S ummerSlam is WWE’s second-biggest event of the year, although it hasn’t always been. It was the fourth-most-important of the four original pay-per-views, and it was initially envisioned as a way to extend the Hulk Hogan–Andre the Giant feud and fleece wrestling fans for an additional payout. Twenty-six years later, not much has changed. Because even though SummerSlam has become more prominent while Survivor Series has faded into gimmickless oblivion and the Royal Rumble has grown into its role as WrestleMania’s hors d’oeuvre, SummerSlam in 2014 is still primarily a way for WWE to squeeze as much revenue from its audience as it possibly can.
See, when WWE launched a streaming network earlier this year, it offered free pay-per-view events — including, most importantly, WrestleMania — to subscribers who agreed to a six-month commitment. Now that it’s approaching the end of that term for the early subscribers, WWE is hustling to sign up as many viewers as possible, and in the process the company has turned the run-up to SummerSlam into a commercial for the network. We’ll get back to this.
Twenty years ago this month was SummerSlam 1994, which is an anniversary worth celebrating. The championship match that night was Bret Hart versus Owen Hart in a beautiful steel cage match — and believe me, I’d love to be writing today about how the Daniel Bryan–CM Punk title match is a perfect parallel for that feud. But that’s not happening — Punk is retired and Bryan is on the disabled list. Plus, even if such a dream match were on Sunday’s card, it’s safe to assume it would be playing second fiddle to JOHN CENA VERSUS BROCK LESNAR.
Which is itself a pretty nice parallel for that night in 1994, when Bret besting his degenerate brother went on second to last. The main event was the Undertaker versus his evil twin, who was also called the Undertaker but whom fans far and wide called the Underfaker. Months earlier, after Undertaker had lost a casket match to Yokozuna1 at Royal Rumble, his casket had appeared on the TitanTron and exploded. Undertaker promised to come back, and he did, but not before he took several months off to heal up from a back injury.
Undertaker’s return was teased by man-on-the-street videos of people claiming to have spotted him, Bigfoot-style. The Undertaker who finally showed up on Raw in the weeks before SummerSlam, however, was an impostor introduced by “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase. Was DiBiase hoping to scam wrestling fans and take all of the Undertaker’s fight purses for himself? Was he deliberately trying to provoke the real Undertaker, his former protégé? Was Underfaker a crazy person who actually believed he possessed similar powers to the real Taker? Or were he and DiBiase just messing with Taker’s head? Thankfully for fans, the WWF put a real detective in charge of answering these questions: Leslie Nielsen, basically playing Lieutenant Frank Drebin, appeared in a series of videos trying to explain the seemingly inexplicable two-Undertakers phenomenon.
What mattered at the end of the day was that the real Undertaker — identifiable to all by his crowd-pleasing new lavender togs, exposed his counterfeit counterpart. Once Underfaker was tossed into a coffin and exiled for good, all was right with the world. Equilibrium had been restored. Leslie Nielsen’s quest for answers may not have been a success, but it didn’t matter. At least we didn’t have to worry about this rift in the space-time continuum any longer.
Twenty years later, wrestling fans find themselves facing a similar conundrum. We might not see two near-identical performers with the same name squaring off at SummerSlam on Sunday, but we’re getting an equally intriguing counterfactual in the headline World Heavyweight Championship match between John Cena and Brock Lesnar.
In a lot of ways, Lesnar is the bizarro Cena. Lesnar was an NCAA Division I heavyweight wrestling champion; Cena was an amateur bodybuilder. They both came up through Ohio Valley Wrestling — then WWE’s farm league — and debuted in the big leagues in 2002. Lesnar was hotshotted into the main event and won the belt from the Rock at SummerSlam just months after his debut; Cena unsuccessfully challenged Lesnar in early 2003 before departing on an odyssey through the U.S. Championship scene. Lesnar left pro wrestling behind in 2004 to try his hand at football; Cena finally ascended to the WWE Championship2 at WrestleMania 21 by beating JBL. Lesnar joined New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2005, violating the noncompete clause he had signed upon leaving WWE and resulting in a legal battle just as Cena established himself as WWE’s brightest rising star. Lesnar began a mixed martial arts career in 2007 and won the UFC heavyweight championship in November 2008, the same month that Cena returned from a herniated disc to capture WWE’s World Heavyweight Championship from Chris Jericho. Lesnar became one of the most successful ex–professional wrestlers ever — certainly the most successful in an athletic endeavor — and Cena became the face of modern professional wrestling.
