Rhetorical Recap: SummerSlam & WWE’s Synergistic Spectacle at Barclay’s

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

summerslam2017Summer Slam 2017.

Barclay’s Center, Brooklyn, NY.

Welcome to the inaugural event recap for the Professional Wrestling Studies Association. In an effort to kick off our annual event coverage of prestige wrestling shows, our aim will be covering both “mainstream” and independent bookings, and one of the best ways we can welcome a broad audience of readers and enthusiasts is with one of the most recognized wrestling events of the year, WWE’s SummerSlam.

Numerous alternative websites offer fan coverage of pro-wrestling events. Some provide detailed articulations of matchups and move sets—I recall this practice years ago populated by the message board elite. And when I say “years ago,” we’re talking pre-Reddit digital spectatorship. I’ll tip my hat to some of the most consistent pro-wrestling coverage produced by fan and sports-related websites like Den of Geek, Bleacher Report, and even more elevated criticism sites like The A.V. Club. In recent years, the lines blur even more with regular coverage coming from Rolling Stone, SI.com, and the gone-too-soon Grantland.

We hope to offer enough of an alternative spin that does not work to simply repeat the wheel. Our aim is to offer quality commentary and writing that can provide a sense of social, cultural, and even political history and context. Our writers seek to provide rich insights that play with text and context; examining (and enjoying) both the overt and the covert aspects that pro wrestling grapples with. With that said, we hope you’ll bookmark our page, share an article or essay you find interesting, and feel free to provide feedback to our writers or Twitter feed in general.

Hence we arrive at SummerSlam. The WWE’s Pay-Per-View SummerSlam is now booked second to only Wrestlemania. In the WWE’s consumer hierarchy, this event is kind of like Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, only in reverse order. Each year, the event seems to loosen the belt around its metaphorical waist just a little bit more. Only a couple of years ago it seemed impossible that the PPV event ran a planned four hours (plus one-hour preshow). This year the event is budgeted at 5 hours and 15-minutes, a paralyzing method to force the consumer into butt-coma submission.

Feed. Me. More. (oh wait…)

On one hand, the “more is better” mantra is in full swing, and seemingly rewards all those willing to invest in the stream-era friendly $9.99 a month. On the other hand, a cynical reading of WWE’s corporate strategy points toward industry exhaustion. By industry exhaustion, it would seem clear that WWE intends to offer so much content that audiences and fans in particular feel pressured to fully invest in the WWE experience. Not only would this include participatory consumption of both the RAW and Smackdown “brands,” but also the “indie”-esque WWE Network exclusive brand, NXT. These are but the top of a WWE pyramid of programming (think about that metaphor in business terms) that asks viewers to sit back, relax, and simply fall down the proverbial rabbit hole of endless (mindless?) programming.

According to this corporate strategy, the consumer then lacks time or money to invest in alternative wrestling products like New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground, House of Hardcore, Global Force/Impact Wrestling, and so on. Thus, we come to the capitalist threshold of whether there is such a thing as “too much” of anything. That assessment, one objectively suggests, is in the eye of the beholder.

So, with that said, let’s go ahead and dive into the action and see if this five-hour gargantuan lives up to the hype.

High-Profile Filler

That said, the first two matches of the feature show represent SmackDown. Industry veteran with universal appeal John Cena opens the formal show with a match against former NFL’er Baron Corbin. If readers have made it this far in the write-up, then it’s safe to assume Cena needs no introduction. Literally the most profitable “sports entertainer” to follow Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Cena has finally broken the streak of failed attempts by pro wrestlers to crossover into mainstream Hollywood iconicity after Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Unfortunately, Cena’s best days now seem to be completely tethered to Hollywood blockbusters (this is not a prediction that the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee will in any way save Michael Bay’s cynical cash cow franchise).

Whatever momentum SmackDown did (or did not) provide in the lead up, the opener turns out to be nothing more than a glorified squash match. While Corbin would no doubt have benefited from a “Cena bump” with the win, allegations of backstage heat seems to have produced WWE’s preferred form of corporal punishment: public humiliation. Indeed, more emphasis seemed to be on which ringside celebrities Cena high-fived on his way out than any storytelling outcome for either participant.

In a bit of a surprise, Natalya Hart defeated Naomi clean for the SmackDown Women’s Championship in match #2. Their pairing featured a couple of nice spots, but the act feels closer to a time-marking warm-up act. The same might be said for the storyline heavy follow-up in match #3, a “shark cage” match between Big Cass and Big Show. Dangling above the ring in the shark cage is Cass’s former tag team partner, Enzo Amore. Enzo himself has been linked to a number of hearsay accounts of backstage shenanigans, and the breakup with his long-running partner seems to be yet another case of blurred lines between factual workplace behavior and fictional comeuppance.

