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Hyperbole in Spandex: Your Primer for Sunday’s Blown-Out ‘SummerSlam’

Covering all the angles before Sunday’s WWE pay-per-view.

We all know SummerSlam is the WrestleMania for “smart” fans, but since I wrote those words last month, WWE has done everything in its power to make this year’s SummerSlam a traditional WrestleMania-style extravaganza. The company has booked Barclays Center in Brooklyn for three straight nights  NXT on Saturday, SummerSlam on Sunday, and Raw on Monday. It expanded the pay-per-view to four hours  a bold move, and a big opportunity for the second-tier matches, even if I’m already tired just thinking about it. Other ’Mania trappings include a celebrity guest in a match, a champion-versus-champion bout, Brock Lesnar versus the Undertaker, and a special host  Jon Stewart, who projects as the best Raw celebrity guest this side of Bill Simmons. WWE has doubled down on promoting the weekend, with a flurry of mainstream coverage: Lesnar on SportsCenter, Stewart in the New York Times, and an actual SportsCenter broadcast from SummerSlam. Last year, when word spread that WWE might be interested in moving SummerSlam from Los Angeles to New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, I was nervous it was overshooting the mark. Now, I wonder if it couldn’t have filled up those 82,000 seats. If you weren’t already excited for this weekend, WWE has spent the past six weeks making you care.

We may be in a new era of SummerSlam, but some things never change. Thankfully, this applies to the event’s reputation for booking matches that appeal to the hard-core fan base. By any definition, Sunday’s card is stacked, and the storytelling has been solid: The outcomes don’t feel predictable. SummerSlam has been a platform for big swerves in recent years, providing unexpected finishes to big matches. It’s always been WWE’s second-biggest event, but it’s always had more narrative leeway than ’Mania  no inherent need to finalize story lines and send fans home happy with a big win by the hero. Last year we got Lesnar’s stunning demolition of John Cena.1 In 2013, Daniel Bryan shocked the world by beating Cena, then lost the title when Randy Orton cashed in the Money in the Bank briefcase and aligned himself with the Authority. 2011 saw CM Punk beat Cena and then lose  also via MITB cash-in  to Alberto Del Rio. So what’s going to happen this year? It’s safe to say that with all the effort it’s taken to get eyes on the product, WWE will do something to get people talking.


1.

And Nikki Bella turning on her sister Brie to boot.

Let’s run down the card and look at the stakes and the online gambling odds to get an idea of who might win. And just for fun, let’s also imagine what swerves WWE might pull off to make the crowd go crazy.

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Brock Lesnar vs. the Undertaker

What’s at Stake?
There are no titles on the line in this rematch from WrestleMania 30, which is absolutely fitting — the Undertaker is the modern model of the wrestler who doesn’t need a championship to validate him, and Lesnar is his heir. Lesnar was booked in a world title reign last year to add a sense of legitimacy to WWE, just as Taker used to hold the title during WWE’s moments of greatest need. Now the two are transcending those traditional constraints by headlining the second-biggest show of the year with nothing on the line but supremacy. They’ve even managed to transcend a lukewarm buildup: Despite an epic brawl in July that took the entire locker room to break up, Lesnar and Undertaker’s encounters since then have been mostly limited to Paul Heyman monologues and dubious Undertaker crotch kicks. Regardless, this is an enormous match between the biggest star of the wrestling world and the icon of WWE’s glory days, and it will almost certainly tear the house down. They’re calling this “the match too big for WrestleMania,” and while that’s clearly hyperbole, there’s not much more you can say to hype this match. It’s hyperbole in spandex.

What Are the Odds?2
Undertaker 4/7
Brock Lesnar 3/2


2.

All odds courtesy of Bovada.

Sounds right to me. In a vacuum, this would be a toss-up, but considering Lesnar’s ’Mania 30 win — and the specter of building Taker up for his looming retirement match (presumably next year) — Taker deserves the odds.

What’s the Swerve?
Last month I predicted an Undertaker win followed by a rubber match at WrestleMania, so a Lesnar win would shock me — but only if it’s decisive. The biggest possible swerve would be a definitive end to the biggest rivalry WWE has going. A more attainable swerve would be Heyman switching sides and Taker formally turning heel. Even easier than that? Sting interferes and sets up a ’Mania dream match against Taker.

