It was John Cena who once said it best. Asked to name the No. 1 superstar in World Wrestling Entertainment, Cena had a swift and perfect response. It wasn’t himself, or The Rock, or Stone Cold Steve Austin, or Brock Lesnar. The answer was easy, Cena said.
It was the fans.
Every form of successful entertainment relies on engaging deeply with its supporters, but few make the audience such an intrinsic part of the show as WWE. And yet, as perhaps the most significant event in the organization’s history — this weekend’s two-night WrestleMania 36 extravaganza, available on FOX Sports pay-per-view — approaches, it must do so without a single cheering soul in the stands.
With so many cancellations across the global sports sphere, the mere fact that WrestleMania is taking place is something of a minor miracle. It will do so in front of no one except production staff at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, instead of tens of thousands at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, but given the shortage of other activity, the viewing numbers are expected to be enormous, and the entertainment value for fans will be unparalleled.
For the athletes involved, it creates a strange dynamic. Drew Galloway, who performs under the name Drew McIntyre, will take on the aforementioned Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship in the biggest occasion of his wrestling life.
.@HeymanHustle had a GUARANTEE for @DMcIntyreWWE & @BrockLesnar at #WrestleMania!#WWERaw pic.twitter.com/xVFvHvJOTs
— WWE (@WWE) April 1, 2020
“At first I was disappointed, angry, I couldn’t believe it was happening,” McIntyre told me in a telephone interview on Wednesday, in reference to his ultimate moment being affected by the current state of affairs. “Then I started looking at the bigger picture, how important it is to entertain right now.”
McIntyre grew up in Scotland, where professional soccer matches are played with ferocious intensity, and the same level of commitment is expected from loyal fans. A spectator who remains seated and silent during one of the bigger matches might get “a bottle (bounced) off his head,” McIntyre said.
He was surprised when he came to North America that such fan involvement was not such a part of American sports.
“Over here, I couldn’t believe it when I went to other sports and people are sitting there quietly and clapping sometimes,” McIntyre added. “If a guy stands up and starts to try to get the crowd going, people kind of look at him funny.
“That’s what makes WWE special. There is simply no more engaged or passionate crowd anywhere, and the crowd can directly influence matches. They can help set the tone or the tempo of how things are going to go.”
Indeed, in one of the most famous examples of fan interaction, Hulk Hogan and The Rock changed the entire story they were telling at WrestleMania X8 on the fly in the ring, based entirely on the way that the crowd reacted. Such is the skill of the performers involved, and the impact of the thousands upon thousands typically gathered outside the ring.
Yet while that aspect will be missing this time, McIntyre believes the empty stands will allow for a new dynamic to play out that gives the audience a fresh perspective. Listed at 6’5“ and 265 pounds, a clash of incessant physicality is expected when he tackles Lesnar, a marauding beast who was a two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight titleholder.
“This time, the crowd will be able to hear the hits,” McIntyre said. “Usually there is so much atmosphere and noise that you can’t hear that stuff. This time will be different. We will be missing the crowd, but the audience will literally be able to feel me and Brock laying into each other. I know that he won’t hold back, and I certainly won’t be.”
Even without the fans in attendance, then, there will be plenty of spectacle to behold. And for that, we’ll be quite thankful. The need to be entertained is a part of us. Taking it back to its most basic level, it is the reward for the effort committed to our work and families and the necessities of life. It is a distraction from struggle and a way for us to pass time.
There is not much to fill that void right now. WrestleMania is always the most popular WWE event of any year but takes on a special resonance this time around, because it is largely the only game in town.
McIntyre also believes that his own story, played out through his on-screen character, might be the right one for testing times in society. The WWE scriptwriters have always operated on a blueprint of amplified reality, and there may be no more appropriate story than that of a man who faltered, rebuilt and ultimately overcame.
.@DMcIntyreWWE just took the #WWEChampion @BrockLesnar to #ClaymoreCountry!!!#RAW pic.twitter.com/YZ1BUc9qQ2
— WWE (@WWE) March 3, 2020
McIntyre is a former rising star who initially failed to live up to expectations. He was turned into a comedy character and couldn’t make that stick, either. He got fired by the WWE and had to work his way back through the independent circuit. He faced failure — and stared it down.
During his time out of the big leagues, he realized he needed to be more, to give more, to work harder to fulfill his potential. And so, he dreamed. His dream, as fate would have it, was to get back into the WWE and face Lesnar at WrestleMania.
He realized he had to get bigger and stronger physically, to believe in himself more, to be more intense in the ring and be able to verbalize his personality more effectively to connect with the audience. His efforts gained him a return to the company in 2017, and recently a major promotional push to star billing.
“I hope what I have gone through inspires people, especially at this time,” he said. “We know what is going on, and people are experiencing a lot of difficulty. We want to take them on an emotional rollercoaster.”
He, Lesnar and the other athletes on the card will not get to hear the roar of crowd noise greet their entrance into the arena, nor feel the electricity of a live audience. What they do have, he says, is a chance to be a part of history.
“WrestleMania is always huge but as time passes it is always on to the next thing,” he said. “Not this time. This will never be forgotten. This is the year when the world stood still. This will be remembered for the rest of time.”