A Softer, Wiser XFL?

Fan Reviews

Vincent Kennedy McMahon has always aspired to take good ol’ “rasslin” and diffuse it into popular culture. Thinks of all the guest stars he has brought into the fold. He has always desired his product to be more than just a regional wrestling promotion and he always wanted to be bigger than just a wrestling promoter.

He’s by and large done that, as World Wrestling Entertainment is now a global media entity and brand. He succeeded largely from his aggressive and larger-than-life or win-at-all costs personality. Yet, when the company became publicly traded and accountable to its shareholders, even the Chairman of the Board had to tone down his sizeable personality.

Since then, the company has conquered its domestic competition, ventured into the movie business, partnered with philanthropic interests, and has cleaned up its image for the most part as it is now responsible to answering to its shareholders.

Yet, despite all of its successes, McMahon has never lived down what some consider his greatest failure, the XFL.

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Image Credit: https://www.musclesportmag.com/2016/10/01/the-blueprint-matt-morgan-joins-musclesport-magazine/

Yes, that XFL. The same upstart football league that was fresh when N’Sync still had Justin Timberlake. A cauldron of gimmicks, sex, incompetency and a cemented place in sports infamy, the 2000s version of the XFL was daring and spit in the face of tradition, just like McMahon and his competitive and entrepreneurial spirit.

It flamed out so spectacularly that ESPN even did a documentary on it. The former XFL has sat in the pit of McMahon’s stomach like a piece of hard chewing gum through the years, undigested and uncomfortable.

Now, with the recent announcement that McMahon will resurrect the XFL in time for the 2020 season, eyebrows around the sporting world are raised either with a “This is interesting” look or “No, not again” mindset. This world has changed drastically since McMahon’s neophyte football league was launched, and thus, the 2020 version will have the following changes:

  • Players with criminal records are not be eligible
  • Players are required to stand for the national anthem
  • There will be eight teams operating under the single banner of the XFL or Alpha Entertainment

It’s an obvious attempt by McMahon to:

  • Distance himself from the previous incarnation
  • Appeal to a more conservative fanbase in light of the NFL’s protests for social justice

Many still fear the fledgling league will use a lot of the gimmicks associated with the WWE. McMahon made his mark and eliminated nearly all his competition at the turn of the century by using the “Attitude Era,” a period of programming when gratuitous violence and sex encased an edgy series of plotlines. With declining ratings from the NFL, an older, more gentle McMahon is attempting a less edgier approach to a once failed attempt that ended in ridicule and failure.

Let’s hope McMahon has learned from his mistakes and makes this not about him, but what the fans want.

Header Image Credit: http://www.businessinsider.com/vince-mcmahon-role-new-xfl-2018-1

 

What the Audience Wants and What the Audience Gets: Clash of Champions and WWE’s Hindered 2017

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

There is a popular meme within circles of the Internet Wrestling Community showing a still of Vince McMahon during the Stone Cold Podcast that aired on December 1st, 2014. Unlike most memes, this one’s humor is not placed in the image’s matching with a silly, unattributable quote, but in its attribution of a direct quote from McMahon in that very podcast episode in which the chairman and CEO told host Stone Cold Steve Austin: “It’s not about what I want. Ever. It’s all about what the audience wants. I’m a pretty good listener.”

The humor here stems from the fact that many fans of professional wrestling, and fans of the WWE brand (affectionately corporatized as the “WWE Universe”) specifically, believe McMahon’s claim to be a bald-faced lie. This belief has appeared to see some substantiation in the three years since the airing of that interview, as fan support for many performers has seemed to fall on deaf ears in favor of more corporately groomed and demographically aimed superstars and narratives. This past year of WWE programming may be the most damning evidence yet in legitimizing this criticism.

This past Sunday night’s Clash of Champions pay-per-view did little to dissuade this perception of the current WWE product. While the show may have presented relatively big wins for favorites of the wrestling community like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens and AJ Styles, as well as having built momentum in victory for Mojo Rawley, the booking of the event tended to overshadow or undermine what could otherwise be understood as shining moments given other narrative contexts.

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Image Credit: http://tjrwrestling.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/wwe-clash-of-champions-preview-smackdown-2017.jpg

Rawley’s win was delegated to a short pre-show match, a spot that has showcased some great work in the past, but remains nonetheless shrouded in the stigma of not actually being on the pay-per-view.

Zayn and Owens’s victory would traditionally carry more weight given its (seeming) position as the climax to a long-burning storyline with Shane McMahon, but the match and performers played more as set pieces for yet another authority figure drama between the two special guest referees, McMahon and Daniel Bryan.

The women were mostly an afterthought, despite the infusion of the Riott Squad to the division.

Lastly, AJ Styles’s retaining of the WWE championship was soured before the match even began thanks to its booking as yet another nobody-asked-for-this style of showcase for Jinder Mahal. This all may matter little to the casual fan of WWE programming, but these issues are indicative of the problems that have been apparent with the WWE product in 2017, and they highlight a lack of audience awareness.

Perhaps the largest issue the WWE has had in recent years is the negative fan reactions to those performers they have chosen to showcase, or push. This is no more apparent than with Roman Reigns, who, despite being positioned as the company’s top babyface, receives consistent, almost unanimous, negative reactions from live crowds. Reigns has consistently, almost defiantly, been positioned as the company’s poster boy, being presented as the center of their weekly programming and promotional materials for years, including performing in the main event of Wrestlemania for the past three years (and possibly a fourth year with the forthcoming Wrestlamania 34). Even so, fans have vehemently voiced their dislike of Reigns’s positioning within the WWE landscape, booing and jeering the wrestler with the mere mention of his name.

