WWE has been forced to go weird for WrestleMania this year. In the wake of the current health emergency, the company was forced to make some bizarre decisions. So, rather than the usual tens of thousands of people in a packed arena for a one-night-only spectacular, WrestleMania 36 was set to unfold over two pre-recorded shows, filmed in an empty arena.

It’s certainly a unique way of doing things. With that in mind, people were far from sure how the show would play out, despite a card that, on paper, looked like one of the strongest in years.

The first night of WrestleMania is now in the books and, with a whole night still to go, fans have already been handed a unique slice of wrestling spectacle that will certainly never play out in this unusual way ever again.

Kick-Off: Cesaro defeated Drew Gulak via airplane spin

WrestleMania Cesaro Drew Gulak

This one started off fast and furious, with Cesaro going for the Neutralizer early, only for Gulak to counter into an armbar. Gulak took control and zeroed in on Cesaro’s shoulder following a terrific series of reversals. A dive from Gulak was met with a big uppercut from the Swiss Cyborg and a sickening big boot. Cesaro then hoisted up Gulak for a no-hands reverse airplane spin, scoring the pinfall straight afterwards.

Cesaro and Gulak are two of the best pure wrestlers on the planet, but this came to an end all too quickly, just as it really seemed to be getting into top gear. Given time and a more conventional setting, these two could have a show-stealer of a contest.

Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross defeated Kabuki Warriors via Twisted Bliss to become NEW Women’s Tag Team Champions

WrestleMania Alexa Bliss Nikki Cross

The full show got going – after a very earnest Stephanie McMahon video message – with an in-ring war of words between these two teams. Nikki Cross exploded into the match to terrorise Kairi Sane and there was soon a pile-up at ringside as Bliss and “Naughty Nikki” – that nickname won’t stick, but nice try Michael Cole – bowled over the Kabuki Warriors with dives. The champions soon took back control, though, and isolated Bliss until Cross came back in to save the day.

The brawling Scot hit her twisting neckbreaker finish on Asuka, only for Sane to break up the pinfall with the Insane Elbow. The challengers returned that favour moments later when Bliss came off the top with Twisted Bliss to break up the Asuka Lock on Cross. A Doomsday Device on Cross only got two and the challenger rallied to hit the twisting neckbreaker on Sane, followed by Twisted Bliss for the win and a new set of champions.

A solid match here from two very good teams, but they struggled with the unusual surroundings. The Kabuki Warriors kept playing to a non-existent crowd and both Bliss and Cross seemed incapable of going more than a few minutes without trying to initiate a series of claps to rally their partner. The title change makes sense given the popularity of Bliss and Cross, and hopefully, the Kabuki Warriors will be allowed to achieve their potential in the singles world. Asuka, in particular, is a terrific heel who is a real match for any babyface champion.

Elias defeated King Corbin via roll-up

WrestleMania King Corbin Elias

Corbin immediately declared himself the winner by forfeit here, assuming Elias would not have recovered from his Mufasa-like fall on SmackDown just over a week ago. WWE’s resident troubadour did, however, make an appearance and wasted no time in battering the King with a guitar shot to the back. Once the match got going, Elias had an early flurry until Corbin was able to attack his opponent’s taped shoulder. Elias hit a very ropey-looking version of Cross Rhodes for a near-fall and he dived straight into a Deep Six, which got Corbin a near-fall. The malevolent heel tried to win with his feet on the ropes, but the referee caught him, allowing Elias to score a quick roll-up win.

Does anybody care about this feud? As with so many Corbin rivalries, there’s no palpable animosity to this. It’s just two people who appear on TV opposite each other every week and will do so until WWE decides to move on to something else. As a WrestleMania spectacle, it was deathly boring.

RAW Women’s Champion Becky Lynch defeated Shayna Baszler via reversal of Kirifuda Clutch into a pinfall

WrestleMania Becky Lynch

Promisingly, these two started leathering each other with strikes as soon as the bell rang, perfectly depicting the heat that has burned between them since Baszler’s neck-biting main roster debut. Baszler hit a series of stiff-sounding leg kicks, but Lynch shook them off and delivered a missile dropkick. Baszler took control with a series of power moves, culminating in a slugfest on the apron that Lynch came out of better by landing a Uranage on the edge of the ring. Baszler eventually got back on top, locking in a cross arm-breaker and even trying to beat Lynch with her own Dis-arm-her.