Seth Rollins vs. John Cena

cena-john-seth-rollinsWWE

What’s at Stake?
Rollins has been WWE World Heavyweight Champion since WrestleMania; Cena is the generational idol and United States Champion. After reeling off wins against most of his logical opponents — and having his biggest match, against Lesnar, interrupted by the Undertaker — Rollins needed a big-time opponent for SummerSlam. That man would be 15-time world champ Cena, who decided to take a break from star-making in the midcard to return to the main event, where he will try to make a super-duper-star out of Rollins. The winner will hold both championships, which gives this a sort of reverse–WrestleMania 6, Hogan-vs.-Warrior vibe. In this case, the standard-bearer (Cena) is the lesser champion on paper, even though he’s still passing on the torch to the next big thing. (Let’s hope Rollins’s career arc turns out better than the Ultimate Warrior’s did.)

What Are the Odds?
John Cena 8/5
Seth Rollins 4/9

These odds seem high for Rollins, but there are two big arguments against Cena. SummerSlam isn’t his event — he hasn’t won there since a tag match in 2010.3 And there’s new Cena merchandise that proclaims him a 15-time champ (which he already is, and WWE presumably would like to sell a few more items before Cena wins the title for the 16th time).


3.

Nor does he have a good track record in double-title matches.

What’s the Swerve?
There are the new Cena T-shirts — but it seems unlikely WWE would allow Rollins to beat Cena cleanly with so much on the line. (And if we’re going to read the T-shirt tea leaves, Rollins’s anti-Cena gear implies this rivalry will last beyond Sunday.) I can’t shake the feeling that neither man will finish Sunday night with both belts.

There’s potential for Sheamus cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase and walking out with the big belt himself, and there’s always the possibility that the Authority will get involved, despite how detached they’ve seemed lately. Or it could just be a regular old non-finish. Or hey, maybe Cena will finally turn heel — a boy can dream, can’t he?

Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose vs. Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper

reigns-roman-harper-lukeWWE

What’s at Stake?
Not much, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a good old-fashioned grudge match, set in motion when Wyatt interfered in the Money in the Bank ladder match to prevent Reigns from winning. When Wyatt brought back his old running buddy Harper, Reigns turned to his former Shield-mate Ambrose, who has feuded with both Wyatt and Harper in the past year. As they’ve parceled out the feud into various singles-match combinations in recent weeks, it has become clear these four guys work well together and that this story line is about as good as a placeholder, non-title beef can get. Sure, this match has been slightly undercooked thanks to the glut of SummerSlam matches that need Raw screen time, but if the metric for a successful feud is how excited I feel to see the PPV match, then Reigns-Ambrose/Wyatt-Harper is a success — even if I would have been just as excited five weeks ago.

What Are the Odds?
Wyatt Family 8/5
Reigns and Ambrose 1/2

If Ambrose and Reigns don’t break up, they’re a safe bet to win, so despite the online clamoring for a heel turn, these odds are about right. The sad thing is that so many fans expect a swerve in this match that a straightforward finish might disappoint them too much to enjoy what could be one of the night’s highlights.

What’s the Swerve?
There has been widespread speculation that Ambrose or Reigns will turn heel and side with the Wyatt Family. The backstage promos by Reigns and Ambrose have been too over-the-top buddy-buddy — more like reverse foreshadowing than actual camaraderie. And it makes sense — Ambrose needs a heel run to fulfill his destiny as this generation’s Jake Roberts, and Reigns needs one to shed the skin of being force-fed to fans in the run-up to WrestleMania earlier this year. If one of them turns, I hope it’s Ambrose. He and Wyatt could make a brutally awesome duo so long as Ambrose gets to be himself and not a brainwashed peon. And if it works, then voilà: We have an Ambrose-Reigns feud to carry us for several months.

Team Bella (the Bella Twins and Alicia Fox) vs. Team B.A.D. (Naomi, Sasha Banks, and Tamina) vs. PCB (Paige, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch)

banks-sasha-bella-nikki

What’s at Stake?
In story line terms? The end of the Bella dynasty and bragging rights for the winning faction. In meta terms? The future of WWE women’s wrestling. After Stephanie McMahon called up Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks from NXT and christened the Divas Revolution, women’s wrestling has suddenly gotten a fair share of TV time on Raw, with the new faces in particular getting moments to shine. Sunday will be the real test — a nine-person match needs 20 minutes to tell a story and get everybody involved, but even 15 would be a step in the right direction for WWE. If the Divas get less than that at SummerSlam, it’ll feel like the Revolution was just lip service. If they get a real opportunity to impress, then the sky’s the limit.

