Day 6

WWE is 'treating COVID like it's a sneeze' as Wrestlemania carries on, says sports writer

World Wrestling Entertainment is facing criticism for continuing to produce its pro wrestling shows in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports writer Ian Williams says Wrestlemania, which airs this weekend without a live audience, will likely be a "surreal" show.

Annual megashow Wrestlemania set to take place this weekend in an empty arena

Daniel Bryan leaps off the top rope towards Cesaro on the March 20, 2020 edition of WWE Smackdown, taped at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Fla. (WWE)

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is facing criticism for continuing to produce and air its pro wrestling shows, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has closed theatres and shuttered sports leagues around the world.

Sports writer Ian Williams attributes the decision to go ahead with Wrestlemania, WWE's annual supershow, this weekend to the WWE chairman's unrelenting "the show must go on" ethos.

"Vince McMahon is a famously eccentric person, and he's pretty domineering. I think that he represents one of the last real large companies in North America where everything is beholden to one person's whims," Williams told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"Famously, he hates it when people sneeze around him … because it represents kind of a loss of control. … And what it seems like is that he's treating COVID like it's a sneeze. And that hasn't sat well with all the pro wrestlers in the company."

Wrestlemania changes locations as stars pull out

Wrestlemania 36 was scheduled to be held this weekend in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium — a venue with capacity for upwards of 65,000 attendees.

Now, instead of a live open-air extravaganza, it will air in two parts on Saturday and Sunday with a sparse crew and roster of wrestlers, primarily shot in the WWE Performance Center, the company's Orlando-based training facility.

World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Chairman Vince McMahon is introduced during the WWE Monday Night Raw show at the Thomas & Mack Center August 24, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

In recent weeks, a handful of major stars scheduled for matches have reportedly been pulled from the show.

Roman Reigns, who was billed to face Bill Goldberg for one of the company's top championships, confirmed via social media that he removed himself from the match.

Reigns, real name Joseph Anoaʻi, is a two-time survivor of leukemia, and spent part of 2018 and 2019 to undergo treatment for the disease.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, WWE's chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon said working during the pandemic "is all voluntary," and supported individuals' decisions to drop out if they feel uncomfortable.

She added that no one with a temperature of over 38 C is allowed into the Performance Center, "pandemic cleaning" is performed every night, and all shows are being taped "in waves" to limit the number of people on site at a time.

Williams says even with the minimum number of people on site, the WWE can only do so much to protect the cast and crew from the risk of infection.

Ian Williams is a sports writer and former wrestling columnist for Vice. (University Of North Carolina at Chapel Hill/Submitted by Ian Williams)

"They're trying to be careful, but I just don't know how careful they can be when you have not just, you know, two to four people in close proximity with one another [in the ring], but ... there's probably another 30 camera crews and tech and stuff like that," he said.

"So it could be bad if even one person gets infected."

Wrestling leans into the theatrical

WWE and competitor All Elite Wrestling (AEW) are already airing their weekly shows without an audience, as wrestlers can be heard shouting and jeering at each other during their matches in lieu of fans to do it for them.

The matches are weird enough, says Williams, but interview segments — that help build anticipation for planned matches without giving it all away ahead of Wrestlemania itself — have taken on what he calls "a surreal quality."

In a recent segment, crossover star John Cena confronted Bray Wyatt, a children's puppet show host who wrestles as a killer clown alter-ego called The Fiend. Wyatt's speech took an eerie tenor with the absence of crowd noise.

Meanwhile, AEW has taken more experimental liberties, including using camera tricks to simulate wrestler Matt Hardy "teleporting" through the empty stands while Canadian ring veteran Chris Jericho argues with Hardy's pet drone.

Wrestlers populate the ring before a women's battle royal at Wrestlemania 35 on April 7, 2019 at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. The event had an announced attendance of 82,265 people. (WWE)

"Pro wrestling is more akin to a carnival show or a circus act than it is a straight athletic competition," Williams explained. 

"And that interplay with the crowd really drives the wrestlers on. What I've been able to watch of the past few weeks of pro wrestling without the audience has been a little off."

As a very different Wrestlemania looms, he's preparing for "two days of pure, strange, surreal, audience-less pro wrestling," the likes of which haven't been seen before at this scale.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Yamri Taddese.

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