Well, the “biggest event of the summer” has arrived, and WWE has taken over Brooklyn for the fourth consecutive year. WWE’s SummerSlam is one of the WWE’s “Big Four” (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, Survivor Series) pay-per-views, and each year it’s being hyped as bigger and bigger, which is made evident as the show gets longer and longer.
This is usually the point in the season where the WWE starts their long-term storylines for WrestleMania, and it employs the following plot devices a majority of the time:
A return of a Superstar in action we haven’t seen in a good while.
Some type of swerve, shock, etc. involving the main event or another title match.
The eventual breakout star for the next year’s WrestleMania suffers some sort of injustice.
One of the matches of the card that the IWC (Internet Wrestling Community) is waiting for with bated breath ends up being as exciting as a wet firework.
A celebrity from popular culture gets involved with the action.
I won’t analyze the preshow, because seven hours is a lot to be sitting for, but I will be covering the main card. Instead of using the five-star rating scale, I will give the matches a 1 (okay, go grab another slice of pizza), 2 (Not bad, beat expectations and was able to keep a viewer’s attention throughout the match) or a 3 (Wow, I remember why I fell in love with wrestling in the first place) count.
Rollins (nice homage to Thanos with the outfit) and Ambrose come out to a big pop. Seth has been carrying Raw since WrestleMania 34 and has elevated the Intercontinental Championship into many a main event on Raw this past year. The show kicks off with two of the best in-ring performers to get the people out of their seats. Lots of teases between Ambrose and McIntyre while the match goes back and forth in the ring. Lots of high spots here, but a nice flow to the match. Seth gets busted open, but ends up taking the title home.
Both teams come out to decent crowd reaction after the previous match pulled a lot of emotion out of the crowd. Maybe the New Day’s gimmick is getting stale and we’re waiting for the eventual discord/heel turn for the group, but the whole “we’ve done everything except beat the repackaged Wyatt family” angle doesn’t have me sitting with clasped hands watching this slow-paced match. It ends mercifully with a DQ win by the New Day after they were accosted with rubber mallets. Yes, you read that right.
After months of the cat-and-mouse game between WWE’s next big Goliath and one of the best heels on either show, this match made viewers wonder what will happen here. A squash match? Some goofy technicality that causes Strowman to lose? A returning best friend in Sami Zayn? Strowman doesn’t need the briefcase to be a credible challenger, but Owens with a briefcase offers so many possibilities. Owens took some major bumps here and, while this was a squash match, should we really be pulling for the bully? Strowman made Owens look like a jobber, and it will be interesting if Braun cashes in later on in the show.
Is this when Becky Lynch finally gets that elusive title? Or does WWE keep Charlotte Flair in the title talk for months to come? It seems like Carmella is just an afterthought here. Charlotte and Becky did most of the in-ring work here, with the “best friends put at odds” in play here. After various near fall for Lynch, Flair comes out on top, earning her spot as the top female on Smackdown once again. The crowd went wild after Becky’s heel turn, and one can hope this turns into a great program for the rest of the calendar year between these two women pioneers.
Two of the most talented workers in the company are going head to head in this mid-card match. This match is a far cry from their TNA days. Having A.J.’s family at ringside was a nice touch and brought some real emotional investment in this match that should be a solid match technically. And it was. Pulling in AJ’s family for the big mental breakdown at the end for Joe’s DQ win brought in the all-too vaunted blurred kayfabe to end it. A.J. walking off into the crowd with his family was a unique ending.
Cue up the digs on the hometown crowd from Elias. After breaking his guitar and a lively and vocal reaction from the Brooklyn faithful, he walks off in a huff. I’m not sure what this was going to accomplish other than a restroom break.
A match eight years in the making and one that features some solid microphone work leading up this between an all-time fan favorite against arguably the top heel in the company, this was a match that could offer up some juicy possibilities. A seemingly split crowd was into this match from the outset. After a war of attrition, some old-fashioned “foreign object in the heel’s hand from his accomplice” sealed the deal for the Miz. It was very nice of Daniel Bryan to put the Miz over. Let’s hope this storyline gets a conclusive ending.
The classic “David vs. Goliath” storyline, this match was just thrown in as a filler for the card. It’s a shame, because after reinventions for both characters, each one seems to be an afterthought in WWE’s title plans. It’s been a long time since Finn was the first Universal Champion and his talents have been on the shelf, either through booking or injury, since then. The “Demon King” entrance was a nice touch, and while it’s great to see Finn take the role of champion for the LGBTQ community, the red and black face paint give him a different dimension and depth to his character. A quick squash by Balor ended this and one can hope we see the red and black facepaint in the title picture.
Two fan favorites here that are not the best on the microphone, but are pure magic in the ring, with Randy Orton slithering (pun intended) in the background, you just knew that this match wouldn’t have a decisive finish. A quick pace to this match and lots of aerial action defined this match, but its placement on the card didn’t help a tired crowd that sat through three hours of Summer Slam already. After previously failing as a main eventer, Nakamura gutted out the win despite Hardy’s best efforts. Orton made his appearance at the end, making sure this dance will go one a little longer.
This was inevitably going to be Rousey’s, arguably the greatest female combat sports athlete ever, and destined to take away the title from the best current female heel.
This was a quick display and booked as a squash. It’s going to be a while before someone takes the belt off of her, as it should be. She’s a believable dominant force and with Brock Lesnar leaving the company, her credibility will be key for the Women’s Division going forward.
Smarks’ heads must have exploded when this match was finalized. On one hand, you’ve got Roman Reigns, the next chosen face of the company who is divisive among the WWE Universe. Many folks didn’t want Reigns to win, but if he did get his preordained coronation as the Universal Championship, it means the main title being featured weekly once again.
On the other hand, Brock Lesnar, the champion that makes as many appearances as Sasquatch, may have the credibility as the champion, but has fallen out of favor with the fans due to his perceived lack of care for weekly competition. Not competing every week makes the championship belt on the company’s flagship show seems like a novelty. Every champion before him, if they were able to, competed every week on televised and non-televised events. Lesnar has made it very clear that he only works when the money is there. He is also leaving to go back to UFC to challenge Daniel Cormier for its top belt, so in keeping with time-honored traditions of dropping the belt before leaving the company. He surely couldn’t win, could he?
Enter Braun Strowman and his Money in the Bank briefcase, averting a booking travesty and sitting at ringside awaiting the winner. It was unique way to get fans into the match instead of subjecting them to Lesnar-Reigns IV. Thanks to some shrewd booking, Reigns got his win thanks to Lesnar being preoccupied with Strowman. The win let all three men involved look strong, and hopefully we will get a championship match from week to week from now on.
Overall, this was a pay-per-view that tried to keep adjusting the pace, but is not one that I would recommend to anyone on a Trans-Atlantic flight with five hours to kill. Now with Lesnar and his contract gone, hopefully WWE creative makes the Universal title the featured attraction on Raw again. The company is moving forward with Reigns and Rousey as its faces on Raw, and Styles and Flair on Smackdown, for better or worse. TWO COUNT OVERALL
There is a popular meme within circles of the Internet Wrestling Community showing a still of Vince McMahon during the Stone Cold Podcast that aired on December 1st, 2014. Unlike most memes, this one’s humor is not placed in the image’s matching with a silly, unattributable quote, but in its attribution of a direct quote from McMahon in that very podcast episode in which the chairman and CEO told host Stone Cold Steve Austin: “It’s not about what I want. Ever. It’s all about what the audience wants. I’m a pretty good listener.”
The humor here stems from the fact that many fans of professional wrestling, and fans of the WWE brand (affectionately corporatized as the “WWE Universe”) specifically, believe McMahon’s claim to be a bald-faced lie. This belief has appeared to see some substantiation in the three years since the airing of that interview, as fan support for many performers has seemed to fall on deaf ears in favor of more corporately groomed and demographically aimed superstars and narratives. This past year of WWE programming may be the most damning evidence yet in legitimizing this criticism.
This past Sunday night’s Clash of Champions pay-per-view did little to dissuade this perception of the current WWE product. While the show may have presented relatively big wins for favorites of the wrestling community like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens and AJ Styles, as well as having built momentum in victory for Mojo Rawley, the booking of the event tended to overshadow or undermine what could otherwise be understood as shining moments given other narrative contexts.
Rawley’s win was delegated to a short pre-show match, a spot that has showcased some great work in the past, but remains nonetheless shrouded in the stigma of not actually being on the pay-per-view.
Zayn and Owens’s victory would traditionally carry more weight given its (seeming) position as the climax to a long-burning storyline with Shane McMahon, but the match and performers played more as set pieces for yet another authority figure drama between the two special guest referees, McMahon and Daniel Bryan.
The women were mostly an afterthought, despite the infusion of the Riott Squad to the division.
Lastly, AJ Styles’s retaining of the WWE championship was soured before the match even began thanks to its booking as yet another nobody-asked-for-this style of showcase for Jinder Mahal. This all may matter little to the casual fan of WWE programming, but these issues are indicative of the problems that have been apparent with the WWE product in 2017, and they highlight a lack of audience awareness.
Perhaps the largest issue the WWE has had in recent years is the negative fan reactions to those performers they have chosen to showcase, or push. This is no more apparent than with Roman Reigns, who, despite being positioned as the company’s top babyface, receives consistent, almost unanimous, negative reactions from live crowds. Reigns has consistently, almost defiantly, been positioned as the company’s poster boy, being presented as the center of their weekly programming and promotional materials for years, including performing in the main event of Wrestlemania for the past three years (and possibly a fourth year with the forthcoming Wrestlamania 34). Even so, fans have vehemently voiced their dislike of Reigns’s positioning within the WWE landscape, booing and jeering the wrestler with the mere mention of his name.
This would seem to give credence to the perception of Vince McMahon’s podcast statement as a falsehood, but the fan reactions to Reigns fail to correlate with the economics of merchandise sales. According to an April 2017 edition if the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Roman Reigns is the top-selling “full-time” superstar in WWE’s wide range of branded merchandise – John Cena is still the over-all top seller, but he has transitioned to being a part-time talent (“This Week in WWE Biz”).
Since any serious business would sooner listen to consumers’ wallets than consumers’ arena chants, Reigns’ position atop the WWE megastructure, despite consistent boos, is easily understood. Moreover, the negative reactions to Reigns have far more to do with the forced booking of the performer and the perception of him as a hand-picked, underserving corporate representative than they do with his actual performance, as crowds tend to react positively to the man between bells.
The forced booking and promotion that has characterized Reigns’ career thus far has been put into overdrive this year with the ascension of two other talents. The first is the Raw brand’s Braun Strowman, who fans began the year viewing as yet another corporate pet project but have since thrown their full support behind thanks to more careful booking and storytelling as well as the man’s observable attempts to improve as an all-around performer, putting on exciting and diverse matches with all of his opponents and creating a character with an aura to which fans are attracted. The same positives cannot be said about the other major project in WWE this year – that of the rise of Jinder Mahal not just to the top of the card, but to a six-month reign with what many perceive as the most important title in the history of professional wrestling, the WWE championship.
Sunday’s Clash of Champions marked Mahal’s sixth time being featured in a marquee match on pay-per-view and his third time in the main event proper at one of these events. All of these matches have been contested for the WWE championship. These statistics are in many ways shocking considering Mahal’s position in the company before Wrestlemania 33, held on April 2nd, 2017. Before that event, Mahal was no more than a jobber, a performer whose primary duty is to lose to established and rising talents. At Wrestlemania 33 he was inexplicably featured in one of the final two spots of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, despite barely having a presence on WWE television since his return to the company in July of the previous year.