A big knee from the challenger only got a two count and both women locked in their signature submission moves in the ropes, for as long as the referee’s count would allow. Baszler brutalised Lynch by swinging her repeatedly into the announce table and then locked in the Kirifuda Clutch. Lynch, though, shifted her weight and held the challenger’s shoulders down for the win.

This was a decent enough match, but it was not able to maintain the heat it boasted in the opening minutes. It also, like several other matches on the card, seemed to come to an end just as it was finding a higher gear. The finish, too, was one that feels played out, having been used in Samoa Joe and Baszler matches a handful of times over the last few years. Baszler will win the title eventually, and hopefully, it will be in a more impressive contest than this one.

Intercontinental Champion Sami Zayn defeated Daniel Bryan via Helluva Kick

WrestleMania Daniel Bryan Sami Zayn

Sami Zayn came to the ring flanked by the Artist Collective and spent the opening minutes of the match running away from Daniel Bryan. Drew Gulak soon put an end to the numbers game by wiping out Shinsuke Nakamura and Cesaro at ringside. After pretending he would take a count-out win, Bryan finally got his hands on Zayn and ultimately laid him out with a big suicide dive that also sent the challenger clattering painfully into the barricade. Zayn fought back into control and, when Nakamura and Cesaro resurfaced, they distracted Bryan for long enough that he dived straight into a devastating Helluva Kick.

This was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night. Bryan and Zayn could have a five-star match if given the opportunity, even within the confines of Zayn’s current cowardly gimmick. Instead, they wrestled a truncated bout in which neither man was able to showcase the best of their abilities – doubly sad given how long Zayn has spent outside of the ring. Hopefully, this isn’t the last we see of the rivalry because it could be really special.

Ladder Match: SmackDown Tag Team Champion John Morrison defeated Kofi Kingston and Jimmy Uso

WrestleMania Ladder Match

Three men who know their way around a ladder match, all of these competitors immediately went for something to climb. They all grabbed for the belts but were quickly dumped to the ground. Kingston did an innovative jump under a ladder, while Morrison capitalised on Uso missing him by poking the competitor in the eye. The champion laid a ladder bridge under the top rope in the corner and somehow managed to hit Starship Pain on to Uso. The innovative spots continued as Uso – who was running along the barricade for some reason – got levelled with a ladder hurled at him by Kingston.

Morrison flattened Kingston with a top rope Spanish Fly, but then got nailed by a splash from Uso. Kingston scaled the inside of a ladder to thwart Uso’s climb and then hit a diving double stomp on Morrison from high in the air. Later, Morrison climbed the ladder very slowly indeed and was met by Kingston, followed by Uso. All three men unhooked the bracket holding the belts and scuffled atop the ladders, only for Morrison to fall agonisingly on to a ladder bridge set up on the middle rope. Fortunately for him, he fell with the titles in his grasp, retaining the belts for him and the Miz.

Of all of the matches on the card, this one suffered most from the lack of an audience. All three men pulled out all of the stops and conjured up some hugely inventive spots, but the absent roar of the crowd left it feeling a little clunky and muted. Some of the moments were odd – including one in which Jimmy Uso fell from a great height out of view of the camera, clearly on to some sort of mat – and others simply would’ve landed more in a noisy arena.

The finish, too, was a misguided attempt to innovate and fell confusingly flat, unlike the similar and far cleverer conclusion to Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels’ terrific ladder match in 2008. A more definitive ending would’ve made more sense, particularly given the weirdness inherent within the match anyway.

Kevin Owens defeated Seth Rollins via stunner

WrestleMania Kevin Owens

Owens took control of the Monday Night Messiah early, brutalising him with back sentons. Rollins countered a powerbomb on the apron into a backdrop, followed by a deliciously violent Falcon Arrow. He trash-talked about being a god as he hit a series of suicide dives and went for the stomp, only for Owens to avoid it and spike Rollins with a DDT.

A terrific run of big moves ended in a Swanton Bomb from KO for a close two count. Rollins raked the eyes of his opponent to counter a superplex and hit the Buckle Bomb, followed by a pair of superkicks. Owens managed to counter the stomp into a sit-out pop-up powerbomb and almost won the match. They spilled to the outside, where Rollins hit Owens with the ring bell, drawing a disqualification.

