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

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

By Garret Castleberry and Kristine Weglarz

With Survivor Series headed to Houston, WWE once again experiments with the traditional team-up versus team-up formula. A couple of years ago, WWE completely abandoned the traditional four-on-four tag team format when the abrupt injury to WWE heel champion Seth Rollins led to a rushed together tournament designed to put the main title strap on a struggling Roman Reigns. Fast-forward two years and Reigns, for better or worse, still struggles to generate mass appeal due to his “oversaturation” as top babyface for the company. And while Reigns may have headlined a “too sweet” Shield reunion as co-main event, recent illness helped create a last-minute shuffle of the Survivor Series card from the top down.

Last year, Survivor Series capitalized on the resurgence of the “brand split” storyline, pitting red brand (RAW) against blue brand (SmackDown). The five-on-five bout generated a decent amount of heat and placed several new and old superstars and rivals into an ultimately entertaining assembly. This year continued the brand vs. brand formula while upping the invasion-themed ante and clearly setting up possible interactions that could springboard the roster toward the Royal Rumble and the “Road to Wrestlemania,” as it is annually referenced.

In the spirit of WWE’s preferred new formula, our Survivor Series coverage playfully adheres to the pseudo-division of brand representation. Each of our contributors offers commentary and feedback, recorded in a combination of pre-event, in media res, and directly following Survivor Series. To match the WWE’s dualistic theme, we split commentary into the two brands, with Garret (GC) covering from a slightly RAW perspective  and Kristine (KW) representing the SmackDown flair. Our goal is to compliment WWE’s preference for genre admixture while hopefully presenting readers with an asynchronous companion read to accompany future Survivor Series streams.

 

Survivor Series Pre-show

Matt Hardy vs. Elias Samson

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

KW: One has to wonder with how poorly the WWE has booked Matt Hardy post-WrestleMania tag titles run if he and Jeff were just brought in to cool their competition elsewhere. Elias is a decent heat magnet but both these guys deserve a better build and a better place on the card.

GC: I think this run for the Hardy’s will ultimately end with a “What if?” asterisk beside it. The duo arguably stole the show with the pop of the night at WrestleMania XXXIV, capping off their epic year wrestling as Broken Matt and Brother Nero. That TNA can spike and decline so severely so quickly speaks to the volatility of the wrestling scene at large, particularly outside WWE’s normative formulas and corporate structures. My feeling is that Jeff’s shoulder surgery sidelined any larger role the brothers will have, and we can anticipate an unceremonious Monday Night exit a la The Dudley Boys before them.

KW: I’m fearful you’re right, but hopeful you’re wrong, as the copyright battle continues over the Broken gimmick in the courts. I think if they time it right, Jeff heals up, they could hit the ground running with it in WWE, but I fear they are going to be reduced to a nostalgia act. Shield, take notice. Truthfully, I am amazed that Anthem is still able to put up a legal defense given the circumstances of their business but admittedly I don’t know all the details behind it.

GC: That is funny. You don’t know what corporate parent you will be sponsored as from week to week on Impact, and the only place they can consistently deliver appears to be in court. “Delete!” indeed.

Winner: Elias

Kalisto Vs. Enzo (205 Live)

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

KW: I’ll give credit to both of these folks for getting the cruiserweight division off life support. Enzo works as a heel and keeping him in the division while Cass heals works ok. This division still needs a lot of work before it’s ready to stand on its own, and Enzo might be the ticket to that, but his precarious status with the company makes that increasingly risky. Further, I worry that the perceived glass ceiling of the division will continue to make talent and fans look elsewhere. Part of why the cruiserweight division worked so well in WCW was because the rest of the card was just so bloated with the same faces (NwO, other ex NWA and WWE/WWF guys). The dynamic isn’t the same here.

GC: Enzo and Kalisto, ironically two traditional main roster talents that have crossed over to “save” the struggling Cruiserweight division and 205 Live on the network. I still have not watched 205 Live and anyone that writes or talks about it has little positive to say. But I admire the RAW producers for giving Enzo and company the main event spotlight across several weeks leading up to the PPV. Too bad they still barely made the pre-show.

