WWE’s Survivor Series Dialogic Recap: The Art of Interbrand Manipulation

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

By Garret Castleberry and Kristine Weglarz

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.

 

Survivor Series Pre-show

Matt Hardy vs. Elias Samson

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/matt-hardy-vs-elias-kickoff-match-photos#fid-40185718

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 WrestleMania XXXIV, 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.

Winner: Elias

Kalisto Vs. Enzo (205 Live)

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/enzo-amore-kalisto-kickoff-match-photos#fid-40185732

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.

Winner: Enzo

Owens/Zayn vs. Breezango

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/breezango-vs-kevin-owens-sami-zayn-survivor-series-kickoff-match#fid-40185774

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.

Winners: Owens/Zayn

The Shield vs. The New Day

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/the-shield-the-new-day-photos#fid-40185815

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)

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/womens-5-on-5-traditional-survivor-series-elimination-match-photos#fid-40185826

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)

Intermission commentary

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.

Baron Corbin vs. The Miz

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/the-miz-baron-corbin-photos#fid-40185880

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.

Winner: Baron Corbin

The BAR vs. The Usos

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/cesaro-sheamus-the-usos-photos#fid-40185918

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.

Winners: The Usos

Alexa Bliss vs Charlotte Flair

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/alexa-bliss-charlotte-flair-photos#fid-40185953

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.

Winner: Charlotte Flair

Brock Lesnar vs. AJ Styles

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/brock-lesnar-aj-styles-photos#fid-40185988

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 Summer Slam 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)

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/mens-5-on-5-traditional-survivor-series-elimination-match-results#fid-40186044

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.

SummerSlam Part Two: Review

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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

summerslam2017The 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.

VALUE rubricNow, my problem would be solved if the Association of American Colleges and Universities had a professional wrestling match VALUE rubric I could adopt and tweak. But it doesn’t. Maybe I’ll make it my PWSA assignment over the next couple weeks to create one.

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.

(Check out Garret Castleberry’s SummerSlam review if you’d prefer the perspective of someone up on today’s WWE.)

Match #1: John Cena vs. Baron Corbin

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?

Stenson

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.

Either way, I’m a fan wrestling’s global diversity – especially if it’s Canadian diversity. Swedish diversity is cool too, though.

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.

Grade: C-

Match #2: Natalya vs. Naomi for the SmackDown Women’s Championship

HartFoundationNatalya: 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.

RichterLet 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.

Grade: A

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.

Please make…him…stop!

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.

AndreStuddNow 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!

EnzoCage

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!

EnzoCage2Wait…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.

Grade: F

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).

CowboyBobSummerSlam 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.

Nikolai_VolkoffThis 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!

This is a match almost to the standard of King Kong Bundy vs. S.D. “Special Delivery” Jones in the original WrestleMania: totally old-school; totally awesome.

But I can’t give the match an ‘A’ for two reasons:

  1. 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?
  2. JimDugganA 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.

Grade: B+

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.

Banks

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.

Grade: C+

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.

WyndamRotundaEven 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.

ArachnamanOn 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.

KISSdemonOMG! 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?).

Grade: A

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.”

CesaroSheamus

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.

Grade: A-

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!)

SteenAnd 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.

Grade: A-

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.

MahalBut 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!

KamalaBut 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.

Grade: B-

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!

LesnarEMT

The crowd erupts in chants of “This is awesome” [clap-clap-clapclapclap] — and I completely agree.

StrowmanBraun 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.

Grade: B+

SummerSlam G.P.A.

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).

GeorgeTheAnimalAs 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:

  1. Natalya (the Canadian content is just too high for her to rank any lower)
  2. Bray Wyatt
  3. Shinsuke Nakamura
  4. Naomi
  5. Finn Balor
  6. Shane O Mac
  7. Jinder Mahal (the Singh brothers elevate it)
  8. Rusev (since he didn’t waste my time with a crappy entrance)
  9. Everyone else…except for:
  1. 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.

https://www.facebook.com/cricketnation/videos/1401735906548405/?hc_ref=ART527Idkd7JsCyMlRCnryUuxrusrjU3Ll5SIGGjKzvNV_5ZgOe-sC5I-LDmQ1KCUw4&pnref=story