As Twitter exploded with disgust, Owens grabbed a mic and demanded the match be restarted with a no DQ stipulation. The arrogant Rollins agreed and hit Owens with several, very loud chair shots after bopping him on the head with the steps. Owens fought back with the ring bell to Rollins’ head and then laid him on to the announce table. He scaled the WrestleMania sign and hit a death-defying elbow drop through the table. Back in the ring, he went for the stunner and Rollins crumpled to the mat, allowing Owens to pick up a huge win.

This was the best pure match of the night, with Owens and Rollins showcasing their impressive in-ring chemistry. Their continued trash talk made the most of the silent arena, adding depth to both characters, but particularly Rollins’ loathsome wanna-be prophet. The elbow drop spot was a genuine WrestleMania moment that packed gigantic spectacle, despite the lack of an audience to launch what Joey Styles would call a “faecal chant”. If there’s any justice, this will secure Owens’ path back to the main event scene on.

Braun Strowman defeated Goldberg via running powerslam to become NEW Universal Champion

WrestleMania Braun Strowman Goldberg

This was exactly what everybody expected – two big slabs of meat slamming against each other for a couple of minutes. Goldberg came out of the blocks with four, quick Spears but it wasn’t enough to keep the Monster Among Men down. He went for the Jackhammer, but Strowman countered into a powerslam and followed it up with two more. Running around the ring, he hit a thunderous fourth powerslam and pinned the 90s icon to win the Universal Championship.

Strowman has deserved a proper world title run for a long time and so it was great to see him triumph over Goldberg on the big stage. He’ll almost certainly end up dropping the title to Roman Reigns – Goldberg’s planned opponent – at the earliest possible opportunity but, for now, Strowman is finally able to bask in the culmination of his considerable potential.

Boneyard Match: Undertaker defeated AJ Styles

WrestleMania AJ Styles Undertaker Boneyard Match

This was brilliant, from the first moments to the last. A hearse arrived in a misty graveyard, as the Undertaker’s music played. Druids pulled a coffin out of the back and revealed that, within it, was AJ Styles, laughing as he gloated of his bravery prior to the Deadman’s arrival. The icon soon showed up on a motorbike, looking every inch the American Badass incarnation of his character. The two brawled on and around the hearse, with Taker drawing blood after putting his arm through the window. Taker punched Styles into the grave he had dug himself, only for Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson to arrive with an army of druids reminiscent of AEW’s Dark Order.

Like a gothic Clint Eastwood, the old gunslinger fought off the minions and battered the Good Brothers with a shovel handle, only for Styles to return and attack from behind. He defiantly stated that Taker was “no Phenom” and “a nobody” before hitting him into the grave with the shovel. As he started up a digger in order to bury Taker for good, the Deadman appeared behind him in blinding light to turn the tables as the brilliantly dramatic score swelled.

Styles scaled a ladder on to the corrugated roof of a building, which Taker ignited with some fire-based trickery. The Deadman chucked Gallows off the roof and hit Anderson with a Tombstone Piledriver on the iron. He chokeslammed Styles off the roof on to a pile of wood and then carried him to the grave, praising the cocky heel for being tougher than he expected.

Styles pleaded with Taker not to bury him and the icon pulled him into a hug before walking away. This proved to be a ruse, though, and after a big boot into the grave, Taker buried Styles until only his hand was visible through the mud. He got on his bike and rode off into the distance, with fire in his wake and the Undertaker symbol emblazoned in light on the wooden building.

When WWE decided to go ahead with this unique WrestleMania, the Boneyard Match was exactly the sort of mad genius they gave themselves the chance to create. This is the sort of risk that the company is often unwilling to take, particularly after the derided House of Horrors Match and divisive Ultimate Deletion skit. In this masterfully camp horror movie, though, they crafted a pitch-perfect homage to Hollywood that also allowed the Deadman to look like a certified badass one last time. This should be how Undertaker’s WrestleMania legacy ends.

Overall, the first night of WrestleMania can probably be called a qualified success. At a relatively snappy three hours for the main card, it didn’t outstay its welcome and certainly delivered a selection of memorable moments – particularly in its final hour. The opening few matches were rough and unusual, but the inventiveness of the marquee bouts made the show end on a high. Roll on night two…

All photos courtesy of WWE.com

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