Winner: Enzo

Owens/Zayn vs. Breezango

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

KW: These guys should still both not be on the pre-show. Arguments aside about pre-shows being used to hype up interest, they’re both teams that are well over with crowds (heat/punishments aside). Owens and Zayn breaking the fourth wall and calling the booking what it is with a worked shoot. Credit to the bookers for giving Zayn/Owens mic time even on the pre-show. On a side note, it bears repeating that the Breezango experiment really serves as a testament to the successes of the brand split, and in particular, how WWE has positioned SmackDown vis-a-vis RAW. Prior to the brand split and this team pairing, both Breeze and Fandango were barely on tv and used mostly for house shows. Their ability to get tv segments and matches, and now a pre-show match given their previous low booking status and get audiences invested in them likely would not have happened if they remained on the crowded landscape that was/is RAW. Despite this, Zayn and Owens needed the win more than Breezango to keep their momentum as a team going and I am not so sure we won’t see them later on in the PPV.

GC: Recapping from a slight time delay, when you contacted me with dismay that Zayn and Owens landed on the Survivor Series pre-show, my heart nearly skipped a beat with relief given recent negative rumors that the two were sent home early from the European tour. I’ve quite enjoyed Zayn’s Gen X’er tweener heel turn, and I love that he’s retained the Ska entrance music with ironically larger dance-stomps. Bottom line: fans should remember that Owens got to “grab that brass ring” recently with a signature headbutt to THE Chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon. This is the larger sign of importance and trust regardless of where the duo landed on the card (see Dean Ambrose WrestleMania XXXIII pre-show IC match earlier this year). At the same time, if the two truly were sent home early (not as a work), then I would speculate that this is what led to the near complete card shake up, including The Shield’s placement, Reigns out of the co-Main Event, and perhaps even AJ Styles’ abrupt WWE Championship win.

KW: Truthfully, the match was just announced either yesterday or today, so while there’s no way to know how far in advance it was thought out, it doesn’t appear to be part of a long term strategy. There’s no booking to back it up either. I love Zayn in general and I’ve enjoyed his recent heel-turn, but to be fair I thought he was one of the most organic faces the company’s created in a while, and truthfully I’m looking forward to his eventual return to face.

Winners: Owens/Zayn

The Shield vs. The New Day

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

KW: I continue to love factions in wrestling, and wish they did more than just tag teams in WWE. New Day and the Shield represent the few overtures towards factions WWE has put out recently. Interesting foreshadowing here by New Day of internal fractures within the Shield, and their inevitable re-breaking up. I have to admit there is a certain excitement about a PPV that isn’t Roman-centric, though it is surprising given how frequently the Survivor Series debut of the Shield gets mentioned by commentary. Roman still struggles to get over even when paired with Seth and Dean again, which does not bode well if they’re going to continue pushing him as a face at the top of the company. Roman gets in his usual mid-match rest outside of the ring. RAW with the win this time—a fantastic, long, well done match that serves as a good start to the show. I may not love the Shield as faces but I’d take a face Shield over no Shield at all. Full credit to the New Day for carrying their half of the match; they’re regularly in the best match of any particular PPV with or without titles on the line, much as the Shield were pre-breakup. They continue to serve as an anchor for the SmackDown brand regardless of title status, in fact, they don’t need them.

GC: What are your thoughts on the split-style T-shirts sported by Shield members? I wonder if those are on sale tonight only at the event. The half red/RAW and half-Shield is oddly indicative of a wasted revival for this beloved faction. There was no doubt that the team would one day rejoin. However, the move came quite soon in this reviewer’s opinion, which takes a bit of the emotional reaction out of the fan experience. To further complicate matters, we have Reigns going down due to illness prior to TLC and The Shield’s planned PPV reunion became a gimmick that was overshadowed by Kurt Angle’s big return. Now, we have The Shield up against a drastically cooled down New Day, in a largely lopsided matchup that appears to be the official show opener. So much for capitalizing on a foolproof faction.

KW: Those shirts…. are something else. I suppose it beats their debut attire (turtlenecks) but just barely. A good match, but the Shield reunion is clearly setting up for a future heel turn (probably Dean, he’s overdue).