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Image Credit: http://www.fullredneck.com/best-roman-reigns-memes/

This would seem to give credence to the perception of Vince McMahon’s podcast statement as a falsehood, but the fan reactions to Reigns fail to correlate with the economics of merchandise sales. According to an April 2017 edition if the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Roman Reigns is the top-selling “full-time” superstar in WWE’s wide range of branded merchandise – John Cena is still the over-all top seller, but he has transitioned to being a part-time talent (“This Week in WWE Biz”).

Since any serious business would sooner listen to consumers’ wallets than consumers’ arena chants, Reigns’ position atop the WWE megastructure, despite consistent boos, is easily understood. Moreover, the negative reactions to Reigns have far more to do with the forced booking of the performer and the perception of him as a hand-picked, underserving corporate representative than they do with his actual performance, as crowds tend to react positively to the man between bells.

The forced booking and promotion that has characterized Reigns’ career thus far has been put into overdrive this year with the ascension of two other talents. The first is the Raw brand’s Braun Strowman, who fans began the year viewing as yet another corporate pet project but have since thrown their full support behind thanks to more careful booking and storytelling as well as the man’s observable attempts to improve as an all-around performer, putting on exciting and diverse matches with all of his opponents and creating a character with an aura to which fans are attracted. The same positives cannot be said about the other major project in WWE this year – that of the rise of Jinder Mahal not just to the top of the card, but to a six-month reign with what many perceive as the most important title in the history of professional wrestling, the WWE championship.

Sunday’s Clash of Champions marked Mahal’s sixth time being featured in a marquee match on pay-per-view and his third time in the main event proper at one of these events. All of these matches have been contested for the WWE championship. These statistics are in many ways shocking considering Mahal’s position in the company before Wrestlemania 33, held on April 2nd, 2017. Before that event, Mahal was no more than a jobber, a performer whose primary duty is to lose to established and rising talents. At Wrestlemania 33 he was inexplicably featured in one of the final two spots of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, despite barely having a presence on WWE television since his return to the company in July of the previous year.

Mahal lost the battle royal to Mojo Rawley, and many assumed he was just used as fodder to put over Rawley and play up a gimmick which saw Mahal goad and ultimately be attacked by New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is the real-life friend of Rawley’s and was sitting ringside during the match. On the following night’s edition of Raw, it seemed as though Mahal would be back in his role as jobber, losing in very short order to Finn Balor.

However, over the two weeks that followed Wrestlemania 33, Mahal was drafted to the Smackdown Live brand and became the victor of a six-pack challenge to name the number one contender to the WWE championship, which he would go on to win from Randy Orton at the Backlash pay-per-view on May 21.

Mahal’s victory and title reign were largely unprecedented within the history of WWE, drawing comparisons to Stan Stasiak’s nine-day transitional reign in 1973. Again, the WWE seemed to lack an ear for what fans wanted, because, to put it frankly, no one was asking for more Jinder Mahal, much less Jinder Mahal, WWE champion. While some fans and analysts were supportive of the decision to make Mahal champion, spurred on by a desire for fresh faces and causing the hashtag #DontHinderJinder to trend on Twitter, others were skeptical or outright angry about Mahal’s almost instantaneous movement from jobber for lower-card talents to holder of the most prestigious title in the business. Often thought of as a reward for the industry’s top performers, Mahal’s positioning was perceived far less as a culmination of years of hard work or possession of world-class talent than as an abrupt anomaly that occurred for purely capitalist reasons.

Reports began to be published stating that Mahal’s title win and repositioning as a featured part of WWE television was an attempt to grow the company’s audience in India, a market they have had in sight for years. An investor presentation dated December 2015 calls India an international revenue stream that “represents significant opportunity” (Investor Presentation 27), and an earnings press release for the first quarter of 2017 quotes Vince McMahon from a shareholders’ meeting, saying “As we leverage continuing innovation to extend our reach in India, China and around the world, we are confident that the enduring and increasing global power of our brands will provide a solid foundation for long-term growth” (WWE Reports First Quarter 2017 Results 2). While fans of the product can speculate on the reasoning behind the company’s continued support of Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman as corporate mascots (often citing the company and McMahon’s affinity for physical aesthetics in its top performers), documents like these fiscal reports offer something substantial for critics to explain the teleporter-like rise of Jinder Mahal.

nhyisiinder-maham-getting-apush-because-ilike-hisveins-the-reason-jinder-19608888

Image Credit: http://www.memesbot.com/memes/jinder-mahal-memes-d385b8.html

Where Mahal differs the most from his Raw counterparts is in the perception of his actual performance, both in his delivery of promos and the quality of his matches. As I noted above, negative reactions to Reigns tend not to reflect in fans’ opinions of his in-ring work, which often results in high-quality matches, and the quick turnaround in opinion of Strowman stems from the observable growth of his talents in very short order, going from a sloppy, incredibly green (inexperienced) rookie to an intriguing and exciting character capable of high-quality matches in the span of just two years. Also unlike Reigns, Mahal’s continued position at the top of the card and repeated wins against more established, more over, and more talented performers like Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, and Randy Orton cannot be explained by merchandise sales – as of this writing, WWEShop.com features a total of five items for Mahal, three of which are men’s, women’s, and youth’s versions of the same t-shirt design.

Despite what seems to be the company line, that Mahal is a hard worker who deserves his spot, the jobber-who-would-be-champion’s in-ring work has not seemed to have met the standards of the current WWE main event scene according to its viewers. This is reflected in the inconsistent ratings for Smackdown Live this year, which saw its lowest viewership of the year just two weeks after Mahal’s title win (“WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon”), and has struggled to remain consistent in its viewership ever since.

