In the world of professional wrestling, there are plenty of things that are unpredictable. And it may seem like a strange thing to say, considering the outcomes of matches are scripted ahead of time, but there are many factors that can change the trajectory of an individual’s career or an event. An unexpected crowd reaction, a change in character at the right time, a surprise return: All of these things can dramatically alter the creative direction in the industry.
Last month, as the global coronavirus pandemic threw the sports and entertainment worlds for a loop, WWE was faced with a decision on whether or not to hold its largest event of the year, WrestleMania. Set to take place on April 5 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., the circumstances surrounding the outbreak made it abundantly clear that if WrestleMania was going to happen, it would be under unprecedented conditions.
“I kind of just had to be ready for anything,” WWE star Bayley tells Yahoo. “It was very unpredictable. Leading into all of this, not being sure what was going on outside in the world and what it meant for our jobs at the time. Once we heard that we were going to be doing all of this and doing WrestleMania, I was pretty excited to do it and I was excited for the experience. I had no idea how we were going to pull this off and how the days were going to be.”
Rather than canceling the “Showcase of the Immortals,” WWE opted to relocate the event to its Performance Center in Orlando, Fla. While WrestleMania normally plays out in a football stadium packed with tens of thousands of people, this year there would be no fans in attendance, the set closed to all but essential personnel (who were all medically screened before entering) and taped two weeks in advance.
Performing at WrestleMania is supposed to be the pinnacle of a wrestler’s year. Facing the daunting pressure of putting on a full-fledged event under these challenging circumstances added to an already stressful situation.
“Honestly, being at the Performance Center, it always feels like a family at WWE, but it felt more so like we were pulling each other together,” Bayley says. “Some people were wondering how they would do it without a crowd there or how we would all pull this off and kind of just scrambling, but once the stress and thought of everything subsided, everyone was really there for each other. It came off really, really cool. Once I saw the set, I knew this was going to feel like WrestleMania.”
Amid the health concerns that were, and still are, gripping the world, talent was given the opportunity to pass on being part of WrestleMania. Notably, Roman Reigns, who was slated to be in the WWE Universal Championship match against Goldberg, opted not to take part as he has twice battled and beaten leukemia.
For Bayley, the Smackdown Women’s Champion, there was no question that she wanted to be a part of the event, but it was a matter of making sure she was in a position to keep those around her and working with her safely.
“There were a ton of questions in my mind,” Bayley says. “Is this safe? Do I feel OK? You don’t want to participate even if you feel a little sickness. Every day I think I stressed myself out, thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have a headache. Is it because I didn’t have my coffee?’ or ‘Oh my God, my stomach hurts, is it because I hadn’t eaten yet?’ I was freaking myself out about everything, but I wanted to make sure that I was 100 percent for WrestleMania. There was never really a thought for me about not wanting to do it, it was just me wanting to make sure I was healthy and my co-workers were healthy.”
On WrestleMania, Bayley successfully defended her championship in a five-person elimination match. As was the case with much of the two-night affair, the best and most engaging action came when the athletes were able to tell compelling stories in the ring. Bayley, along with Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch, were tasked with not only pulling off their matches, but also were partially responsible for giving WrestleMania newcomers a chance to shine on a grand stage.
“I didn’t realize until maybe right before that it was Lacey [Evans]’s first WrestleMania,” Bayley says. “For anybody, that’s a big deal. I was happy for her. I was wondering what it must have felt like for her, Shayna [Baszler], Rhea [Ripley], for this to be their first WrestleMania and it not be in front of anybody. For those matches, they were all title matches and it was just as special because there were so many people watching at home.
“I was actually so happy that [my match] was a five-person match because everybody brings something different and there are so many different elements to play with.”
Bayley’s victory was the second time she had successfully defended a championship at WrestleMania. The first time, at WrestleMania 33 in 2017, it was an entirely different experience as she was working as a babyface and, obviously, there were thousands of cheering fans.
“That first WrestleMania for me, when I defended the title, there was a moment for me after I had won where I saw my family in the crowd and looking at them, I’m so emotional when it comes to wrestling, I just broke down crying,” Bayley reveals. “It was such an indescribable feeling. It may have happened this time if they were there, but knowing that they weren’t there, I was able to keep it together and be a badass. It’s such a crazy thing to miss out on, but I think this is going to be one of the most talked about WrestleMania’s for that alone.”
In many ways, this WrestleMania may have been the most significant of Bayley’s career. The 30-year-old, California native is part of a group collectively known as the “Four Horsewomen.” Playing off the old Ric Flair-led stable from the 1980s, Bayley, Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch helped usher in a revolution in women’s wrestling last decade. While all four honed their craft in NXT, it was clear that this generation of female performers would make their mark on WWE.
After WrestleMania, three of the four are champions in WWE, and Banks is one character turn away from being on a collision course with Bayley.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Bayley says. “I didn’t even think about it while watching the show and I didn’t know the outcomes of the other two matches beforehand. I think back to their first WrestleMania [in 2016], where they were in a triple threat match for the women’s championship and I was in the crowd watching. Now, we’re all still here. I’m really proud of how we’re all chugging away and doing all we can to be big parts of the picture in the company. It takes a lot of consistency. All of us work our freaking butts off to do all we can for wrestling, so I’m glad we’re still up there.”
There was also the venue. The WWE Performance Center is where Bayley and countless other superstars started their careers with the company. Combined with the lack of a crowd, the setting for this unique WrestleMania was unquestionably more intimate for her, and likely the other three Horsewomen.
“I thought about it a lot leading into the event,” says Bayley. “I tried not to think about it the day of because it blows my mind. That was the building that I met Becky in, the Performance Center’s opening was her first day. The week before it opened, I was with Sasha and Charlotte, building the rings and putting the gym together. The fact that we were holding WrestleMania there, that John Cena was there, Randy Orton and Edge had their match there, all of these crazy things you would have never thought about when it first opened.”
Bayley’s and the other 17 matches on the WrestleMania card were filmed two weeks before airing on the WWE Network and pay-per-view. Instead of being together during the event, Bayley and her colleagues would be scattered, watching the same way fans were — at home.
“It was the first time I saw [my match],” Bayley says. “I was watching with my fiance and Sasha would FaceTime me through parts of it. I have always watched my stuff back to learn, but with nobody there and these circumstances, I was a little more embarrassed, so I didn’t pay as much attention as I am used to. It was definitely a little strange.”
It was another surreal experience in a time that has become defined by them. Nonetheless, it was still a WrestleMania moment for Bayley.
“It turned out to be one of the most fun matches I’ve ever had at WrestleMania.”
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