Mahal lost the battle royal to Mojo Rawley, and many assumed he was just used as fodder to put over Rawley and play up a gimmick which saw Mahal goad and ultimately be attacked by New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is the real-life friend of Rawley’s and was sitting ringside during the match. On the following night’s edition of Raw, it seemed as though Mahal would be back in his role as jobber, losing in very short order to Finn Balor.
However, over the two weeks that followed Wrestlemania 33, Mahal was drafted to the Smackdown Live brand and became the victor of a six-pack challenge to name the number one contender to the WWE championship, which he would go on to win from Randy Orton at the Backlash pay-per-view on May 21.
Mahal’s victory and title reign were largely unprecedented within the history of WWE, drawing comparisons to Stan Stasiak’s nine-day transitional reign in 1973. Again, the WWE seemed to lack an ear for what fans wanted, because, to put it frankly, no one was asking for more Jinder Mahal, much less Jinder Mahal, WWE champion. While some fans and analysts were supportive of the decision to make Mahal champion, spurred on by a desire for fresh faces and causing the hashtag #DontHinderJinder to trend on Twitter, others were skeptical or outright angry about Mahal’s almost instantaneous movement from jobber for lower-card talents to holder of the most prestigious title in the business. Often thought of as a reward for the industry’s top performers, Mahal’s positioning was perceived far less as a culmination of years of hard work or possession of world-class talent than as an abrupt anomaly that occurred for purely capitalist reasons.
Reports began to be published stating that Mahal’s title win and repositioning as a featured part of WWE television was an attempt to grow the company’s audience in India, a market they have had in sight for years. An investor presentation dated December 2015 calls India an international revenue stream that “represents significant opportunity” (Investor Presentation 27), and an earnings press release for the first quarter of 2017 quotes Vince McMahon from a shareholders’ meeting, saying “As we leverage continuing innovation to extend our reach in India, China and around the world, we are confident that the enduring and increasing global power of our brands will provide a solid foundation for long-term growth” (WWE Reports First Quarter 2017 Results 2). While fans of the product can speculate on the reasoning behind the company’s continued support of Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman as corporate mascots (often citing the company and McMahon’s affinity for physical aesthetics in its top performers), documents like these fiscal reports offer something substantial for critics to explain the teleporter-like rise of Jinder Mahal.
Where Mahal differs the most from his Raw counterparts is in the perception of his actual performance, both in his delivery of promos and the quality of his matches. As I noted above, negative reactions to Reigns tend not to reflect in fans’ opinions of his in-ring work, which often results in high-quality matches, and the quick turnaround in opinion of Strowman stems from the observable growth of his talents in very short order, going from a sloppy, incredibly green (inexperienced) rookie to an intriguing and exciting character capable of high-quality matches in the span of just two years. Also unlike Reigns, Mahal’s continued position at the top of the card and repeated wins against more established, more over, and more talented performers like Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, and Randy Orton cannot be explained by merchandise sales – as of this writing, WWEShop.com features a total of five items for Mahal, three of which are men’s, women’s, and youth’s versions of the same t-shirt design.
Despite what seems to be the company line, that Mahal is a hard worker who deserves his spot, the jobber-who-would-be-champion’s in-ring work has not seemed to have met the standards of the current WWE main event scene according to its viewers. This is reflected in the inconsistent ratings for Smackdown Live this year, which saw its lowest viewership of the year just two weeks after Mahal’s title win (“WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon”), and has struggled to remain consistent in its viewership ever since.
My own take on Mahal’s in-ring work, which has been echoed by fans and critics alike, is that he seems to work only one match, which seems to be a small variation on the first match that most developing professional wrestlers learn: lock-up, babyface shines, heel takes over, babyface gets a hope spot, repeat hope spots until it’s time to take it home, finish with either the heel cheating to win or he “slips on a banana peel” and loses.
This is the structure used predominately by new performers and for short matches, but Mahal seems to apply it no matter the narrative context, match length, or position on the card, indicating either a refusal or inability to adapt his in-ring work for different levels and situations of storytelling. His limited and basic offense only furthers the issue. This is a matter not helped by the booking of his championship reign, where every match ended the same way – with his opponent getting distracted by his Singh Brothers lackeys and then literally stumbling into Mahal’s finishing maneuver, the Khallas, which Mahal seems to only be able to hit without botching about half the time. While Mahal’s move set, offense, and character may have been passable in another era of the WWE product, it becomes a glaring issue in a time where even casual viewers, thanks to a plethora of avenues across the internet, are far more informed about the product and the art of professional wrestling than the fanbase has ever been before; Mahal’s work just does not hold up to the fluidity and creativeness reflected in the work of his peers, and it is that fluidity and creativeness that fans have come to expect.
What further hinders Jinder Mahal is the rote and tired booking of his character. A rehash of gimmicks played by earlier wrestlers of Indian descent, like Tiger Jeet Singh and his son Tiger Ali Singh, Mahal’s current gimmick is not only derivative, but, like his offense, the character is outdated. The crux of the character’s motivation relies on the dated notions of national pride and racial prejudice. In what quickly became the only note on the character’s scale, Mahal repeatedly cut promos claiming that the audience was against him due to his race and ethnicity, using points of racism and nationalism as the reasoning for the fans’ negative reactions despite no indication from WWE viewers of xenophobia toward Indians or otherwise.
This narrative device reached its breaking point in Mahal’s feud with Shinsuke Nakamura. Not only were the claims that the WWE’s audience was racist undermined by the fans’ rabid support of Nakamura, a Japanese performer, but the character’s, and subsequently the WWE’s, attempts to make this point resulted in a series of racially charged promos by Mahal in which the scripted segment saw the WWE champion mock Nakamura through the use of racial stereotypes, including making fun of Nakamura’s physical appearance and accent, prompting the live audience to chant “That’s too far!” The claim of the company was that these promos were meant to show the hypocritical nature of the Mahal character, but the character’s disturbing revelry in his delivery and the reactionary response to this misguided attempt at character development proved far more detrimental to the product, resulting in some negative press from major new organizations, including The Washington Post.
The point of all of this is to highlight what seems to be a tone deafness that has been apparent in the WWE for some time. Not only did the elevation and focus on Mahal have a negative response in domestic viewership through live audience reactions, a drop in live attendance sales, and loss in television ratings, but the WWE’s market in India has failed to expand as a result of the crowning of the first WWE champion of Indian descent. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported in August that the number of WWE Network subscribers had dropped since Mahal’s coronation (“WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon”), and a two-show live event tour in India scheduled for December was reduced to a single event. While neither of these occurrences can definitively be attributed to the WWE’s booking of Mahal, it is, along with the domestic response, damning evidence against the Mahal experiment.
It also shows a lack of audience awareness by the WWE, with some outlets reporting slow ticket sales for the India tour in part because of a pricing structure significantly higher than the average cost of live sporting events in the country, and a suggestion that WWE’s 750 million social media followers in India do not necessarily translate to network subscriptions and ticket sales. It is possible that the issue with WWE in India could highlight a larger issue with the company’s heavy investment in social media as its major marketing statistics tool.
The fact that the WWE chose to highlight Mahal’s ethnicity and then attach it to notions of racism and (to a lesser extent) nationalism shows a disconnect with the cultural zeitgeist in which the company exists and operates. The leaning on racial differences has come across as an easy out in the booking of Mahal, a simple motivation for the character that avoids the work that would have otherwise been necessary to build a character from jobber to champion status; the urgency and suddenness with which Mahal was made champion perhaps caused an oversimplification in the narrative construction of the character and the reasoning for his newfound answers for success.
This style of booking overlooks the fact that WWE’s audience is far different from the heyday of the late 80s and early 90s where American patriots ran roughshod over evil foreigners, and, despite what some disgruntled and lapsed fans insist, the current WWE audience does not want the rampant violence, misogyny, and bigotry that defined the boom known as the “Attitude Era.” The current viewer of WWE’s product, most of whom fall within the “millennial” categorization that McMahon derides as under-ambitious and underachieving in that same Stone Cold Podcast, are far more inclusive, accepting, and desiring of diversity and equality in the media they consume. They are also more aware of quality and artistry in both performance and product than any audience before, and the failure of the Mahal experiment is a reflection of that awareness.
That the WWE does not seem to see, or at least refuses to acknowledge, this trend in its viewership and in the culture at large is fairly shocking. It’s insistence that Mahal’s heel motivations hinge upon his racial and ethnic identities is especially surprising given the WWE’s own global expansion, which should instead see a drop in isolated patriotism and racially charged narratives. This is especially true given the turbulent cultural and political climates that have come to define 2017, especially in the United States, where concerns over the increased visibility and influence of white nationalism are at the forefront of most news days. Mahal’s presentation as a boy-who-cried-wolf racist does nothing to allay or shed light on these concerns, perhaps instead lending them credence.
With the results of the Clash of Champions pay-per-view, perhaps there is reason to believe that the WWE has taken notice to the fallout of the Mahal experiment, beginning with his loss of the WWE championship to AJ Styles and subsequent replacement in the champion vs. champion match against Brock Lesnar just before last month’s Survivor Series event. Backlash occurred with the initial announcement that Mahal would face Lesnar, with fans being relatively vociferous in their disdain at the mere idea of a match they considered to be a dud weeks before the opening bell even rang. After having Mahal sit out the Survivor Series event altogether, he was thrust back into the main event for his title rematch this past Sunday.
There was a noticeable change in the way Mahal was presented on television leading up to Clash of Champions. The race fueled rhetoric that characterized the past eight months of the character’s motivations was absent, now replaced with Mahal touting more traditional heel rhetoric, insisting that he had lost the title due to the effects of international travel and general unpreparedness and claiming that he had become WWE champion without anyone else’s help, despite the alignment in narrative with the Singh Brothers. This is a marked step away from the one note narrative that had been attached to the character since his push began, and it is one more in tune with the current climate of the WWE audience with its focus on competition and accomplishment, and on the WWE championship. Mahal’s claims still allow for the character to be presented as hypocritical without implications of either the audience or himself (and by extension, the company) as being racially motivated or prejudice.
My personal estimation of Mahal is that the performer’s in-ring skill still leave so very much to be desired, but the character work shows promise if allowed to develop outside of the tired, outdated, and inept race-centered narrative. Ending the Mahal experiment with Styles’ decisive win on Sunday and moving the character away from the main event and the WWE title should give it room to breathe and develop in ways that the forced rise and stubborn title reign would not.
If that is the case, then Mahal’s Clash of Champions loss could possibly be understood as the official closing of a year in which WWE programming was decidedly not “about what the fans want” as McMahon claims. Clash of Champions, for all of its problems, could go down as marking the start of a more aware WWE, in both audience and cultural awareness.
Hopefully that means we’re gifted more Tye Dillinger, but more than likely we’ll be force fed Lesner vs. Reigns 2: The Re-Re-Re-Re-Coronation. Fingers crossed, though…
Clash of Champions 2017 Review
December 17, 2017
TD Gardens, Boston, MA
Announcers Tom Phillips, Corey Graves, Byron Saxton
US championship 3-way: Bobby Roode vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Baron Corbin (c)
The build: This match was set up two weeks ago on SmackDown when Ziggler interfered in a match between Corbin and Roode. Roode returned the favor last week on SmackDown, interfering in a Corbin/Ziggler match. The announcers question whether Ziggler deserves to be in the match, foreshadowing a potential back-door win for Ziggler.
Roode and Ziggler have ignoble history here, as they had a bad match at Hell in the Cell in October in Roode’s PPV debut in which Ziggler got entirely too much offense. Ziggler also had a bad match in which he got entirely too much offense in the debut of another former NXT champion, Shinsuke Nakamura. Nakamura had a remarkably bad match against Corbin at Battleground, meaning that two out of three combatants here have tremendous talent for snuffing out ascendant talent. Not a good omen for Roode or the show to follow.