My own take on Mahal’s in-ring work, which has been echoed by fans and critics alike, is that he seems to work only one match, which seems to be a small variation on the first match that most developing professional wrestlers learn: lock-up, babyface shines, heel takes over, babyface gets a hope spot, repeat hope spots until it’s time to take it home, finish with either the heel cheating to win or he “slips on a banana peel” and loses.

This is the structure used predominately by new performers and for short matches, but Mahal seems to apply it no matter the narrative context, match length, or position on the card, indicating either a refusal or inability to adapt his in-ring work for different levels and situations of storytelling. His limited and basic offense only furthers the issue. This is a matter not helped by the booking of his championship reign, where every match ended the same way – with his opponent getting distracted by his Singh Brothers lackeys and then literally stumbling into Mahal’s finishing maneuver, the Khallas, which Mahal seems to only be able to hit without botching about half the time. While Mahal’s move set, offense, and character may have been passable in another era of the WWE product, it becomes a glaring issue in a time where even casual viewers, thanks to a plethora of avenues across the internet, are far more informed about the product and the art of professional wrestling than the fanbase has ever been before; Mahal’s work just does not hold up to the fluidity and creativeness reflected in the work of his peers, and it is that fluidity and creativeness that fans have come to expect.

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Image Credit: http://wrestlingposts.com/ahead-of-india-tour-jinder-mahal-can-remain-wwe-champion/

What further hinders Jinder Mahal is the rote and tired booking of his character. A rehash of gimmicks played by earlier wrestlers of Indian descent, like Tiger Jeet Singh and his son Tiger Ali Singh, Mahal’s current gimmick is not only derivative, but, like his offense, the character is outdated. The crux of the character’s motivation relies on the dated notions of national pride and racial prejudice. In what quickly became the only note on the character’s scale, Mahal repeatedly cut promos claiming that the audience was against him due to his race and ethnicity, using points of racism and nationalism as the reasoning for the fans’ negative reactions despite no indication from WWE viewers of xenophobia toward Indians or otherwise.

This narrative device reached its breaking point in Mahal’s feud with Shinsuke Nakamura. Not only were the claims that the WWE’s audience was racist undermined by the fans’ rabid support of Nakamura, a Japanese performer, but the character’s, and subsequently the WWE’s, attempts to make this point resulted in a series of racially charged promos by Mahal in which the scripted segment saw the WWE champion mock Nakamura through the use of racial stereotypes, including making fun of Nakamura’s physical appearance and accent, prompting the live audience to chant “That’s too far!” The claim of the company was that these promos were meant to show the hypocritical nature of the Mahal character, but the character’s disturbing revelry in his delivery and the reactionary response to this misguided attempt at character development proved far more detrimental to the product, resulting in some negative press from major new organizations, including The Washington Post.

The point of all of this is to highlight what seems to be a tone deafness that has been apparent in the WWE for some time. Not only did the elevation and focus on Mahal have a negative response in domestic viewership through live audience reactions, a drop in live attendance sales, and loss in television ratings, but the WWE’s market in India has failed to expand as a result of the crowning of the first WWE champion of Indian descent. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported in August that the number of WWE Network subscribers had dropped since Mahal’s coronation (“WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon”), and a two-show live event tour in India scheduled for December was reduced to a single event. While neither of these occurrences can definitively be attributed to the WWE’s booking of Mahal, it is, along with the domestic response, damning evidence against the Mahal experiment.

It also shows a lack of audience awareness by the WWE, with some outlets reporting slow ticket sales for the India tour in part because of a pricing structure significantly higher than the average cost of live sporting events in the country, and a suggestion that WWE’s 750 million social media followers in India do not necessarily translate to network subscriptions and ticket sales. It is possible that the issue with WWE in India could highlight a larger issue with the company’s heavy investment in social media as its major marketing statistics tool.

The fact that the WWE chose to highlight Mahal’s ethnicity and then attach it to notions of racism and (to a lesser extent) nationalism shows a disconnect with the cultural zeitgeist in which the company exists and operates. The leaning on racial differences has come across as an easy out in the booking of Mahal, a simple motivation for the character that avoids the work that would have otherwise been necessary to build a character from jobber to champion status; the urgency and suddenness with which Mahal was made champion perhaps caused an oversimplification in the narrative construction of the character and the reasoning for his newfound answers for success.

This style of booking overlooks the fact that WWE’s audience is far different from the heyday of the late 80s and early 90s where American patriots ran roughshod over evil foreigners, and, despite what some disgruntled and lapsed fans insist, the current WWE audience does not want the rampant violence, misogyny, and bigotry that defined the boom known as the “Attitude Era.” The current viewer of WWE’s product, most of whom fall within the “millennial” categorization that McMahon derides as under-ambitious and underachieving in that same Stone Cold Podcast, are far more inclusive, accepting, and desiring of diversity and equality in the media they consume. They are also more aware of quality and artistry in both performance and product than any audience before, and the failure of the Mahal experiment is a reflection of that awareness.

That the WWE does not seem to see, or at least refuses to acknowledge, this trend in its viewership and in the culture at large is fairly shocking. It’s insistence that Mahal’s heel motivations hinge upon his racial and ethnic identities is especially surprising given the WWE’s own global expansion, which should instead see a drop in isolated patriotism and racially charged narratives. This is especially true given the turbulent cultural and political climates that have come to define 2017, especially in the United States, where concerns over the increased visibility and influence of white nationalism are at the forefront of most news days. Mahal’s presentation as a boy-who-cried-wolf racist does nothing to allay or shed light on these concerns, perhaps instead lending them credence.

