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
Throughout the year, the Professional Wrestling Studies Association has offered a range of event coverage for WWE Pay Per Views as well as a host of vintage and indie shows and performers. Our goal is to cultivate an exclusive space for creative and scholarly writing, from close readings and fan perspectives. WrestleMania 34 offers the first WrestleMania since the official launch of PWSA, and with that, the goal for this Rhetorical Recap is to explore the final convergence of many years’ long narratives. Having covered each of WWE’s “Big Four” Pay Per Views starting with last year’s Summer Slam, the focus of this coverage will be to explore how long-form wrestling narratives come to a head—in success and failure—with some culminating stories years in the making and others impromptu due to unforeseen circumstances like injury, industry, or opportunity. Thus, with the cumulative event, this WrestleMania 34 rhetorical recap will emphasize arc over in-ring minutia, and aesthetic spectacle over a chronological review.
EDITOR’S NOTE: All unidentified images come from the WWE’s online gallery collection.
Preshow Highlights: The WrestleMania 34 preshow has evolved in recent years, stretching from a nominal hour to an hour and a half, only to extend well into a two-hour infomercial sprinkled with a couple of minor memorable moments. The majority of the preshow runs with Renee Young hosting a rotating roundtable of commentators, mostly to hype the main card events and provide bumpers to the video packages that have already aired on RAW, SmackDown, NXT: Takeover, and will air again prior to each key event. For this reason, it is highly recommendable that viewers skip or strategically skim the pre-show after it airs so as to fast-forward past the 75-80% of integrated marketing filler.
The two noteworthy moments of this year’s preshow included fan-favorite “Woken” Matt Hardy winning the “Fourth Annual Andre the Giant Memorial Rumble” with an assist from (Woken?) Bray Wyatt, as well as a predictable yet interesting showdown between Sasha Banks and Bailey in the first ever Women’s Battle Royale. The two best frenemies worked together on the final eliminations before Bailey pulled a fast one by chucking out Sasha from behind. However, this proved to be short-term glory, as Naomi happened to re-emerge still an eligible member. These curious conclusions marked the beginning of an interesting trend that continued in WrestleMania 34: dangling plot threads rather than the typical bowtie story-arc endings.
Show Open: The main card show kicks off a traditional combination of video package and national anthem. The national anthem is performed by a younger duo in arguably a quieter rendition than, say, the Super Bowls that cap with jets screeching overhead. But over the heads of the female duet rests a pagan tower of an entrance stage. The entrance stage and ramp over the last four years fit the definition of hyperreal. They are behemoths as if Greek and Roman titans will soon descend from behind the black curtain of smoke and pyrotechnics. The New Orleans Mardi gras color palette plays a central role, but the high definition LED lighting seemingly elevates these colors to the 4K-resolution era.
First Match: The opening card aims to kick the show off in style with the Intercontinental Championship Triple Threat Match between “The Kingslayer” Seth Rollins, current IC champion The Miz, and the first WrestleMania appearance for Voodoo-esque Finn Balor (sans Voodoo-esque Demon persona). Rollins enters with what seems like a Game of Thrones combination of King of the North meets The Night King theme, complete with ice-tinged contact lenses. The Miz entered with a garish steampunk court jester wardrobe but soon shed his Miztourage atop the entrance ramp. With a newborn child part of his transmedia narrative that stretches across WWE kayfabe, E! Network’s Total Divas, and a new USA Network reality show, the breadcrumbs represent either continuous false finish babyface teases or an authentic turn (to coincide with the press run for the reality series) or the likely signal that his reign will end tonight. Finn Balor enters with yet another set of new tiny trunks; this time sporting an LGBTQ-friendly rainbow pattern for his Balor Club insignia. And in case anyone was to simply assume WWE is reappropriating the colors as part of its Mardi gras theme, Coach and Michael Cole point out that the stage full of Balor Club fans (in matching T-shirts) has branded his club “inclusive” as well as a celebration of “diversity”. Given how much praise Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi quickly received NJPW/ROH’s ambiguous Golden Lovers, this has all the shades of a James Dean-y feel.
Oh, and there was a match too.
This bout actually progresses somewhere between 90 and 100 miles an hour. These three superstars obviously each have proverbial chips on their shoulder and clearly want to “steal the show” (it’s both already clear but also the announcers cannot help but use the same repeated phrasing to drive the point home). For each, the year has been one of rebound spikes and also roster regression. Miz became the reason to watch SmackDown week in and out, but then was quickly “traded” to RAW where he fell back down the deepest show roster hole in the company.
Meanwhile, Balor had to reestablish his WWE career after a 9-month shoulder surgery and injury that resulted in him relinquishing the Universal Championship and missing WrestleMania 33. WWE teased Balor in a number of high-profile RAW matches but “the Club” carries none of the Bullet Club buzz just as his lingering supernatural feud with Bray Wyatt felt like a placeholder gamble. Rollins also tumbled down the card due to RAW’s super heavyweight division featuring Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Samoa Joe, and the 2017 rise of Braun Strowman. Then Rollins slipped into quasi-interim glory with a cut short The Shield reunion and Tag-Team Championship run with Dean Ambrose. A real-life virus to Reigns and then elbow injury to Ambrose left Rollins hovering in No Man’s Land with WrestleMania looming.
Collectively, all three are deserving of a spotlight match and yet none had anything of worth until mere weeks before WM34. Thus, their match goes off like a canon and sustains a comparable fireworks show from start to finish. A key downside might be that variations of this match have taken place on RAW for at least the last month. Thus, the only unknown was which man would walk away from the champion. After foreshadowing suggested Balor may finally get another belt on his shoulder, Rollins showed why the brass in the back has so much favor in him. WINNER: Seth Rollins.
Charlotte’s Golden Entrance, courtesy of Daily Charlotte Flair@FlairDynasty. Original video imagery credit: WWE.
The Hedonic Titan theme continues in match #2.
Second Match: Charlotte Flair enters from a literal golden throne, accompanied by three men in full Spartan soldier armor. The gold lit intro is brought to life with Ric Flair’s vintage “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (aka, 2001: A Space Odyssey theme) before Charlotte’s techno-variation accompanies a blue-tinted set change. But audiences ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Suddenly a 3D projection of Geisha masks fills the stadium (and I’m still trying to figure this out) as Asuka enters with a sparkling mask replacing her traditional white mask with colored tears. These two competitors have been destined to clash since they each entered WWE. Bookers were smart to keep them apart this long, moving Charlotte to SmackDown just as Asuka came up to RAW from NXT. Charlotte has dominated both women’s rosters with multiple title runs, while Asuka has only held the NXT belt but still remains undefeated.
While much discussion has gone on about what match should go last, and which men’s bout will “steal the show,” my WrestleMania prediction (especially following this year’s Royal Rumble) is that this match is the dark horse of the entire card. I think it’s got the most in-match potential once the bell rings. And by just the mid-point of the match, this “pre-mon-EEE-tion” feels accurate. These two are lightning in a bottle, and for never having met previously, their chemistry is fluid and sensational.
The camera cuts to John Cena sitting nearby in a grey T-shirt, beer in hand, recur so frequently that the foreshadowing seems almost clumsy (WWE does know sober adults watch, right?). But hey, kids watch too and Cena is now the Billy Crystal of the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards.