They were two young stars with competing kinds of potential. WWE saw Cena as Hulk Hogan meets the Rock, a catchphrase-spewing marketing machine, but Brock was dubbed the “Next Big Thing,” an unholy cross between Andre the Giant and Lou Thesz. Lesnar was rushed to the top, while Cena waited his turn. Brock ditched wrestling; Cena stayed — and persisted with uncanny consistency and recuperative ability. Cena became the standard-bearer for WWE, the biggest star in modern pro wrestling, and Brock Lesnar became an even bigger star by leaving and making a name for himself outside the company. Brock is a real athlete with a short attention span; Cena is a sports-entertainment superstar with a level of commitment that has made him more of a corporate institution than even Hulk Hogan ever was. It’s too easy to say that Lesnar is real and Cena is fake; Lesnar may be the “realest” dominant force that pro wrestling has seen in decades, but Cena is “fake” only if you completely misunderstand what wrestling is. When they square off on Sunday, each man will be staring across the ring and into another dimension at a warped version of himself.
It’s just a coincidence that this will be Lesnar’s first match since April’s WrestleMania 30, when he ended Undertaker’s Mania undefeated streak. That night, Lesnar accomplished what Underfaker couldn’t do — he dented the magic of WWE’s most infamous supernatural force. And then he disappeared, just like Taker did after losing to Yokozuna, only to be brought back by a pompous mouthpiece. Of course, in this case Lesnar went out in victory and his spokesman — the inimitable Paul Heyman — isn’t misrepresenting his identity like DiBiase did. But it remains to be seen whether Lesnar is a false idol. And this year there’s no Leslie Nielsen to investigate the mystery — that’ll be solely on John Cena to prove.
There’s more than one match on the SummerSlam card, and even without Bryan and Punk and Triple H and Batista, it’s shaping up to be a pretty fun show. Let’s run down the action.
Bray Wyatt vs. Chris Jericho: Jericho made a semi-surprising return to WWE a couple of months ago with the sole purpose of making Bray Wyatt look good, and so far the results have been mixed. Sure, the feud has been fun, but with Jericho’s star-making role so entrenched, it has lost some of its luster. We all know how this ends, and what beating Jericho should mean for Wyatt’s rising star. On Sunday, Wyatt’s cronies Harper and Rowan are banned from ringside, which either gives Wyatt an excuse to lose or gives him a chance to win clean, which would be a big step forward for him. Jericho is booked to be around for another month, though, so WWE could choose to string this along.
Stephanie McMahon vs. Brie Bella: When this match was first teased — the owner’s daughter versus the wife of the wrestler she spent the last year burying — it felt like the co-main to Lesnar-Cena and another example of WWE going all in with WrestleMania-caliber matches on the SummerSlam card. (Not to mention it’s a callback to an era when women’s wrestling was more catfight than chain wrestling exhibition and when angry gals with loaded Gucci bags made marks of tough guys like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.) If the buildup over the past couple of weeks has been less than stellar, the match still has the potential to be a big moment — and, if nothing else, a serviceable spousal stand-in for the Triple H–Daniel Bryan feud we would be getting if not for Bryan’s bum neck.
Jack Swagger vs. Rusev in a Flag Match: We covered this last month, and the broad strokes haven’t changed. Sunday’s twist is a flag match, which means the Boy Scouts among us may want to gird their psyches for some flag desecration. It’s hard to see Swagger winning, although a couple of months ago it was hard to imagine Swagger in a match that anybody cared about.
AJ Lee (champ) vs. Paige for the Divas Title: This may be the second-most-heralded women’s match on the card, but you can’t say it hasn’t been entertaining. Paige solidified her heel turn a couple of weeks back and has found her footing on the dark side. AJ, meanwhile, has embraced the Reality Era celebrity that comes with her real-life marriage to CM Punk. It’s the best Divas rivalry WWE has had in ages — let’s just hope WWE capitalizes on it.