GC: I will say that there was way more offense featured in this opener than I would have guessed. I do not think that these two match up at all from a narrative perspective. The New Day is so comically gimmick-based. Plus, that onesy on Big E! It literally makes no sense when Rollins and Ambrose essentially went two on five at TLC against mostly big men, so it took nearly the whole match to get me into the action. However, the false finish was nice and both groups really ratcheted up the action for an *obvious* finish. I do feel bad for Reigns as he simply cannot win over the large crowds probably from here on out.

Winners: The Shield

SmackDown vs Raw Women’s Division (Becky Lynch, Tamina, Naomi, Carmella, Natalya (with Lana) vs. Alicia Fox, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Nia Jax, and Asuka)

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

KW: I have to admit I’m a little lost on the booking here, having two of the most over women get pinned first. The Nia/Tamina tease is a fantastic one, and it’s a shame that this is likely the only time these two will face off, as they sort of represent the one monster heel woman for each brand. When setting up this match, it really revealed the problems with the SmackDown women’s roster. Charlotte is a recent addition (and she’s in a different match) but SmackDown has struggled to book really compelling women’s champions outside of Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss (who is now with RAW). This wasn’t helped in the least by having the first ever women’s money in the bank match won by recently released James Ellsworth, decidedly not female, on behalf of Carmella. I’ve often wondered if the women’s roster would benefit from being on one brand given its size but I fear it would get even less time as a result. Let’s be real though, this is the Asuka show, we’re just living in it.

GC: I am digging Nia Jax’s braids in that backstage segment. But I cannot handle Alicia Fox on any roster at this point. The campy tone of her persona—and those line readings—are not winning USA Network any new viewers. Thank you, Corey Graves, for filler like, “Byron, Naomi’s dancing so you don’t have to–knock it off!” That said, Naomi really has been able to innovate her “Feel the Glow” gimmick far longer than anyone could have anticipated. In other intro news, it was nice to see Asuka receive RAW’s final entrance. Do they have something special in store after her flat main roster start against Emma?

Once the match started, I was quite let down that Becky Lynch had to fall on the rollup sword. However, like Charlotte she is politely playing a rotational role long after they stole the show with Sasha Banks at WrestleMania XXXIII. Likewise, Nia’s elimination was the dumbest count out I’ve ever seen, what with Tamina entering and exiting twice during the ref’s count. This ref also botched the timing of Bayley’s pinfall (or was it the other way around—yipes). One memorable moment comes when Tamina and Nia square off for the first time. It was a pretty cool stair down that led to the logical count out. Similar to Lynch’s early exit, this strategic move helped provide an underdog scenario for team RAW and a spotlight opportunity for the smaller performers late.

Sole Survivor: Asuka (Team RAW)

Intermission commentary

KW: Daniel Bryan’s on screen role as General Manager of SmackDown has done so much of the heavy lifting to level out the discrepancy between the two shows. With the rumors that he will leave the company next year if he isn’t cleared to wrestle, SmackDown and WWE in general needs to look really critically at how they want to position the Blue brand in light of his potential departure; these are big shoes to fill.

GC: Am I the only one that cannot understand for the life of me why Daniel Bryan doesn’t look more “TV ready” on SmackDown? I know he’s an herbal dude, all natural and everything that goes with a clean organic lifestyle, but surely there’s a cage free makeup kit that could enhance his on camera presence (or at least eliminate the greasy hair and crow’s’ eyes). Maybe he’s just performing “tired dad,” in which case, I completely get it!

KW: There was a rumor I read that he’s growing his hair out for a hair vs. hair match in case he’s cleared to wrestle. The hair is too short to ponytail I suppose. I miss Jesus-looking Daniel Bryan, but I’ll take tired dad Bryan too.

Daniel Bryan could definitely sport a man bun and fans would get behind it.

Baron Corbin vs. The Miz

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

KW: I’ll give Corbin credit for “most improved since NXT.” He’s occasionally incredibly entertaining to watch in the ring, with a great finishing move, and has the potential to be a good talker now and then. That said, the last few years for the Miz have been astronomically great, and he is easily one of the best heat magnets in the WWE right now. I will say though that it was Talking Smack, the SmackDown post-show that was recently cancelled that really gave the Miz his launching pad, prior to his trade over to Raw. The cancellation of that show continues to elude me in terms of reasons, as it did more for character development and match promotion than an hour and change of RAW normally provides. Corbin needs this match more than the Miz does, if only because he’s seemed sort of directionless lately, as has the US title since AJ Styles dropped it.