Courtesy of WWE.com: https://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34/gallery/john-cenas-wrestlemania-reactions-photos#fid-40214527
Back to the action: it’s phenomenal. It might be moving even faster than the IC Triple Threat, and already I feel like I’m having a hallucinatory CrossFit dream. By the end of this thing, Charlotte is bloodied and crying, while Asuka seems to be setting up her ultimate victory. But in the quick of things, somehow the momentum shifts just a bit back, and Charlotte inexplicably races a figure four into her patented figure eight, and even more ludicrously, Asuka, universally impervious to pain, taps. Everyone is stunned. Charlotte seems stunned. I’m stunned. Asuka followed red carpet all the way from NXT up but earned it strong-style. Then, she made history by being the Soul Survivor and first Women’s Royal Rumble winner. So naturally, on “the grandest stage of them all”…lose?
This feels like a last-minute booking swerve. The politically safe decision “for the brand.” But to be clear, both are deserving before the match, during the match, and in the months and perhaps years to come. And yet the match was definitely even, and Charlotte has earned her stripes. It was not the ideal finish to Asuka’s 2-plus year winning streak. Todd Phillips notes how Asuka’s streak sits at 914 days, which shows staggering patience by WWE. But then again, WWE messed up Charlotte’s PPV win streak over a year ago as well. WINNER: Charlotte Flair.
Third Match: In the United States Championship Fatal Fourway were Randy Orton vs. Bobby Roode vs. Jinder Mahal vs. Rusev. Smartly, WWE looks to push another triple threat out of the way early — er, excuse me, fatal four-way (Sheesh!) — for US Title (aka, the “Meh” second-tier belt on SmackDown). Matches like these showcase how too many belts deflate the prominence behind such storylines. This match is the SmackDown equivalent of RAW’s IC Triple Threat: three talented superstars with stutter-stop storytelling throughout 2017 and the Road to WrestleMania. Technically, Jinder Mahal had the best year of the three, becoming a first-time WWE Champion for the duration of summer 2017. He even feuded with Orton for a couple of initial PPVs.
The silver lining? Rusev, Jinder, and Roode each getting a decent mid-card match at WrestleMania 34. The downside is that this year’s card happens to be so magnificent that the hype might just overshadow matches that are simply “pretty good.” The other silver lining? The match is appropriately short (don’t let the audience get too tired). After a finishing move spot fest, Rusev gets a moment to bask in the “Rusev Day!” glory with the audience. The moment is his, just not the belt. Jinder ducks in last-minute and catches Rusev off guard, pinning him in the process. In hindsight, this was an interesting bout that demonstrated WWE’s talent-heavy issue in 2018. Namely, how to fit so many superstars into a PPV that, with pre-show, will have lasted an absolutely exhausting 7 hours and 10 minutes. Indeed, the brand split is looking smarter and smarter with each passing talent acquisition. WINNER: Jinder Mahal.
The Mid-Point (and Creative Peak) Main Event
In a bit of a surprise, for the fourth match, WrestleMania 34 pivots to one of WWE’s marquee mainstream attractions: the mixed tag match between Triple H and Stephanie McMahon against RAW GM Kurt Angle and Rowdy Ronda Rousey. The entrances were relatively vanilla. Triple H is known for his outlandish wish fulfillment entrances, including riffs on King Conan, the Terminator, even Sons of Anarchy. With out-of-control self-one-upmanship, the retread this year is a less impactful sister sequel to WrestlemMania 33’s oversized choppers revving down the entrance ramp. Meanwhile, Angle and Rousey’s reveals appear quite pedestrian.
And yet…unlike some weeks, the audience seems primed to play nice and root for Ronda. This match had all of the pomp and circumstance theatrics of a hokie celebrity tie-in. But the longer the match went on, the more the crowd got behind Ronda and Kurt (but Ronda especially).
For all of the gimmick match pieces in place—a McMahon family member, the outsider non-wrestler participation, semi-retired GM and legacy member back-in-action—there was a lot to suggest this match could easily fall into parody. The early uses of Ronda showed potential as well as a woman’s wrestler work-in-progress. Even the strategic placement across ESPN’s programming was hit-and-miss. With so much at stake, this foursome went all in on a gambit match every bit full of stakes, symbolism, danger, and all of the high drama that makes pro wrestling an addictive bit of cathartic theatrical athleticism.
The net results? The mixed tag program turned out to make a case for match of the night. While Angle and Trips were always in play to protect Ronda’s inexperience and Stephanie’s non-competitor corporate role, both women turned in superior performances. Ronda stepped up to the mat while Stephanie arguably played the best version of herself that she’s ever put on. The peak moment occurs when Rousey becomes stirred into attacking Hunter with such ferocious quick strikes that he oversells cowardice falling back into the corner. He is comically emasculated but also putting WWE’s new star over in front of a raucous crowd. The four performers span the emotional spectrum of sports entertainment without the pressure of going last. WINNERS: Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle.
Match Five: The New Day then comes out in a State Fair-themed lowbrow performance complete with dancing little people dressed as pancakes. I can’t even with this kind of sideshow attraction appeal. In the 2.5 sitting’s that it took me to take down the five hours of programming, I fast-forwarded through this “happy” bit both times (it’s probably my aversion to pancakes, but whatever). Truth be told, the New Day bit, which some scholars have compared to a contemporary minstrel show, was the “get excited!” start to the SmackDown Tag-Team Championship triple…*YAAAAWN!* threat match. For what it’s worth, The Usos are pretty slick performers. But this was always projected to be a transitional squash match finally awarding the Bludgeon Brothers (Rowan and Harper of Wyatt family fame) a tag title reward. WINNERS: The Bludgeon Brothers
Tensions between Stockholder Expectations and Fan Service with “Dream Match” Booking
I don’t know if I would feel this way if I didn’t sample SiriusXM’s Busted Open Radio, but the yearlong hype, discussion, and speculation concerning the Undertaker’s (alleged) retirement pushed this inevitable match into predictive overhype. The fans circle virtually shaped the WrestleMania 34 narrative as one that would welcome back the mid-career “American Badass” persona. And all of the ingredients supported this direction: Undertaker retiring his hat and gloves last year, Roman’s need to keep the claim that he “retired the Dead Man,” the induction of Taker’s biker anthem singer Kid Rock into the WWE Hall of Fame, and even the symmetry of the American Badass persona as the first backstager (and champion) to greet Cena after his inaugural WWE TV match. It made perfect sense. At least on paper and out loud and in my head it did.
Greatest Hits, Part I: Liminal Icons (Match Six). But for whatever reason, none of these events unfolded in the way that the teasers suggested. And this is WWE trolling its own “smart” fans for overthinking the simplicity of their narrative structure in the current era.
Cena buried Elias once more, in at least the third such squash since the Royal Rumble. The encounter appeared to be a ruse that took Cena out of the audience and into wrestling gear. The audience was meant to feel duped by Elias, and as Cena solemnly and effortlessly walked back up the elongated ramp mixed with celebration and disappointment, the lights cut to black. The Undertaker returns, traditional Dead Man wardrobe, his patented slow walk as slow as ever.
And yet…wow. The match was less a “greatest hits” between the two mega-stars and more of a complete Cena squash. At most the match went 3:30 minutes in-ring. It was a shocker, and for my money, not in a good way. Not after everything that came before, and arguably everything that would come after. The only gift the match offers fans is another year or more to speculate as to just why this happened in the first place.
At the same time, the layout is entirely understandable. The Undertaker is in indecisive retirement stasis and Cena’s Hollywood schedule is starting to stack up as heavily as The Rock’s. Perhaps neither could fully commit to the appearances, the booking, the rehearsal, and so on. And no one can say they haven’t earned that right, because dollars and cents and longevity on the roster vindicates how things played out. In an information economy, perhaps WWE sees the digital discourse as more valuable than the final product. And given Cena and Taker’s diverse schedule, it is pretty clear this is all they could arrange with limited coordination. There you have it, a clear picture of what impromptu execution looks like.