The match: Roode is the clear face here, relishing in a full-crowd rendition of “Glorious Domination.” Though it was odd to import Roode onto SmackDown as a face, he’s making it work by trading in his heelish arrogance for a more or less straightforward plucky babyface persona. Ziggler’s doing his record-scratch anti-entrance again. Corbin gets a smattering of applause as he enters, menacing an adorable blond moppet on his way.
As they stare each other down, we get our first inanity from the booth as Saxton reminds us: “For a long time that United States championship was seen as a beacon of hope here in WWE.… But the minute Corbin won that championship, it all came to an end.” I think he was alluding to John Cena’s open challenge as a beacon of joy, but good grief. Incidentally, New Years Day will mark the 43rd anniversary of Harley Race’s inaugural U.S. championship victory in Mid-Atlantic.
Ziggler and Roode gang up on Corbin and dispose of the champ outside. They return to the ring and tease finishers. The announcers argue again whether Ziggler deserves to be in the match, leading to Corey Graves asserting: “Dolph may be the greatest in-ring performer of all time.”
Roode turns the tables on Corbin and hits a blockbuster; Roode and Ziggler take over. Roode’s middle-rope attempt at something is aborted, and Ziggler hits the fameasser. All three are finally in the ring in a rare occurrence. Roode takes out Ziggler with a uranage but walks into deep six. The crowd remains hot for Roode.
We get our first high spot of the match when they do the three-person powerbomb/superplex, with Roode eating the superplex and Corbin powerbombing Ziggler. Corbin gets near falls on both, though it would take a sports scientist to know how much additional damage the person delivering the superplex would suffer with the addition of the powerbomb. Ziggler escapes a chokeslam from Corbin, who charges into the post and takes himself out. Ziggler tunes up the band, but Roode dodges sweet hip music and gets the spinebuster. Roode goes for the glorious DDT, but Ziggler slips out and hits his own leaping DDT. Corbin returns, unsuccessfully tosses Ziggler, then charges out of the ring on a low bridge again.
Roode dodges the superkick, catapults Ziggler into the post, and hits the glorious DDT. Corbin returns, charges Roode, and gets disposed of once again (Dick Hallorann tips his hat to Corbin’s ability to intervene and immediately fail), but manages to save from outside and chokeslam Roode onto his knee, though the floor was right there. The finish comes when Corbin sets up Roode for end of days but Ziggler hits the zig zag, scoring the pin at 12:05.
What does it mean? Ziggler wins his second US championship and gets a surprising pop from the crowd. Roode would seem like the most likely contender for the belt, perhaps setting up something for Royal Rumble. Later on, Corbin vows to recapture his title and throws a tantrum backstage as the interviewer grills him about his tendency for squandering things since the failed cash-in.
Rating: *3/4. The finish was quite good and the stuff between Roode and Ziggler was fine, but once I noticed that the recurring theme of Corbin being taken out of the match, only to return and impotently be disposed of again, it became silly.
Backstage, Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon foreshadow a potential conflict that’s bound to factor into their dual-refereed match later. I find the dynamics of the whole thing interesting: the video packages are framing Shane as the virtuous babyface and Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn as the dastardly villains, but Shane’s overt vendetta against them is veering into heelish territory. Bryan, on the other hand, is teasing an alliance with Owens and Zayn, and his motives are reasonable — he claims to be protecting SmackDown’s interests by preventing Owens and Zayn from being fired by Shane in retaliation — and there’s no foreseeable way audiences are going to boo Bryan should the whole thing culminate in the rumored Shane vs. Bryan feud.
SmackDown tag team championship four-way: Aiden English & Rusev v. Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable vs. The New Day (Big E & Kofi Kingston) vs. The Usos (c)
The build: There’s not much to this one. The Usos have been doing impressive work as champs, and here are three teams to challenge them. The match rules — four men in the ring at all times, partners can only tag partners — suggests that we’re headed to planet spotfest and the Usos are unlikely to give up their titles in such an environment where chaos is prevalent but little is meaningful. We’ll see.
The match: We start by trading rollups, and everybody tags everybody, leading to some spots to the outside. Kofi falls onto Gable and Rusev; Jey planchas onto English and Big E. Jimmy goes up to follow, but Benjamin leaps up and collar suplexes him off into a near fall. New Day takes over with the unicorn stampede. Big E slings Kofi into Benjamin and Jey before Kofi eats a big kick from Rusev, who cleans house to a big “Rusev Day” chant.
From here, we settle into Benjamin and Gable working over Kofi in one half of the ring while Rusev and English control Jimmy in the other. This leads to a terminally stupid spot in which English gets Benjamin’s attention, then covers Jimmy, forcing Benjamin to kick English to break up the pin. Why in creation would one wrestler announce to another that he’s going into a prone position? Then, of course, Gable straps on the exact same invisible kick me sign and receives a stomp from Rusev because he deserves it.
Nothing of note happens until Gable heats things up with a rolling kick on Kofi, which is followed by Kofi spiking English with his sweet standing double stomp. Jey returns to the apron after conspicuously disappearing, and he and Big E tag in and clean house. The Usos start throwing superkicks.
*Moment of reviewer subjectivity* My stance: superkicks melt snowflakes because a superkick is a kick right in the face and should never not end a match. All jokes about thigh-slapping aside, a superkick is not only the finishing move of GOAT Shawn Michaels, but it looks (and, thanks to thigh slapping, sounds) like the most impactful thing you’ll see in a standard wrestling match. If we’re suspending our disbelief and viewing the match as simulacra of athletic combat, can someone explain to me how the Usos superkick the entire tag team division multiple times on a weekly basis with little impact, but Randy Orton can make people disappear from months with one kick to the head? I do not look forward to the ensuing superkick party of hostile messages from Young Bucks fans.
Anyway, the Uso superkick party ends when Gable and Benjamin cut them off, leading to some meaningful drama as Gable locks Jey in the Texas cloverleaf as Benjamin stands guard. That doesn’t last as English drops Gable with a fireman’s carry-into-two-handed chokeslam. Rusev locks in the accolade, but Big E saves and preps the midnight hour, but English saves. Rusev drops Big E with the machka kick and sinks in the accolade deep.
In comes Gable with the best sequence of the match, lifting Rusev dead weight out of a seated position and German suplexing him onto his head. Gable then gets rolling Germans on English and Big E before going after Jey. But as he bounces Jey into the Uso corner, Jimmy tags in, saves and superkicks Gable. Another superkick puts Gable down, and a big splash finishes at 12:54.
What does it mean? Despite eating the pin, Gable proved that he deserves more spotlight once again with an inspired rush to bring the match to its endgame. The Usos retain, but there wasn’t much here in terms of character, rivalry, or storyline development.
Rating: ** All four teams looked fine, and the crowd was hot for Rusev, but nobody comes out of the match better or worse in any way that will translate to anything meaningful. Those viewers who value workrate over story will like it more, but I doubt anyone will remember this match a month from now.
SmackDown women’s championship lumberjack match: Natalya vs. Charlotte Flair (c)
The build: Charlotte defeated then-champion Nattie at Hell in the Cell by DQ, then tapped out Nattie with the figure 8 for the belt on the Nov. 14 episode of SmackDown in her hometown of Charlotte. That victory made Charlotte a triple-crown winner (Raw, Smackdown, NXT) and culminated in an emotional embrace with her father Ric Flair in a rare appearance since his very public brush with death. I like Nattie and am a fan of her old-school heel shtick, but I can’t imagine she has a chance here.
Running concurrent to their feud is the introduction of the Riott Squad — Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, and Sarah Logan — which has been doing a hostile invasion angle parallel to that of Absolution on Raw. The Riott Squad has been beating up everyone, injuring Naomi and Becky Lynch, but Nattie has been wooing the rest of the roster over to curry favor and improve her odds.
The match: The lumberjacks are Naomi (back from kayfabe injury), Carmella (Money in the Bank briefcase in tow), Tamina and Lana, and the Riott Squad. Natalya and Charlotte lock up and trade elbows before Nattie is deposited outside the ring before being stomped by Naomi, as it becomes evident that the theme of the match will be the lumberjacks rather than the competitors. The announcers initiate an ongoing existential debate about the role of lumberjacks as the heels swarm Charlotte.
Nattie works over Charlotte, taunting her opponent and the audience with little reaction from a flatlining crowd. Each time Charlotte begins to get the upper hand, Natalya cuts her off and feeds her to the heels lumberjacks (i.e., everybody but Naomi — yes, there are only two virtuous women currently on SmackDown). Graves does some solid heeling from the booth, defending the heels’ aggression with Charlotte and praising their professionalism for sparing Nattie.
Shenanigans with lumberjacks continue to dominate the story of the match as in the midst of further interference Carmella teases cashing in before Riott and the other lumberjacks spill into the ring and out the other side. Charlotte moonsaults onto the pile, neutralizing the lumberjacks before Natalya sneak attacks and rolls her back into the ring. Natalya goes for the sharpshooter before Charlotte powers out and taps her out quickly to the figure 8 at 10:34.
What does it mean? Charlotte ends the feud in decisive fashion as it was clear throughout that the lumberjacks were the only thing keeping her from dominating Natalya. Nattie attempts to recoup some of her heat in a post-match interview, accusing Charlotte of using her family’s name to cut corners (hypocrisy: that’s good heeling!) and lashing out at the fans for turning their backs on her and claiming to have carried the division for ten years. She teases a Batista 2010 quitting tantrum but stops short, claiming she will “turn [her] back” on the fans and sobbing on the way out of the ring. What does it look like when an openly antagonistic heel turns her back on the audience? It’s hard to see where she goes from here, though, with no faces but Naomi left.
Rating: ** I’ll admit to being a mark for Natalya’s vintage heel machinations, and I thought the match told a good story in the ring: manipulative but inferior heel bends the rules to torment champion before virtue wins out. The ending was a foregone conclusion, though, and the action was totally sublimated to the ongoing lumberjack miasma.
Backstage, the Singh brothers stress that Jinder Mahal is “so so so confident” that he will win. We get yet another insinuation that the Singhs will not interfere, of which I’m less than optimistic. They are good in their roles, though, and one presume they’ll be meeting a terrible fate by the end of the night.
Breezango vs. The Bludgeon Brothers (c)
The build: And what a build it was. This is the long-delayed blow-off match after months of Fashion Files comedy skits that got Breezango over to a fair degree, as well as The Ascension, as comedy figures. The culprits of the Who-Trashed-the-Fashion-Police-office investigation turned out to the re-debuting Luke Harper and Erick Rowan. Breezango challenged Harper and Rowan on the go-home SmackDown, but the announcers aren’t giving the Fashion Police much of a chance, and one assumes this will be a quick dispatching.
The match: Harper smacks Breeze down as Rowan stalks Fandango. Breezango attempts to double-team Rowan to an advantage, but Harper intervenes, and he and Rowan brutalize their opponents, including a brutal double-team face smash to Breeze on the apron and a double sit-out power bomb and double crucifix slam to finish Fandango at 1:58.
What does it mean? RIP Fashion Files. Harper and Rowan promise more bludgeoning to come: “The end of the beginning”; “the beginning of the end.” The Bludgeon Brothers would appear to be ascendant in the SmackDown tag team ranks, but beyond rare cameos, it’s been over three years since Harper and Rowan were allowed anywhere near the top of the card with any consistency.
Rating: * This was a pure squash match intended to get the Bludgeon Brothers over with little regard for Breezango. I’m not sure if anyone else is enthusiastic about another Harper and Rowan push, but I’m willing to ride along. Harper is pretty great in the ring, and they’ve got a good entrance even if the giant hammers are a cartoony throwback to the Berzerker (huss!) and his ax. The journey of Braun Strowman began with squashes, too.