GC: It is very clear from the two opening RAW wins that SmackDown will level out the main event somehow. Same (I prognosticate) with Corbin over Miz. The Miztourage has been a great way to extend, or should we say RAW-size, Miz’s current persona. He is WWE’s top talker right now and has been for over a year. Given a decade’s worth of time on the clock, at this point he has no problem putting others over under a premium heel banner.

KW: My only hope is that The Miztourage doesn’t suffer the same fate as Damien Sandow. I couldn’t care less about Bo Dallas but poor Curtis Axel deserves something to work with. And while we’re on the subject of bad booking, what in god’s name happened to Bray Wyatt? I feel like he might win the award for worst booking of the last five years.

GC: Miz versus Corbin was the definition of mid-card filler. There was actually plenty of action, almost nonstop in fact. And I do like that WWE pitted two heels against one another. But I felt no investment whatsoever and couldn’t care less about the outcome. They did their part, they’ll cash their checks, and go back to their brands. Next.

Winner: Baron Corbin

The BAR vs. The Usos

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

KW: Credit to both these teams for totally rebranding themselves in the best way possible in the last year and change. Sheamus and Cesaro work as a fantastic tag team and Cesaro’s long been overdue for some recognition. The Usos however have managed to go from a boring but competent team to a team I actually want to watch wrestle, and who can cut decent promos. Their heel turn was long overdue and did them every favor imaginable. The second match in a row on this card featuring heels vs. heels. While I realize that the format of Survivor Series often necessitates that, I’m surprised by how well it works, but I think this is due in part to how well these heels are booked and the degree to which they’re over. This may not necessarily be the case for faces, which WWE struggles to book with the same strength. If only the rest of the SmackDown tag teams could be booked as well as the Usos, because outside of them and New Day, the tag team division in SmackDown is pretty weak and relatively thin. Commentary is doing a great job of bringing in continuity here from previous Survivor Series with these teams, a testament to the degree to which the commentary teams have improved with the brand split. No one does the hot tag better than the Usos, and they deserve a decently long title reign.

GC: Another filler match unfortunately. The Usos have picked up interest and momentum since turning heel (and the WrestleMania snub), and Cesaro/Sheamus is a team I’m sympathetic toward. These guys, like Miz, are making the most of their situation (the brass ring doesn’t tug when Cesaro pulls it, apparently), and I still can’t get over his dental accident at TLC.

KW: I guess I could see how you’d view it as filler, because really how do you book these inter-brand matches with a backstory? Apparently Vince has a weird thing where he finds it just endlessly entertaining for Cesaro to do his promos with his mouthguard in. I’ll leave you to think about that one.

GC: Oh, I’ve noticed Cesaro’s mouthpiece lisp all right. In a truly bizarre coincidence, the week before Cesaro’s accident, I have a young nephew that experienced nearly the exact same accident (but off a bunk bed). The dental surgeon recommended waiting 1-2 months to see if the teeth would naturally drop or not. I kind of assumed Cesaro might be in a similar wait-and-see position. He needs to stay off the mic entirely right now, because that is not helping his situation. If there is a silver lining, at least these performers have been allowed pretty respectable match times. No real squash matches have also kept both brands strong. On top of that, the Usos win makes the “official” scorecard 2-2, which opens up the Women’s Champion vs. Champion match by making the victor less predictable.

Winners: The Usos

Alexa Bliss vs Charlotte Flair

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

KW: With the recent title change from Natalya to Charlotte, I feel like this match never really got the buildup it deserved. While having Charlotte hold the title was probably the right choice, a few more weeks of buildup for this feud would have done wonders. I will say the audience is into this match (as am I) which is a nice change from so many years of women’s matches at PPVs. I’m pleasantly surprised by the physicality of this match and the length of it thus far, though this does make me worry that AJ vs Brock is going to be a five-minute one and done squash.