Big Show is a preeminent workhorse for the WWE. However, his character has suffered from so many face-heel turns over the years that audiences have become ambivalent to his role in any program. In this case, his purpose works to prop up Enzo’s physical inadequacy up against Cass while also putting over Cass’s as the next “big” thing (although that may now be in question given what happened on the post-Slam RAW). It’s an honorable role, and one of the only things that provide this match with momentum. If the shark cage weren’t gimmick enough—surely Enzo could have been provided a mic to taunt everyone throughout—the under-sized Italiano does provide a late laugh when he strips down and reaches within to locate travel-size bottle of body oil in an effort to intervene from above. The schtick rightfully fails and Cass gives big boots to everyone. He hands Big Show a clean loss, but one that can be disputed simply by Big Show’s “injured hand,” an ongoing prop Cass targets again and again throughout their bout.

A backstage exchange between GMs Kurt Angle and Daniel Bryan functions as a preview of main events at the expense of taking either persona serious. Perhaps built to provide commentators and set designers time to transition materials, match #4 features yet another SmackDown exchange between Randy Orton and Rusev. Not having kept up with all of the SD storylines since Wrestlemania, it’s hard to say whether the match works. That said, Rusev seems to have trimmed his weight down considerably without losing his bulk or muscle. However, like Corbin, Rusev gets a strong pre-match jab in before literally losing on a single RKO after the opening bell. At this point I have to ask, do the bookers even believe in this festivity?

Brooklyn Brawlers

As the first hour (really the second, plus some) closes, SummerSlam picks up steam with “The Boss” Sasha Banks strutting to the ring in what can be described as a peacock onesie. This is certainly a low-key self-presentation when compared to the monetary investment poured into Wrestlemania entrances, but the adjustment suggests something sneaky might be in store. The peacock onesie is contrasted against the verbal product placement during RAW Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss’s entrance. Michael Cole waxes synergistic gobbledygoop about how Bliss received a Yankees jersey earlier in the week (during one of WWE’s endless displays of stockholder-impressing cross-brand PR). The matchup is the strongest so far, with both women wrestlers matched well according to size, speed, and agility.

This is the first match of the night in which both competitors appear to be moving at full speed. Each show a willingness and intent to sell for the other, and the match inadvertently works like a burlesque show where the two slowly tease toward a dangerous (looking) finish. As her makeup smears slowly down her face midway through, it’s astonishing to consider the undersized Bliss was losing lower card bouts at NXT house shows a little over a year ago. It goes to show her crackling persona on the mic helped elevate her status at a time where larger and more muscular female performers were leading this “Women’s Revolution.” In the second title change as many Womens matches, Banks convinces Bliss to tap out after a number of Banks Statement repositions.

The following match failed to generate much pre-PPV hype, but quickly draws audience appeal. Bray Wyatt has come to be known as somewhat of a career-staller for any opponent he faces. His supernatural voodoo persona never seemed quite able to win over any major title (other than the transitional weeks between Elimination Chamber and Wrestlemania XXXIII), and he always appeared to lose programs against major superstar opponents. Conversely, Finn Balor came onto the main roster white hot, winning the first matchup for the Universal Title at last year’s SummerSlam, only to relinquish it due to severe injury. After Balor’s eight-month absence, he’s experienced a bit of a peek-a-boo with prime-time positions mixed with some lower card losses. Thus, there’s a bit of reluctance to this matchup in that fans might be setting themselves up for disappointment in wanting to see him at main event status so quickly.

It’s unfair to say Bray/Balor is a matchup predicated on enigmatic intros but, fortunately, they consistently deliver a physical and psychological encounter. Finn makes his “Demon King” entrance, the first since the previous SummerSlam, and the audience rightly goes bonkers in playing along. The performance art of his animalistic crawl toward the ring displays professional wrestling at its most aesthetically unapologetic. Fortunately, Balor is no gimmick. His in-ring work, even when selling, elevates his status. The Demon gets a quicker-than-predicted win, thus showcasing how he, like Bliss, bucks the trend toward enormous physicality as prerequisite.

Clash of the Titans

As the upper card comes into focus, bout #7 offers the third consecutive Raw matchup. In the first tag-team exchange after the pre-show, Raw Tag Champs Sheamus and Cesaro take on the quasi-reunited Shield members Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins. All four competitors consistently work like main eventers, and only backstage politics or injuries have kept them just beneath the upper tier. Ambrose is a former indie darling and WWE Universe fan favorite, while Rollins earned audience favor during an injury hiatus but drifted back into middle pack territory after bad writing stalled his heel-to-face redemption arc. Similarly, Sheamus has all the elite goods but faced a circumstance of bad timing (and bad hair) that kept him out of fans’ good grace. Cesaro underwent a reverse situation where he only needed to satisfy an audience of one—Vince McMahon—but failed to adequately “grab the brash ring” at the apropos time. Timing is everything.

