At its core, professional wrestling is built on a connection with its audience. A raucous live crowd, cheering on the heroes and jeering the villains, has been foundational to the industry since its roots as a carnival sideshow at the turn of the 20th century.
For the stars of World Wrestling Entertainment, the industry’s standard-bearer for decades, that disappeared in March 2020 when restrictions brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic forced a company that toured worldwide in front of crowds of thousands to do all of their work for more than a year in front of cavernous empty buildings in Florida.
That changed in July, when the company resumed its touring schedule. The return to live events, like Saturday night’s card at Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls, has been most welcome for the company’s stars.
“It’s the best,” Liv Morgan, who is set to face champion Becky Lynch and Bianca Belair in a triple-threat match for the Raw Women’s Championship as part of Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. show, said in a phone interview Thursday. “Wrestling in front of the fans, for the fans, and receiving their energy is exactly why we do what we do.”
When pandemic restrictions first came down, WWE closed its doors to fans, taping its televised shows in empty buildings like its Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, as well as a series of arenas in Orlando and Tampa that the company turned into its interactive “Thunderdome” thanks to rows upon rows of LED screens set up in the seating bowls.
“It was so weird,” Morgan said. “The most important part of our shows, the fans, they were missing.”
There was a brief respite in April for two nights of Wrestlemania, the company’s annual spectacular, with about 25,000 in attendance for each night at Tampa’s 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium, but the real breakthrough didn’t come until mid-July, when the company went back on tour for its flagship Monday Night Raw and Friday Night Smackdown TV shows, plus monthly pay-per-view events and untelevised live shows like Saturday’s in Glens Falls.
The event at Cool Insuring Arena is WWE’s first in Glens Falls since July 2019, and its second in the Capital Region since the return to touring, following a September show in Albany.
“I’ve missed traveling, I’ve missed the crowd, the feeling of the crowd and performing in front of the crowd,” Smackdown star Shotzi said in a phone interview Wednesday. “All of it has been like, ‘OK, life is getting back to normal, and now we can have some fun.’”
For Shotzi, who signed with the company in late 2019 after a half-decade on the independent scene across the country, “fun” means embracing the wild, heavy metal-tinged stylings of her character that includes riding to the ring atop a miniature tank.
The 29-year-old California native said she found the toy tank at a Walmart years ago, and during her time at the WWE Performance Center while performing on the company’s NXT brand, often lobbied to use it as part of her entrance on television.
Eventually, she got her chance.
“It was my idea,” she said, “and they made it happen.”
Morgan, a 27-year-old from New Jersey, has taken WWE’s return to touring as the spark for the most prominent run of her career.
Signed by WWE in 2014, Morgan comes to Glens Falls on the heels of the biggest matches of her career. Fueled by a groundswell of crowd support, she challenged Lynch — the company’s biggest female star — for her championship in the main event of an episode of Raw in early December, and again last Saturday as part of WWE’s Day 1 event in Atlanta.
“I’ve had a good couple months,” Morgan said with a chuckle. “It’s been so fulfilling for me, personally, to have the opportunities that I’ve always wanted — title matches, longer-timed matches, in-ring promos. Being able to experience this all over the last couple months has helped me grow so much as a performer and a person.”
For both Morgan and Shotzi, pro wrestling has been a long-time love.
For Morgan — who grew up as a self-professed tomboy with four older brothers — the wrestling bug hit in the late 1990s during WWE’s extremely popular “Attitude Era.” Watching for the first time as a 5-year-old, she gravitated immediately toward Lita, the high-flying, punk rock-inspired colleague of brothers Matt and Jeff Hardy, as her inspiration.
“I saw Lita wearing baggy pants and wrestling with the boys,” Morgan said, “and I saw myself in her. I thought, ‘that girl could be my friend.’ Ever since that moment, it stuck with me. It gave me a purpose from such a young age.”
Shotzi found pro wrestling as the nexus between her backgrounds as a theater kid and martial arts enthusiast.
“I just put the two together,” she said. “Wrestling is theatrical and aggressive.”
After a half-decade as an independent wrestler, signing with WWE was the fulfillment of a dream. It led to things she never could have imagined, like getting her own action figure.
“When that got revealed to me, seeing my action figure in front of me with a helmet I’ve taken through my whole entire career, that was really special,” she said. “That was the moment where I was like, ‘oh, man, I’ve made it.’”
Both women entered WWE in an era that’s seen women’s wrestling evolve beyond its former role in the company, when its primary focus was on the company’s Divas, many of whom were scouted out of fitness magazines rather than wrestling schools.
When Morgan arrived in 2014, it was during the heart of a women’s wrestling renaissance fueled by acclaimed matches in developmental brand NXT put on by the company’s Four Horsewomen, a group comprised of Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Bayley.
Since then, the company has seen a slew of female firsts, including the all-women’s Evolution event in 2018, and the first times women have been able to participate in many of the company’s signature matches. In 2019, a women’s match was the main event of Wrestlemania for the first time as a bout between Lynch, Flair and MMA superstar Ronda Rousey topped the card. A second women’s main event followed on the first night of last year’s Wrestlemania when Banks and Belair became the first Black women to headline pro wrestling’s biggest show.
“It’s been really crazy,” Morgan said. “I started at the Performance Center on Oct. 27, 2014, and it was right at the height of knowing we had something so special with the Four Horsewomen. … They were proving that women’s wrestling is just as good, if not better, than the men. To come into that, it really set the standard for me for what is expected.”