Backstage, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn imply that Daniel Bryan is on their side. Owens is supposed to be a smarmy heel, and he is, but he also raises several valid points that give him moral ground over Shane. Owens and Zayn remain excellent in their condescending smartass roles.
Shinsuke Nakamura & Randy Orton vs. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn (c) w/ guest referees Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan
The build: Count me as being fairly intrigued by this one, as Owens and Zayn have been the best thing about SmackDown for months (apologies to AJ Styles). Nakamura remains excellent in the role he’s allowed, and WWE continues to string us along on the silent possibility that this could lead to a Bryan match at WrestleMania (a poor, deluded, mark, this one).
Shane and Owens have been feuding for months (Shane’s refereeing cost Owens his US championship to Styles; Owens retaliated by assaulting Vince McMahon), and their blood feud only crested at their Hell in the Cell match which Zayn turned delightfully heelish and rescued KO from Shane’s death plunge off the top of the cell. Owens and Zayn interfered in the Team Raw vs. Team SmackDown main event at Survivor Series, though the hype package strategically edits out the fact that Super Shane easily fended them off before falling to Triple H. Shane was about to fire Owens and Zayn before Bryan intervened, proposing a match between Zayn and Orton. Shane continues to wear his grudge like a crown in making this match, making the stipulation that if Owens and Zayn lose, they’ll be fired from WWE.
The match: There’s a lot of star power in this match, and all six participants get decent, if underwhelming, receptions from the audience. The singalong to Nakamura’s entrance seems to perk up after the music ends. Zayn and Orton begin as Zayn heels it up by running his mouth to Orton and Shane. With the first few nearfalls it becomes clear that the referees will be the story of the match. After some awkward covers, Shane and Bryan eventually settle for cutting the ring in half, which presents an intriguing storytelling possibility: that Owens and Zayn might cut the ring in half with the goal of staying on Bryan’s side.
Finally able to proceed with the match, Zayn and Owens take over on Orton. Owens jaws at both referees, and Zayn does some trash talking but gets uppercut in the mouth for his trouble. Owens and Zayn control with quick tags and restholds before Orton gets free with a belly-to-back suplex and tags in Nakamura. Nakamura brings it with a barrage of kicks and knees on Owens. Immediately, though, the announcers siphon Nakamura’s heat by drawing attention back to the referees. Owens attempts a powerbomb out of the corner but falls prey to a triangle choke. Nakamura releases and gets distracted by the quarreling referees, walking into an Owens superkick. Zayn tags in goes for the helluva kick, charging into Nakamura’s boot but regaining control with a blue thunder bomb.
Owens sentons into Nakamura’s knees, allowing Zayn and Orton to tag in. Orton takes out Zayn with a picture-perfect top-rope superplex, but Owens pulls him out and all the action spills onto the floor where Owens drives Nakamura throw a table with a frog splash. Zayn holding Nakamura on the table by the hair was a nice touch. Back inside, Orton takes control with a snap powerslam and draping DDT on Zayn, then dropping Zayn with an RKO as Shane cheerleads. KO saves his partner by pushing Bryan onto Shane, interrupting the count. Shane berates Bryan as Orton stalks the latter in predator stance before dropping Owens with an RKO.
Zayn and Orton trade rollups before Shane refuses to count three. Shane and Bryan get into a shouting match that ends when Zayn rolls up Orton out of an RKO attempt and Bryan fast counts the pin at 21:33. Shane dives at Bryan to attempt to stop the count but is unsuccessful.
What does it mean? The feud must continue and the shades of gray get grayer. Owens and Zayn keep their jobs and gain more ammunition for their legitimate conflict with Shane as Zayn scored a clear visual pinfall that Shane blatantly refused to count. Meanwhile, the conflict between Shane and Bryan should intensify as they were at each other’s throats throughout the match. Where this goes remains to be seen, of course: will it culminate in Bryan’s return to the ring, or will we get Shane vs. Bryan’s avatar or avatar vs. avatar?
It will be interesting to see what direction they go, as something is clearly amiss in the characterizations. Shane is presumably playing face, and the packages back that up, but Shane’s behaviors are heelish in that he’s actively rooting for the demise of two employees who have clear grievances against management, whose jobs are being threatened gleefully. This all begs the question: is this another instance of WWE overestimating our capacity to identify with the McMahons (Exhibit A: WrestleMania’s Shane vs. Styles match), or is this part of a greater swerve that will turn Shane heel? What would that mean for Bryan? I get cold sweats at the possibility of another season in hell of McMahons as heel authority figures, and I’m not sure I’d live that again even if it guaranteed a return to the ring for Bryan.
As for Orton and Nakamura, this did very little. They were nothing more than avatars for Shane McMahon, and they didn’t look particularly good here.
Rating: *3/4. This was all angle, and though the match would appear to move the storyline forward in its escalation of the conflict between Shane and Bryan, the match itself didn’t help any of the wrestlers and all the in-ring storytelling was hamstrung by the inevitable refereeing shenanigans that would bring on the finish. Outside of one flourish from Nakamura, everything that happened before the finish was meaningless and heatless. The split-ring refereeing premise was potentially intriguing but didn’t factor into the finish.
WWE championship: Jinder Mahal w/ the Singh Brothers vs. AJ Styles (c)
The build: OK, we’ve got to talk about this Jinder Mahal thing. In many ways, the Jinder experiment is the story of the year in WWE, as his instant elevation was at once bold — we’ve been begging WWE for new stars, which they’ve struggled to do since the days of Batista and Cena — and an utter slog on the program. Jinder’s 170-day foreign heel revival reign was part nostalgia, part retrograde. It raised questions about whether the days of bulging muscles over in-ring talent were back, whether globalization and international-market capitalism mattered over in-ring storytelling — and just where in the heck this was all leading?
It seemed assured that Jinder’s reign would lead through the fabled India tour (which ended up being a single show), but Jinder dropped the championship to Styles on Nov. 7 in Manchester in an ultra-rare overseas title switch. In a rare last-minute change of direction, the title switch canceled the advertised Mahal vs. Brock Lesnar champion-versus-champion match at Survivor Series, resulting in (one would imagine) a much, much better Lesnar vs. Styles match that ended up being the best world championship match in WWE of the year. Mahal jobbed to Triple H in India, sending up signals that the Jinder experiment could end with a loss in his rematch with Styles. But the specter of Mahal reclaiming the title from Styles at Clash and holding it until a rumored match with John Cena at WrestleMania persisted.
Which is all to say that the possibility of another Jinder title reign was a seriously agonizing thought to me as I prepared to watch this show. I’ll declare here two subjective viewpoints: (1) I thought Jinder was showing progress as a character from the start of the experiment, and (2) Styles should have never dropped the championship in the first place. Everything with the WWE championship since Styles dropped the belt to Cena at Royal Rumble — Cena’s useless one-month reign before dropping it to Bray Wyatt in a multi-man match that easily could have been accomplished with Styles as champ, Wyatt’s embarrassing feud with Orton that gave us the House of Horrors match, Orton’s repetitive feud with Mahal (Punjabi prison match!), and Mahal’s demoralizing feud with Nakamura — has been negative for SmackDown and a degradation of the promotion’s most prestigious championship.
Those who read Wrestlecrap handed the Gooker — Wrestlecrap’s award for worst thing of the year — to House of Horrors, but to me the worst thing in wrestling this year was Jinder’s overtly racist promos against Nakamura (https://deadspin.com/fans-chant-that-s-too-far-during-racist-wwe-promo-1818579727). Check that: the promos weren’t the worst thing; the worst thing was Jinder being proven right in his racism by beating Nakamura clean.
For the record, I think racism can work in wrestling because, to me, wrestling storylines are most potent when they capture real-life concerns and anxieties. Throughout wrestling history, we’ve had racist characters — e.g., Colonel DeBeers, Ted DiBiase in his Mid-South feud with Junkyard Dog, the Fabulous Freebirds — and wrestling fans booed them and cheered the characters of color, which crafts the message that racism is bad. But there are times when racist characters win: Triple H’s notorious win over Booker T at WrestleMania 19; JBL’s championship with over Eddie Guerrero, and when the character goes over the other, it justifies that character’s motivations.
Thus, WWE could have told a powerful story by establishing Jinder’s heel credentials by resorting to the racism he previously decried, then having Nakamura kinshasa his head off (ideally with an exaggerated bow) in the name of justice. Instead, WWE not only put Mahal over, utterly kneecapping Nakamura, but put him over clean by having the alleged “artist” slip on a proverbial banana peel, stumbling like a klutz into a khallas. And that was the moment I was off the Jinder train forever. The storyline wasn’t his fault, but the bad, repetitive matches are anti-justification for such putrid storytelling.
All that said, the pre-match hype package, featuring sit-down interviews with Styles and Mahal cut together, did a great job setting the stage for a big-fight feel.
The match: The crowd is into Styles, but Jinder has a significant contingent of vocal supporters out there, too. Mahal establishes his size advantage early, but Styles takes him down and begins working the left leg in preparation for the calf crusher. Jinder cuts him off and begins to work on Styles’ ribs, dropping him across the top rope; slamming him into, then over, the barricade; and dropping him onto a table. Working the body is classic in-ring psychology, and I like two things about this part of the match: (1) Jinder’s offense isn’t exciting, but everything he does looks like it hurts; (2) Jinder frequently sells the left leg even on offense. Styles bumps like a pinball and sells like a champ for Mahal. Ten minutes in and Jinder is in control and heeling it up.
Mahal goes to the middle rope and eats a dropkick to give Styles breathing room, but the Singh brothers are jawing and Styles goes for the phenomenal forearm too early, allowing Mahal to go back to the ribs with a fireman’s carry into a gutbuster. Mahal’s hubris gets the best of him again, as Styles slips out of a superplex and drops him in the electric chair. They go back and forth with Styles selling his ribs but persevering, unable to deadlift Mahal for the Ushigoroshi neckbreaker but succeeding with the help of Mahal’s momentum off the ropes.
Mahal fights out of the Styles clash by forcing him into the corner and then dropping him straight down on the ribs. Styles gets a northern lights suplex for a nearfall, but Mahal takes control again with a Samoan drop. “You can’t not be impressed by Jinder Mahal tonight,” Graves says earnestly, and I’m inclined to agree. Heels don’t have to be exciting on offense when they’re putting the faces in peril. Mahal sets up Styles for the khallas but eats the Pele kick; Styles goes against for the clash but ends up eating a big boot in the exchange. Mahal sets up a khallas off the middle rope, but Styles counters with the Pele and dumps Mahal to set up the Superman 450 splash; he hits but the Singhs pull Mahal out for their first direct interference 20 minutes in. In the grand tradition of destroying the Singh brothers with impunity, Styles disposes of them with the forearm to Sanil and a Styles clash on the floor to Samir.
We move to our endgame as Styles overshoots the forearm and takes a knee to the back of the head, which Mahal follows with the khallas. But before the sun extinguishes and our dark night of the soul returns, Styles kicks out at the last moment. That wakes the crowd up, and Jinder’s out of ideas. Mahal then teases a Styles clash of his own, but AJ rolls him into the calf crusher. Mahal struggles to the ropes, but Styles rolls him back to the middle, and Mahal taps at 22:57 to send the fans home happy and end our long national nightmare.
What does it mean? This presumably ends the Jinder Mahal experiment at the top of the card, and though he’ll remain in the upper midcard for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to know what to expect from him. Guys who had similar trolling reigns — Honkey Tonk Man, JBL — stuck around for years. One avenue might be the US title: perhaps Ziggler drops to Roode at the Rumble to set up Roode/Mahal at WrestleMania? The US title is logically where Mahal should have begun anyway.
