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Laying the Smackdown: WWE continues in the wake of coronavirus

No audience? No problem. WWE is still going forward

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Sports are shut down. Entertainment is on hold. But in the world of sports entertainment, the show — and the suplexes — must go on. 

World Wrestling Entertainment is marching forward in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, airing live shows and going ahead with planned events. But it's far from business as usual in the pumped-up world of hyper testosterone and choreographed fights. 

John Cena and Bray Wyatt on WWE "Smackdown."

WWE aired its "Raw" program on Monday night, just as it has every Monday night since January 1993. But rather than broadcasting from inside an arena packed with screaming fans — like it did just one week prior — it emanated from a vacant venue where the in-ring sounds echoed off the empty seats like the reverberations from a knife-edge chop to the chest.

It was the second consecutive piece of WWE programming to air from its Performance Center training facility in Orlando, Fla., following Friday Night's "Smackdown" show, which was originally scheduled to air from Little Caesars Arena.

And on Monday, the company announced its flagship annual event, WrestleMania, will air live from the PC on April 5 in an empty building, rather than from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., where it was scheduled to unfold in front of more than 60,000 wild and crazy wrestling buffs.

Wrestling needs fans; it's live theater, and theater requires an audience, or else it doesn't feel real. But desperate times call for desperate hammerlocks, and WWE is choosing to trudge ahead, because the WWE has never stopped before and it's not about to start now. 

Friday's "Smackdown" episode, which aired live on Fox, was opened by Paul "Triple H" Levesque, a longtime WWE performer turned company exec. He explained the performers were going to put on a show for the audience at home and "do what they have been trained to do better than anyone else on this planet, and that is entertain you."

The results were odd and somewhat awkward but at times transfixing. Pro wrestlers are programmed to perform for the crowd and feed off its energy, and even with no bodies in the building, they still gestured in the direction of the audience in familiar "make some noise!"-type requests for interactivity. It was part muscle memory, part playing the role and part pretending everything is normal. 

"Smackdown" featured several matches and several promo segments, hyping upcoming matches at WrestleMania. (The show also featured a rerun of a match from a previous event earlier this month, which ate up about 40 minutes of the program's two-hour runtime.) 

The highlight of the show was its closing segment, which unfolded like an off-Broadway play, and showcased the bizarre performance elements that make pro wrestling such a unique cocktail of melodrama, machismo and old-school showmanship. 

John Cena, the closest thing WWE has to a superhero, explained why at WrestleMania he would face "The Fiend" Bray Wyatt, a diabolical character with a split personality who is a cross between a children's TV show host and a horror movie demon. 

Cena, who has mostly graduated from in-ring work to Hollywood, a la Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, convincingly made his case, painting Wyatt as entitled and simply not as hard a worker as Cena.

Then out came Wyatt, who psyched-out Cena, talking about the demons in his head, the damage Cena did to him in the past and their upcoming collision at 'Mania. It really must be seen to be appreciated. 

Forget seeing them wrestle, just let them keep talking. And while the words they spoke would have been similar in a full arena, something about the empty space around them made the whole thing seem like a Shakesperian duologue, "Othello" in a squared circle. 

Monday's episode of "Raw" featured an equally arresting segment featuring Edge, a performer who recently returned to WWE after fighting back from what was supposed to be a career-ending injury. 

He spoke directly into the camera, eyes focused, about his upcoming match against Randy Orton, a former friend who turned on him the night after his return in January. Their feud has been simmering for weeks, and Edge sold the drama like a guy in an audition room reading for a casting agent angling for the role of his lifetime. 

Not everything has worked as well. A bit with WWE legend "Stone Cold" Steve Austin came off as bad comedy which, to be fair, is a hallmark of the WWE product. ("Gimme a hell yeah," he asked of the non-existent crowd, an acknowledgement of the peculiarity of the situation but a tough scenario for anyone to pull off.)

The matches themselves played out a bit odd; not only do audiences add to the excitement of the in-ring action, they help mask their choreographed stiffness. It felt more like practice than the real deal. 

Which will make WrestleMania feel especially strange, but perhaps strange is better than no show at all.

Online reaction to the year's biggest show unfolding in front of no crowd — imagine if they would have went ahead with Coachella, just not invited fans — was met with much derision, both from those who planned on attending and those worried about the feel of pro-wrestling's Super Bowl unfolding inside an empty gym. Which is to say nothing of lost revenue and the lost business surrounding the show; last year's WrestleMania at MetLife Stadium had a reported gate of $16.9 million and generated a reported $165.4 million in economic impact for the New York/ New Jersey region. 

The other option would be to shelve the show — and all future shows — until further notice, until things level out. But that's never been the WWE's style.

There's no off-season for WWE, it's always on the road, and the force that can stop it has yet to be met. "Smackdown" was on two days after 9/11; a blizzard forced the company to do a show at its Stamford, Conn., studios in 2015, but they still did the show.

Even after Owen Hart died in the ring at a Pay-Per-View event in 1999, the show went on, and there was a show — albeit in an empty arena, and before the facts of the case were known — after one of the company's performers, Chris Benoit, was involved in a double murder and suicide. 

And so it goes. There may not be spectators, but there will be body slams, and wrestling will find a way to continue. In weird times, pro wrestling feels even weirder. Gimme a hell yeah.