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Photo by Pierce Hacking

It’s been nearly six months since I had my first live wrestling experiences during the week of the Royal Rumble. In part due to my own schedule, making a trip a bit further north or south hasn’t been possible to see a more recent pay per view. Leading up to the highly anticipated live event at Madison Square Garden, however, the WWE made a return to Philadelphia the night before. Despite my earlier experience as a returning fan and checking out NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia, the Royal Rumble, Raw, and SmackDown, I had still never been at a live event until that Friday night. WWEPhilly was an unforgettable experience that was worth every bit of the wait.

At the advice of some friends I opted to splurge a bit and be a few rows back of the ring, since I was told the superstars were more interactive due to the extra freedom provided as opposed to being at a television taping. While I wasn’t able to make a VIP work, and wasn’t a cute kid that could run right up to Bayley for a hug (it’s weird if I do it isn’t it?), seeing the WWE superstars interact with fans in a different environment was a fresh and rewarding experience.

Every superstar seemed to be more attentive to the audience than the more scripted nature of a television taping. Bayley, Braun Strowman, Roman Reigns, Natalya, Matt Hardy, Bray Wyatt, and Ronda Rousey interacted with the fans more from what I was able to see from my vantage point. Braun in particular was posing with little kids with his freshly won Money in the Bank briefcase.

It wasn’t just the stars interacting with the fans between matches that made the experience immersive. A fan received upgraded seats to move to the ringside area, and fans in attendance were able to vote for which WrestleMania match they got to view highlights of in the closing minutes before the show began.

While a television taping may have some limited interplay between wrestlers shouting to fans in attendance, it’s quite a different thing to watch Buddy Murphy choke out Cedric Alexander and hilariously yell at the fan two rows in front of you, or to be able to hear Kevin Owens more clearly when he speaks comedic gold during a rest hold. For me personally as someone with hearing aids, not having the event drowned out by a hijacking crowd makes a noticeable difference.

Speaking of crowd reactions, there is a world of difference between what you see on television and what you see at a live event. With a more family-friendly experience, the cheers and boos happened appropriately with each wrestler’s character alignment. Whereas Roman Reigns gets a large mixed reaction every time he’s on your television screen, he received a thunderous ovation when he walked out. Braun Strowman and Ronda Rousey were the only stars even close to Roman’s “pop” as a wrestling face.

Seth Rollins, Bayley, and Finn Bálor felt like they received the loudest cheers after these three, but the difference was still noticeable if you were to place crowd support into varying tiers. It was refreshing to see faces cheered and the heels get taunted and booed at an appropriate ratio. Sure, there were fans representing the independent scene with CZW or Bullet Club shirts, but it wasn’t like attending an NXT TakeOver event, where a “Too Sweet” chant was all you heard for a long stretch of time.

With the relaxed environment of a live event, it gives talent a place to test out new things. On television, talent may have to rush to stick to a script. In a live event, the matches run at a tight pace, but subtle details are able to stick out, like Baron Corbin making a “too sweet” gesture to Finn before punching him in the face, or Dolph Ziggler jawing at everyone and dancing behind Drew McIntyre enough to “annoy” the referee before his match with Seth Rollins.

The entire card was fun, and matches that might’ve been seen as filler by a television fan delivered in entertainment value. By the time I was at SmackDown Live after three days of major wrestling events in January, the crowd notably hijacked the show with irrelevant chants, despite a very solid show being on the table. At WWEPhilly, the only brief time this happened was during the beginning of Bobby Roode versus Mojo Rawley, but unlike on television, the crowd immediately got into the match when the performers started to perform. Each individual match delivered something unique, and title changes felt possible despite the upcoming Extreme Rules pay per view, and the venue of Madison Square Garden hosting a live event the next night.

Dolph Ziggler versus Seth Rollins for the Intercontinental Championship at Extreme Rules may very well steal the show if the opening bout was anything to go by. Cedric Alexander and Buddy Murphy had an entertaining Cruiserweight Championship match that could hopefully be a preview of what 205 Live fans might get next after Murphy’s recent series with Mustafa Ali.