For the record, as there are competing narratives online: at 2:29:14 the bell rings. Then, the pinfall occurs at 3:32:00. That’s right, the actual match comes in under 2 minutes, 45 seconds.
Here is the match in a snapshot, courtesy of WWE.com https://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34/gallery/daniel-bryan-shane-mcmahon-kevin-owens-sami-zayn-photos#fid-40214263
Greatest Hits, Part II: Vendetta Tag Match (Match Seven). One match that carries all the hype but perhaps came off just a little bit flat was the Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn tag match against the SmackDown brass of Shane McMahon and the headline-grabbing return of Daniel Bryan. Bryan’s situation, not unlike Undertaker’s, suffers from a bit of hype fatigue in that anything short of a 1-hour 5-Star match would underwhelm obsessive fan audiences. WWE actually executed smart booking by having Shane take a pummeling for the majority of the bout. This narrative approach gave the match a meta-reflection of the 2-3 year Bryan gap, played out over the course of the match. This projects the real-life Brian Danielson (who would likely have some ring rust) and then allows him to play his “greatest hits” move set for a quick pin once he enters. It’s a doppelganger to Undertaker, a fan service match with all the ingredients (Uber-babyface Shane-O-Mac, indie-love for Owens, NXT nostalgia for Zayn). WINNERS: Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon
How To Book a Narrative Payoff (Match Eight).
The WWE RAW Women’s Championship match reached an appropriate cathartic conclusion that feels like it has been building longer than it really has. Throughout most of the last year, Alexa Bliss manipulated Nia Jax into a kind of one-way friendship as a method of diversion. This kept Nia from fully committing to challenge for the RAW Women’s Championship while occasionally protecting Bliss and providing a partner in tag matches. This made sense with both characters embodying distinct shades of heel (the hard-talking coward and the monster, respectively).
This succeeds as a long-form narrative arc because it allows characters to develop patterns while still leaving WWE booking options. Asuka was a player in the fold and could have easily overcome Bliss for her belt. And yet after winning the Women’s Royal Rumble, Asuka chose the noblest option possible by going after the strongest competition in Charlotte. Meanwhile, the insertion of Ronda Rousey into the Women’s Division equation created immediate possibilities in all directions, with the most logical decision to gain favor by taking out the boss (Stephanie). Thus, the Alexa/Nia angle came into focus at just the right time.
Mickey James transitioned from opponent to frenemy to mean girls accomplice, which put Alexa in position to accidentally and carelessly expose her low opinion of Nia. In a storyline that featured bullying, body shaming, smack talking, and gaslighting, these two performers tapped into some of the most authentic reflections of toxic masculinity/femininity in digital culture today. Their match is excellent and encapsulates the year’s worth of ups and downs with appealing choreography. Real-world incidents, unfortunately, end far too often in tragedy, but this match concluded with the appropriate level of triumphant, cathartic pathos. WINNER: Nia Jax.
Nia vs. Bliss, courtesy of WWE.com http://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34#full-detail-40040893
Match Nine: WrestleMania34 was insane in just how few times there was room for filler or letdown matches. Arguably, the sheer volume of content is what led some matches to appear more valley than peak (U.S. Championship) and the adrenaline crash of week-long festivities will always give way to audience impatience in the final acts. The WWE Championship is a different verse to the same song that haunted parts of the WrestleMania 34 macro narrative.
To clarify, the A.J. Styles versus Nakamura is a story that doesn’t need a heavy narrative setup (good thing too, because SmackDown mostly ignored it), but these strong styles (double pun?) do need temporal room to breathe. And yet a double bind emerges within this win-win setting. The performers will always already be compared to their previous, less restrictive New Japan Pro Wrestling main event at the Tokyo Dome. And while a large portion of WWE’s audience has never and will never see this match, the Nakamura character got further lost in translation moving from NXT to the main roster.
This sounds like a bit of armchair bellyaching and fan wallowing. Truth be told, this is another terrific match that had the relief of a Style victory (deserved) and the refreshing surprise of a Nakamura heel turn (which should fix some of his weekly character issues). Instead of the over-labeling of a “Dream Match” payoff, the post-match low blow to A.J. perhaps signals a new beginning (no end in sight!) that suggests this rivalry is just hitting its appropriate stride. WINNER: A.J. Styles
All TV Finales Suffer If You Binge-Watch the Entire Show in one Long Sitting
There is a danger in over-thinking pro wrestling, but one wonders if the proverbial transitional gimmick match between championship main events doesn’t serve as a “pallet cleanser” so much as a potential scapegoat for any time the final match doesn’t execute perfectly for either the performers or the fans.
That said, while the match was perfectly entertaining and serviceable, the fan reaction shifted into neutral during the A.J./Nakamura match and may have only popped hard one other time when Braun Strowman tagged in a young teenage kid that he “randomly selected from the crowd” to serve as RAW Championship tag-team partner. Other than that, the RAW Tag-Team bit was excruciating to watch primarily because WrestleMania 34 was at this point past the four-hour threshold. And six hours if one counts the pre-show. And nine and a quarter hours if one counts NXT: TakeoverNew Orleans. And fourteen plus hours if one considers how mind-numbering excess of a five-hour Hall of Fame ceremony Friday evening (I can never watch another Hillbilly Jim match ever).
The density of all this WWE content highlights their industry attempt to suffocate the competition, which is the typical corporate consumers buy into with Disney, Wal-Mart, the NFL, Netflix, etc. In reality, market saturation has led independent organizations to fight even harder. Every legit indie product now shadows WWE at the annual host site for WrestleMania. The entire week becomes a pro-wrestling mecca, and anyone who’s anyone makes appearances at multiple venues. The WWE may harness an unstoppable corporate hegemony, but the pro-wrestling community thrives as always from the success of warehouse outlets and passion-fueled communal productions.
To return to the final main events, it makes logical human sense that fans would face exhaustion de la spectacle after a full week of festivities (and thousands of dollars). If the adrenaline crashes for performers that “blow up” if not properly fit and fueled, imagine the average fan that is expected to sustain emotional investment from the antsy pre-gate moments in route to the stadium, up through the 7-hour card. The elongation of WrestleMania thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for impossible odds at show’s close. The bigger question is, why wouldn’t audiences be flat?
Match Ten: The interim tag-team championship was, apparently, entertaining. Braun went ultra babyface by picking a virtual child partner from the audience, in the process maintaining his strength cred by then beating Cesaro and Shamus (no slouches) to single-handedly gain the RAW tag titles. This much was telegraphed weeks in advance. WINNER: Braun Strowman (and Nicholas)
Match Eleven: Speaking of telegraphing, Brock Lesner versus Roman Reigns for the WWE Universal Championship. Industry insiders were talking about this match regularly as far back as spring. There were times throughout 2017 where I thought this made no sense. So many fresh foes emerged from Samoa Joe to Braun Strowman. The four mentioned superstars even shared a fatal four-way main event at Summer Slam 2017, so the idea of reteaming only two of them felt soft and repetitive. But there I was overthinking WWE’s booking again.
Regardless, I thought Reigns was aces in his weekly mic promos. The “suspension” storyline also made sense, and the UFC tease of Brock “skipping” this year’s Elimination Chamber to dine with Dana White brought back classic levels of kayfabe in mainstream media. As much as we all love to suspend disbelief, sometimes President Trump is accurate with this alternative definition regarding “fake news”. But I’m talking about Kardashian levels of gossip rag publications and websites, not scientific journals.
