stone cold steve austin
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin on WWE's crowd-less episode of 'Raw' | WWE
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin on WWE's crowd-less episode of 'Raw' | WWE

Watching WWE's 'Wrestlemania' in an Empty Arena Will Be a Wild, Surreal Experience

And, strangely, this isn't without precedent -- see: The Rock vs. Mankind's 1999 Super Bowl fight.

Professional wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, noted guzzler of canned beer and coiner of T-shirt worthy catchphrases, knows how to work a crowd. Like the best live performers, the WWE legend uses his booming voice, his large, muscly body, and the occasional rude hand gesture to get emotional reactions from audiences in a live setting and at home across the globe. Whether fans are cheering or booing, he clearly relishes the interplay, the ability to provoke and shock. But what happens if you remove the energy of the crowd and leave the Texas RattleSnake bellowing to an empty arena? 

Loyal wrestling viewers found out during Monday night's broadcast of RAW, when Austin returned to the ring to celebrate "3:16 Day," a made-up holiday observed on March 16. (Austin famously mocked the Bible-thumping Jake "The Snake" Roberts by saying, "Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass" back in 1996, and the phrase grew from there.) Instead of adoring fans waving signs and hooting along, Austin stood up to empty chairs and dead silence due to the new restrictions on live events in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Did he give up and walk away with his tail between his legs? No way -- this is "Stone Cold" Steve Austin we're talking about, a guy who once drove a truck to the ring and sprayed his boss with beer from a hose. The man can't be fazed. Faced with performing for an empty house, he read off notecards about the virtues of his personal holiday ("3:16 Day is a day when you don't give a damn and happy hour is 24 hours long and if you burp, it's considered poetry.") and interacted with the announcers like a champ. Just watch it for yourself.

Following the broadcast of the show, a section of this Austin clip and another short video from another WWE show Smackdown, which featured the unhinged villain Bray Wyat glaring at the stoic babyface John Cena and delivering a grandiose monologue, both went semi-viral on Twitter. In the Wyat-Cena clip, the intensity and passion is palpable without the energy of a loud crowd: every breath and eye twitch lands like a close-up in a spaghetti western. In the Austin video, the tone is more comedic and goofy, a self-aware acknowledgement of the limitations at hand. These videos, stripped of the context of the larger show, are captivating, calling attention to the stillness of the space and the commitment of the performers. 

Watching them is a bit like flipping through those Garfield Minus Garfield comics, which remove the lasagna-loving cat from illustrations and replace him with a void. The effect turns Jon Arbuckle, Garfield's mildly neurotic but mostly affable owner, into a raving, depressed madman. These wrestling clips function in a similar way: the "normal" rhythms of a wrestling promo, where an athlete talks themselves up and denigrates their opponent, become absurd when the crowd is gone. It's eerie and strange, a decent encapsulation of the alienation of the current moment. (It's also markedly different than some of wrestling's more recent cinematic experiments, like 2016's gonzo art-project "The Final Deletion" featuring brothers Jeff and Matt Hardy.)

It's worth noting that wrestlers have gone crowd-less before. Fans who grew up on the "Attitude" era of the '90s will remember the bizarre Halftime Heat special from 1999, which aired as counter-programming to the Super Bowl and featured an "empty arena" brawl between Dwayne Johnson's The Rock and Mick Foley's Mankind character for the WWF Championship. A quasi-sequel to the pair's previous "I Quit" hardcore battle at Royal Rumble, the match featured ridiculous bits of cartoon-like fighting, including Mankind hitting The Rock repeatedly with a bag of popcorn that bursts open and spills all over the floor. Again, if you have 20 minutes to spare, just watch it for yourself.

And there's going to be more on the way: This Monday, the WWE announced that Wrestlemania 36, its biggest pay-per-view event of the year, has been moved from the near 66,000-person capacity Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida to the WWE's training facility in Orlando. It will still take place on April 5 and be available on WWE Network and pay-per-view. According to a statement from the company, "only essential personnel will be on the closed set." After watching these crowd-less wrestling clips, I'm intrigued enough to put Wrestlemania in my self-quarantine viewing schedule. At the very least, it will be a totally unique piece of spectacle. 

Even in less crisis-filled times, the rhythms of casual wrestling fandom can be strange. Despite not having watched WWE programming with any regularity for a long period, it's not unusual for the casual wrestling observer to retain a defensiveness and affection for pro wrestling as a cultural phenomenon. The nostalgic pull of the WWE is strong. I'll watch maybe one pay-per-view with friends or a random RAW episode with family at least once a year; I'll read the occasional article about it if it pops up in my timeline; I'm not immune to the appeal of the occasional YouTube binge of old promo videos and match complications. Even if you don't keep up with wrestling, it's always comforting to know that an entire parallel universe is out there if you ever decide to jump back in. 

With almost professional sports shutting down, some of those casual viewers might find themselves returning to WWE programming or giving its new competitor AEW a shot. While organizations like the NBA and the MLB have postponed games out of safety concerns for their players and other personnel, WWE's CEO Vince McMahon shows no signs of shutting down his operation. (Reportedly, all employees entering tapings at the WWE's Performance Center must pass "a screening done by a team of physicians.") Live crowds have always been an essential part of wrestling, egging on the bad guys and pushing storylines forward, but this uncharted experimental phase could lead to rich new creative territory. At the very least, it gave us Stone Cold demanding a "hell yeah" from the void. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.