The foursome put on a decent enough match, but questions surround the bout more than the action itself. What will the melodrama between Rollins and Ambrose lead to next? Is this a temporary alliance (ahem, convenient enough to keep them in the mid-card rather than the pre-show for SummerSlam) or will the part ways soon after the PPV? How long will Sheamus and Cesaro remain dominant? Is their feud with the Hardys over, and if so, is the mission for them to help revive tag team wrestling? I was so busy exploring the possibilities, briefly oblivious to the ring action, that I looked up to acknowledge Cesaro seemingly breaking character (sort of) to jump the fence, retrieve a red-white-blue beach ball, and tear it to shreds. Despite the heelish “anti-America/anti-audience” gesture, the arena popped tremendously at his assertion.

As the tension ratchets up, and exchanges pick up pace, I ask myself the one question I always default to in an Ambrose bout: How can anyone wrestle that long in blue jeans? I mean, I need to know what kind of materials that really is? How do they not rip apart every. Single. Night? Undertaker’s purple lightning? Meh. Bray Wyatt’s bayou cult? Forget about it. Kayfabe or no kayfabe, I need intel on Dean Ambrose’s magical blue jeans.

In a shocker that I somehow didn’t see coming, a tremendously choreographed closing found Rollins springboarding in to double superkick both opponents, which led to Dean’s dirty deeds on Sheamus. The two seemed too jazzed to pick up the belts. It was interesting trying to gauge an authentic interpretation. Ambrose lost the WWE Championship after last year’s SummerSlam, then found his way down to the Intercontinental title that barely made the pre-show at Wrestlemania. He’s got to feel like there’s a bit of a refresher to at least sporting a strap for the time being, especially one that seems to sit well with fans.

AJ Styles and Kevin Owens continue their SmackDown feud in match #8. As co-host Dave LaGreca acknowledged on Sirius XM’s Busted Open SummerSlam prediction show, the AJ/Owens feud should have been red hot but has instead felt coldly flat since its inception. I agree. Special guest referee Shane McMahon is meant to add some heat, but it’s almost like a Wrestlemania echo in that AJ is so friggin’ talented but can’t seem to catch a break with the perfect opponent or storyline since losing the WWE title at the Royal Rumble. The two do their best to win back an emotionally spent crowd, especially fans no doubt sitting on their hands waiting for both Nakamura’s entrance and the Universal title fatal four-way. After a plethora of near finishes and quasi-interferences with ref Shane (who is sweating like a stuffed pig selling a lower back injury), AJ retains his US Championship before yet another in-PPV commercial break.

And now for a brief message from our sponsor.

It might be the perfect place to pause and suggest the ecstasy of allowing just enough of a time delay prior to starting any LIVE contemporary marathon programming like a Sunday Night Football, the Olympics, or a WWE mega-event like Wrestlemania. Such is the beautiful digital age we live in, a post-VCR high definition experience cemented by the convenience of streaming services and the advent of DVR. The down side, however, is that the later one starts, the longer it drags on. And if, say, you’re a person writing about the content as you work through it, fast-forwarding even the smaller breaks is a hit/miss opportunity.

Main Event, or as they say, Multicultural Synergistic Convergence

I don’t want to begrudge main event #1 in the least bit. As critical as I can be, and as deliberately global-focused as it can seem, I definitely applaud the mixed culture focus for the WWE Championship. I would like to suggest that this is the first International-versus-International bout for the elite belt in WWE’s history. In more product placement, the SmackDown commentators take their own bait and mention the supposed “front page” of the arts section of the New York Times, featuring coverage of SummerSlam in some capacity, and perhaps a commentary on “the artist” persona loosely attached to Nakamura.

On the other hand, Jinder Mahal is coded as Indian-Other, in case it isn’t clear from the Taj Mahal backdrop, Indian pop-theme music, and Singh Brothers’ entourage in tow. Either way, Jinder (albeit of Canadian heritage) is at least fresh on the eyes and completely jacked. Perhaps he and Rusev–-former pals on RAW that each took a noted hiatus—have exchanged training regimens.

There’s a real crackle in the air for this championship. The audience seems to feel it, which goes against WWE’s normal preference of a White savior figure always in the title picture. Nakamura clearly earns the audience’s favor, with “Na-ka-mu-ra!” chants flowing in and out of earshot. This matchup is a rarity where I had to force myself to put the computer down and simply enjoy the performance onscreen. The encounter is by far Nakamua’s best match since coming up to the main roster from NXT. Just in time. Likewise, Jinder’s rise to the top from being on the low end of squash matches was meteoric. But he seems comfortable here in this role. In what has become a fan-favorite moment at PPVs, Shinsuke lays waste to the Singh Brothers, but in a downright shocker, this leaves Nakamura open to “the modern day Maharaja’s” finisher. One-two-three and Mahal retains his title, handing Nakamura his first “official” WWE singles loss. Wow.

