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Wrestling matches need people reacting to them

This should be a no brainer. Wrestling is a performance art. It’s presented to an audience. It’s often tailored to how that audience responds to what the wrestlers are doing - both in the match, and in the story which built to the match.

It’s not clear to me that every aspect of a wrestling show needs fans in the seats. Interviews and promos have always worked from backstage, or outside the venue. Segments and skits can take place anywhere. This has been borne out by the recent pandemic-forced fan-free shows. They don’t all succeed, but the percentages are probably about the same as they are when they occur before packed houses.

Matches need people reacting to them though.

Somehow, I’d glossed over how important the crowd is until the coronavirus era of closed set shows from AEW & WWE sure drove the point home. Even though I’d seen empty arena matches like The Rock vs. Mankind at Halftime Heat in 1999, and knew they didn’t work.

It’s why we talk about “good” vs. “bad” crowds online, and why wrestlers have long labeled towns the same way. There’s just something invigorating about hundreds or thousands of people cheering or booing, oohing and awing as the wrestlers string them along to the (hopefully) desired reaction.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for both WWE & AEW to come up with a passable workaround.

There are public health concerns here. The safest thing for both companies to do would be to stop producing shows. But they are continuing to create content - which is something I’m grateful for on at least a couple different levels - and I have to trust they’re doing so as responsibly as possible. Everyone has to make their own decision on that. I won’t judge you for yours, and there’s nothing I can do if you judge me for mine.

But while it adds numbers and therefore risk to the production, the solution of putting a few wrestlers in the seats, or bringing them out to sit at commentary in a non-announcing role, makes an amazing difference.

Dynamite got a lot of attention (mostly good, and some bad) for having MJF, Shawn Spears, and Tully Blanchard heeling it up in the seats last Wednesday. But before Tony Khan can take a bow, Raw actually took the first step in this direction on their Mar. 16 episode.

At the time, it seemed a head scratching decision to bring Asuka out for Rey Mysterio’s match with Andrade. What does the Women’s Tag champ have to do with those guys? But it worked, despite a language barrier. It worked because Asuka didn’t have to worry about calling the action, or reinforcing the longer narrative. She was there to infuse some emotion into the proceedings:

Sami Zayn added something to Drew Gulak’s match with Shinsuke Nakamura on SmackDown, but that was a more traditional guest commentary role since Zayn’s allied with Nak. It still helped.

A better example came last night (Mar. 23), when Street Profits watched Andrade & Angel Garza beat Ricochet & Cedric Alexander:

Like Asuka, Montez Ford & Angelo Dawkins work as our surrogates. They’re not calling the action, they’re reacting to it. It brings the match to life. And here, you get a little before and after, since the Raw Tag champs entered with the bout in progress.

Also worth noting is how Andrade & Garza’s manager Zelina Vega helps, too. The non-involved wrestlers are the key ingredient, but like Sami on SmackDown, Vega’s performance adds layers to what’s happening in the ring.

It’s probably not sustainable, but as long as AEW & WWE are committed to producing shows, I’m glad they’ve each come up with a way to replicate the fan’s contribution to wrestling.

And I can’t wait for the pop when it’s safe for us to play our role again.

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