GC: Did you notice how Charlotte as babyface features a more natural look, whereas her heel persona, like Bliss’s, is heavy on the dramatic David Bowie eyeliner? Alexa Bliss’s eyeliner seemingly gets its own backstage segments on RAW in recent weeks (unconfirmed). This is a fantastic match, and I might suggest this joins the women’s roster elimination match as the only rewatchable bouts from this PPV (so far). These two are selling hard and looking strong at the same time. Credit Charlotte for not pushing or allowing for a quick ending. And rather than the pin, she does get Bliss to tap out. Well done.

Winner: Charlotte Flair

Brock Lesnar vs. AJ Styles

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

KW: I’m not sure if I’m in the majority or minority when it comes to Brock as champ: I like Brock Lesnar (and I LOVE Paul Heyman) but I’ve always disliked the silly argument about raising the prestige of the belt when he doesn’t defend it at every RAW branded PPV. Arguments about part-timers aside (and they are legitimate arguments), this match has me worried. I truthfully see no way AJ wins this one because of how protected Brock is, and the foreshadowing they had with Jinder Mahal in the pre-show, and all it does is hurt AJ as champ. Brock can take the loss, and eventually will have too, but as they’re probably saving it for the unsatisfying match with Roman Reigns, I wish they’d have him lose. AJ Styles has been the best addition to both SmackDown and WWE in the last few years, losing not a single step from how hot he was in New Japan. AJ Styles can get a good match out of a broom, but I’m curious to see if he can make it work here.

The audience seems to be slightly more behind Styles but this squash match is painful to watch right now. Commentary is referencing the Cena/Brock match from Summer Slam 2014 and setting this up as some sort of a parallel, but that match came at the end of a long period of LOLCENAWINS and seeing Cena just get demolished was pure catharsis. There’s been no such LOLAJWINS with AJ Styles entrance into the WWE. A brief but brutal moment where AJ had the calf crusher locked in and a few minutes of impressive offense from AJ Styles afterwards provided a rare moment in most Brock matches where an opponent gets in some convincing offense. One of Brock’s better matches lately but I’m over him holding the Universal title.

GC: I was decently interested to see how up-and-comer Jinder Mahal stacks up against the establishment beast-heel in Brock Lesnar. However, the last-minute title change got me all kinds of jacked up for the WWE Champion versus Universal Champion match. While Brock’s protection is a foregone conclusion, how the match plays out felt intriguing no matter the direction they took. The start of the match features outright domination by Lesnar, a visual sequel to his takedown of Roman Reigns at WrestleMania XXXI and of John Cena prior to that. But unlike the Reigns match, AJ musters the gumption to hang on just long enough for Lesnar to get winded. Then, AJ’s stamina kicks in and the match elevates to another level.

Continuing the through line of keeping both brands strong, by allowing AJ to get a fair amount of licks in, this easily became Brock’s best match since his Hell in a Cell with The Undertaker two years ago. They gave WWE Universe and smart marks alike a memorable encounter that will be on dialogic replay for years to come. I am not offended by part-timers in the least bit, and even less offended by part-time champions (especially considering the ridiculous number of belts floating around this company). While I wanted to see Braun Strowman or Samoa Joe previously defeat Brock, I understand his need to keep his wins going at this point. After all, he did collapse the Undertaker’s streak (and not for nothin’). Examining all the cut marks covering both competitors, as well as Brock’s Undertaker-esque hard sell on his left knee injury, this match qualifies as an instant classic.

Winner: Brock Lesnar

RAW vs. SmackDown (Kurt Angle, Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman, Triple H vs. Shane McMahon, Randy Orton, Shinsuke Nakamura, Bobby Roode, John Cena)

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

GC: Thinking about the entrances, Triple H would get his own signature red T-shirt while everyone else has to play ball (including Strowman). He just can’t help himself. Hmm, Michael Cole just said that only Kane and The Undertaker have appeared in more PPVs…I wonder how far off H is? FYI, he seems to be getting the full intro while Angle, Balor, et al. received abbreviated status. Some things never change (again, not really complaining but it doesn’t go unnoticed either).

