How ‘SummerSlam’ Became the ‘WrestleMania’ for Die-hard FansWWE
I’ve often made the case that meta fans like me gripe too much about WrestleMania. Our complaints, such as they are, are valid: WWE spotlights the wrong guys and relegates our favorites to the undercard in favor of big names from previous eras; it often relies on the aura of the event to make feuds seem significant rather than booking strong story lines; and it telegraphs the matches (and outcomes) too far in advance, minimizing the surprise that “smart” fans cherish in an effort to maximize viewership. It’s a public relations formula that feels like a foghorn to us diehards. But I’m not sure that such decisions diminish WrestleMania significantly, because that’s just what ’Mania is now. It lures back lapsed fans to watch old wrestlers they dimly recall, and it’s confectionary for kids who can only talk their parents into one PPV a year. The year’s highest-grossing movie rarely wins the Oscar for Best Picture. Still, life goes on.
Thankfully, for those of us who wish WrestleMania could be different, SummerSlam has become our WrestleMania. The now-annual audience revolts at the end of the Royal Rumble — a response to WWE’s projected ’Mania booking — are also fun. But since ’Mania is typically a hit no matter who’s in the main event, those boos are like a large-scale version of the call and response that attends every big John Cena match. We scream “Cena sucks!” but only because so many people are screaming “Let’s go Cena.” It’s fun to take part in the dissent, but complaining that Cena, who exists primarily for kid-size T-shirts and Make-A-Wish visits, doesn’t meet your Platonic ideal of a grappler misses the point entirely. Complaining about WrestleMania is a similarly fun but useless act, because it’s no secret that it’s geared toward connecting with casual fans rather than diehards.1
If you’re looking to invest emotion in a show, make it the one that’s made for you: SummerSlam. This is the event where, in 2011, CM Punk defeated Cena to become the undisputed WWE champion. (Alberto Del Rio cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase and won the strap from Punk afterward.) It’s where, in 2012, Brock Lesnar beat Triple H, and CM Punk beat John Cena and the Big Show. It’s where, in 2013, Daniel Bryan won the title from Cena. (Randy Orton staged his own cash-in after that match and swiped the championship.) It’s where, last year, Lesnar suplexed Cena into smithereens. Sure, SummerSlam is never a flawless show, but it’s better than WrestleMania. It’s our show, and we should appreciate it as such. The shows aren’t perfect from top to bottom, but they’re pretty damn great.
Full stop: SummerSlam is a bigger deal than WrestleMania. Although ’Mania is a technical achievement beyond comparison, its success lies with the power of the brand and the wiles of the PR department (and Vince McMahon’s special contract slush fund). SummerSlam’s success depends on WWE’s ability to tell a good enough story to get people to tune in — you know, what a pro wrestling show’s supposed to do.2 But it’s more than that: In the never-ending calendar WWE has created, SummerSlam has to do more than just succeed. It has to spark the long fuse leading to WrestleMania, crazy as that sounds. It has to cater to hard-core fans and set the table for the all-you-can-eat buffet that is ’Mania.
Just about every year, I preview WrestleMania two months in advance. Once the Rumble is over, the ’Mania card is all but set. With SummerSlam taking over as the big event for meta fans, I figure it’s about time to start a new tradition and begin giving it the same two-month preview treatment. And since SummerSlam will surely affect what happens at next year’s WrestleMania, why not look forward and speculate about the Granddaddy of Them All?
SummerSlam is in late August. Let’s look at the likely matchups.
Brock Lesnar vs. the Undertaker
At WrestleMania 2014, Lesnar shocked the world by beating the Undertaker and breaking his 21-match ’Mania winning streak. It was the foundation of Lesnar’s run to the WWE Championship and his present positioning as the pug-nosed, snarling face of the company. It seemed at the time like a plausible exit for Taker, too — wrestling protocol says you always lose on the way out to give back to the industry, plus he was legitimately hurt in the match. What else should we expect from a 49-year-old who wrestles once or twice a year? But Taker wasn’t done — he came back to beat Bray Wyatt at this year’s WrestleMania, at which point people immediately started penciling him in for a dream match against Sting next year in Dallas. (The Undertaker is from Texas, and it’ll be the biggest show in WWE history, so that much makes sense.)
