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How did Tampa’s first time hosting WrestleMan­ia go? Observatio­ns from the WWE’s marquee event, which at times felt bigger than Super Bowl 55 (sorry, Bucs),

- CHRISTOPHE­R SPATA

TAMPA — WrestleMan­ia 37 kicked off the first of two nights of profession­al wrestling spectacle Saturday, marking the first time a WWE event has allowed in-person fans since the start of the pandemic. Here’s what we saw at the sold-out show with 25,000 fans in attendance.

1

The sign hanging outside Raymond James Stadium promoting Sasha Banks vs. Bianca Belair for the Smackdown Women’s Championsh­ip is even bigger than the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl champions sign.

2

The first giant man spotted flexing his biceps until he turned red while screaming “aaaaghhhhh­h!” wasn’t inside the stadium — or a wrestler. It was a guy wearing a sign and taking part in a large worker rights protest against Frontier Communicat­ions.

3

There is an even bigger WWE pirate ship blocking the view of the Raymond James pirate ship. Only the WWE would say, “yeah, we know you’re the only stadium with a pirate ship, but we’re going to build a better one, thanks.”

4

They’re really leaning into the pirate thing. (The WrestleMan­ia shirts say, “Aye was there.”) Someone has to get thrown off a pirate ship tonight, right?

5

Doubloon and octopus graphics are onscreen. Idea for the next time WrestleMan­ia comes to town: octopus match. Figure it out, WWE.

6

A lot of the seats are filled with those cardboard fan cutouts. The WWE didn’t sell any. Did they just use the Super Bowl ones?

7

Here we go: WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon is on stage under the ship. The WWE has been missing something, he says, “something very important ... people.” Crowd goes wild.

8

I’m gonna say it, this crowd is louder than the Super Bowl crowd already.

9

Bebe Rexha sang America the Beautiful, but no national anthem at WrestleMan­ia. I guess they don’t do that. And there’s the jet flyover.

10

Only thing left is a big pyrotechni­c explosion and we’ll be underway.

11

Aaaaand we’re in a rain delay. It is pouring. Fans are headed to the concourses. Welcome to the lightning capital of the world.

12

WWE announcer: “Wrestleran­ia.” The press box erupts in boos.

13

Speaking of the press box, there’s nearly as many reporters here as there was for the Super Bowl, but far fewer are wearing suits.

14

A voice-over narrator on the broadcast is doing a Jack Sparrow impression, says something about the WWE finally being “back in business,” and someone in the press box shouts “back in business, drink!” Waters and Diet Cokes are sipped.

15

The wrestlers are filling airtime during the rain delay by improvisin­g promos backstage and it’s pretty good. I’ll have this match right here, says Seth Rollins.

16

And we’re back. The show is starting, and the amount of pyro that just exploded does not disappoint. There is a thick fog of smoke in the stadium.

17

Like so much pyro that we probably just global warming-ed the planet a little bit. And yes, the cannons on the new ship do fire.

18

The hosts, Titus O’Neil and Hulk Hogan, come on stage. Titus gets huge cheers. Hogan gets booed.

19

There are more fans, however, dressed up like Hulk Hogan with red and yellow boas than any other outfit I’ve seen in the concourse. (Also spotted: one Ultimate Warrior.)

20

O’Neil to crowd: “Welcome to my city, Tampa Bay!” Oh boy, he’s going to get emails from those “Tampa Bay is the water, Tampa is the city,” people.

21

The very first match is the title match for the WWE Championsh­ip, which is confusing, but start big, I guess. Bobby Lashley squeezes Drew McIntyre from behind until he passes out to retain the title.

22

The guy in front of me on the floor near the ring (I’ve moved down) who was absolutely losing his mind jumping up and down as Lashley won, now stands at attention and raises a fist in the air as Lashley holds up the belt. Lashley is only the third Black man to hold the title.

23

Unlike the Super Bowl, you still get to see the commercial­s when you go to WrestleMan­ia live. And by the way, the WWE is now selling “non fungible tokens” if you want to invest.

24

Overheard from a 6-year-old girl watching the Tag Team Turmoil match with her dad: “Give her a whoopin’, Honey Boo Boo.” Tamina Snuka and Natalya win the match.

25

There’s a giant guy named Cesaro in the next match whose big thing is picking up his opponent by the legs and spinning him in circles really fast. He recently set a record by completing 22 rotations. But this is WrestleMan­ia, he has to top it, right?

26

He did it! He swung Seth Rollins around 23 times. The press box was betting on 37, but make no mistake, 23 rotations is an insane superhuman feat of strength.

27

Especially when he’d just taken a shin to the back of the head and an elbow to the face.

28

The next match features Omos, a 7-foot-5 former USF basketball player, real name Jordan Omogbehin, in his first big-time televised match. He is a physical specimen, but the question in the press box is: will he actually be good?

29

Even from all the way up in the press box, where the giant men wailing on each other look like tiny action figures, Omos looks insanely big. He just got tagged in, and he stepped over the top rope without even bending over, like it was nothing.

30

And he is good. Kofi Kingston just came off the top rope and tried to pound Omos in the head, and Omos caught him by the wrist, then flipped him over like a toy.

31

Announcer: “Kofi Kingston doesn’t know where he is right now. He thinks he’s in St. Pete.” See, someone at the WWE knows Tampa Bay geography.

32

Then he put Xavier Woods over his knee for a backbreake­r, and Woods was like 3 feet off the ground. He pinned him, and Omos won the tag team match (with partner AJ Styles).

33

Steel cage match! Shane McMahon bashed Braun Strowman over the head with a toolbox. Why is there a toolbox???

34

Puerto Rican rapper/singer Bad Bunny was preceded to the ring by an army of people in Easter Bunny costumes, then rode out to the ring on top of a semi truck. Who cares if he can even wrestle? (Turns out, he can.)

35

Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair are making history as the first two Black women competing in a one-on-one championsh­ip match at WrestleMan­ia. Belair teared up when the bell rang, which was heartwarmi­ng. Then Banks held on to her ponytail and stomped her in the face repeatedly.

36

The most intense match of the night ends with Belair slamming Banks on her face to claim the Smackdown Women’s Championsh­ip. History made.

37

There’s still another full night of this tonight!

 ?? Photos by LUIS SANTANA | Times ?? Everything seems larger than life when it comes to the WWE. WrestleMan­ia 37 at Raymond James Stadium, home of the latest Super Bowl champs, is no exception.
Photos by LUIS SANTANA | Times Everything seems larger than life when it comes to the WWE. WrestleMan­ia 37 at Raymond James Stadium, home of the latest Super Bowl champs, is no exception.
 ??  ?? In the WWE Championsh­ip match, Bobby Lashley celebrates his win against Drew McIntyre, defending his title.
In the WWE Championsh­ip match, Bobby Lashley celebrates his win against Drew McIntyre, defending his title.
 ??  ?? Sasha Banks, middle, and Bianca Belair turn in one of the fiercest matches of the night.
Sasha Banks, middle, and Bianca Belair turn in one of the fiercest matches of the night.
 ??  ?? Hosts Titus O’Neil and Hulk Hogan, decked out for the occasion, welcome fans to WrestleMan­ia 37.
Hosts Titus O’Neil and Hulk Hogan, decked out for the occasion, welcome fans to WrestleMan­ia 37.
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