Days after WrestleMania 34, I am still perplexed by the main event. It was terrific and also a supersized rerun sequel. It closed with two shocking surprises, but only one of them felt (looked) organic. These two absolutely pummeled one another, but jaded fans that paid probably thousands of dollars on their ticket seemed disinterested. And for fans that still chant “C-M-Punk!” after all these years, I don’t feel like it’s a false equivalency to compare this act to constituents voting against their own interests. There is a certain IdiocracyEffect to paying thousands to go wait around an entire day just to sneak in and blow up a beach ball.
Is “safe booking” always fun? No. But neither is going to a murder mystery dinner theater and then refusing to eat or engage others or put your phone away when the theme is set to Victorian England. Dear smart mark fans: get over yourselves instead of trying to get yourself over.
Fans aside, the showdown between Reigns and Lesner was crazy weird. Braun and Samoa Joe each fell to a single F-5, but Reigns needed to take six. The false finishes piled up so high that each shoulder burst moved the match into Frank Miller Dark Knight Strikes Again/All-Star Batman & Robin territory. The surprising non-comeback and eventual win by Lesner recall the early seasons of Game of Thrones, where everything tells you the story is heading toward a noble mythological victory only for the hero to die. And how about that crimson mask on Roman? Along with Ronda emasculating Hunter and Charlotte’s golden-tinted entrance, this trio of images cultivates my visual memory of WrestleMania 34. LOSER: Roman Reigns
With Reigns losing, there was a sadness to letting the air out of his longstanding chase for the title. WWE and others constantly remind audiences that Roman is now in “Hulk Hogan” territory with four WrestleMania closing matches. But the angry mob wins in not letting him enjoy a legitimate title run, despite all of the clear work he puts in.
I have several working thoughts and critiques as to why fans fawn over Daniel Bryan but reject Roman Reigns, and cheer for Brock Lesnar despite a handful of yearly appearances. There is something toxic to this type of fandom. When it’s aimed at the company, at the corporation, there is a working class catharsis to such frustration. But when the angst seems to be aimed at a superstar that does everything fans “respect” from names like John and Mark and Daniel and Terry…I have to rhetorically question what that missing ingredient might be.
WrestleMania 34 Honors
Wrestling Match of the Night: Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka
Wrestling Story of the Night: Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs. Stephanie McMahon and Triple H
Wrestling Story Arc of the Year (fulfilled): Nia Jax defeating Alexa Bliss for the RAW Women’s Title
Best Entrance of the Night: Charlotte Flair
Best Heel Turn: Nakamura
Fan Service Award: Daniel Bryan comeback victory
Scarlett Letter Award: The Roman Reigns Crimson Mask
The editors for the Professional Wrestling Studies Association are happy to celebrate this year’s Wrestlemania week with the new special edition of the Popular Culture Studies Journal on professional wrestling.
This special edition can be accessed for free here. The essays contain work from a variety of scholars on numerous topics related to professional wrestling studies. All academic discussions were written to be accessible for the widest possible audience.
Along with the scholarly work, the collection contains an essay from a fan on New Japan Pro Wrestling, reviews for various pro-wrestling media (from a documentary to a podcast), and interviews with pro-wrestling indie stars on how they view social media in their profession.
You can see the full list of articles and contributors below.
PWSA would like to thank editors Garret Castleberry, CarrieLynn D. Reinhard, and Christopher J. Olson for overseeing this special edition, as well as reviewers David Beard, Matt Foy, Charles L. Hughes, Jack Karlis, Dan Mathewson, and Catherine Salmon.
Over the summer of 2018, we at PWSA will be working to organize our own open access, free journal to coincide with each year’s Wrestlemania. If you are interested in this journal, then please contact us at email@example.com.
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.
This SummerSlam article got away from me. It’s about eight times longer than I intended, so I’m releasing it in two parts.
Part One is about my pre-SummerSlam preparations, including my reengagement with WWE after many years away. Part Two has my actual SummerSlam review, including my grades for each match, which, when tallied, will yield SummerSlam’s cumulative G.P.A.
Before I get going, I need to confess that, prior to writing it, I didn’t know what kind of review this (now) two-part article was going be. I didn’t know what tone I was shooting for, nor what voice I was writing in – in other words, what side of the “acafan” continuum I’d be leaning toward. Now that it’s all written, let me warn you that it leans sharply toward the fan side than it does the aca side. Or more precisely, it leans sharply toward the 1980s-era-smark-fan side.
Part One: Preparations (Or: I’m Writing a SummerSlam Review? Remind me: What’s SummerSlam again?)
Just kidding! I know what SummerSlam is…it’s just that I don’t watch WWE all that much anymore. In fact, I haven’t seriously watched WWE since before SummerSlam even existed!
Now, if I’m channel surfing on a Monday night, and I happen to land on the USA Network, I’ll pause to see what’s going on, hoping to take in some good in-ring action – something that will remind me why WWE is the flagship company, why every wrestler in the universe hopes to make it there.
Here’s how my experience checking in with WWE inevitably goes (or, at least, this is what it feels like):
5 minutes in – Lots of talking, no wrestling.
10 minutes in – More talking, no wrestling.
15 minutes in – Yay! Wrestling! FINALLY!
15 minutes and 30 seconds in – They’re cutting to commercial in the middle of the match? WTF???
Back to channel surfing.
I used to be a fan of the WWE. Actually, let me be more precise: I used to be a fan of the WWF. I mean, a huge fan. I collected WWF trading cards and action figures; I watched Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling on Saturday mornings; I could sing the lyrics to every song on The Wrestling Album, which I owned on vinyl; I watched the first WrestleMania, via closed-circuit TV at the Toronto International Centre; and I even remember somehow scoring tickets to the Toronto premiere of that gawd-awful Hulk Hogan movie No Holds Barred, which played in the teeniest, tiniest of the Eaton Centre’s mind-blowingly huge (at the time) 18 screens.
And I watched a ton of wrestling. It came on TV three or four times per week, as far as I remember. We’d get Stu Hart’s Calgary Stampede Wrestling and Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. From time to time we’d also get Jim Crockett Jr.’s Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. But above all else, we’d get a healthy dosage of Maple Leaf Wrestling. Back in the day, MLW was my home territory with weekly TV tapings shot in the old Maple Leaf Gardens, which wrestling buffs will remember for having that giant ramp that led from the backstage area up to the ring apron.
Vince McMahon took over MLW in the mid-1980s, so I watched the WWF Golden Age superstars during my pre-teen years – Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Junkyard Dog, Captain Lou Albano, Andre the Giant, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, The Hart Foundation, and so forth. My favorites were always the wrestlers with the goofiest gimmicks: George “The Animal” Steele, The Missing Link, The Moondogs, and especially, The Iron Sheik, who, even though he “borrowed” his gimmick from the original Sheik, he played it with such over the top virtuosity that he remains my favorite wrestler of all time.
MLW also featured a local jobber I really, really liked: “Iron” Mike Sharpe, who was always introduced as “Canada’s greatest athlete.” He never won a match, but he was a jobber with an actual gimmick: an old forearm injury that forced him to wear a protective leather sleeve…which was rumored to be loaded with a metal plate, thus making his forearm smash lethal.
Yes, Iron Mike Sharpe had a lethal forearm smash. No wonder he was Canada’s greatest athlete.
