Mitch Peebles has not left Ohio since 2019. He lost his mom to cancer in 2020. The pandemic canceled his big wedding last summer, changing it to an outdoor ceremony with five family members. He worked from home and mostly avoided even going out for dinner.
“We’ve done all the sacrificing,” Peebles said.
Now it’s time to let loose with booming pyrotechnics and body slams.
“Did something this morning that I’d never thought I’d be able to do,” he wrote on Twitter last week after spending $165 on a ticket for WrestleMania 37 at Raymond James Stadium.
For some, the biggest spectacle in pro wrestling will mark their first meaningful venture away from home and back into crowds, purely for fun, since the pandemic started.
Peebles, 28, said he is mostly comfortable flying across the country to converge with, potentially, 25,000 other wrestling fans. He and his wife, Mandi, have already been vaccinated.
Ryan Roussett, a 32-year-old high school football coach in Houston, feels the same way. He’s flying to Tampa with his roommate, who is also vaccinated. He spent about $275 on his WrestleMania ticket.
“I’m not knocking anyone,” Roussett said, “but I wasn’t getting getting on a plane until I got my vaccine.”
Roussett lost his job as an equipment manager for the Houston Roughnecks after the pandemic shuttered the XFL last year. Stuck at home, he subscribed to the WWE Network and started watching wrestling for the first time in years.
“All the sudden me and my roommate are watching old wrestling shows all night,” he said, “and we’re heavily involved in it again.”
When the WWE announced WrestleMania would have live fans — masked, in pods, and with limited capacity — it seemed like the perfect year to fulfill a lifelong “bucket list” item. Roussett expects it will feel cathartic. “I feel like I’ve been stuck inside for a year.”
The WWE continued putting on shows during the pandemic, many of them at Tropicana Field, but hasn’t had a live audience in more than a year.
Fans believe in-person crowds are crucial to pro wrestling, perhaps more than any other form of entertainment.
“It’s participatory,” Dave Schilling, a TV writer who formerly wrote for the WWE, told the Times in 2020. “The audience is a character in the drama just as much as the wrestlers. What they cheer. What they boo. If they’re engaged or sitting on their hands. It drastically affects enjoyment of what you’re watching.”
Authentic crowd reactions can make or break wrestlers’ careers, Schilling said, and even influence how WWE storylines play out.
He offered the 2015 WWE Royal Rumble as an example. That’s the one where Roman Reigns won, and superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson showed up to raise Reigns’ hand as a sort of anointment as the next big thing. In wrestling jargon, when a star like The Rock does this, it’s called giving someone “the rub,” and it can take them to the next level of stardom.
“Except the crowd turned on the entire thing and started booing, because they wanted Daniel Bryan,” Schilling said. “Their frustration with Daniel Bryan not winning came out vocally, and the WWE changed some plans going forward.”
Pre-recorded crowd noise added during WWE broadcasts simply did not suffice for wrestling fan Samuel Florez, who spent about $360 on his WrestleMania 37 ticket. He described attending the event as his “pilgrimage to Mecca.”
“The fans enjoy themselves more when they hear the reaction of the people,” Florez said, “and not the sound of what the company wants them to hear at that moment.”
Florez originally was planning to attend in 2020, as a gift to himself for graduating from USF with a finance degree, but that plan was scuttled by the pandemic. He is not yet vaccinated, but said he feels confident with the precautions being taken, and because it appears the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium was safe.
“I know that crowd is going to be electric,” he said. “And I know the wrestlers are going to be very emotional having fans there.”
Mark Carvalho, who is traveling to Tampa from Boston, said he also looked to the example of the Super Bowl to reassure himself about safety. It’s the first time he has traveled since going to Texas in January 2020 for the WWE Royal Rumble, where he believes he caught COVID-19, “before we even knew what COVID was.”
“It’s the first big event coming back with fans,” Carvalho said of WrestleMania 37. “I wanted to be there to be a part of history.” He’s also making it part of a 10-day vacation with his mom and brother.
Carvalho knows some fans aren’t thrilled with Puerto Rican music star Bad Bunny being part of the card, in a match against The Miz, but he’s looking forward to it.
“He’s one of the top people in music,” Carvalho said, “and I’m the same ethnicity as him.”
But in a year in which the world has battled disease and fought its way back toward normal, it’s the triple threat universal title match between Reigns, Edge and Bryan that, to some, feels most inspiring.
Edge retired from wrestling in 2009 due to spinal stenosis after breaking his neck years earlier, but made a triumphant return in late 2020. Bryan was retired for years due to concussions that brought on seizures. Reigns, the champ, is back in the WWE after treatment put his leukemia into remission.
“It’s three guys who at a point it was uncertain if they’d ever compete again, but they’re back, through self determination, and maybe miracles,” Florez said. “They’re telling a great story.”
Saturday-Sunday, Raymond James Stadium
Notable: Hulk Hogan and Titus O’Neil will host the two-night event, which will stream live exclusively on Peacock. Tickets are on sale now at Ticketmaster.com.