As WWE welcomes fans back to arenas, superstars reflect on pandemic era

Bobby Lashley sat down with Arash Madani to discuss his rivals and how he will approach the summer as the WWE champion.

World Wrestling Entertainment has gone through several eras in its approximately 40-year history. In fact, the pro wrestling company actively markets the history of its product by way of distinctive time periods.

The Golden Era featured Hulk Hogan and the stars of the 1980s, the New Generation was led by Bret Hart, the Attitude Era featured the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, the Ruthless Aggression Era was main-stayed by John Cena and finally, the Modern Era has been headlined by current stars such as Roman Reigns.

More recent than the Modern Era though has been the Pandemic Era, which has been headlined by Drew McIntyre who captured his first two WWE Championships during the course of the pandemic.

“I’m so proud that I was champion at the height of it all and lead by example,” McIntyre recently told Sportsnet. “I’ve always said, no matter what, I’m ready to be champion under any conditions, including a worldwide pandemic.”

McIntyre in the ThunderDome. (WWE)

After approximately a year-and-a-half of wrestling without fans in the building, McIntyre and the rest of WWE will be returning to performing in front of fans when the company kicks off a 25-city U.S. tour on Friday in Houston, TX. (You can watch WWE Friday Night SmackDown on Sportsnet 360 and SN Now at 8 p.m. ET/ 5 p.m. PT)

“The fans have always been my driving force, my adrenaline rush, my energy,” WWE’s Ricochet recently told Sportsnet. “They’ve always (been) who I’ve fed off of. To have them back, it’s going to be electrifying.

“I can’t wait. I’m already starting to get tingly.”

While the return of fans will be beneficial to the in-ring product, there may still be a bit of hesitancy among some wrestlers on returning to life on the road. During the pandemic, wrestlers have been stationed in one location in the Orlando area. For many of them, being in one spot for an extended period of time would be a new experience as the life of a pro wrestler has always been based on the road, travelling from town-to-town.

Former Intercontinental Champion Sami Zayn recently told Sportsnet that, “the schedule has been good to us. Just once a week, it’s been helpful for a lot of our bodies, and our family life, and our home life, being home that much.”

However, that doesn’t mean the Montreal native isn’t looking forward to having fans back in the arena.

“For me, personally, I can’t wait to be back in the middle of that energy because (the fans) are the missing ingredient from our show,” says Zayn.

When the WWE shifted to producing all of their television shows out of the WWE Performance Centre in Orlando Fla. in March of 2020, the company was just weeks away from hosting WrestleMania at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. It was there that McIntyre was going to be crowned the new WWE Champion defeating Brock Lesnar in front of over 70,000 fans culminating his long climb to the top of the WWE mountain. Instead, McIntyre’s crowning moment came inside an empty gym and taped ahead of time.

The idea of losing out on a career-defining moment may have sunk others emotionally but McIntyre embraced the idea. “(My) mindset wasn’t: ‘No! What am I going to do?’ It was: ‘Alright, how are we going to reach the fans at home?’”

“Miraculously we still pulled it off during the pandemic,” Zayn remarked. “It’s worked, but I know it’ll be even more optimal once the fans are back in the house.”

The Pandemic Era isn’t a time period that fans and wrestlers will look back upon with fondness. Fans grew weary of tuning into Raw and SmackDown every week to watch wrestlers perform in empty gyms or arenas in front of a virtual audience. Never has the impact of an audience been more obvious, and more sorely missed, than during the pandemic.

“(The fans) really are a part of the entire show,” said Ricochet. “When they come back, we gotta bring that energy to them, so they can feel it from us, too.”

Ricochet. (WWE)

WWE got a taste of the energy that fans bring at WrestleMania this year, when Raymond James Stadium hosted a limited capacity crowd.

“We had the teaser at WrestleMania,” McIntyre remembers. “You can just watch my entrance, look how emotional I got getting back in front of the fans and hearing the reaction of some of the fans.

“I can’t wait to get them back and hear those insane reactions because it’s going to be like WrestleMania every night on this 25-day tour coming, culminating with SummerSlam which is basically going to be WrestleMania this year.”

Meanwhile, Zayn, a diehard Montreal Canadiens fan, related the process of returning to performing in front of fans to that of hockey players. While he recognized that the job of a wrestler and hockey player are inherently different, he noted that the feeling of playing in front of a crowd is the same in sports and it is sports entertainment.

“Those hockey players will tell you that it’s a whole other ballgame playing in front of nobody, versus playing in front of 2,000 people or even 20,000 people,” said Zayn. “It’s not even that they make the show, it’s that they are the show.”

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