As for Styles, everything seems fresh and new again, as this is Styles’ first world title reign as a face. They could go Owens, perhaps backed by Bryan with Shane in Styles’ corner — though we really don’t need any incarnation of WrestleMania 2000. They could go with the Rumble winner from either brand. Or, if Vince really checks out to focus on bringing back the XFL (there’s a sentence for our times), we can fantasize about the Styles/Nakamura clash they teased at Money in the Bank. They could re-import Chris Jericho after Wrestle Kingdom 12 to try out his vicious heel act that’s been tearing it up with Kenny Omega: we just saw it two years ago at WrestleMania, but why not as a challenger along the way given the exemplary heel work Jericho’s doing in Japan? A sleeper short-term option could be Corbin: the announcers framed Corbin’s taking the US title from AJ Styles as redemption for his failed Money in the Bank cash-in, so they could try to recreate that magic.
Rating: ***1/4. This was the best Mahal match I’ve seen thanks to good psychology from both wrestlers. AJ remains the best in-ring performer in the company. The right man went over cleanly, and it finally feels safe to breathe easy about the main event of SmackDown pay per views.
Final grade: C-. Traditionally December pay per views are among the worst on the calendar, and this one lived down to that overall with only one above-average match and yet another episode of McMahon inanity eclipsing the in-ring talent. I think the Jinder dragon is finally slain after months of bad matches, repetitive tropes, and occasionally racism, and I would have gladly sat through Heroes of Wrestling 2017 if that’s the pot of gold at the end.
With Survivor Series headed to Houston, WWE once again experiments with the traditional team-up versus team-up formula. A couple of years ago, WWE completely abandoned the traditional four-on-four tag team format when the abrupt injury to WWE heel champion Seth Rollins led to a rushed together tournament designed to put the main title strap on a struggling Roman Reigns. Fast-forward two years and Reigns, for better or worse, still struggles to generate mass appeal due to his “oversaturation” as top babyface for the company. And while Reigns may have headlined a “too sweet” Shield reunion as co-main event, recent illness helped create a last-minute shuffle of the Survivor Series card from the top down.
Last year, Survivor Series capitalized on the resurgence of the “brand split” storyline, pitting red brand (RAW) against blue brand (SmackDown). The five-on-five bout generated a decent amount of heat and placed several new and old superstars and rivals into an ultimately entertaining assembly. This year continued the brand vs. brand formula while upping the invasion-themed ante and clearly setting up possible interactions that could springboard the roster toward the Royal Rumble and the “Road to Wrestlemania,” as it is annually referenced.
In the spirit of WWE’s preferred new formula, our Survivor Series coverage playfully adheres to the pseudo-division of brand representation. Each of our contributors offers commentary and feedback, recorded in a combination of pre-event, in media res, and directly following Survivor Series. To match the WWE’s dualistic theme, we split commentary into the two brands, with Garret (GC) covering from a slightly RAW perspective and Kristine (KW) representing the SmackDown flair. Our goal is to compliment WWE’s preference for genre admixture while hopefully presenting readers with an asynchronous companion read to accompany future Survivor Series streams.
KW: One has to wonder with how poorly the WWE has booked Matt Hardy post-WrestleMania tag titles run if he and Jeff were just brought in to cool their competition elsewhere. Elias is a decent heat magnet but both these guys deserve a better build and a better place on the card.
GC: I think this run for the Hardy’s will ultimately end with a “What if?” asterisk beside it. The duo arguably stole the show with the pop of the night at WrestleManiaXXXIV, capping off their epic year wrestling as Broken Matt and Brother Nero. That TNA can spike and decline so severely so quickly speaks to the volatility of the wrestling scene at large, particularly outside WWE’s normative formulas and corporate structures. My feeling is that Jeff’s shoulder surgery sidelined any larger role the brothers will have, and we can anticipate an unceremonious Monday Night exit a la The Dudley Boys before them.
KW: I’m fearful you’re right, but hopeful you’re wrong, as the copyright battle continues over the Broken gimmick in the courts. I think if they time it right, Jeff heals up, they could hit the ground running with it in WWE, but I fear they are going to be reduced to a nostalgia act. Shield, take notice. Truthfully, I am amazed that Anthem is still able to put up a legal defense given the circumstances of their business but admittedly I don’t know all the details behind it.
GC: That is funny. You don’t know what corporate parent you will be sponsored as from week to week on Impact, and the only place they can consistently deliver appears to be in court. “Delete!” indeed.
KW: I’ll give credit to both of these folks for getting the cruiserweight division off life support. Enzo works as a heel and keeping him in the division while Cass heals works ok. This division still needs a lot of work before it’s ready to stand on its own, and Enzo might be the ticket to that, but his precarious status with the company makes that increasingly risky. Further, I worry that the perceived glass ceiling of the division will continue to make talent and fans look elsewhere. Part of why the cruiserweight division worked so well in WCW was because the rest of the card was just so bloated with the same faces (NwO, other ex NWA and WWE/WWF guys). The dynamic isn’t the same here.
GC: Enzo and Kalisto, ironically two traditional main roster talents that have crossed over to “save” the struggling Cruiserweight division and 205 Live on the network. I still have not watched 205 Live and anyone that writes or talks about it has little positive to say. But I admire the RAW producers for giving Enzo and company the main event spotlight across several weeks leading up to the PPV. Too bad they still barely made the pre-show.
KW: These guys should still both not be on the pre-show. Arguments aside about pre-shows being used to hype up interest, they’re both teams that are well over with crowds (heat/punishments aside). Owens and Zayn breaking the fourth wall and calling the booking what it is with a worked shoot. Credit to the bookers for giving Zayn/Owens mic time even on the pre-show. On a side note, it bears repeating that the Breezango experiment really serves as a testament to the successes of the brand split, and in particular, how WWE has positioned SmackDown vis-a-vis RAW. Prior to the brand split and this team pairing, both Breeze and Fandango were barely on tv and used mostly for house shows. Their ability to get tv segments and matches, and now a pre-show match given their previous low booking status and get audiences invested in them likely would not have happened if they remained on the crowded landscape that was/is RAW. Despite this, Zayn and Owens needed the win more than Breezango to keep their momentum as a team going and I am not so sure we won’t see them later on in the PPV.
GC: Recapping from a slight time delay, when you contacted me with dismay that Zayn and Owens landed on the Survivor Series pre-show, my heart nearly skipped a beat with relief given recent negative rumors that the two were sent home early from the European tour. I’ve quite enjoyed Zayn’s Gen X’er tweener heel turn, and I love that he’s retained the Ska entrance music with ironically larger dance-stomps. Bottom line: fans should remember that Owens got to “grab that brass ring” recently with a signature headbutt to THE Chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon. This is the larger sign of importance and trust regardless of where the duo landed on the card (see Dean Ambrose WrestleMania XXXIII pre-show IC match earlier this year). At the same time, if the two truly were sent home early (not as a work), then I would speculate that this is what led to the near complete card shake up, including The Shield’s placement, Reigns out of the co-Main Event, and perhaps even AJ Styles’ abrupt WWE Championship win.
KW: Truthfully, the match was just announced either yesterday or today, so while there’s no way to know how far in advance it was thought out, it doesn’t appear to be part of a long term strategy. There’s no booking to back it up either. I love Zayn in general and I’ve enjoyed his recent heel-turn, but to be fair I thought he was one of the most organic faces the company’s created in a while, and truthfully I’m looking forward to his eventual return to face.
KW: I continue to love factions in wrestling, and wish they did more than just tag teams in WWE. New Day and the Shield represent the few overtures towards factions WWE has put out recently. Interesting foreshadowing here by New Day of internal fractures within the Shield, and their inevitable re-breaking up. I have to admit there is a certain excitement about a PPV that isn’t Roman-centric, though it is surprising given how frequently the Survivor Series debut of the Shield gets mentioned by commentary. Roman still struggles to get over even when paired with Seth and Dean again, which does not bode well if they’re going to continue pushing him as a face at the top of the company. Roman gets in his usual mid-match rest outside of the ring. RAW with the win this time—a fantastic, long, well done match that serves as a good start to the show. I may not love the Shield as faces but I’d take a face Shield over no Shield at all. Full credit to the New Day for carrying their half of the match; they’re regularly in the best match of any particular PPV with or without titles on the line, much as the Shield were pre-breakup. They continue to serve as an anchor for the SmackDown brand regardless of title status, in fact, they don’t need them.
GC: What are your thoughts on the split-style T-shirts sported by Shield members? I wonder if those are on sale tonight only at the event. The half red/RAW and half-Shield is oddly indicative of a wasted revival for this beloved faction. There was no doubt that the team would one day rejoin. However, the move came quite soon in this reviewer’s opinion, which takes a bit of the emotional reaction out of the fan experience. To further complicate matters, we have Reigns going down due to illness prior to TLC and The Shield’s planned PPV reunion became a gimmick that was overshadowed by Kurt Angle’s big return. Now, we have The Shield up against a drastically cooled down New Day, in a largely lopsided matchup that appears to be the official show opener. So much for capitalizing on a foolproof faction.
KW: Those shirts…. are something else. I suppose it beats their debut attire (turtlenecks) but just barely. A good match, but the Shield reunion is clearly setting up for a future heel turn (probably Dean, he’s overdue).
GC: I will say that there was way more offense featured in this opener than I would have guessed. I do not think that these two match up at all from a narrative perspective. The New Day is so comically gimmick-based. Plus, that onesy on Big E! It literally makes no sense when Rollins and Ambrose essentially went two on five at TLC against mostly big men, so it took nearly the whole match to get me into the action. However, the false finish was nice and both groups really ratcheted up the action for an *obvious* finish. I do feel bad for Reigns as he simply cannot win over the large crowds probably from here on out.
Winners: The Shield
SmackDown vs Raw Women’s Division (Becky Lynch, Tamina, Naomi, Carmella, Natalya (with Lana) vs. Alicia Fox, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Nia Jax, and Asuka)
KW: I have to admit I’m a little lost on the booking here, having two of the most over women get pinned first. The Nia/Tamina tease is a fantastic one, and it’s a shame that this is likely the only time these two will face off, as they sort of represent the one monster heel woman for each brand. When setting up this match, it really revealed the problems with the SmackDown women’s roster. Charlotte is a recent addition (and she’s in a different match) but SmackDown has struggled to book really compelling women’s champions outside of Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss (who is now with RAW). This wasn’t helped in the least by having the first ever women’s money in the bank match won by recently released James Ellsworth, decidedly not female, on behalf of Carmella. I’ve often wondered if the women’s roster would benefit from being on one brand given its size but I fear it would get even less time as a result. Let’s be real though, this is the Asuka show, we’re just living in it.
GC: I am digging Nia Jax’s braids in that backstage segment. But I cannot handle Alicia Fox on any roster at this point. The campy tone of her persona—and those line readings—are not winning USA Network any new viewers. Thank you, Corey Graves, for filler like, “Byron, Naomi’s dancing so you don’t have to–knock it off!” That said, Naomi really has been able to innovate her “Feel the Glow” gimmick far longer than anyone could have anticipated. In other intro news, it was nice to see Asuka receive RAW’s final entrance. Do they have something special in store after her flat main roster start against Emma?
Once the match started, I was quite let down that Becky Lynch had to fall on the rollup sword. However, like Charlotte she is politely playing a rotational role long after they stole the show with Sasha Banks at WrestleMania XXXIII. Likewise, Nia’s elimination was the dumbest count out I’ve ever seen, what with Tamina entering and exiting twice during the ref’s count. This ref also botched the timing of Bayley’s pinfall (or was it the other way around—yipes). One memorable moment comes when Tamina and Nia square off for the first time. It was a pretty cool stair down that led to the logical count out. Similar to Lynch’s early exit, this strategic move helped provide an underdog scenario for team RAW and a spotlight opportunity for the smaller performers late.