What Are the Odds?
PCB 5/4
Team Bella 9/5
Team B.A.D. 9/2

Rule no. 8 of wrestling betting: When there are more than eight people in a match, put your money on the good guy.

What’s the Swerve?
Most of the allegiances in this match are makeshift, and the spotlight for the new era of women’s wrestling is up for grabs, so anything could happen. If one Diva were to turn on her team to help another win, then that’s (9 Divas x 2 opposing teams) 18 possible swerves. Throw in a few double-team falling-outs — Becky Lynch and Charlotte turning on Paige, or the Bellas turning on Alicia Fox, or Naomi and Tamina turning on Sasha Banks — and the swerve count rises to 21, and we haven’t even gotten to Stephanie McMahon yet. My guess is no swerve — the good gals win, and they all get shots at Nikki’s belt in the coming weeks. But the biggest swerve of the month is that this angle even exists. We’re just a few months removed from an all-time low in a monotonous and disheartening Divas division. If this is the start of real change, then that’s an ending nobody could have seen coming.

Kevin Owens vs. Cesaro

cesaro-owens-kevin

What’s at Stake?
On Cheap Heat this week, I suggested they make this a Brass Ring on a Pole match — a reference to Vince McMahon’s proclamation on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast that the millennial generation of wrestlers don’t have the mentality to reach out and grab the brass ring of superstardom. This match won’t have a stipulation that obvious, but the substance is the same. These are two former indie standouts who are finally getting to sniff mainstream success. Cesaro has been lingering in the WWE midcard for a while, with enough starts and stops to give a guy whiplash, while Owens waited in the indies while nearly all of his contemporaries signed with WWE, only to join the mothership last fall and force his way into the spotlight in a matter of months. Both Cesaro and Owens have gotten the rub from Cena in recent months, Owens by feuding with him and Cesaro by tagging alongside him. And while this rivalry might look like a step backward for Owens, it could be the hidden gem of SummerSlam — and a look at the future of the business. Either that or McMahon is just looking for an excuse to demote them, and putting them out together in a short, early match would be an indication of that. So, what’s at stake? Two guys writing their futures in the ring. In many ways, that’s bigger than a belt.

What Are the Odds?
Owens 2/3
Cesaro 1/1

The winner of the Brass Ring Challenge won’t be decided by pinfall or submission — it will be who looks best and who gets the crowd behind them the loudest. (And yes, it can be a draw.) But as far as the actual 1-2-3? You have to put Owens a little higher, because he needs to maintain the momentum he gained from battling Cena. Cesaro will look good just being close.

What’s the Swerve?
These two have been tied up in the past month’s Orton-Sheamus and Cena-Rollins feuds, so we could see some crossover shenanigans here. But the best possible intervention of this match would be for the fans to take over and make the backstage bigwigs know how important Owens and Cesaro are to the show. For once, “This is wrestling!” could mean a whole lot.

Rusev (With Summer Rae) vs. Dolph Ziggler (With Lana)

ziggler-dolph-rusev

What’s at Stake?
Pride, envy, heartbreak — you know, the stuff of legend. With his manager and erstwhile ladyfriend Lana by his side, Rusev bulldozed the lower ranks of WWE during his first year. That run culminated in a highlight series against Cena. Rusev’s biggest loss, however, wasn’t to Cena in the ring — it was when Lana left him and took up with Ziggler, WWE’s gyrating, golden also-ran. Rusev found solace in Summer Rae, who began dressing like Lana — miniskirt business attire and tightly slicked hair — to please her man. Lana, for her part, let her hair down (sort of) and started to find her post-villain personality.

It’s a postmodern showdown on a number of levels. It’s Rusev’s first major feud that doesn’t play off the old-fashioned jingoism that jump-started his career, and we’ll see if he can get over without the nouveau–Cold War stylings. Likewise, Lana — Vince McMahon’s rumored pick to be the future female face of WWE — needs to find her voice. As for Dolph: Who knows? A win Sunday could bump him back toward the main-event push that has eluded him since concussions cost him his WWE Championship in 2013. Rusev injured him a few weeks back, which sidelined Ziggler long enough to film a WWE Studios thriller. And that, if nothing else, means Dolph remains a part of WWE’s long-term plan.