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Image Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hN5BnBlzxgg

With the results of the Clash of Champions pay-per-view, perhaps there is reason to believe that the WWE has taken notice to the fallout of the Mahal experiment, beginning with his loss of the WWE championship to AJ Styles and subsequent replacement in the champion vs. champion match against Brock Lesnar just before last month’s Survivor Series event. Backlash occurred with the initial announcement that Mahal would face Lesnar, with fans being relatively vociferous in their disdain at the mere idea of a match they considered to be a dud weeks before the opening bell even rang. After having Mahal sit out the Survivor Series event altogether, he was thrust back into the main event for his title rematch this past Sunday.

There was a noticeable change in the way Mahal was presented on television leading up to Clash of Champions. The race fueled rhetoric that characterized the past eight months of the character’s motivations was absent, now replaced with Mahal touting more traditional heel rhetoric, insisting that he had lost the title due to the effects of international travel and general unpreparedness and claiming that he had become WWE champion without anyone else’s help, despite the alignment in narrative with the Singh Brothers. This is a marked step away from the one note narrative that had been attached to the character since his push began, and it is one more in tune with the current climate of the WWE audience with its focus on competition and accomplishment, and on the WWE championship. Mahal’s claims still allow for the character to be presented as hypocritical without implications of either the audience or himself (and by extension, the company) as being racially motivated or prejudice.

My personal estimation of Mahal is that the performer’s in-ring skill still leave so very much to be desired, but the character work shows promise if allowed to develop outside of the tired, outdated, and inept race-centered narrative. Ending the Mahal experiment with Styles’ decisive win on Sunday and moving the character away from the main event and the WWE title should give it room to breathe and develop in ways that the forced rise and stubborn title reign would not.

If that is the case, then Mahal’s Clash of Champions loss could possibly be understood as the official closing of a year in which WWE programming was decidedly not “about what the fans want” as McMahon claims. Clash of Champions, for all of its problems, could go down as marking the start of a more aware WWE, in both audience and cultural awareness.

Hopefully that means we’re gifted more Tye Dillinger, but more than likely we’ll be force fed Lesner vs. Reigns 2: The Re-Re-Re-Re-Coronation. Fingers crossed, though…

 

Works Cited

WWE Clash of Champions 2017. Performances by AJ Styles, Jinder Mahal, Shane McMahon, Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, etc. WWE Network, World Wrestling    Entertainment, 17 Dec. 2017. http://network.wwe.com/video/v1870048783?contextType=wwe-show&contextId=clash_of_champions&contentId=263555042&watchlistAltButtonConte xt=series

Investor Presentation: December 2015. World Wrestling Entertainment, December 2015,    http://corporate.wwe.com/~/media/Files/W/WWE/documents/events/1500078394.PDF

Oestriecher, Blake. “This Week in WWE Biz: Roman Reigns Sales, Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg   Plans, Seth Rollins Feud, More.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 1 Apr. 2017,             www.forbes.com/sites/blakeoestriecher/2017/04/01/this-week-in-wwe-biz-roman-reigns-sales-brock-lesnar-vs-goldberg-plans-seth-rollins-feud-more/.

–. “WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 30 Aug. 2017,       https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakeoestriecher/2017/08/30/wwe-smackdown-must-end-the-pushes-of-jinder-mahal-and-shane-mcmahon/#4e3baeab4500

Mr. McMahon.” Stone Cold Podcast. Performances by Stone Cold Steve Austin and Vince McMahon, WWE Network, World Wrestling Entertainment, 1 Dec. 2014. http://network.wwe.com/video/v135281883?contextType=wwe-show&contextId=stone_cold_podcast&contentId=127330862&watchlistAltButtonContext=series Note: The image above is taken from this show. The meme’s creator is unknown.

WWE Reports First Quarter 2017 Results. World Wrestling Entertainment, May 2017, http://corporate.wwe.com/~/media/Files/W/WWE/press-releases/2017/Q1-2017-Earnings-Release-FINAL.pdf

 

 

 

WWE Video Presentations

Works-In-Process

The following are two video presentations given at the Midwest Popular Culture / American Culture Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, from October of 2017.

In this first presentation, Jack Karlis presents his thoughts on how the WWE has handled various scandals as it attempts to develop more of a corporate social responsibility ethos now that it is a publicly-traded company.

In this second presentation, Kathie Kallevig presents her thoughts on the history of the WWE Diva and thus the role of women in sports entertainment — as well as what needs to be done to truly #GiveDivasAChance.

Both presentations represents ongoing projects and thus works-in-progress for these scholars, and the authors invite comments and questions to help them further their work.

SummerSlam Part Two: Review

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

If you missed Part One of this SummerSlam two-parter, you’re welcome to go back and review it. In it, I discuss my pre-SummerSlam preparations, including my reengagement with WWE after many years away. Part Two, which you’re reading right now, is my actual SummerSlam review.

Let me preface Part Two by saying that for someone who hasn’t really watched the WWF/E since the late 1990s, four hours of SummerSlam was a long haul. It didn’t feel like four hours – more like two and a half. But still. That was a lot. I was exhausted by the end…and all I was doing was watching TV, taking notes, and drinking bourbon!

Part Two: SummerSlam Review

summerslam2017The college professor in me wants this review to be more like an evaluation of a course assignment – something I can dissect, appraise, and assign a grade. To grade effectively, however, I need a well-conceived grading rubric – and I mean that sincerely. I used to think grading rubrics were administrative busy work: useless for actual teaching, but appeasing to menacing accrediting agencies nonetheless. I’ve come a full 180 on grading rubrics, however. I now think they are indispensable pedagogical tools; I can’t bring myself to grade a course assignment without one.

My problem is this: As much as I want to create a grading rubric for professional wrestling matches in order to give my evaluation of SummerSlam some teeth, it takes me forever to put a good rubric together – and I want to get this published ASAP. It’s already at least a couple days too late.