Sole Survivor: Asuka (Team RAW)
KW: Daniel Bryan’s on screen role as General Manager of SmackDown has done so much of the heavy lifting to level out the discrepancy between the two shows. With the rumors that he will leave the company next year if he isn’t cleared to wrestle, SmackDown and WWE in general needs to look really critically at how they want to position the Blue brand in light of his potential departure; these are big shoes to fill.
GC: Am I the only one that cannot understand for the life of me why Daniel Bryan doesn’t look more “TV ready” on SmackDown? I know he’s an herbal dude, all natural and everything that goes with a clean organic lifestyle, but surely there’s a cage free makeup kit that could enhance his on camera presence (or at least eliminate the greasy hair and crow’s’ eyes). Maybe he’s just performing “tired dad,” in which case, I completely get it!
KW: There was a rumor I read that he’s growing his hair out for a hair vs. hair match in case he’s cleared to wrestle. The hair is too short to ponytail I suppose. I miss Jesus-looking Daniel Bryan, but I’ll take tired dad Bryan too.
Daniel Bryan could definitely sport a man bun and fans would get behind it.
KW: I’ll give Corbin credit for “most improved since NXT.” He’s occasionally incredibly entertaining to watch in the ring, with a great finishing move, and has the potential to be a good talker now and then. That said, the last few years for the Miz have been astronomically great, and he is easily one of the best heat magnets in the WWE right now. I will say though that it was Talking Smack, the SmackDown post-show that was recently cancelled that really gave the Miz his launching pad, prior to his trade over to Raw. The cancellation of that show continues to elude me in terms of reasons, as it did more for character development and match promotion than an hour and change of RAW normally provides. Corbin needs this match more than the Miz does, if only because he’s seemed sort of directionless lately, as has the US title since AJ Styles dropped it.
GC: It is very clear from the two opening RAW wins that SmackDown will level out the main event somehow. Same (I prognosticate) with Corbin over Miz. The Miztourage has been a great way to extend, or should we say RAW-size, Miz’s current persona. He is WWE’s top talker right now and has been for over a year. Given a decade’s worth of time on the clock, at this point he has no problem putting others over under a premium heel banner.
KW: My only hope is that The Miztourage doesn’t suffer the same fate as Damien Sandow. I couldn’t care less about Bo Dallas but poor Curtis Axel deserves something to work with. And while we’re on the subject of bad booking, what in god’s name happened to Bray Wyatt? I feel like he might win the award for worst booking of the last five years.
GC: Miz versus Corbin was the definition of mid-card filler. There was actually plenty of action, almost nonstop in fact. And I do like that WWE pitted two heels against one another. But I felt no investment whatsoever and couldn’t care less about the outcome. They did their part, they’ll cash their checks, and go back to their brands. Next.
KW: Credit to both these teams for totally rebranding themselves in the best way possible in the last year and change. Sheamus and Cesaro work as a fantastic tag team and Cesaro’s long been overdue for some recognition. The Usos however have managed to go from a boring but competent team to a team I actually want to watch wrestle, and who can cut decent promos. Their heel turn was long overdue and did them every favor imaginable. The second match in a row on this card featuring heels vs. heels. While I realize that the format of Survivor Series often necessitates that, I’m surprised by how well it works, but I think this is due in part to how well these heels are booked and the degree to which they’re over. This may not necessarily be the case for faces, which WWE struggles to book with the same strength. If only the rest of the SmackDown tag teams could be booked as well as the Usos, because outside of them and New Day, the tag team division in SmackDown is pretty weak and relatively thin. Commentary is doing a great job of bringing in continuity here from previous Survivor Series with these teams, a testament to the degree to which the commentary teams have improved with the brand split. No one does the hot tag better than the Usos, and they deserve a decently long title reign.
GC: Another filler match unfortunately. The Usos have picked up interest and momentum since turning heel (and the WrestleMania snub), and Cesaro/Sheamus is a team I’m sympathetic toward. These guys, like Miz, are making the most of their situation (the brass ring doesn’t tug when Cesaro pulls it, apparently), and I still can’t get over his dental accident at TLC.
KW: I guess I could see how you’d view it as filler, because really how do you book these inter-brand matches with a backstory? Apparently Vince has a weird thing where he finds it just endlessly entertaining for Cesaro to do his promos with his mouthguard in. I’ll leave you to think about that one.
GC: Oh, I’ve noticed Cesaro’s mouthpiece lisp all right. In a truly bizarre coincidence, the week before Cesaro’s accident, I have a young nephew that experienced nearly the exact same accident (but off a bunk bed). The dental surgeon recommended waiting 1-2 months to see if the teeth would naturally drop or not. I kind of assumed Cesaro might be in a similar wait-and-see position. He needs to stay off the mic entirely right now, because that is not helping his situation. If there is a silver lining, at least these performers have been allowed pretty respectable match times. No real squash matches have also kept both brands strong. On top of that, the Usos win makes the “official” scorecard 2-2, which opens up the Women’s Champion vs. Champion match by making the victor less predictable.
KW: With the recent title change from Natalya to Charlotte, I feel like this match never really got the buildup it deserved. While having Charlotte hold the title was probably the right choice, a few more weeks of buildup for this feud would have done wonders. I will say the audience is into this match (as am I) which is a nice change from so many years of women’s matches at PPVs. I’m pleasantly surprised by the physicality of this match and the length of it thus far, though this does make me worry that AJ vs Brock is going to be a five-minute one and done squash.
GC: Did you notice how Charlotte as babyface features a more natural look, whereas her heel persona, like Bliss’s, is heavy on the dramatic David Bowie eyeliner? Alexa Bliss’s eyeliner seemingly gets its own backstage segments on RAW in recent weeks (unconfirmed). This is a fantastic match, and I might suggest this joins the women’s roster elimination match as the only rewatchable bouts from this PPV (so far). These two are selling hard and looking strong at the same time. Credit Charlotte for not pushing or allowing for a quick ending. And rather than the pin, she does get Bliss to tap out. Well done.
KW: I’m not sure if I’m in the majority or minority when it comes to Brock as champ: I like Brock Lesnar (and I LOVE Paul Heyman) but I’ve always disliked the silly argument about raising the prestige of the belt when he doesn’t defend it at every RAW branded PPV. Arguments about part-timers aside (and they are legitimate arguments), this match has me worried. I truthfully see no way AJ wins this one because of how protected Brock is, and the foreshadowing they had with Jinder Mahal in the pre-show, and all it does is hurt AJ as champ. Brock can take the loss, and eventually will have too, but as they’re probably saving it for the unsatisfying match with Roman Reigns, I wish they’d have him lose. AJ Styles has been the best addition to both SmackDown and WWE in the last few years, losing not a single step from how hot he was in New Japan. AJ Styles can get a good match out of a broom, but I’m curious to see if he can make it work here.
The audience seems to be slightly more behind Styles but this squash match is painful to watch right now. Commentary is referencing the Cena/Brock match from SummerSlam 2014 and setting this up as some sort of a parallel, but that match came at the end of a long period of LOLCENAWINS and seeing Cena just get demolished was pure catharsis. There’s been no such LOLAJWINS with AJ Styles entrance into the WWE. A brief but brutal moment where AJ had the calf crusher locked in and a few minutes of impressive offense from AJ Styles afterwards provided a rare moment in most Brock matches where an opponent gets in some convincing offense. One of Brock’s better matches lately but I’m over him holding the Universal title.
GC: I was decently interested to see how up-and-comer Jinder Mahal stacks up against the establishment beast-heel in Brock Lesnar. However, the last-minute title change got me all kinds of jacked up for the WWE Champion versus Universal Champion match. While Brock’s protection is a foregone conclusion, how the match plays out felt intriguing no matter the direction they took. The start of the match features outright domination by Lesnar, a visual sequel to his takedown of Roman Reigns at WrestleMania XXXI and of John Cena prior to that. But unlike the Reigns match, AJ musters the gumption to hang on just long enough for Lesnar to get winded. Then, AJ’s stamina kicks in and the match elevates to another level.
Continuing the through line of keeping both brands strong, by allowing AJ to get a fair amount of licks in, this easily became Brock’s best match since his Hell in a Cell with The Undertaker two years ago. They gave WWE Universe and smart marks alike a memorable encounter that will be on dialogic replay for years to come. I am not offended by part-timers in the least bit, and even less offended by part-time champions (especially considering the ridiculous number of belts floating around this company). While I wanted to see Braun Strowman or Samoa Joe previously defeat Brock, I understand his need to keep his wins going at this point. After all, he did collapse the Undertaker’s streak (and not for nothin’). Examining all the cut marks covering both competitors, as well as Brock’s Undertaker-esque hard sell on his left knee injury, this match qualifies as an instant classic.
Winner: Brock Lesnar
RAW vs. SmackDown (Kurt Angle, Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman, Triple H vs. Shane McMahon, Randy Orton, Shinsuke Nakamura, Bobby Roode, John Cena)
GC: Thinking about the entrances, Triple H would get his own signature red T-shirt while everyone else has to play ball (including Strowman). He just can’t help himself. Hmm, Michael Cole just said that only Kane and The Undertaker have appeared in more PPVs…I wonder how far off H is? FYI, he seems to be getting the full intro while Angle, Balor, et al. received abbreviated status. Some things never change (again, not really complaining but it doesn’t go unnoticed either).
I LOVE how stacked this main event is. That said, Busted Open radio brought up the average age of the main event participants. I think the number they through out was like, 37.5, but I feel like that number is more like 40 at least. Also, I’m going to go against the haters and say I like Cena’s new lime green T-shirt and sweatbands (incidentally getting separate merch like H).
KW: Someone aptly pointed out on Reddit the ages of all the participants in the main event. Not to take anything away from any of them, especially Finn Balor, Nakamura, Strowman, Roode, Joe, folks new-ish to WWE, but they made a good point: this is a relatively old main event, or the roster itself is aging. I say that in light of the fact that I still think getting Jason Jordan out of the main event was a smart idea. Jordan isn’t remotely over, the storyline with him being the son of Kurt Angle is bizarre and not working, and I have no idea what they were thinking splitting him and Chad Gable up, especially given the need for more tag teams. Bray Wyatt would have been a nice inclusion here but as previously mentioned, his booking since moving to RAW has been awful, especially given he was WWE Champion and Tag Team Champion on SmackDown, and it worked. The entire Wyatt family deserves better than their last year or so of booking and I hope they get a chance to hit the reset button soon, and perhaps move Wyatt back to SmackDown for his own good.
GC: I am in the majority that feels Bray Wyatt, no matter how talented, is as cold as ice right now and essentially a notch above “enhancement talent.” Ditto and I agree about Jason Jordan. Part of me feels the audience was already headed for a bait-and-switch on that position. Its possible WWE is setting up a father-son match as the proverbial placeholder on the way to an Angle-HHH Mania. I don’t really think they ended up with a single weak link in this main event, and perhaps the audience was treated to a true passing of the torch between the old guard of the last generation and the faces that dominated the main event scene of NXT over the last three years. Both the female and male co-main events was smartly booked, particularly for “big four” PPV appeal.
KW: Shinsuke being pinned early was questionable, as despite a less than stellar start on the main roster, Nakamura’s been consistently one of the most over performers. Interestingly, I had to remind myself that Cena, Orton and HHH were in this match, as my focus was entirely on everyone else. That was until Cena and Angle were both in the ring at the same time, and I legitimately got goosebumps, never sure I would see this match again.
GC: I heard commentators complain about the possibility that the fresh blood would be eliminated early. But guess what? Come for the spectacle, stay for the drama. The story is in the returning hierarchy, and actually, the ending does an immense job putting over the new talent. WWE kept HHH off of TV for a really long time, and even his WrestleMania lead-in to Seth Rollins was limited by his own standard. While his entrance felt entirely random last Monday, the crowd still pops every time. He earned this return, and once again H got to have his cake and eat it too. Hunter truly is a McMahon.
