It's a strange time for wrestling. As the coronavirus outbreak continues to impact the entertainment industry, major wrestling promotions have had to reconfigure their approach to weekly shows while missing an essential element: live crowds. For WWE, that meant moving events like Raw, Smackdown, and NXT from huge arenas to their performance center in Orlando, Florida. As a result, this soap opera with muscles has become a Shakespearean experience as in-ring performers trade insults and blows in an eerie silence. It's weird but still great.
With WrestleMania just around the corner, the WWE has pushed creatively like never before to pull off what is essentially the Super Bowl of wrestling. The annual event, which is defined by elaborate entrances, eye-popping matches, and an electric stadium crowd, will see some of those elements pared down this year. WrestleMania 36 will be a two-night event taking place Saturday, April 4, and Sunday, April 5, at the performance center and other locations. Former NFL tight end Rob Gronkowski is set to host this year's event, which still promises to be a huge spectacle — just without the live crowd. In addition to regular matches, the event will feature non-traditional bouts like Bray Wyatt and John Cena going toe to toe in a Firefly Funhouse match. While we don't know what exactly that fight entails, you can expect that it won't be like anything you've ever experienced before.
Ahead of WrestleMania, TV Guide spoke with Paul Levesque, aka Triple H, about what to expect during this year's event and how the coronavirus has challenged them to think outside the box. The wrestler, who is WWE's Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events & Creative, also opened up about this pandemic might affect wrestling in the long run.
How are you holding up? What have you been doing to pass the time?
Paul Levesque: Fortunately for us, work carries on and we're continuing to put out Raw and Smackdown and NXT and WrestleMania. Obviously, in a different format with no fans, but a lot of creative work, so one continues on. We're doing it the best we can from remote locations to the best of our ability, but it keeps us busy. And you combine that with three girls who are homeschooling and everything else going on, there is certainly lots to do.
This is such an unprecedented time. With WrestleMania, which is the biggest night in wrestling, you're unable to do it with an audience. What was that first call or meeting like when you realized you wouldn't be able to put on the event in the way that you traditionally have in the past?
Levesque: I think it was the anticipation, as things were moving in that direction, that that was probably going to be the scenario long before that decision was absolutely made that here it is, and it can't take place in the stadium with fans. We had been planning for that being a possibility. As soon as this was all becoming a real event, we started looking at what all the possible scenarios and outcomes could be. Getting to a place where we could continue to do WrestleMania, obviously without fans, was a decision that we wanted to get to, because for us right now, we feel like with everything going on in the world [and] everything everybody is going through, it's really now more important than ever for people to have that escape, for them to have something that they can tune in to and just kind of relax and do something else.
Hopefully, we can accomplish that with WrestleMania just like we're doing, or trying to do, every week with Raw, Smackdown and NXT. We can continue to have our performers do what they do in the safest manner for them and for our staff and crew, and follow all the guidelines and safety precautions that we can, but continue to put on a product and entertain people to the best of our ability because it's needed now more than ever.
What were some of the different alternatives for WrestleMania that were brought up?
Levesque: I think that given the fact that WrestleMania will expand out, we had the opportunity to expand it out over multiple days and really do things in a way that we've never done before. We have Rob Gronkowski hosting with us, which it's tough to plan around Rob because Rob kind of... you've got to just deal with Gronk. It's Gronk's world, we're just all living in it. He's got his own plan, so that's unique in and of itself. But [there's] the ability for us to then, because there are no fans, because we aren't in the stadium, we can do things a little bit differently. So there are some matches and some components and things that will take place this year like we've never done before.
Bray Wyatt and John Cena will have a Firefly Fun House match, which will be different from anything we've ever done in the WWE. The Undertaker and A.J. Styles will have a Bone Yard match, and they will be doing that from an off-site location. So the opportunity to do things differently, shoot them differently, present them differently. Hopefully, we'll open up this WrestleMania in ways that people have never seen before and give them an opportunity to be entertained in ways they never have before.
In some ways, WrestleMania entrances have become almost iconic as the matches themselves, so how have those been impacted? Have they been scaled down or are they going to be big and bold as ever?
Levesque: Yeah, obviously some of that has had to be scaled down somewhat. We don't have a stadium with a much longer ramp way, and the pyro and everything else that we would have. So, we'd have to work within certain parameters of changing what the spectacle is, but still trying to keep this as entertaining and as fresh as possible for fans. We're going to do the best that we can, and I promise you we'll be entertaining and it will be a spectacle in and of itself. Different, but still a spectacle.
With WrestleMania taking place over two nights, is that something you'll consider doing in the future as well?
Levesque: This moment in time is changing everything, and I think there are opportunities that we will see and explore now that will become the new norm. So all of those things, whether it's multiple nights, whether it's off-site shoots or different things like that, I think those will all be opportunities that we can explore in the future and we'll see. If they're successful here, they might be successful in the future as well.
How weird is it for you guys to be putting on these shows and not have that immediate crowd reaction that's so instrumental to wrestling?
Levesque: It's a unique environment and I think that's been an adaptation for the talent that they've had to really get used to. They're used to feeding off of that energy of the fans, that adrenaline rush of 80,000 people. They need that electricity and that connection with [the fans]. If their performance is going a certain way and the crowd is reacting differently than they expected them to, we shift the performance and interact with those fans. This is different. But I can tell you that it's been amazing to watch, and I've been incredibly impressed by our ability to adapt to that and put on incredible performances even without that fan participation, that they've still been able to put on incredible performances. It's been awe inspiring.
And they're so committed, which is I'm sure so hard to do without that audience participation.
Levesque: Right now, you know that the people, they need this and they need that entertainment. So, you have to go out there and imagine all the people watching it all. Imagine them, try to get inside your own head how much this means to them and use that to fuel your performance.
How do you think this pandemic will affect wrestling in the long term, if at all?
Levesque: People keep saying "once everything gets back to normal" — I don't think that's going to happen. I think the world has changed. I think that it will get back to some normalcy, but the new normal will be what is normal. It's not going to be what it was before. How people do business, how people interact with each other... I think all of that will change. And for us, in some ways, the opportunity of doing these shows without fans and doing WrestleMania [with] these off-site shoots will open our eyes to different ways of doing things that we maybe didn't see before and will change the product probably for the better in the long run.
Has this made you think about wrestling from a new perspective or opened up your eyes to other changes?
Levesque: It's very easy to get caught up in the day to day, what we do and the criticisms of it and the this and the that that everybody gets into. And in these times, it's eye opening what a privilege it is to be able to do what you do, the privilege to be able to do this for a living and have fun and go out there and entertain other people. It's really at the core of what we do. The mission statement of WWE is to put smiles on people's faces and at this time, more than any other time that I can recall, people need that. It an honor to be able to do that today.
On the flip side of that, what has been bringing you entertainment? What shows or movies have you been binge-watching if any?
Levesque: It's funny, we've been so busy that I haven't really had time to watch much else. The best thing about this has been spending time with my kids. We travel a lot and are gone a lot and the ability to be home and have dinner with them every night and to be able to be here with them.... Even if it's working from home and they're doing school in the other room, to be able to walk in and see them for 10 minutes or take a break in the afternoon and have lunch together, it's been wonderful. It's been really great and it makes you not take those things for granted.
Catch WrestleMania, which takes place over two nights, Saturday, April 4 at 7/6c and Sunday, April 5 at 7/6c on the WWE Network.