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

So what I’m going to do here is something I’d never do in an actual college course: I’m going to assign grades to each match without a rubric. I will, however, provide detailed comments to support the grade. If you read Part One of this two-parter, you’ll remember the distinct evaluative lens I’ll be applying (in descending order of importance: Golden Age nostalgia, Canadian content, and indie feel). Also, if you read Part One, you know that I’m not really up to speed on any of the current storylines in Raw or SmackDown. All I know is what the short SummerSlam video introductions showed me before each match.

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

Match #1: John Cena vs. Baron Corbin

The night of my indie wrestling debut, Eric “The Answer” Anton, veteran of the South Carolina’s indie circuit, told me that the first match on the card is the most important one. (I was in the third match, so no pressure on me.) Why? It sets the pace for everything that follows. If the first match is flat, the crowd is flat, and the show is primed to be awful. If the first match gets a big pop, the crowd is amped, and chances are the show will be great.

By Anton’s standard, SummerSlam is going to be meh. If that proves to be the case, holy crap am I going to need a lot of bourbon to get me through the entire four hours!

SummerSlam didn’t start completely terribly, though. As the camera panned over the crowd before the wrestlers were announced, I saw one fan holding up a Swedish flag. “Is he celebrating Henrik Stenson’s just completed victory at the Wyndam Championship?”, I ask myself. Who knew there was PGA-WWE crossover appeal?

Stenson

Or maybe the Swedish flag fan is a WWE plant – a subtle nod to the internationalism that would become so explicit later in the show.

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

But then John Cena is announced and SummerSlam takes a turn for the worse. There he is, rocking the trucker cap and jorts. I mentioned in Part One that I’m with the “Cena sucks” crowd. (But give him his due: his entrance music is pretty cool.)

His opponent is Baron Corbin; he looks like The Undertaker’s kid brother, and he grunts his way around the ring à la “Iron” Mike Sharpe. I’m firmly on team Corbin here, but this match is slow. I mean, the opening sequence is a super long headlock! Old school, for sure; but back in the day, the long headlock sequence was for the wrestlers to get a blow after an action-packed sequence. This match started with a long headlock! Ugh.

Beyond the opening headlock, and Corbin ducking around the ring post several times, I honestly can’t remember anything about this match. Here’s what it says in my notes: “18 finishing moves.” I guess there were a series of finishing moves, all of which, save the last, failed to actually finish the opponent – something that drives the old timers who work the southern indie circuit crazy.

What was good about this match? The Swedish flag (I’ll count it as part of this match, just to boost the grade), Cena’s entrance music, and Corbin’s Undertaker-esque look and “Iron” Mike-esque grunting.

Grade: C-

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

HartFoundationNatalya: Daughter of Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and Ellie Hart, who, herself, is the daughter of Stu Hart, which makes Natalya…are you with me?…the niece of Canadian legend, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and therefore, 100% bona fide Canadian wrestling royalty. When she comes to the ring, she’s rocking her dad’s and uncle’s black and pink colours (yes coloUrs — we’re talking about Canada here), and there’s a huge maple leaf projected on both the ramp and the video board! I just wish she’d wear those old-school Hitman shades.

This is a strong beginning; I’ve already forgotten about Cena.

Now it’s Naomi’s entrance…and it’s an awesome explosion of glow-in-the-dark technicolor. She’s killing it as she rocks her way to the ring.

The action begins. One minute in, and the match is already way better than the opener.

Things I love about it:

  • Great sequences and pace.
  • Natalya repeatedly barking at the ref, “Do your job!!!” (very old-school).
  • Small package, abdominal stretch, and not one, but two sharpshooters: old-school moves they work seamlessly into the action.
  • A fantastic counter to the first sharpshooter.
  • Naomi losing the match and weeping real tears.

RichterLet me just say that women’s wrestling has come a lo-o-o-ng way since the days of Wendy Richter! By Eric “The Answer” Anton’s standard, this should have been match #1. SummerSlam, you just might redeem yourself from that John Cena debacle.

Grade: A

Match #3: Big Cass vs. Big Show…

…with Enzo Amore suspended in a shark cage above the ring.

Wait…what? Why the hell would he be suspended in a shark cage above the ring? The video intro tells me that Enzo and Big Show are sticking up for each other, but what does a shark cage have to do with that? This is failing the storytelling sniff test.

I do admit it, though: I’m a little intrigued by this shark cage. A completely nonsensical prop must have a purpose later in the match. I’m ready for shenanigans.

Enzo makes his entrance, and now he’s in the ring, and he’s talking and talking…and talking.

Please make…him…stop!

This is reminding me of the endless talking whenever I periodically check in with Raw or SmackDown. Match #3, you are losing some serious points here.

AndreStuddNow about the actual match: why in the world does anyone need to see another giant vs. giant battle? I watched that too many times back the 1980s with the rivalry between André the Giant and Big John Studd. In my memory, every match is the same thing: two gigantic men lumbering around the ring. That’s it. Someone would get a pin, but I don’t remember how. Because all they’d do is lumber around the ring.

And now here’s Big Show lumbering around the ring, unable to throw that “lethal” right hand due to injury. This match is awful.

Here’s the one positive: Booker T is seriously trying to sell the match. If I closed my eyes and only listened to him, I’d be seeing an epic battle.

The problem is, I’m listening with my eyes open, as one does when one pays to watch SummerSlam (or, in my case, signs up for the free WWE Network trial).

This is seriously boring.

Remember the shark cage, a little voice in the back of my head reminds me. Something seriously awesome is going to happen with that cage. The only reason they put Enzo up there in a cage is because they know everyone would be lulled to sleep by a giant versus giant matchup. The shark cage will save this match!