KW: I’ll say this much, Shane McMahon has no right to be this entertaining at this age, and holy hell, if they could book everyone they way Strowman has been booked, the quality of the product would be infinitely better. I guess it wouldn’t be a Survivor Series without a screwjob. Well played and well-time interferences by HHH on Kurt Angle, with Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens running interference by jumping Shane McMahon before that.
GC: Like most of the card for this year’s Survivor Series, this match was very well paced. One of the strong points lies in how the main eventers allowed time for inaugural stare downs so that the audience could savor brand new match-ups not only between brands, but also between untapped encounters like Nakamura against Finn Balor, HHH and Bobby Roode, and Braun Strowman against both Randy Orton and John Cena. This match has a little of everything, and in an era of insta-reactions and toxic social media uprisings, I would argue this match was booked about as logically as one could ever hope for. And for the haters that will be mad at Joe, Balor, Nakamura, and Roode’s early exits, remember that these superstars got the elevating rub by appearing in the main event.
Winning Brand: Team RAW
Sole Survivor(s): HHH and Braun Strowman
Anniversary Screwjob: HHH pedigrees Kurt Angle
Lasting Impression: An organic Braun Strowman babyface turn.
If you missed Part One of this SummerSlam two-parter, you’re welcome to go back and review it. In it, I discuss my pre-SummerSlam preparations, including my reengagement with WWE after many years away. Part Two, which you’re reading right now, is my actual SummerSlam review.
Let me preface Part Two by saying that for someone who hasn’t really watched the WWF/E since the late 1990s, four hours of SummerSlam was a long haul. It didn’t feel like four hours – more like two and a half. But still. That was a lot. I was exhausted by the end…and all I was doing was watching TV, taking notes, and drinking bourbon!
Part Two: SummerSlam Review
The college professor in me wants this review to be more like an evaluation of a course assignment – something I can dissect, appraise, and assign a grade. To grade effectively, however, I need a well-conceived grading rubric – and I mean that sincerely. I used to think grading rubrics were administrative busy work: useless for actual teaching, but appeasing to menacing accrediting agencies nonetheless. I’ve come a full 180 on grading rubrics, however. I now think they are indispensable pedagogical tools; I can’t bring myself to grade a course assignment without one.
My problem is this: As much as I want to create a grading rubric for professional wrestling matches in order to give my evaluation of SummerSlam some teeth, it takes me forever to put a good rubric together – and I want to get this published ASAP. It’s already at least a couple days too late.
So what I’m going to do here is something I’d never do in an actual college course: I’m going to assign grades to each match without a rubric. I will, however, provide detailed comments to support the grade. If you read Part One of this two-parter, you’ll remember the distinct evaluative lens I’ll be applying (in descending order of importance: Golden Age nostalgia, Canadian content, and indie feel). Also, if you read Part One, you know that I’m not really up to speed on any of the current storylines in Raw or SmackDown. All I know is what the short SummerSlam video introductions showed me before each match.
The night of my indie wrestling debut, Eric “The Answer” Anton, veteran of the South Carolina’s indie circuit, told me that the first match on the card is the most important one. (I was in the third match, so no pressure on me.) Why? It sets the pace for everything that follows. If the first match is flat, the crowd is flat, and the show is primed to be awful. If the first match gets a big pop, the crowd is amped, and chances are the show will be great.
By Anton’s standard, SummerSlam is going to be meh. If that proves to be the case, holy crap am I going to need a lot of bourbon to get me through the entire four hours!
SummerSlam didn’t start completely terribly, though. As the camera panned over the crowd before the wrestlers were announced, I saw one fan holding up a Swedish flag. “Is he celebrating Henrik Stenson’s just completed victory at the Wyndam Championship?”, I ask myself. Who knew there was PGA-WWE crossover appeal?
Or maybe the Swedish flag fan is a WWE plant – a subtle nod to the internationalism that would become so explicit later in the show.
But then John Cena is announced and SummerSlam takes a turn for the worse. There he is, rocking the trucker cap and jorts. I mentioned in Part One that I’m with the “Cena sucks” crowd. (But give him his due: his entrance music is pretty cool.)
His opponent is Baron Corbin; he looks like The Undertaker’s kid brother, and he grunts his way around the ring à la “Iron” Mike Sharpe. I’m firmly on team Corbin here, but this match is slow. I mean, the opening sequence is a super long headlock! Old school, for sure; but back in the day, the long headlock sequence was for the wrestlers to get a blow after an action-packed sequence. This match started with a long headlock! Ugh.
Beyond the opening headlock, and Corbin ducking around the ring post several times, I honestly can’t remember anything about this match. Here’s what it says in my notes: “18 finishing moves.” I guess there were a series of finishing moves, all of which, save the last, failed to actually finish the opponent – something that drives the old timers who work the southern indie circuit crazy.
What was good about this match? The Swedish flag (I’ll count it as part of this match, just to boost the grade), Cena’s entrance music, and Corbin’s Undertaker-esque look and “Iron” Mike-esque grunting.
Match #2: Natalya vs. Naomi for the SmackDown Women’s Championship
Natalya: Daughter of Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and Ellie Hart, who, herself, is the daughter of Stu Hart, which makes Natalya…are you with me?…the niece of Canadian legend, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and therefore, 100% bona fide Canadian wrestling royalty. When she comes to the ring, she’s rocking her dad’s and uncle’s black and pink colours (yes coloUrs — we’re talking about Canada here), and there’s a huge maple leaf projected on both the ramp and the video board! I just wish she’d wear those old-school Hitman shades.
This is a strong beginning; I’ve already forgotten about Cena.
Now it’s Naomi’s entrance…and it’s an awesome explosion of glow-in-the-dark technicolor. She’s killing it as she rocks her way to the ring.
The action begins. One minute in, and the match is already way better than the opener.
Things I love about it:
Great sequences and pace.
Natalya repeatedly barking at the ref, “Do your job!!!” (very old-school).
Small package, abdominal stretch, and not one, but two sharpshooters: old-school moves they work seamlessly into the action.
A fantastic counter to the first sharpshooter.
Naomi losing the match and weeping real tears.
Let me just say that women’s wrestling has come a lo-o-o-ng way since the days of Wendy Richter! By Eric “The Answer” Anton’s standard, this should have been match #1. SummerSlam, you just might redeem yourself from that John Cena debacle.
Match #3: Big Cass vs. Big Show…
…with Enzo Amore suspended in a shark cage above the ring.
Wait…what? Why the hell would he be suspended in a shark cage above the ring? The video intro tells me that Enzo and Big Show are sticking up for each other, but what does a shark cage have to do with that? This is failing the storytelling sniff test.
I do admit it, though: I’m a little intrigued by this shark cage. A completely nonsensical prop must have a purpose later in the match. I’m ready for shenanigans.
Enzo makes his entrance, and now he’s in the ring, and he’s talking and talking…and talking.
This is reminding me of the endless talking whenever I periodically check in with Raw or SmackDown. Match #3, you are losing some serious points here.
Now about the actual match: why in the world does anyone need to see another giant vs. giant battle? I watched that too many times back the 1980s with the rivalry between André the Giant and Big John Studd. In my memory, every match is the same thing: two gigantic men lumbering around the ring. That’s it. Someone would get a pin, but I don’t remember how. Because all they’d do is lumber around the ring.
And now here’s Big Show lumbering around the ring, unable to throw that “lethal” right hand due to injury. This match is awful.
Here’s the one positive: Booker T is seriously trying to sell the match. If I closed my eyes and only listened to him, I’d be seeing an epic battle.
The problem is, I’m listening with my eyes open, as one does when one pays to watch SummerSlam (or, in my case, signs up for the free WWE Network trial).
This is seriously boring.
Remember the shark cage, a little voice in the back of my head reminds me. Something seriously awesome is going to happen with that cage. The only reason they put Enzo up there in a cage is because they know everyone would be lulled to sleep by a giant versus giant matchup. The shark cage will save this match!
You’re right, voice in my head, the cage will turn this snooze fest into something glorious.
Oh, look there! Enzo is lubing himself up and squeezing through a gap in the bars. I’m digging the lube shtick. Shark cage mayhem: commence!
Wait…why is Enzo merely lowering himself gingerly into the ring? Where’s the crazy 15-foot high superfly splash? Why’s he not prying a bar off the cage and bashing Cass with it?
You mean he’s just going to drop into the ring and get booted in the head? That’s the whole shtick?
And then Cass finishes Big Show with his atomic elbow, the second worst finisher in the history of professional wrestling history (as declared in Part One).
This, truly, is a match worthy of another lumbering giant, The Great Khali.
Match #4: Randy Orton vs. Rusev
You’re digging yourself a serious hole here, SummerSlam. You better give me something good or I may turn you off and fire up that “Top Ten Comebacks” video again (see Part One).
SummerSlam must have heard me because out walks Randy Orton — son of Cowboy Bob, nephew of Barry O, grandson of Bob Orton Sr — and I feel of rush of Golden Age nostalgia. His opponent is Nikolai Volkoff…I mean Boris Zhukov…I mean Nikita Koloff…I mean Rusev.
This is already a better match than the giant vs. giant + shark cage abomination, and Rusev hasn’t yet made his entrance.
And he’s not going to! Rusev attacks Orton from behind before the latter has even finished his entrance – a fantastic heel move! Bravo, good sir! You honor well your Russian wrestling predecessors (even the ones who are Canadian).
The match officially begins…and it’s over in like 15 seconds! Orton catches Rusev in the RKO, and RKO equals one, two, three!
But I can’t give the match an ‘A’ for two reasons:
A 15-second squash match is delightful, but this is SummerSlam. How about taking it really old-school and giving me a double clothesline, double count-out, (double) squash?
A truly old-school match involving a Russian menace absolutely requires a real American hero to oppose him. I mean, a Corporal-Kirchner-Seargeant-Slaughter-Hacksaw-Jim-Duggan-Hulk-Hogan American hero. Randy Orton just doesn’t cut it here: there’s no American flag, there’s no patriotic outfit, there are no chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!”
Where’s the jingoism, SummerSlam? Maybe you’re saving it for Jinder Mahal. But Rusev is a Russian wrestler in the age of Russian election meddling, Crimea annexing, American diplomat expelling, and Trump campaign colluding!
Oh wait. That’s the reason right there: Linda McMahon gave $6 million to a pro-Trump super-PAC and Trump picked her to lead the Small Business Administration. Vince has to mute the anti-Russia sentiment.
Despite these minor shortcomings, this match seriously appealed to my Golden Age wrestling sensibility.
Match #5: Sasha Banks vs. Alexa Bliss for the Raw Women’s Championship
SummerSlam’s been pretty up and down thus far, but the earlier Natalya-Naomi gem gives me high hopes for the second women’s bout.
As I watch both women come to the ring, here are my initial impressions:
On the positive side, Banks and Bliss are all-in with the Naomi-esque explosion of technicolor.
On the negative side, that’s where the flair ends; neither has an entrance as visually compelling or energetic as Naomi’s.
On the plus side, Bliss is physically small – and this totally reminds me of small town indie wrestling in the South, where some 5’3 guy weighing a buck fifteen will bill himself as “The Destroyer” or “The Crusher.”
On the negative side, Banks and Bliss both suffer from a lack of Canadian wrestling lineage – but I’ll try not to hold that against them.
The match itself is respectable, with good pace and good selling on both sides. Let me say again how far the woman’s side has come since the days of Wendy Richter. But the match is lacking something, and I’m not sure what that something is. Maybe a big spot or outside interference from a resentful Bayley — or even Enzo to giving it another go with the shark cage gag (but this time doing it properly, with shenanigans). The match needs something to make it sing. The longer it goes, the more one-note it feels. And the crowd is really quiet. As they cut to the ringside camera, I see a fan in the front row give a full-body yawn.