Long story short: as the WWF’s Golden Age morphed into the Monday Night Wars and the Attitude Era, I grew a little bit older and little bit less interested – not overnight, but gradually, over time. Stone Cold and The Rock were interesting enough, and the Hardy Boyz did some crazy stuff in the ring – and I really did get a kick out of Goldust – but the new WWE didn’t have a place for the “Iron” Mike Sharpes and George “The Animal” Steeles of my childhood. And I definitely couldn’t stand the new backstage “unscripted” stuff, which I found to be forced and annoying – and falling well short of the Shakespearian heights of Piper’s Pit and The Brother Love Show.
Eventually, probably in the late 1990s, I pretty much dropped out of wrestling fandom. I mean, I was vaguely aware of who the big stars were at any given moment, but I didn’t really watch the WWF/E on TV. And though I would gleefully reminisce with anyone about the old WWF – especially about “Iron” Mike Sharpe, if anyone could remember him – my wrestling days felt like they were behind me.
But then, in 2007, I moved to Charlotte NC and discovered the glorious world of southern indie wrestling, and that old wrestling spark reignited! If you’re interested, you can read about some of my forays into indie wrestling here. Suffice it to say, I’m now plugged into the indie scene in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas in a more personal, intimate way than I ever was with the Golden Age of the WWF.
Let me put this a different way to give you get a sense for where my wrestling fandom is now located. Here is a list, as best I can reconstruct it, of all of the local indie promotions whose shows I’ve attended since I last watched a WWF/E show in its entirety:
I’ve also seen Big Time Wrestling shows that have come to the region, as well as a couple of TNA (now Global Force Wrestling) shows – and I think one Ring of Honor show (though I can’t remember if I actually went to their Charlotte show a few years back, or if I tried to go but couldn’t for some reason).
What do I like about the indies so much? I like the gritty, old school feel. I like the small, intimate settings that allow for a much more immediate back and forth between fans and wrestlers. It’s pro wrestling stripped of all the WWE’s glitz and glamour – kind of like DIY kayfabe: nothing flashy, but totally authentic. Southern indie wrestling, in other words, is a throwback to the late Territory Era, right when a handful southern promoters – Bill Watts, Jerry Jarrett, Jim Crockett Jr., Vince McMahon – began thinking about taking their territories national. So, maybe like late 1970s to early 1980s professional wrestling, which, probably not coincidentally, corresponds to my earliest wrestling memories.
I admit it: southern indie wrestling tugs my nostalgia heartstrings.
All of this now brings me now to SummerSlam – or at least to my decision to write a review of SummerSlam for PWSA, even though I’m much more up to speed on Premiere Wrestling Xperience’s “Man Scout” Jake Manning (suspended!) than I am with WWE’s current champion, Jindar Mahal – whom I know more from the New York Times feature on him than I do from actually watching him in the ring.
(Aside: praise wrestling Jeebus that the phrase “Indian wrestler” no longer conjures memories of the most cringe-worthy wrestler of all time, The Great Khali!)
SummerSlam will be my first intentional reengagement with the WWE for a long, long time. I will admit that I’m quite looking forward to it!
Getting Ready for SummerSlam
Step 1: Sign up for a free month-long trial of the WWE Network.
Step 2: Set a calendar reminder for 30 days hence to cancel the WWE Network.
Step 3: Download the WWE Network on all my devices and login to see if it works.
But what’s this? A video is automatically loading? Whatever could this be?
“The Top Ten WWE Comebacks.”
Huh. I wonder what the top ten comebacks could possibly be? Maybe I’ll watch for a couple of minutes before I get back to work on that academic article that’s been kicking my butt this summer.
Okay, they’re counting down from number 10…
#10 Bret “The Hitman” Hart
“How’d you know I’d be watching this?”, I ask the WWE auto-loading video? Not only does it start with a WWF Golden Age icon, it starts with a WWF Golden Age icon who is also bona fide Canadian wrestling royalty! I remember watching Bret Hart on Calgary Stampede Wrestling before he was “The Hitman,” before the Hart Foundation, before he rocked the coolest sunglasses in the history of professional wrestling.
The Hitman’s exit from the WWF, following the infamous Montreal Screwjob, is the stuff of legend: legit backstage heat between Hart and Shawn Michaels; the two squaring off at Survivor Series in Montreal for Hart’s heavyweight championship; Michaels putting Hart in Hart’s own sharpshooter; referee Earl Hebner surprising Hart with a really quick bell; a stunned Hart hocking a giant loogie at McMahon (and, given the distance, impressively hitting him in the ear); Hart decking McMahon in the locker room afterwards; Hart gone from the WWE, his hatred of Michaels, McMahon, and the entire company simmering for over a decade…until his shocking return in 2005, burying the hatchet with Michaels, and getting inducted, rightfully, into the Hall of Fame.
There are nine better comebacks than this? How is this possible?
I must keep watching.
#9: Chris Jericho
Y2J’s comeback was better than Hart’s? Impossible. I mean, Jericho was a great worker…but how is this comeback remotely comparable to the Montreal Screwjob and a 13-year hate-filled exile and Prodigal Son-esque return?
Well, at least Jericho is also Canadian. I’ll give you a pass this once, WWE auto-loading video. But you better come through with #8, or I’m logging off and getting back to that academic article you’re distracting me from.
#8: Hulk Hogan
Touché, WWE auto-loading video. You have identified the comeback that just might be as great as Hart’s, even though the Hulkster wasn’t a quarter of the in-ring worker as Hart, and even though Hogan owned what is unquestionably the lamest finishing move in the history of the WWF/E. None of that matters because during the Golden Age, Hulk Hogan was the WWF.
Everyone knows the story of Hogan’s exit and return: Monday Night Wars; mass defections to WCW; Hollywood Hulk and nWo; WWF on life support. And then, out of nowhere, Vince miraculously acquires WCW and Mr. Golden Age returns (but with a weird painted-on black beard).
Now that’s a comeback!
Oh wow, auto-loading video just reminded me that Hogan battled The Rock in WrestleMania 18. We’ll call that the matchup between the lamest finishing move in the history of professional wrestling (double leg drop) against the second lamest finishing move in the history of professional wrestling (the people’s elbow).
There are 7 better comebacks than Hogan’s? How is this possible? I’ll watch one more…then back to work.
Is there a glitch in the WWE app? Did the video switch to “top-ten face paint”?
I’m not even sure Sting ever actually left WCW. Now, granted I was beginning to lose interest in wrestling by the mid-1990s, so my memory is a little hazy here…and I never knew the WCW like I did the WWF anyway…but didn’t Sting merely change his makeup and wrestling outfit? He went from colorful and happy to dark and brooding?
How does a character flip count as a comeback? You are drunk, WWE auto-loading video. By this standard Adrian Adonis should be #1.
I’ll give you one more chance to prove yourself – and then I’m going back to work.
#6: Shawn Michaels
Okay, this was a good comeback. I’ll admit it.
But on behalf of Bret “The Hitman” Hart (circa. 1997-2005) and all Canadian wrestling fans everywhere, I hereby announce my objection to Michaels’ comeback listed ahead of Hart’s.
And Hogan’s for that matter.
But Michaels definitely deserves to be above Sting. But not Jericho (because of the whole Canadian thing).
Raise your hand if give a sh!t about Edge.
Even if you just raised your hand, how was his comeback better than that of Canadian wrestling royalty? Or that of the most recognizable professional wrestler in the history of professional wrestling?
Oh wait. Edge is Canadian too, right? (Wikipedia confirms.) Okay, I’ll give him a pass…even though he’s not Canadian wrestling loyalty.
He also came back from a ruptured Achilles in 8 months. I ruptured mine right around the same time as he ruptured his (must be a structural flaw in the Canadian anatomy) and it took me a solid year to come back. Props to him. He can stay on the list.