What Are the Odds?
Ziggler 11/10
Rusev 2/3

This is my underdog pick of the night. The stars look aligned for a throwback to an earlier, more pristine form of wrestling storytelling, and the proper ending here is for Lana to smack Rusev, sending him into a Zigzag and a loss. Rusev should be the odds-on favorite, but if God’s a babyface, I’m taking Ziggler.

What’s the Swerve?
The only big surprise here would be Lana realigning with Rusev, which isn’t unthinkable if WWE decides the Soviets work better together than they do as solo performers. The biggest shock would be if Lana and Summer don’t come to blows during this match. They will, rest assured — the heat between those two is nuclear compared to Rusev and Ziggler.

Neville and Stephen Amell vs. Stardust and King Barrett

amell-stephen-neville

What’s at Stake?
Stephen Amell. The actor best known as TV’s Green Arrow was drawn into this feud by the bizarrely comic-book-obsessed Stardust, and really all that matters here is Amell. If we needed any more evidence that WWE is angling for SummerSlam to be WrestleMania-adjace, look no further than this celebrity match. But don’t let me undersell this. As far as wrestling celebrities go, Amell is a sneaky-good selection. He’s a real WWE fan, he’s legitimately athletic, and the crossover between Green Arrow and WWE fans is a lot more tangible than it has been with previous pop-culture tie-ins, like Snooki.

What Are the Odds?
Amell and Neville 1/6
The Cosmic Kings 4/1

Stars don’t come to pro wrestling to take the pin.

What’s the Swerve?
Amell losing. Well, that or Amell turning heel and signing full time with WWE.

Ryback vs. the Miz vs. Big Show

ryback-miz

What’s at Stake?
The Intercontinental title! What else do you need to know?

Well, OK — these three were supposed to fight last month at Battleground, only to have the match shelved when belt-holder Ryback came down with a nasty staph infection. Now they’re finally getting their chance to rumble, and wrestling fans will finally get their chance to go to the bathroom.

What Are the Odds?
Ryback 4/13
The Miz 3/1
Big Show 6/1

Always bet on the big guy. And when there are two big guys, bet on the more ripped one.

What’s the Swerve?
There’s no surprise finish in this match that could be even remotely surprising, short of Daniel Bryan returning from injury and taking out Ryback to get his IC title back.

Randy Orton vs. Sheamus

orton-randy-sheamus

What’s at Stake?
These guys just plain hate each other. I’ve said it before: This is a perfect way for two borderline main-eventers to tread water until they’re needed on the big stage — which will happen for Sheamus because he has the Money in the Bank briefcase and for Orton because of whatever dirt his father, “Cowboy” Bob Orton, apparently has on Vince McMahon. But on a stacked four-hour card, it’s hard to get too revved up for this match. Maybe the biggest thing at stake here is whether they can keep the crowd interested during what projects as an excellent match.

What Are the Odds?
Orton 7/2
Sheamus 1/6

These odds are logically defensible: Orton is Teflon and Sheamus needs the boost to gain relevance before his eventual MITB cash-in. But on the off chance Sheamus cashes in at SummerSlam, a loss to Orton early in the night would be a great red herring. And with two guys of this stature, who wins often becomes a game-time decision, so it would be unwise to bet on Sheamus with those odds.

What’s the Swerve?
A Sheamus cash-in later in the night doesn’t really count for this match. If they really wanted to shock the crowd, they could do an RKO Outta Somewhere, but I think we can assume this match will be swerve-free.

The Prime Time Players (Titus O’Neil and Darren Young) vs. the New Day (Two out of Three of Big E, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods) vs. Los Matadores (Fernando and Diego With El Torito) vs. the Lucha Dragons (Sin Cara and Kalisto)

tagtitle

What’s at Stake?
The tag titles.

What Are the Odds?
New Day 6/5
Prime Time Players 7/5
Lucha Dragons 4/1
Los Matadores 10/1

Does it matter?

What’s the Swerve?
Los Matadores winning would truly be the biggest swerve of the night.