Despite reports that Bray Wyatt would not be cleared to wrestle, he and Matt Hardy successfully defended their Raw Tag Team Championships against The B Team (Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas) and Titus Worldwide (Titus O’Neil and Apollo) in a relatively short but effective match. Bobby Lashley and Jinder Mahal had a nice hoss fight before the main event which featured Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, and Finn Bálor facing off against Kevin Owens, Elias, and Baron Corbin. Bayley, Natalya, and Ember Moon teamed up against Alicia Fox, Liv Morgan, and Sarah Logan for a fun and highly interactive tag match as well.

The cruiserweight division also featured a 6-man tag match between Lucha House Party going against Drew Gulak, Brian Kendrick, and Jack Gallagher. Lince Dorado pinned Gulak after a picturesque shooting star press to give the Camden, NJ resident (less than 20 minutes from the venue) and his team the win over the Philadelphia-resident Gulak’s team of heels.

Of course with all of these great matches it would be impossible to go much longer without talking about Rowdy Ronda Rousey. Ronda faced off against Nia Jax with the caveat of not having one, but two special guest referees. For “fairness”, Alexa Bliss announced that Mickie James would be helping her ref the match, with both women consistently being “too distracted” to give Ronda or Nia a fair shake. Despite being an obvious showcase for Ronda, Nia was kept strong fending off both guests at one point, and taking an armbar while Ronda used the ropes for leverage for an extensive time.

Ronda performed a judo toss similar to the marvelous one she did at Money in the Bank, but at lightning speed in comparison. From watching Ronda’s movements in the ring, it’s clear the company is likely forcing her to hold back, and equally supporting Nia as a true “irresistible force”. Ronda is organically getting over with the crowd, and WWE is keeping things simple despite Ronda appearing to be far ahead of even what her two pay per view matches already show. For comparison’s sake in terms of how quickly she has picked up pro wrestling, the Kurt Angle comparisons really do not feel like a stretch.

WWEPhilly was a terrific experience, fit for the entire family. While a casual observer of WWE television may see “expert” opinions that seemingly go out of their way to trash the television product, these observers should go to a live event for themselves to see what things are really like. I was an immediate believer in Jinder Mahal after his fitness journey and championship reign, despite not loving his specific matches with Randy Orton, and the crowd responded to him like the strong heel that he is.

I wasn’t an immediate fan of Roman Reigns when I started to get back into wrestling, but seeing the positive reactions for him at a live event easily make WWE’s push seem logical. With Braun Strowman delivering in every way as well, Seth Rollins routinely putting on clinics, and Ronda Rousey becoming a force of nature in her new sport, it’s clear that WWE doesn’t just have one person as “the guy”. It has several stars with the credibility to be the true faces of the business and the company’s heirs to John Cena. WWE is in a better position than it may have ever been before, and fans just need to enjoy the ride and trust the process.

 

Full Card / Results

Dolph Ziggler (w/ Drew McIntyre) def. Seth Rollins (Intercontinental Championship)

Cedric Alexander def. Buddy Murphy (Cruiserweight Championship)

Bayley, Ember Moon, and Natalya def. Alicia Fox and the Riott Squad (represented by Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan)

Bobby Roode def. Mojo Rawley

Deleters of Worlds (Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt) def. Titus Worldwide (Titus O’Neil and Apollo) and The B Team (Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel) (Raw Tag Team Championship)

Ronda Rousey def. Nia Jax (Alexa Bliss and Mickie James both serving as special guest referees)

Lucha House Party (Kalisto, Lince Dorado, and Gran Metalik) def. Drew Gulak, Brian Kendrick, and Jack Gallagher

Bobby Lashley def. Jinder Mahal

Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, and Finn Bálor def. Kevin Owens, Elias, and “Constable” Baron Corbin