#4: Brock Lesnar
Dumb. Whoever voted on this stuff has no historical perspective.
I don’t know: that last one just doesn’t seem to have the same je ne sais quoi. (Thought I’d write that last phrase in Canadian.)
Wait…what’s this, WWE auto-loading video? Undertaker isn’t actually #3? This is just a gratuitous addition to the list of ten for the simple reason that Undertaker keeps “dying” and then coming back?
But that’s his whole gimmick! He’s the dead man. He dies and he comes back! Isn’t this supposed to be a shoot list, not a work list?
I am going to make an executive decision here and declare all worked comebacks ineligible for this list. Undertaker, your special category is hereby vacated. Sting, you are also disqualified.
In the slot vacated by Sting, I am officially inserting Jake “The Snake” Roberts. He left a maleficent keeper of gigantic snakes with names like Damian and Lucifer; he came back a Bible quoting, born-again Christian — with a gigantic snake named Revelations.
Now that’s a comeback!
Real #3: Triple H
Better than Hart? Better than Hogan? Better than Michaels?
I’m suspicious of you, WWE auto-loading video. How did you put this list together?
What’s that, you say? Fans voted?
Ah, this is starting to make sense. Edge, Undertaker, Jericho, both halves of D-Generation X: 80% of the votes were cast by fans who were 10 years old during the Attitude Era. Who’s next on the list? The Rock?
#2: The Rock
Thanks, millennials. You ruin everything. Retirement funds, napkins, golf, dinner dates, department stores, churchgoing, home-owning, Applebee’s, and now WWE Network auto-loading top-10 lists.
But I will give you this: The Rock had mic skills! The footage in the auto-loading video of him trash talking John Cena, mocking his bland wrestling outfit and his face-wavey thing, is pure wrestling gold!
#1: John Cena
Of course millennials vote Cena #1. They have no respect (please speak this in your head with your best Iron Sheik accent).
John Cena: the Wonder Bread face of the WWE. Suffice it to say, in the battle between “Let’s go Cena” and “Cena sucks,” I’m firmly with the latter.
But I do think his entrance music is kind of great. The jorts…not so much.
Finally, the WWE auto-loading video is over, and I’ve just lost a good hour of work on that article I’m supposed to be writing. But before I get back to it, I absolutely must take a quick peek at the WWE Network’s much ballyhooed vault. How best to test its capacity?
I know: I’ll run a search for my favorite Canadian jobber, “Iron” Mike Sharpe.
You gotta be kidding me! 19 pages of results! 190 “Iron” Mike Sharpe matches to watch!
I bow to you, WWE vault.
For nostalgia’s sake, I need to watch one. The first page has an “Iron” Mike vs. S.D. “Special Delivery” Jones match in a rare jobber vs. jobber match.
Oh yeah, I’m definitely watching this. Maybe I can dig up “Iron” Mike vs. Barry Horowitz or “Iron” Mike vs. Barry O match after.
The match loads and plays, and there he is: the “Iron” Mike of my childhood, grunting his way around the ring, protective shield around his “injured” right forearm…when out of nowhere, he crushes S.D. Jones with a lethal forearm smash…S.D. goes down, “Iron” Mike goes for the pin…one…two…three!
WHAAAATTT??? “Iron” Mike actually won a match during his career?
(I just checked Wikipedia: “Iron” Mike got a brief push during his WWF career. I have no memory of this.)
Now, you may be asking yourself: Dan, why do you bash Hulk Hogan’s and The Rock’s ridiculous finishing moves, but not “Iron” Mike’s? Why are a double leg drop and an elbow smash lame finishers, but a forearm smash a fantastic one?
Isn’t the difference obvious? “Iron” Mike wore a leather sleeve over his forearm to protect an old “injury,” and said protective sleeve was long rumored to conceal some sort of unauthorized metal plate. When the forearm-sleeve-plate connects with the side of an opponent’s head – especially when that the blow is delivered by “Canada’s Greatest Athlete”– well, that obviously knocks his opponent out. One, two, three, “Iron” Mike for the win.
Okay, I really must turn off the WWE Network. If I let myself, I’d be watching it for the next three days straight – chasing down old Missing Link matches, and such.
Let me end this section by saying this: the WWE Network is really cool. Supremely disruptive of my summer research plans…but cool nonetheless.
Welcome to the inaugural event recap for the Professional Wrestling Studies Association. In an effort to kick off our annual event coverage of prestige wrestling shows, our aim will be covering both “mainstream” and independent bookings, and one of the best ways we can welcome a broad audience of readers and enthusiasts is with one of the most recognized wrestling events of the year, WWE’s SummerSlam.
Numerous alternative websites offer fan coverage of pro-wrestling events. Some provide detailed articulations of matchups and move sets—I recall this practice years ago populated by the message board elite. And when I say “years ago,” we’re talking pre-Reddit digital spectatorship. I’ll tip my hat to some of the most consistent pro-wrestling coverage produced by fan and sports-related websites like Den of Geek, Bleacher Report, and even more elevated criticism sites like The A.V. Club. In recent years, the lines blur even more with regular coverage coming from Rolling Stone, SI.com, and the gone-too-soon Grantland.
We hope to offer enough of an alternative spin that does not work to simply repeat the wheel. Our aim is to offer quality commentary and writing that can provide a sense of social, cultural, and even political history and context. Our writers seek to provide rich insights that play with text and context; examining (and enjoying) both the overt and the covert aspects that pro wrestling grapples with. With that said, we hope you’ll bookmark our page, share an article or essay you find interesting, and feel free to provide feedback to our writers or Twitter feed in general.
Hence we arrive at SummerSlam. The WWE’s Pay-Per-View SummerSlam is now booked second to only Wrestlemania. In the WWE’s consumer hierarchy, this event is kind of like Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, only in reverse order. Each year, the event seems to loosen the belt around its metaphorical waist just a little bit more. Only a couple of years ago it seemed impossible that the PPV event ran a planned four hours (plus one-hour preshow). This year the event is budgeted at 5 hours and 15-minutes, a paralyzing method to force the consumer into butt-coma submission.
Feed. Me. More. (oh wait…)
On one hand, the “more is better” mantra is in full swing, and seemingly rewards all those willing to invest in the stream-era friendly $9.99 a month. On the other hand, a cynical reading of WWE’s corporate strategy points toward industry exhaustion. By industry exhaustion, it would seem clear that WWE intends to offer so much content that audiences and fans in particular feel pressured to fully invest in the WWE experience. Not only would this include participatory consumption of both the RAW and Smackdown “brands,” but also the “indie”-esque WWE Network exclusive brand, NXT. These are but the top of a WWE pyramid of programming (think about that metaphor in business terms) that asks viewers to sit back, relax, and simply fall down the proverbial rabbit hole of endless (mindless?) programming.
According to this corporate strategy, the consumer then lacks time or money to invest in alternative wrestling products like New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground, House of Hardcore, Global Force/Impact Wrestling, and so on. Thus, we come to the capitalist threshold of whether there is such a thing as “too much” of anything. That assessment, one objectively suggests, is in the eye of the beholder.
So, with that said, let’s go ahead and dive into the action and see if this five-hour gargantuan lives up to the hype.
That said, the first two matches of the feature show represent SmackDown. Industry veteran with universal appeal John Cena opens the formal show with a match against former NFL’er Baron Corbin. If readers have made it this far in the write-up, then it’s safe to assume Cena needs no introduction. Literally the most profitable “sports entertainer” to follow Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Cena has finally broken the streak of failed attempts by pro wrestlers to crossover into mainstream Hollywood iconicity after Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Unfortunately, Cena’s best days now seem to be completely tethered to Hollywood blockbusters (this is not a prediction that the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee will in any way save Michael Bay’s cynical cash cow franchise).