EnzoCage

You’re right, voice in my head, the cage will turn this snooze fest into something glorious.

Oh, look there! Enzo is lubing himself up and squeezing through a gap in the bars. I’m digging the lube shtick. Shark cage mayhem: commence!

EnzoCage2Wait…why is Enzo merely lowering himself gingerly into the ring?  Where’s the crazy 15-foot high superfly splash? Why’s he not prying a bar off the cage and bashing Cass with it?

You mean he’s just going to drop into the ring and get booted in the head? That’s the whole shtick?

And then Cass finishes Big Show with his atomic elbow, the second worst finisher in the history of professional wrestling history (as declared in Part One).

This, truly, is a match worthy of another lumbering giant, The Great Khali.

Grade: F

Match #4: Randy Orton vs. Rusev

You’re digging yourself a serious hole here, SummerSlam. You better give me something good or I may turn you off and fire up that “Top Ten Comebacks” video again (see Part One).

CowboyBobSummerSlam must have heard me because out walks Randy Orton — son of Cowboy Bob, nephew of Barry O, grandson of Bob Orton Sr — and I feel of rush of Golden Age nostalgia. His opponent is Nikolai Volkoff…I mean Boris Zhukov…I mean Nikita Koloff…I mean Rusev.

Nikolai_VolkoffThis is already a better match than the giant vs. giant + shark cage abomination, and Rusev hasn’t yet made his entrance.

And he’s not going to! Rusev attacks Orton from behind before the latter has even finished his entrance – a fantastic heel move! Bravo, good sir! You honor well your Russian wrestling predecessors (even the ones who are Canadian).

The match officially begins…and it’s over in like 15 seconds! Orton catches Rusev in the RKO, and RKO equals one, two, three!

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

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

  1. A 15-second squash match is delightful, but this is SummerSlam. How about taking it really old-school and giving me a double clothesline, double count-out, (double) squash?
  2. JimDugganA truly old-school match involving a Russian menace absolutely requires a real American hero to oppose him. I mean, a Corporal-Kirchner-Seargeant-Slaughter-Hacksaw-Jim-Duggan-Hulk-Hogan American hero. Randy Orton just doesn’t cut it here: there’s no American flag, there’s no patriotic outfit, there are no chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!”

Where’s the jingoism, SummerSlam? Maybe you’re saving it for Jinder Mahal. But Rusev is a Russian wrestler in the age of Russian election meddling, Crimea annexing, American diplomat expelling, and Trump campaign colluding!

Oh wait. That’s the reason right there: Linda McMahon gave $6 million to a pro-Trump super-PAC and Trump picked her to lead the Small Business Administration. Vince has to mute the anti-Russia sentiment.

Despite these minor shortcomings, this match seriously appealed to my Golden Age wrestling sensibility.

Grade: B+

Match #5: Sasha Banks vs. Alexa Bliss for the Raw Women’s Championship

SummerSlam’s been pretty up and down thus far, but the earlier Natalya-Naomi gem gives me high hopes for the second women’s bout.

Banks

As I watch both women come to the ring, here are my initial impressions:

  • On the positive side, Banks and Bliss are all-in with the Naomi-esque explosion of technicolor.
  • On the negative side, that’s where the flair ends; neither has an entrance as visually compelling or energetic as Naomi’s.
  • On the plus side, Bliss is physically small – and this totally reminds me of small town indie wrestling in the South, where some 5’3 guy weighing a buck fifteen will bill himself as “The Destroyer” or “The Crusher.”
  • On the negative side, Banks and Bliss both suffer from a lack of Canadian wrestling lineage – but I’ll try not to hold that against them.

The match itself is respectable, with good pace and good selling on both sides. Let me say again how far the woman’s side has come since the days of Wendy Richter. But the match is lacking something, and I’m not sure what that something is. Maybe a big spot or outside interference from a resentful Bayley — or even Enzo to giving it another go with the shark cage gag (but this time doing it properly, with shenanigans). The match needs something to make it sing. The longer it goes, the more one-note it feels. And the crowd is really quiet. As they cut to the ringside camera, I see a fan in the front row give a full-body yawn.

That’s sort of what I’m feeling too.

Grade: C+

Match #6: Bray Wyatt vs. Finn Balor

Even though I’ve only been half paying attention to the WWE for many years, I’ve been a Bray Wyatt fan since his Wyatt Family Raw debut, semi-following him from a distance. Why? Well, as someone who both teaches an upper-level seminar on new religious movements (aka “cults”) and researches southern culture and southern religion, Bray Wyatt’s deranged, southern backwater cult-leader gimmick appeals to me on multiple levels. Moreover, he currently has the sweetest, most well-conceived entrance: he’s just a creepy dude walking slowly through the nightime southern bog, his kerosene lantern lighting his way, with a laid-back, liquid groove accompanying his saunter.

Wyatt, no doubt, is breathing fresh life into the southern gimmick; we’ve had the hillbilly families, the country music loudmouths, and the inbred simpletons. Now we have a creepy, charismatic bayou cult leader.

WyndamRotundaEven better, this bayou cult leader has a serious Golden Age lineage: his grandad is Blackjack Mulligan, his dad is Mike Rotunda, and his uncle is Barry Wyndham.

To recap: Bray Wyatt appeals to my teaching interests, my research interests, and my Golden Age nostalgia.

ArachnamanOn the other hand, prior to his entrance, I honestly have no idea what or who a Finn Balor is – is he some kind of half man, half bluefin tuna? Sort of like an Arachnaman, but updated for the 21st century?