I LOVE how stacked this main event is. That said, Busted Open radio brought up the average age of the main event participants. I think the number they through out was like, 37.5, but I feel like that number is more like 40 at least. Also, I’m going to go against the haters and say I like Cena’s new lime green T-shirt and sweatbands (incidentally getting separate merch like H).

KW: Someone aptly pointed out on Reddit the ages of all the participants in the main event. Not to take anything away from any of them, especially Finn Balor, Nakamura, Strowman, Roode, Joe, folks new-ish to WWE, but they made a good point: this is a relatively old main event, or the roster itself is aging. I say that in light of the fact that I still think getting Jason Jordan out of the main event was a smart idea. Jordan isn’t remotely over, the storyline with him being the son of Kurt Angle is bizarre and not working, and I have no idea what they were thinking splitting him and Chad Gable up, especially given the need for more tag teams. Bray Wyatt would have been a nice inclusion here but as previously mentioned, his booking since moving to RAW has been awful, especially given he was WWE Champion and Tag Team Champion on SmackDown, and it worked. The entire Wyatt family deserves better than their last year or so of booking and I hope they get a chance to hit the reset button soon, and perhaps move Wyatt back to SmackDown for his own good.

GC: I am in the majority that feels Bray Wyatt, no matter how talented, is as cold as ice right now and essentially a notch above “enhancement talent.” Ditto and I agree about Jason Jordan. Part of me feels the audience was already headed for a bait-and-switch on that position. Its possible WWE is setting up a father-son match as the proverbial placeholder on the way to an Angle-HHH Mania. I don’t really think they ended up with a single weak link in this main event, and perhaps the audience was treated to a true passing of the torch between the old guard of the last generation and the faces that dominated the main event scene of NXT over the last three years. Both the female and male co-main events was smartly booked, particularly for “big four” PPV appeal.

KW: Shinsuke being pinned early was questionable, as despite a less than stellar start on the main roster, Nakamura’s been consistently one of the most over performers. Interestingly, I had to remind myself that Cena, Orton and HHH were in this match, as my focus was entirely on everyone else. That was until Cena and Angle were both in the ring at the same time, and I legitimately got goosebumps, never sure I would see this match again.

GC: I heard commentators complain about the possibility that the fresh blood would be eliminated early. But guess what? Come for the spectacle, stay for the drama. The story is in the returning hierarchy, and actually, the ending does an immense job putting over the new talent. WWE kept HHH off of TV for a really long time, and even his WrestleMania lead-in to Seth Rollins was limited by his own standard. While his entrance felt entirely random last Monday, the crowd still pops every time. He earned this return, and once again H got to have his cake and eat it too. Hunter truly is a McMahon.

KW: I’ll say this much, Shane McMahon has no right to be this entertaining at this age, and holy hell, if they could book everyone they way Strowman has been booked, the quality of the product would be infinitely better. I guess it wouldn’t be a Survivor Series without a screwjob. Well played and well-time interferences by HHH on Kurt Angle, with Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens running interference by jumping Shane McMahon before that.

GC: Like most of the card for this year’s Survivor Series, this match was very well paced. One of the strong points lies in how the main eventers allowed time for inaugural stare downs so that the audience could savor brand new match-ups not only between brands, but also between untapped encounters like Nakamura against Finn Balor, HHH and Bobby Roode, and Braun Strowman against both Randy Orton and John Cena. This match has a little of everything, and in an era of insta-reactions and toxic social media uprisings, I would argue this match was booked about as logically as one could ever hope for. And for the haters that will be mad at Joe, Balor, Nakamura, and Roode’s early exits, remember that these superstars got the elevating rub by appearing in the main event.

Winning Brand: Team RAW

Sole Survivor(s): HHH and Braun Strowman

Anniversary Screwjob: HHH pedigrees Kurt Angle

Lasting Impression: An organic Braun Strowman babyface turn.

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

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

summerslam2017Summer Slam 2017.

Barclay’s Center, Brooklyn, NY.

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

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

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

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

Feed. Me. More. (oh wait…)

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

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

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

High-Profile Filler

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

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

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

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

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

Brooklyn Brawlers

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

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

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

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

Clash of the Titans

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

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

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

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

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

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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?