At WrestleMania 37, WWE will welcome fans back to a live main-roster event for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic with 25,000 fans attending the two-day event at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. In the main event of Night 1 on Sunday, Roman Reigns will defend the universal championship against 2021 Royal Rumble winner Edge and Daniel Bryan. While all three men have had, they've also had to navigate being top stars during the most unique era in professional wrestling history.
At the onset of the pandemic, WWE moved all shows, including WrestleMania 36, to their Performance Center in Orlando, Florida. They would eventually transition operations to the ThunderDome, an elaborate set-up that brought back the standard entrances and elaborate pyrotechnic displays with fans attending virtually on video boards surrounding the ring. The ThunderDome was first housed inside the Amway Center in Orlando before moving to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.
For Bryan, there was a unique thrill -- one with a very limited appeal in the locker room -- to the early period of wrestling in the empty WWE Performance Center at the start of the pandemic.
"I cannot tell you how excited I was when we were wrestling at the Performance Center in front of no people with no added sound effects," Bryan told CBS Sports. "I thought, 'This is so cool.' Nobody else thinks this and certainly as a viewer it's less interesting. But for me, and I don't know if I consider myself an artist, but what we do is art. This is a true exposé of how good you are at the art. I really enjoyed that challenge. There were a couple people who really enjoyed it. Me and Cesaro talk about it, and Drew Gulak. We talk about that, with no people, one of the positives is that you don't have to entertain people live and can do some of the wrestling stuff better. It's just the difference between theater and cinema, right? For someone who has been wrestling as long as I have, I love any sort of little change.
"But, yeah, I'm ready for the fans to come back. I'm ready for the instant feedback. There's nothing like pro wrestling in front of a live crowd. It doesn't matter if it's 300 people or if it's going to be 25,000 people. Obviously, bigger stadiums are cooler and you get this instant feedback to what you're doing. Especially after coming back from my concussion stuff, it's taken it kind of to another level, to where I'll be in the match and sometimes get chills. I'm super excited, but I don't want to diminish how fun it was for me to wrestle in front of no people because that's right up my alley."
While Bryan viewed himself as exactly the type of artist who could thrive with the blank canvas provided by the empty Performance Center, the move to the ThunderDome and return of Reigns, who had sat out the beginning of the pandemic out of caution as a cancer survivor, proved to be a learning experience for a veteran placed by many among the greatest in-ring talents in the history of WWE.
Since returning at SummerSlam 2020, Reigns' character has taken on new dimensions, both by wrestling as a heel and bringing a mixture of arrogance and intensity that has translated both through interviews and his work inside the ring.
"When I watch the show and I watch Roman from a character standpoint and the way he has transitioned into wrestling in the ThunderDome, I was like, 'That's genius,'" Bryan said. "I don't know if this translates well to a casual audience, but he has taken it and accentuated the positives of no crowd. ... Roman, from a character perspective, is just a different level from everybody else in this era."
The key to Reigns' "genius" to Bryan doesn't stem only from his character work on the microphone, which has won Reigns long-overdue critical praise, but from understanding that the environment in the ThunderDome provided a unique level of intimacy with which to tell stories during matches.
Where Bryan focused on being able to hear the chops, kicks and physicality of the action without fans in attendance, Reigns added a unique sort of dialogue to his matches. This has been a focus of Reigns' feuds with Jey Uso and Kevin Owens, allowing Reigns to tell in-ring stories with both visual and audio beats.
"I 100% agree [that the stories are boosted by the intimacy of the environment]," Bryan said. "And he gets to talk quieter. That would be harder to do in front of a live audience. The ability to talk trash to your opponent in a match ... like, I thought the stuff with Jey Uso was fantastic. Not just the matches that they had, but that the story of the matches was told in an audio format, not just the visual format of wrestling. That's one of the things that, to me, I hate to use the word 'genius' too much, but the ability to look at something with fresh eyes and see the positives. It's something I completely missed. When I was thinking about wrestling in the Performance Center and ThunderDome, I thought that audio would be great with very physical wrestling where you can hear the kicks and the chops. You'll be able to feel the physicality more because there's no fans. It didn't cross my mind to talk the trash that Roman talked, but also tell the story he told audibly through the process. When he first did the Jey Uso match, I was like, 'Oh my god, why didn't I think of this?'"
Like almost everyone, Reigns says he is excited for the return of a live crowd. Wrestling is, at its best, an art-form driven by the interaction between the performers and the crowd. Fans can have a big effect on a match, not just purely through presentation and optics, but by providing feedback to the wrestlers on what is and is not connecting with the viewer.
Speaking with CBS Sports, Edge discussed how hard it is to perform without receiving that feedback, saying he has had to rely on a "gut compass" and use his decades of knowledge to internally calculate how a live crowd would respond to his interviews and matches.
Reigns agreed with Edge, explaining that, even with his well-received work in the ThunderDome, the thing he's most excited for at WrestleMania is to get to present himself and his current character to a live audience and receive the kind of reaction that comes from a true connection with live human beings in the stands. That will provide him the validation he has missed while upping his game for the past eight months.
"Edge isn't lying. It's tough," Reigns said. "It's tough doing it in front of nobody, but having the environment of the ThunderDome is, without question, better. But it's not a real connection. The crowd doesn't dictate what we're doing. They don't change my pacing and there's no audibles being called because this is what they're into or anything. That participation is so crucial for this art-form. It's that interaction based on eliciting a reaction. Without that, we're not in our purest state of performance. There's no question having a crowd -- whether it's a full house, a half crowd or a quarter crowd -- having somebody out there to actually dive into this performance with us and go on this emotional rollercoaster of physical storytelling with us, there's nothing like it. For me, it's even more so because I returned at SummerSlam where that was the first week of the ThunderDome; I think and that's all I've done. So for me, Sunday night is not going to be about just that night, it's going to be about all the time that has built up to that night.
"I'm carrying nine months of work with me -- of character progression, of dedication to the personality and the details of the stories that I've told every single week. To be able to put all of that hard work and ball it all up and display it on the grandest stage of them all, that's the ultimate cake. That's the reward. That's the trophy. To be able to put all of that and feel the crowd, whether they acknowledge me properly as they should or they boo the hell out of me. That's going to be the sign that the hard work and everything I've done week after week ... since August, I have not taken a week off. I have been on every single SmackDown program, multiple segments, every single week. I've carried more television time than any other superstar on SmackDown. For me, WrestleMania is so much more than the interaction. It's being able to go out there and get that gratification from the audience and get that respect that I yearn for, that I perform for and what drives me to be the greatest."