Evidently not. Finn Balor’s entrance music begins…and…what’s this? He’s swiping Bray Wyatt’s old entrance music – that menacing version of the classic spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”! But who does the “He” refer to in this scenario? Can’t be Jesus because Bray Wyatt is a creepy cult leader. But it can’t be Wyatt either because Finn Balor has stolen the song. “He” must be Finn Balor…whatever a Finn Balor is.

KISSdemonOMG! Finn Balor isn’t Arachnaman…he’s The KISS Demon! And he’s got a sweet, super-creepy entrance too! Lots of devilish smoke, lots of demonic poses, lots of hellish red floodlight. I mean, Finn Balor is like the entire Dungeon of Doom rolled into one, but with kick ass special effects…and proper grammar!

Finn Balor, you may not be Bray Wyatt good, but you’ve got a hell of a gimmick!

I love this classic creepy vs. creepy contest, and though I’ve only seen the entrances, I’m giving it an ‘A.’

Since I already know the grade, I’m not going to say much about the actual ring action. Suffice it to say, I loved it. The commentators are on point (“Behold, the demon king!” “Bray believes he’s a god,” etc.). The storytelling works (demon gets into the cult leader’s head). The finish is Golden Age goofy (Bray’s foiled upside-down spider crawl).

And, speaking as someone with a teeny, tiny amount of in-ring cred, Bray Wyatt takes a pretty, pretty bump (and how could he not, with that Golden Age lineage?).

Grade: A

Match #7: Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins vs. Sheamus and Cesaro for the Raw Tag Team belts

I got too excited about the previous match. I’m not sure I have anything left.

The entrances are so-so: Cesaro and Sheamus are trying too hard with that self-pointy pose, while Rollins and Ambrose…I don’t even remember what they did. All my notes say is “at least they got to the ring fast.”

CesaroSheamus

There was a lot in this match I enjoyed:

  • Super believable European upper cuts (since they were delivered by a bona fide European).
  • Cesaro jumping into the crowd to snatch away the distracting beach ball – total old-school heel move.
  • Really nicely paced, exciting tag team action – we’ll call it U.S.-Express-worthy (since Bray Wyatt is still on my mind).
  • Rollins with one of the best hurricanranas I’ve ever seen.
  • And a perfectly constructed finishing sequence that exploded in cathartic release.

Grade: A-

Match #8: AJ Styles vs. Kevin Owens for the United States Championship

In the days leading up to SummerSlam, I was looking forward this match because it featured two wrestlers I enjoyed very much during their Ring of Honor days, before they both made it big in the WWE. I also happened to catch some of the Shane McMahon backstory on SmackDown earlier in the week, so I was primed for some referee shenanigans. (And I love me some shenanigans!)

SteenAnd lastly, Kevin Owens/Steen is Canadian, so the match has that going for it too.

Shane O Mac, however, steals the entrance thunder with his endearingly awkward white-boy shuffle. It’s good to know that Shane inherited his dad’s strutting “skills.”

The match starts slow, and I’m getting worried. Maybe my memory of Styles and Steen in their Ring of Honor days is skewed; maybe I’ve built them up to be more than they actually are.

Wrong. They’re just building the match slowly, constructing a story that picks up pace as it moves along, until it reaches a fevered pitch at the end. Everything about the match makes sense. As it progresses, the bumps go from small to big; the sequences go from simple to intricate; the special ref goes from barely noticeable to center stage. And everybody is selling hard, most especially Shane, who’s doing a fantastic old-school bumbling ref routine (though I don’t remember any of those refs having Shane’s muscles).

The Kevin Owens resentment angle comes sharply into focus as the match nears the climax. There’s a furious back and forth exchange, a couple huge bumps, and a delightful faux three count with AJ’s foot on the bottom rope. Owens gets in Shane’s face; AJ takes advantage. One, two, three.

This is a master performance in ring psychology; the old timers of the southern indies would approve.

And so do I.

Grade: A-

Match #9: Jinder Mahal vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the WWE Championship

The only match I was looking forward to more than Styles-Owens was this one. Why? I’m seriously intrigued by the international vs. international implications. More than any other match, this one has the potential to tap into both the current populist political moment of Trump-inspired anti-internationalism, nativism, and flat out racism, and the vocal anti-Trump countermovement that has risen in response. I’m also very interested to see how the WWE, with its McMahon-Trump connections, balances the administration’s America-first protectionism with company’s very obvious globalist aspirations. After all, as the commentators repeatedly remind us, this is all about India’s 1.2 billion potential paying customers.

Since, earlier in the show, we’ve already heard from each of the SummerSlam non-English-language broadcast teams – Russian, Spanish, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian, and Hindi – it appears that the globalism argument is winning.

MahalBut then Jinder Mahal makes his entrance, and a faint nativist stink begins to waft through the crowd, as it evidently has in some of his previous matches. Were this the 1980s, however, Mahal and the Singh brothers would have come to the ring in over-the-top Orientalist garb, flubbing their way through a Bollywood dance parody. They’d be goofy heels unaware of their goofiness, which, of course, would make me love them, but would make the crowd erupt in jingoistic refrain: U-S-A! U-S-A!

KamalaBut this is not the 1980s when Vince’s goal was to appeal to the white American middle class; this is the 2010s, and Vince has his sights on India. Mahal, therefore, can’t be an offensive cartoon foreigner – an Indian Kamala, if you will – without alienating his target crowd. But nor can Mahal be a straightforward face because in America’s current cultural climate, any brown-skinned person is a possible Muslim terrorist. Especially one who wears a turban on his head.

So Mahal has to be a heel, but not a parody. Give him a turban, but dress the Singhs in business attire. Let him snarl his way to the ring without the faux-Bollywood goofiness.