The Miz (champion) vs. Dolph Ziggler for the Intercontinental Title: Normally this match would be filler on a card this big. Functionally, it still very well may be. But Miz has been fun since his most recent return, and Ziggler seems to finally — and ever so subtly — be trending toward significance. This feels like it’ll be the pre-show match, but if it’s not, it could be the sleeper hit of the night. These guys have good chemistry, and despite their respective misadventures at the top of the card, few wrestlers can get a live crowd cheering and booing like Ziggler and Miz can, respectively. I’m excited that I’ll be in the audience for this one.
Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose in a Lumberjack Match: This has probably been WWE’s most compelling vendetta in recent months, but there’s one big problem — it’s a lumberjack match, which is like a steel cage match that makes close to zero logical sense. Just as with cage matches, lumberjack matches usually result from a feud in which one wrestler is constantly running away from the other. But instead of choosing high walls to keep your opponent from escaping, you introduce an army of other wrestlers to circle the ring. Each of those performers has his own motivations. They form something like a sea of human variables who are guaranteed to somehow contribute to the match’s unsatisfactory resolution. I’m sure Rollins-Ambrose will be an excellent match, and I have confidence that the two protagonists will find a way to make the lumberjack conceit as interesting as they can. If they manage to breathe life into one of wrestling’s most tired provisions, this could be a match of the year.
Randy Orton vs. Roman Reigns: I love this feud. I loved Orton’s methodical beatdown of Reigns a few weeks back. I love every Reigns run-in and every time he overcomes the odds. I love Kane’s quirky, allegiance-less involvement. Hell, I even love Reigns stumbling his way though Steely Action Hero 101 on live TV every week. But mostly, I like the consideration that WWE has put into this rivalry. Too often, WWE treats everything outside the main event as an afterthought, and it struggles to give preliminary matches meaning. This is how you make a non-title match matter: You make one guy irrationally mad about something, have him beat up the other guy, and then you make the victim irrationally mad about getting beat up. Voilà! People care. Funny how that works.
WWE might not have paid tribute to the 20th anniversary of the Underfaker, but it celebrated another wrestling milestone on Monday: Hulk Hogan’s 61st birthday. It trotted out legendary partners and rivals like Ric Flair, Paul Orndorff, Roddy Piper, and Kevin Nash and Scott Hall to wish him well. And then Brock Lesnar came out and crashed the party.
As Brock stared down Hogan, it didn’t just feel like he was threatening WWE’s living legend.3 It felt like he was staring down their business model. Since Hogan’s return to the WWE fold in the run-up to this year’s WrestleMania, he’s been little more than a pitchman — a walking, talking 30-second spot for the WWE Network. For the past two weeks, Raw has seen numerous wrestlers and announcers repeating “$9.99” ad nauseam. Even Hogan’s birthday party was repurposed into a network event. The candles atop his cake spelled out $9.99, the special price of a network subscription, instead of 61 — the insinuation being that even with Hogan in his dotage, the network is alive and well.
Brock’s interruption was something of a blessing to “smart” wrestling fans, if only because it cut short the inexplicable hard sell of the network. When Lesnar stood face-to-face with Hogan, you could almost see him deciding whether to swallow the WWE business model whole. Lesnar stands in stark contrast to the notion of 24/7 wrestling fandom. He’s a part-timer, an unfocused killing machine. His value to WWE is in his real-life fame and non-WWE accomplishments, and the company’s using his UFC record to get people excited about a never-ending stream of wrestling content.4
So when Cena ran in to protect Hogan, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Cena is the face of WWE, and Hogan is his direct forebear. They’re both the walking, talking representations of the network, the industry, and its business model. But Cena doesn’t even have to say the price to make the pitch. Cena is the pitch. Brock, for his part, is the appeal to casual fans. Who wins this match will reveal a lot about which portion of the fan base WWE is targeting.
My guess is that Lesnar will win and WWE will try to lure in as much mainstream attention as possible during the second-biggest pay-per-view of the year. Then, next month at Night of Champions, Cena will take the belt back in a surprising turn that everybody saw coming a mile away. Brock doesn’t need the title or a win to be an icon, but Cena, who exists solely in the ersatz world of WWE, needs it very much. And WWE needs Cena, who will be there, starring 24/7 on the network whenever WWE needs him, to succeed. As for wrestling fans, well, I think we need to see WWE — and Cena — on the ropes before we come around to support that underdog story. Maybe after Sunday night, we’ll find a little sympathy for the leviathan.