Retro 80s Dream Match Reaches Nirvana

Is it too early to call this SummerSlam’s best main event ever? It’s hard to recall a final match where every participant qualifies at “monster” status. In a true throwback to the anabolic era in WWE history, this main event received the strongest build up between both brands. And rightly so. Up-and-coming fan favorite Braun Strowman enters first to a mediocre pop compared to the gushing applause he gets every Monday night. Joe enters second to a bit more fanfare. It’s hard to say which of the two main event newcomers are most popular as underdogs here. Legacy wrestler Roman Reigns, the only face technically, enters to a full-bodied serenade of boos throughout the arena. Reigns walks down unfazed before Brock Lesnar completes the pre-bout entrances to a moderate mixed reception. The crowd seems a touch quiet (muted in post-production perhaps) and, while it’s completely understandable, it’s also a bit of a letdown. They should be absolutely psyched.

Corey Graves assures us, “We are not on Skull Island,” just as Michael Cole remarks the combined weight of the entrants exceeds “1,000 pounds.” Bring it. Once within the ring, all parties stand corner to corner squaring each other up while a second full-roster introduction is decreed. This time the crowd starts to amp up considerably, and before long, the audience in attendance becomes fully immersed in this strong man spectacular.

The initial bell leads to a brief burly man brawl. The combatants lay into one another, beefy fisticuffs into hardened flesh. The match later diverges into the outskirts around the ring apron, but not before the crowd is treated to several epic square-offs interchanging focal opponents. This is a goosebumps match that goes well over Brock’s notoriously short average. Lesnar and Reigns briefly replay their underrated Wrestlemania XXXI encounter to the crowd’s delight. The tension escalates between interruptions and then dissipates after an outside spear sends them both through the guard wall. It is fantastic watching this many big men move so fast in rhythm with one another.

Quickly the crowd gets behind and continues to root for monster heel Strowman. The response to the greenest of competitors here is entirely noteworthy. While a member of the Wyatt Family, Strowman became a bit of a gag with his silly facial expressions, but in the last year he’s worked as hard as anyone in the company to improve at his craft and develop a memorable persona. In a skirmish outside the ring, perhaps the highpoint of the match, Strownman picks up Brock Lesnar for a running powerslam that transitions into a flip onto (and through) the first of three announce tables. The crowd goes nuts and Strowman rides his adrenaline through a second even more devastating table squash. With “the Beast” Lesnar reeling on his back, Strowman actually hooks his second running powerslam, which lands awkwardly into what I might describe as a kind of summersault spear. Both competitors look spent, each gushing sweat at this point early on. However, the crowd chants “One more time! One more time!” and while it would be fair enough for Reigns or Joe to intervene, Braun lifts the third announce table up and onto Brock, and arguably elevates his own career at this moment.

To suggest Braun went over on his three equals is an understatement. He proved himself in spades and worked in the most offense on his opponents. Strowman kept the energy of the match high for the audience, which is key, and seemed to triple if not quadruple Brock’s average ring time in the process. This is saying something. While Strowman was already gaining popularity and growing momentum in the months before—what with beating Reigns like a ragdoll for much of the summer—he seemed to come into his own on the SummerSlam stage, his first major PPV main event.

As a critical takeaway, one questions whether WWE did the right strategic thing by having Brock ultimately (but barely) retain, or if they have yet again hesitated to pull the trigger at the right time. Stalling momentum killed Reigns in the lead up to Wrestlemania XXX. By not winning that year’s Royal Rumble, the company lost its opportunity for a true super baby face to emerge. By the time they course corrected the following year, fans were over such overt face-fawning product placement. Arguably, this was the night to take a gamble.

In my opinion, there was no scenario (Shield reunion or otherwise) in which Reigns winning would work. Joe could have been a slick way to go for the fall, but his performance here was flat and at times absent altogether. Brock was the safe keeper, although also a gamble if rumors of his return to MMA and UFC are authentic. Strowman, having recently recovered from major surgery in record time, was the big bet. The crowd was ready and his Monday night presence has been consistently strong and welcomed by audiences.

But this is a business, after all, and SummerSlam is now an international commodity. Brock Lesnar looked like the New England Patriots of late, squeaking out one final championship when it finally seemed impossible. The two deserve close comparison indeed. I wonder if the WWE has recruited any of the NFL’s staff writers?

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