That’s sort of what I’m feeling too.
Match #6: Bray Wyatt vs. Finn Balor
Even though I’ve only been half paying attention to the WWE for many years, I’ve been a Bray Wyatt fan since his Wyatt Family Raw debut, semi-following him from a distance. Why? Well, as someone who both teaches an upper-level seminar on new religious movements (aka “cults”) and researches southern culture and southern religion, Bray Wyatt’s deranged, southern backwater cult-leader gimmick appeals to me on multiple levels. Moreover, he currently has the sweetest, most well-conceived entrance: he’s just a creepy dude walking slowly through the nightime southern bog, his kerosene lantern lighting his way, with a laid-back, liquid groove accompanying his saunter.
Wyatt, no doubt, is breathing fresh life into the southern gimmick; we’ve had the hillbilly families, the country music loudmouths, and the inbred simpletons. Now we have a creepy, charismatic bayou cult leader.
Even better, this bayou cult leader has a serious Golden Age lineage: his grandad is Blackjack Mulligan, his dad is Mike Rotunda, and his uncle is Barry Wyndham.
To recap: Bray Wyatt appeals to my teaching interests, my research interests, and my Golden Age nostalgia.
On the other hand, prior to his entrance, I honestly have no idea what or who a Finn Balor is – is he some kind of half man, half bluefin tuna? Sort of like an Arachnaman, but updated for the 21st century?
Evidently not. Finn Balor’s entrance music begins…and…what’s this? He’s swiping Bray Wyatt’s old entrance music – that menacing version of the classic spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”! But who does the “He” refer to in this scenario? Can’t be Jesus because Bray Wyatt is a creepy cult leader. But it can’t be Wyatt either because Finn Balor has stolen the song. “He” must be Finn Balor…whatever a Finn Balor is.
OMG! Finn Balor isn’t Arachnaman…he’s The KISS Demon! And he’s got a sweet, super-creepy entrance too! Lots of devilish smoke, lots of demonic poses, lots of hellish red floodlight. I mean, Finn Balor is like the entire Dungeon of Doom rolled into one, but with kick ass special effects…and proper grammar!
Finn Balor, you may not be Bray Wyatt good, but you’ve got a hell of a gimmick!
I love this classic creepy vs. creepy contest, and though I’ve only seen the entrances, I’m giving it an ‘A.’
Since I already know the grade, I’m not going to say much about the actual ring action. Suffice it to say, I loved it. The commentators are on point (“Behold, the demon king!” “Bray believes he’s a god,” etc.). The storytelling works (demon gets into the cult leader’s head). The finish is Golden Age goofy (Bray’s foiled upside-down spider crawl).
And, speaking as someone with a teeny, tiny amount of in-ring cred, Bray Wyatt takes a pretty, pretty bump (and how could he not, with that Golden Age lineage?).
Match #7: Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins vs. Sheamus and Cesaro for the Raw Tag Team belts
I got too excited about the previous match. I’m not sure I have anything left.
The entrances are so-so: Cesaro and Sheamus are trying too hard with that self-pointy pose, while Rollins and Ambrose…I don’t even remember what they did. All my notes say is “at least they got to the ring fast.”
There was a lot in this match I enjoyed:
Super believable European upper cuts (since they were delivered by a bona fide European).
Cesaro jumping into the crowd to snatch away the distracting beach ball – total old-school heel move.
Really nicely paced, exciting tag team action – we’ll call it U.S.-Express-worthy (since Bray Wyatt is still on my mind).
Rollins with one of the best hurricanranas I’ve ever seen.
And a perfectly constructed finishing sequence that exploded in cathartic release.
Match #8: AJ Styles vs. Kevin Owens for the United States Championship
In the days leading up to SummerSlam, I was looking forward this match because it featured two wrestlers I enjoyed very much during their Ring of Honor days, before they both made it big in the WWE. I also happened to catch some of the Shane McMahon backstory on SmackDown earlier in the week, so I was primed for some referee shenanigans. (And I love me some shenanigans!)
And lastly, Kevin Owens/Steen is Canadian, so the match has that going for it too.
Shane O Mac, however, steals the entrance thunder with his endearingly awkward white-boy shuffle. It’s good to know that Shane inherited his dad’s strutting “skills.”
The match starts slow, and I’m getting worried. Maybe my memory of Styles and Steen in their Ring of Honor days is skewed; maybe I’ve built them up to be more than they actually are.
Wrong. They’re just building the match slowly, constructing a story that picks up pace as it moves along, until it reaches a fevered pitch at the end. Everything about the match makes sense. As it progresses, the bumps go from small to big; the sequences go from simple to intricate; the special ref goes from barely noticeable to center stage. And everybody is selling hard, most especially Shane, who’s doing a fantastic old-school bumbling ref routine (though I don’t remember any of those refs having Shane’s muscles).
The Kevin Owens resentment angle comes sharply into focus as the match nears the climax. There’s a furious back and forth exchange, a couple huge bumps, and a delightful faux three count with AJ’s foot on the bottom rope. Owens gets in Shane’s face; AJ takes advantage. One, two, three.
This is a master performance in ring psychology; the old timers of the southern indies would approve.
And so do I.
Match #9: Jinder Mahal vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the WWE Championship
The only match I was looking forward to more than Styles-Owens was this one. Why? I’m seriously intrigued by the international vs. international implications. More than any other match, this one has the potential to tap into both the current populist political moment of Trump-inspired anti-internationalism, nativism, and flat out racism, and the vocal anti-Trump countermovement that has risen in response. I’m also very interested to see how the WWE, with its McMahon-Trump connections, balances the administration’s America-first protectionism with company’s very obvious globalist aspirations. After all, as the commentators repeatedly remind us, this is all about India’s 1.2 billion potential paying customers.
Since, earlier in the show, we’ve already heard from each of the SummerSlam non-English-language broadcast teams – Russian, Spanish, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian, and Hindi – it appears that the globalism argument is winning.
But then Jinder Mahal makes his entrance, and a faint nativist stink begins to waft through the crowd, as it evidently has in some of his previous matches. Were this the 1980s, however, Mahal and the Singh brothers would have come to the ring in over-the-top Orientalist garb, flubbing their way through a Bollywood dance parody. They’d be goofy heels unaware of their goofiness, which, of course, would make me love them, but would make the crowd erupt in jingoistic refrain: U-S-A! U-S-A!
But this is not the 1980s when Vince’s goal was to appeal to the white American middle class; this is the 2010s, and Vince has his sights on India. Mahal, therefore, can’t be an offensive cartoon foreigner – an Indian Kamala, if you will – without alienating his target crowd. But nor can Mahal be a straightforward face because in America’s current cultural climate, any brown-skinned person is a possible Muslim terrorist. Especially one who wears a turban on his head.
So Mahal has to be a heel, but not a parody. Give him a turban, but dress the Singhs in business attire. Let him snarl his way to the ring without the faux-Bollywood goofiness.
Everyone boos but the mood doesn’t descend into rank nativism. One thing — or rather, one person — prevents this from happening: Shinsuke Nakamura, who has already made his astounding entrance before Mahal made his. Nakamura is just as foreign as Mahal is, and his gimmick is arguably less red-blooded-American than Mahal’s – but the crowd loves him (and so do I). His entrance is classical violin and modern dance. It is performance art and it is stunning.
So, instead of a 1980s-style jingoism, we get a straightforward match between a baby and a heel, both of whom happen to be international. One gets a pop; the other gets heat. Old-school-style.
There are two more things I like about this match, even before it gets underway. First, as the SmackDown commentators mention, Jinder Mahal was featured in The New York Times Arts section a couple days earlier – and the Times is my jam. Second, Jinder Mahal is Canadian, not Indian (don’t tell Vince’s 1.2 billion Indians).
Now, about the actual match: It was pretty awful, though I did enjoy the old-school interference from the Singh brothers.
There’s so much potential in this Mahal-Nakamura feud; I hope, in the future, they get it together in the ring. My fear is that Mahal isn’t the champion-caliber worker that Vince needs him to be for the sake of his 1.2 billion potential customers.
To me, this match is a like student’s final paper that has a kernel of brilliance in it, but just doesn’t come together. It has the potential to be excellent, but it needs three or four more drafts to get there.
In this case, however, the grade gets a bump of a half grade due to the sneaky Canadian content.
Match #10: Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman vs. Samoa Joe in a Fatal 4-Way for the Universal Championship
It’s a big guy vs. big guy vs. big guy vs. big guy contest — and these four big guys, unlike the earlier giants, really have some pace. They are surprisingly quick and agile…and fantastically destructive!
The carnage outside the ring is what I love: Lesnar speared through the barricade; three broadcast tables destroyed; metal stairs wielded like steel chairs in the hands of lesser wrestlers.
And then there’s the stretcher, and the 15 gratuitous referees and 15 gratuitous EMTs and 15 gratuitous guys in suits overseeing the removal of the fallen Conqueror. I love it!
The crowd erupts in chants of “This is awesome” [clap-clap-clapclapclap] — and I completely agree.
Braun Strowman is an absolute star. I loved him in The Wyatt Family, with his creepy black sheep mask; I love him even more now that he’s on his own, tossing Brock Lesnar around like a ragdoll.
When the action moves back inside the ring, however, the match loses some momentum. All the competitors become a little one-note: Roman Reigns has his superman punch on repeat; Samoa Joe has his modified sleeper on repeat; Brock Lesnar already had his German suplex on repeat (before the outside-the-ring carnage); even Braun Strowman seems to have his powerslam stuck on repeat.
And now, a couple days and lots of typing later, I can’t even remember the finish.
Ten minutes in, this was the best match of SummerSlam. 20 minutes later, it’s still good but no one’s chanting “This is awesome” anymore.
Then again, Brock Lesnar is half Canadian, so this match gets a small grade bump.
Ten matches and ten grades: SummerSlam’s cumulative grade point average is 2.87.
Good enough to graduate, but not to go to grad school.
A couple loose ends from Part One need to be tied up before I sign off. First, after my long absence from the WWF/E, was SummerSlam enough to get me back in the fold, or do I head back to the small-time world of the southern indie circuit, SummerSlam but a tiny reflection in my rearview mirror? Second, regardless of the answer to the first, do I cancel the WWE Network before my free trial ends as I initially planned, or do I keep it and enjoy its wealth of “Top Ten” videos and old Golden Age matches?
The first one’s pretty easy to answer. I’m definitely heading back to the indies, but SummerSlam did enough to make me want to check back in with the WWE periodically (Wrestlemania, for sure, probably also Survivor Series and Royal Rumble).
As for the WWE Network, impressive as the catalogue of “Iron” Mike Sharpe matches is, I’m just not sure the vault — or the collection of “Top Ten” videos — is worth my $9.99 per month.
Then again, a have a few weeks left on my free trial. I have a feeling it won’t take much to change my mind. After all, I haven’t yet searched for George “The Animal” Steele matches!
Bonus Ranking of SummerSlam Entrances
I love a good entrance, so, in honor of Bill Simmonds, author of my favorite article on entrances, and his colleague, “The Masked Man” David Shoemaker, and their once glorious but now defunct website, Grantland.com, here is my official ranking of SummerSlam entrances:
Natalya (the Canadian content is just too high for her to rank any lower)
Shane O Mac
Jinder Mahal (the Singh brothers elevate it)
Rusev (since he didn’t waste my time with a crappy entrance)
Everyone else…except for:
John Cena, who, even though he has great entrance music, is still John Cena.
August 24 update: The video below just popped up in my Facebook feed. I think I’ve just become a John Cena mark.