Everyone boos but the mood doesn’t descend into rank nativism. One thing — or rather, one person — prevents this from happening: Shinsuke Nakamura, who has already made his astounding entrance before Mahal made his. Nakamura is just as foreign as Mahal is, and his gimmick is arguably less red-blooded-American than Mahal’s – but the crowd loves him (and so do I). His entrance is classical violin and modern dance. It is performance art and it is stunning.

So, instead of a 1980s-style jingoism, we get a straightforward match between a baby and a heel, both of whom happen to be international. One gets a pop; the other gets heat. Old-school-style.

There are two more things I like about this match, even before it gets underway. First, as the SmackDown commentators mention, Jinder Mahal was featured in The New York Times Arts section a couple days earlier – and the Times is my jam. Second, Jinder Mahal is Canadian, not Indian (don’t tell Vince’s 1.2 billion Indians).

Now, about the actual match: It was pretty awful, though I did enjoy the old-school interference from the Singh brothers.

There’s so much potential in this Mahal-Nakamura feud; I hope, in the future, they get it together in the ring. My fear is that Mahal isn’t the champion-caliber worker that Vince needs him to be for the sake of his 1.2 billion potential customers.

To me, this match is a like student’s final paper that has a kernel of brilliance in it, but just doesn’t come together. It has the potential to be excellent, but it needs three or four more drafts to get there.

In this case, however, the grade gets a bump of a half grade due to the sneaky Canadian content.

Grade: B-

Match #10: Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman vs. Samoa Joe in a Fatal 4-Way for the Universal Championship

It’s a big guy vs. big guy vs. big guy vs. big guy contest — and these four big guys, unlike the earlier giants, really have some pace. They are surprisingly quick and agile…and fantastically destructive!

The carnage outside the ring is what I love: Lesnar speared through the barricade; three broadcast tables destroyed; metal stairs wielded like steel chairs in the hands of lesser wrestlers.

And then there’s the stretcher, and the 15 gratuitous referees and 15 gratuitous EMTs and 15 gratuitous guys in suits overseeing the removal of the fallen Conqueror. I love it!

LesnarEMT

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

StrowmanBraun Strowman is an absolute star. I loved him in The Wyatt Family, with his creepy black sheep mask; I love him even more now that he’s on his own, tossing Brock Lesnar around like a ragdoll.

When the action moves back inside the ring, however, the match loses some momentum. All the competitors become a little one-note: Roman Reigns has his superman punch on repeat; Samoa Joe has his modified sleeper on repeat; Brock Lesnar already had his German suplex on repeat (before the outside-the-ring carnage); even Braun Strowman seems to have his powerslam stuck on repeat.

And now, a couple days and lots of typing later, I can’t even remember the finish.

Ten minutes in, this was the best match of SummerSlam. 20 minutes later, it’s still good but no one’s chanting “This is awesome” anymore.

Then again, Brock Lesnar is half Canadian, so this match gets a small grade bump.

Grade: B+

SummerSlam G.P.A.

Ten matches and ten grades: SummerSlam’s cumulative grade point average is 2.87.

Good enough to graduate, but not to go to grad school.

A couple loose ends from Part One need to be tied up before I sign off. First, after my long absence from the WWF/E, was SummerSlam enough to get me back in the fold, or do I head back to the small-time world of the southern indie circuit, SummerSlam but a tiny reflection in my rearview mirror? Second, regardless of the answer to the first, do I cancel the WWE Network before my free trial ends as I initially planned, or do I keep it and enjoy its wealth of “Top Ten” videos and old Golden Age matches?

The first one’s pretty easy to answer. I’m definitely heading back to the indies, but SummerSlam did enough to make me want to check back in with the WWE periodically (Wrestlemania, for sure, probably also Survivor Series and Royal Rumble).

GeorgeTheAnimalAs for the WWE Network, impressive as the catalogue of “Iron” Mike Sharpe matches is, I’m just not sure the vault — or the collection of “Top Ten” videos — is worth my $9.99 per month.

Then again, a have a few weeks left on my free trial. I have a feeling it won’t take much to change my mind. After all, I haven’t yet searched for George “The Animal” Steele matches!

Bonus Ranking of SummerSlam Entrances

I love a good entrance, so, in honor of Bill Simmonds, author of my favorite article on entrances, and his colleague, “The Masked Man” David Shoemaker, and their once glorious but now defunct website, Grantland.com, here is my official ranking of SummerSlam entrances:

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

August 24 update: The video below just popped up in my Facebook feed. I think I’ve just become a John Cena mark.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SummerSlam Part One: Preparations

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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?)

summerslam2017

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.

Hulk_Hogan's_Rock_'n'_Wrestling

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.

Iron-SheikVince 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.

IronMikeMLW 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.

APWI 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

WWEnetworkStep 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.

It does.

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

Bret_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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yt6Sh0k2TaA

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!

RockHoganOh 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.

#7: Sting

Huh? Sting?

Is there a glitch in the WWE app? Did the video switch to “top-ten face paint”?

Sting1Sting2I’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?

AdonisHow 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).

#5: Edge

EdgeEdge? Edge???

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?

Reeeeeeeeedunculous.

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.

Oh wait. Lesnar is semi-Canadian. I guess I’m forced to give this a semi-pass.

Before I go on: What’s the deal with Canadian comebacks? Is this some kind of standard wrestling angle I wasn’t aware of? The American hero who fights off the foreign threat. Best friends competing for the love of the same woman. The evil boss who jerks around the fan favorite. The Canadian who’s gone for a while then comes back?

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.)

#3: Undertaker

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?

Nope.

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?

IronMikeI 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.

MissingLinkOkay, 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.

Next up: Part Two.