Whatever momentum SmackDown did (or did not) provide in the lead up, the opener turns out to be nothing more than a glorified squash match. While Corbin would no doubt have benefited from a “Cena bump” with the win, allegations of backstage heat seems to have produced WWE’s preferred form of corporal punishment: public humiliation. Indeed, more emphasis seemed to be on which ringside celebrities Cena high-fived on his way out than any storytelling outcome for either participant.
In a bit of a surprise, Natalya Hart defeated Naomi clean for the SmackDown Women’s Championship in match #2. Their pairing featured a couple of nice spots, but the act feels closer to a time-marking warm-up act. The same might be said for the storyline heavy follow-up in match #3, a “shark cage” match between Big Cass and Big Show. Dangling above the ring in the shark cage is Cass’s former tag team partner, Enzo Amore. Enzo himself has been linked to a number of hearsay accounts of backstage shenanigans, and the breakup with his long-running partner seems to be yet another case of blurred lines between factual workplace behavior and fictional comeuppance.
Big Show is a preeminent workhorse for the WWE. However, his character has suffered from so many face-heel turns over the years that audiences have become ambivalent to his role in any program. In this case, his purpose works to prop up Enzo’s physical inadequacy up against Cass while also putting over Cass’s as the next “big” thing (although that may now be in question given what happened on the post-Slam RAW). It’s an honorable role, and one of the only things that provide this match with momentum. If the shark cage weren’t gimmick enough—surely Enzo could have been provided a mic to taunt everyone throughout—the under-sized Italiano does provide a late laugh when he strips down and reaches within to locate travel-size bottle of body oil in an effort to intervene from above. The schtick rightfully fails and Cass gives big boots to everyone. He hands Big Show a clean loss, but one that can be disputed simply by Big Show’s “injured hand,” an ongoing prop Cass targets again and again throughout their bout.
A backstage exchange between GMs Kurt Angle and Daniel Bryan functions as a preview of main events at the expense of taking either persona serious. Perhaps built to provide commentators and set designers time to transition materials, match #4 features yet another SmackDown exchange between Randy Orton and Rusev. Not having kept up with all of the SD storylines since Wrestlemania, it’s hard to say whether the match works. That said, Rusev seems to have trimmed his weight down considerably without losing his bulk or muscle. However, like Corbin, Rusev gets a strong pre-match jab in before literally losing on a single RKO after the opening bell. At this point I have to ask, do the bookers even believe in this festivity?
As the first hour (really the second, plus some) closes, SummerSlam picks up steam with “The Boss” Sasha Banks strutting to the ring in what can be described as a peacock onesie. This is certainly a low-key self-presentation when compared to the monetary investment poured into Wrestlemania entrances, but the adjustment suggests something sneaky might be in store. The peacock onesie is contrasted against the verbal product placement during RAW Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss’s entrance. Michael Cole waxes synergistic gobbledygoop about how Bliss received a Yankees jersey earlier in the week (during one of WWE’s endless displays of stockholder-impressing cross-brand PR). The matchup is the strongest so far, with both women wrestlers matched well according to size, speed, and agility.
This is the first match of the night in which both competitors appear to be moving at full speed. Each show a willingness and intent to sell for the other, and the match inadvertently works like a burlesque show where the two slowly tease toward a dangerous (looking) finish. As her makeup smears slowly down her face midway through, it’s astonishing to consider the undersized Bliss was losing lower card bouts at NXT house shows a little over a year ago. It goes to show her crackling persona on the mic helped elevate her status at a time where larger and more muscular female performers were leading this “Women’s Revolution.” In the second title change as many Womens matches, Banks convinces Bliss to tap out after a number of Banks Statement repositions.
The following match failed to generate much pre-PPV hype, but quickly draws audience appeal. Bray Wyatt has come to be known as somewhat of a career-staller for any opponent he faces. His supernatural voodoo persona never seemed quite able to win over any major title (other than the transitional weeks between Elimination Chamber and WrestlemaniaXXXIII), and he always appeared to lose programs against major superstar opponents. Conversely, Finn Balor came onto the main roster white hot, winning the first matchup for the Universal Title at last year’s SummerSlam, only to relinquish it due to severe injury. After Balor’s eight-month absence, he’s experienced a bit of a peek-a-boo with prime-time positions mixed with some lower card losses. Thus, there’s a bit of reluctance to this matchup in that fans might be setting themselves up for disappointment in wanting to see him at main event status so quickly.
It’s unfair to say Bray/Balor is a matchup predicated on enigmatic intros but, fortunately, they consistently deliver a physical and psychological encounter. Finn makes his “Demon King” entrance, the first since the previous SummerSlam, and the audience rightly goes bonkers in playing along. The performance art of his animalistic crawl toward the ring displays professional wrestling at its most aesthetically unapologetic. Fortunately, Balor is no gimmick. His in-ring work, even when selling, elevates his status. The Demon gets a quicker-than-predicted win, thus showcasing how he, like Bliss, bucks the trend toward enormous physicality as prerequisite.
Clash of the Titans
As the upper card comes into focus, bout #7 offers the third consecutive Raw matchup. In the first tag-team exchange after the pre-show, Raw Tag Champs Sheamus and Cesaro take on the quasi-reunited Shield members Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins. All four competitors consistently work like main eventers, and only backstage politics or injuries have kept them just beneath the upper tier. Ambrose is a former indie darling and WWE Universe fan favorite, while Rollins earned audience favor during an injury hiatus but drifted back into middle pack territory after bad writing stalled his heel-to-face redemption arc. Similarly, Sheamus has all the elite goods but faced a circumstance of bad timing (and bad hair) that kept him out of fans’ good grace. Cesaro underwent a reverse situation where he only needed to satisfy an audience of one—Vince McMahon—but failed to adequately “grab the brash ring” at the apropos time. Timing is everything.
The foursome put on a decent enough match, but questions surround the bout more than the action itself. What will the melodrama between Rollins and Ambrose lead to next? Is this a temporary alliance (ahem, convenient enough to keep them in the mid-card rather than the pre-show for SummerSlam) or will the part ways soon after the PPV? How long will Sheamus and Cesaro remain dominant? Is their feud with the Hardys over, and if so, is the mission for them to help revive tag team wrestling? I was so busy exploring the possibilities, briefly oblivious to the ring action, that I looked up to acknowledge Cesaro seemingly breaking character (sort of) to jump the fence, retrieve a red-white-blue beach ball, and tear it to shreds. Despite the heelish “anti-America/anti-audience” gesture, the arena popped tremendously at his assertion.
As the tension ratchets up, and exchanges pick up pace, I ask myself the one question I always default to in an Ambrose bout: How can anyone wrestle that long in blue jeans? I mean, I need to know what kind of materials that really is? How do they not rip apart every. Single. Night? Undertaker’s purple lightning? Meh. Bray Wyatt’s bayou cult? Forget about it. Kayfabe or no kayfabe, I need intel on Dean Ambrose’s magical blue jeans.
In a shocker that I somehow didn’t see coming, a tremendously choreographed closing found Rollins springboarding in to double superkick both opponents, which led to Dean’s dirty deeds on Sheamus. The two seemed too jazzed to pick up the belts. It was interesting trying to gauge an authentic interpretation. Ambrose lost the WWE Championship after last year’s SummerSlam, then found his way down to the Intercontinental title that barely made the pre-show at Wrestlemania. He’s got to feel like there’s a bit of a refresher to at least sporting a strap for the time being, especially one that seems to sit well with fans.
