstars had to hone the way they portrayed their characters, focus that vision, and project it to reach an exclusively long-distance audience via streaming platforms and television, without the factor of a live crowd. Acts like Daniel Bryan and The New Day, while as talented as ever in the ring, stumbled a bit without the crowd participation their personas draw so heavily upon.
The MVPs of this unexpected era in WWE history were those who dug deep into character and touched a nerve with the television or streaming platform viewer, and social media peanut gallery-the 2020 version of making a crowd pop.
Shayna Bazler and Nia Jax
Baszler and Jax are the enjoyable villains of the women’s division, but neither is content to be one-note. Rather than solely trading on her considerable formidability, Jax also spun a silk purse out of a sow’s ear as a comedic romantic lead in the improbable “Reginald the Sommelier” storyline, wooing the lovesick cupbearer away from Sasha Banks and Carmella. As for Bazler, known for her punishing submission style of wrestling and gritty persona, she’s professed that she is happy to be expanding her acting range in the controversial ‘Alexa’s Playground’ angle. The two always deliver in the ring, Jax backing up submission magician Bazler with raw force and tsunamic power. They were the downfall of the Boss and the Hugger, applying the pressure that eventually broke up Sasha Banks and Bayley, gave Lana a summer of viral social media notoriety by plunging her through tables for nearly a month, and inadvertently triggered the creating of the NXT women’s tag team championships after inaugural women’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic winners Raquel Gonzalez and Dakota Kai lost to them in a challenge for the WWE women’s tag team championships. Jax and Bazler pulled triple duty in the Pandemic Era, appearing on Raw, NXT, and SmackDown to defend their title. At a time when the global health crisis asked so much out of so many, they embodied the willingness to dig in, and evolve, and were at the center, or even the catalyst, of some of the Thunderdome’s most memorable moments in the women’s division.
When backstage news of a pro wrestler’s true personality leaks, its not always a good thing. Not so for Corbin-recent reports profess that behind the scenes, the heel is a breeze to work with. Corbin’s willingness to go with the flow served him, and the WWE universe, well during the Pandemic Era. Initially, SmackDown’s first crowdless tapings were at the WWE performance center, with superstars in training filling in for the crowds. Despite the awkward setup, Corbin never lost a step in his act, using his consistent mic ability to give credibility to his feud with Jeff Hardy over Corbin’s insult to the recently retired Undertaker, and his bullying of new arrival from NXT in Riddle. When Seth Rollins went on family leave to support Becky Lynch during her pregnancy, Corbin once again rolled with the punches and played the villain for a bit in Rollins’ place against the Mysterio family. Currently, he is in an entertaining midcard feud with Shinsuke Nakamura which is bringing out a new dimension in both performers. No matter the venue or who he is working with, Corbin always struck the right balance of menace in the ring and comedic heel schtick on the mic. His consistency interjects some welcome normalcy into these strange days.
Former football player Pat McAfee began his time as a WWE performer as a pre-show analyst for the NXT Takeover events, where his heat with Adam Cole began. The rivalry culminated into several memorable confrontations, and an actual match between the two in 2020. However, McAfee’s time in the ring was short-lived, and in 2021 he wound up behind the SmackDown commentary desk, where he has been a true joy. McAfee’s boisterous personality, off-the-cuff wit, and true, infectious enthusiasm for WWE and its superstars punctuate the unfolding action perfectly. Not only does he have ample comedic chops, but a truly Jim Ross level gift for narration and schilling the plot-hopefully McAfee will be behind the mic for just as long.
The only thing more difficult than a metamorphosis in front of a crowd, is one in front of a missing crowd. Before the pandemic hit, Belair had already been a stand-out performer on both NXT and Monday Night Raw. However, it is after being drafted to SmackDown that Bianca started being built as the future of the women’s division, its face and shining star. The pressure to deliver, and in the unique atmosphere of the Thunderdome, must have been immense, but Bianca rose to the challenge even when that challenge was apparent, such as her early struggles with mic work. Throughout her feuds with Bayley and Sasha Banks, however, Bianca began to thrive, and from her stellar WrestleMania 37 match with Banks and beyond, Bianca has been in command of the Thunderdome, and of her persona. She grew into herself, and the pivotal role that WWE has cast her in, with only the support of her colleagues and her own determination to rely on, without a crowd to draw upon.
In the latter 2010s, Roman Reigns battled the impression that he was the 21st century Lex Luger: a hand-picked and corporate crafted top babyface being pushed to the top of the card to the extent that it flew in the face of what fans actually wanted to see. Chants of “You suck” from crowds who took issue with his prominence followed Reigns from city to city. After taking time off for his health, Reigns returned in 2020 with a new heel persona, “The Tribal Chief”. The Tribal Chief is a complex figure determined to cement his storied family legacy’s dominance in the present-day WWE. He is willing to use psychological manipulation and unsheathed brutality to do so. At times, real affection for his cousin Jey Uso, whom Reigns subdued into being his right-hand man, shines through, as do some latent insecurities about retaining his Universal Championship and being the best, which fuel his aggression.
This character has layers, and is far from a lone wolf, as his supporting cast of Jey, twin Jimmy Uso, and special counsel Paul Heyman have been wisely tapped to make Reigns look like the head of a formidable team, and make up for whatever he still lacks on the mic. The storyline has also been generous with the SmackDown roster, engaging Kevin Owens, Daniel Bryan, Edge, and Rey and Dominik Mysterio in effective feuds. Playing off Reigns’ family’s storied history with the WWE, the pressure of remaining on top, and family dysfunction, has been one of WWE’s most entertaining stories of the Pandemic era. It has given Reigns a second chance with fans who have largely embraced him as a heel as definitively as they rejected him as a babyface, and taken Friday Night SmackDown to new heights. No more is it considered the “B show” of WWE’s television programming, second to Monday Night Raw, and Reigns’ work is largely responsible, thanks to his complex reinvention.
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