AJ Styles and Kevin Owens continue their SmackDown feud in match #8. As co-host Dave LaGreca acknowledged on Sirius XM’s Busted OpenSummerSlam prediction show, the AJ/Owens feud should have been red hot but has instead felt coldly flat since its inception. I agree. Special guest referee Shane McMahon is meant to add some heat, but it’s almost like a Wrestlemania echo in that AJ is so friggin’ talented but can’t seem to catch a break with the perfect opponent or storyline since losing the WWE title at the Royal Rumble. The two do their best to win back an emotionally spent crowd, especially fans no doubt sitting on their hands waiting for both Nakamura’s entrance and the Universal title fatal four-way. After a plethora of near finishes and quasi-interferences with ref Shane (who is sweating like a stuffed pig selling a lower back injury), AJ retains his US Championship before yet another in-PPV commercial break.
And now for a brief message from our sponsor.
It might be the perfect place to pause and suggest the ecstasy of allowing just enough of a time delay prior to starting any LIVE contemporary marathon programming like a Sunday Night Football, the Olympics, or a WWE mega-event like Wrestlemania. Such is the beautiful digital age we live in, a post-VCR high definition experience cemented by the convenience of streaming services and the advent of DVR. The down side, however, is that the later one starts, the longer it drags on. And if, say, you’re a person writing about the content as you work through it, fast-forwarding even the smaller breaks is a hit/miss opportunity.
Main Event, or as they say, Multicultural Synergistic Convergence
I don’t want to begrudge main event #1 in the least bit. As critical as I can be, and as deliberately global-focused as it can seem, I definitely applaud the mixed culture focus for the WWE Championship. I would like to suggest that this is the first International-versus-International bout for the elite belt in WWE’s history. In more product placement, the SmackDown commentators take their own bait and mention the supposed “front page” of the arts section of the New York Times, featuring coverage of SummerSlam in some capacity, and perhaps a commentary on “the artist” persona loosely attached to Nakamura.
On the other hand, Jinder Mahal is coded as Indian-Other, in case it isn’t clear from the Taj Mahal backdrop, Indian pop-theme music, and Singh Brothers’ entourage in tow. Either way, Jinder (albeit of Canadian heritage) is at least fresh on the eyes and completely jacked. Perhaps he and Rusev–-former pals on RAW that each took a noted hiatus—have exchanged training regimens.
There’s a real crackle in the air for this championship. The audience seems to feel it, which goes against WWE’s normal preference of a White savior figure always in the title picture. Nakamura clearly earns the audience’s favor, with “Na-ka-mu-ra!” chants flowing in and out of earshot. This matchup is a rarity where I had to force myself to put the computer down and simply enjoy the performance onscreen. The encounter is by far Nakamua’s best match since coming up to the main roster from NXT. Just in time. Likewise, Jinder’s rise to the top from being on the low end of squash matches was meteoric. But he seems comfortable here in this role. In what has become a fan-favorite moment at PPVs, Shinsuke lays waste to the Singh Brothers, but in a downright shocker, this leaves Nakamura open to “the modern day Maharaja’s” finisher. One-two-three and Mahal retains his title, handing Nakamura his first “official” WWE singles loss. Wow.
Retro 80s Dream Match Reaches Nirvana
Is it too early to call this SummerSlam’s best main event ever? It’s hard to recall a final match where every participant qualifies at “monster” status. In a true throwback to the anabolic era in WWE history, this main event received the strongest build up between both brands. And rightly so. Up-and-coming fan favorite Braun Strowman enters first to a mediocre pop compared to the gushing applause he gets every Monday night. Joe enters second to a bit more fanfare. It’s hard to say which of the two main event newcomers are most popular as underdogs here. Legacy wrestler Roman Reigns, the only face technically, enters to a full-bodied serenade of boos throughout the arena. Reigns walks down unfazed before Brock Lesnar completes the pre-bout entrances to a moderate mixed reception. The crowd seems a touch quiet (muted in post-production perhaps) and, while it’s completely understandable, it’s also a bit of a letdown. They should be absolutely psyched.
Corey Graves assures us, “We are not on Skull Island,” just as Michael Cole remarks the combined weight of the entrants exceeds “1,000 pounds.” Bring it. Once within the ring, all parties stand corner to corner squaring each other up while a second full-roster introduction is decreed. This time the crowd starts to amp up considerably, and before long, the audience in attendance becomes fully immersed in this strong man spectacular.
The initial bell leads to a brief burly man brawl. The combatants lay into one another, beefy fisticuffs into hardened flesh. The match later diverges into the outskirts around the ring apron, but not before the crowd is treated to several epic square-offs interchanging focal opponents. This is a goosebumps match that goes well over Brock’s notoriously short average. Lesnar and Reigns briefly replay their underrated Wrestlemania XXXI encounter to the crowd’s delight. The tension escalates between interruptions and then dissipates after an outside spear sends them both through the guard wall. It is fantastic watching this many big men move so fast in rhythm with one another.
Quickly the crowd gets behind and continues to root for monster heel Strowman. The response to the greenest of competitors here is entirely noteworthy. While a member of the Wyatt Family, Strowman became a bit of a gag with his silly facial expressions, but in the last year he’s worked as hard as anyone in the company to improve at his craft and develop a memorable persona. In a skirmish outside the ring, perhaps the highpoint of the match, Strownman picks up Brock Lesnar for a running powerslam that transitions into a flip onto (and through) the first of three announce tables. The crowd goes nuts and Strowman rides his adrenaline through a second even more devastating table squash. With “the Beast” Lesnar reeling on his back, Strowman actually hooks his second running powerslam, which lands awkwardly into what I might describe as a kind of summersault spear. Both competitors look spent, each gushing sweat at this point early on. However, the crowd chants “One more time! One more time!” and while it would be fair enough for Reigns or Joe to intervene, Braun lifts the third announce table up and onto Brock, and arguably elevates his own career at this moment.
To suggest Braun went over on his three equals is an understatement. He proved himself in spades and worked in the most offense on his opponents. Strowman kept the energy of the match high for the audience, which is key, and seemed to triple if not quadruple Brock’s average ring time in the process. This is saying something. While Strowman was already gaining popularity and growing momentum in the months before—what with beating Reigns like a ragdoll for much of the summer—he seemed to come into his own on the SummerSlam stage, his first major PPV main event.
As a critical takeaway, one questions whether WWE did the right strategic thing by having Brock ultimately (but barely) retain, or if they have yet again hesitated to pull the trigger at the right time. Stalling momentum killed Reigns in the lead up to Wrestlemania XXX. By not winning that year’s Royal Rumble, the company lost its opportunity for a true super baby face to emerge. By the time they course corrected the following year, fans were over such overt face-fawning product placement. Arguably, this was the night to take a gamble.
In my opinion, there was no scenario (Shield reunion or otherwise) in which Reigns winning would work. Joe could have been a slick way to go for the fall, but his performance here was flat and at times absent altogether. Brock was the safe keeper, although also a gamble if rumors of his return to MMA and UFC are authentic. Strowman, having recently recovered from major surgery in record time, was the big bet. The crowd was ready and his Monday night presence has been consistently strong and welcomed by audiences.
But this is a business, after all, and SummerSlam is now an international commodity. Brock Lesnar looked like the New England Patriots of late, squeaking out one final championship when it finally seemed impossible. The two deserve close comparison indeed. I wonder if the WWE has recruited any of the NFL’s staff writers?