What nobody expected, though, was Taker’s return Sunday at Battleground.3 Undertaker materialized out of thin air and attacked Lesnar in the closing moments of his title match against Seth Rollins. The match didn’t even really end — Taker’s mere presence preempted any official result.
On Raw, Taker opened the show to explain his motives (reeevengggeeee) and challenge Lesnar to a match at SummerSlam, which was accepted several times over. First, the announcers told us the match was on, then Triple H and Stephanie McMahon discussed it in positive tones backstage, then Paul Heyman accepted on Lesnar’s behalf in conversation with the Authority, and then he “officially” accepted the challenge in the ring, if memory serves. It was perfectly befitting the modern hype-first WWE ethos. Heyman was alone in the ring — Lesnar wasn’t there, we were told, and with his lax schedule, it was believable — but when Heyman’s speech peaked with “You can sell your soul to the devil, but your ass belongs to Brock Lesnar,” the lights went out. Undertaker appeared again, looming over Heyman, and then Lesnar’s music hit. He ran in and tackled Taker, and suddenly we had what Gordon Solie would have called a Pier 6 brawl. They were throwing fists frantically and convincingly, despite the intervention of the security crew and then the entire locker room, who had been implored by Triple H to separate the two until SummerSlam.
It was a heady moment for WWE. Triple H’s semi-villainous corporate character was trying to keep Lesnar and Taker apart in the name of saving the big show. He was like Dana White jumping between fighters at a weigh-in, except slightly less staged. But the realism was heightened by the intensity of the Lesnar-Taker brawl. It spanned two segments and traveled from the ring to the loading dock. Things got so out of hand that R-Truth, of all people, ended up acting as the voice of reason. For all the absurdity of the staging, the clash felt urgent. After Taker’s surprise return the night before and Lesnar’s surprise appearance that night, anything seemed possible. But the reality was the story that Triple H told: WWE has to protect the match for SummerSlam, but it’ll give you just enough to keep you interested.
Prediction and WrestleMania Fallout: I’m calling a Taker win at SummerSlam, followed by their rubber match next April at Jerry World. I know Undertaker-Sting has been widely rumored, but this is found money. After Monday’s donnybrook, this could become the best feud in years.
Seth Rollins vs. John Cena (WWE Champion vs. U.S. Champion)
On Monday, Rollins found himself a champion adrift. His match with Lesnar ended in a no-contest, but Brock was otherwise occupied, as were his former partners Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose, the next most plausible challengers to the throne. When Rollins mentioned during his valedictory speech that he was better than all the other champions in the business, my ears perked up. It was still a surprise when Cena came out to trade barbs (and attempted punches) with him — but if Taker-Lesnar 2 is a reality for SummerSlam, then a champion-vs.-champion super-match makes sense. During Monday’s confrontation, Cena did what he normally does: He compared his and Rollins’s relative merits and found his opponent lacking, and then he kissed up to the audience. Meanwhile, Rollins did what he does: He slunk out of the ring to avoid a fight. It struck the right tone.
Cena has spent the past few months refashioning himself into a workhorse starmaker — a gatekeeper who’s also the company’s biggest star. If he can take what he has learned since ’Mania and use it to boost Rollins, everybody wins. Who knows what the stakes at SummerSlam will be — with either or both championships on the line — but it’s safe to say they’ll face off.
Prediction and WrestleMania Fallout: I’ll hazard a Rollins victory in Brooklyn, but the safe bet is on this feud lasting a few PPVs.4 Rollins could use the rub from Cena, and Cena deserves a few more moments on top of the card after his masterful post-’Mania run this year. For ‘Mania 2016, I’m predicting Rollins will be in a Shield three-way for the WWE title (Rollins vs. Reigns vs. Ambrose). Despite unsubtly staking his claim to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin as an opponent, should the legend decide to unretire for ’Mania,5 Cena will continue putting over the next generation. Maybe he’ll grant Kevin Owens a rematch or agree to a starmaking friendly for Cesaro or Finn Balor.
The Divas Division
After the biggest moment in Divas history last Monday night, WWE soft-pedaled the brave new world of women’s wrestling at Battleground, having Charlotte defeat fellow rookie Sasha Banks and Brie Bella in a three-way match with no title involved. The match was great, but it wasn’t quite the supernova that Monday’s Raw had teased. This is the way of real change, though — the small, institutional shifts matter more than the big moments. Combine Sunday’s match with this week’s Raw, where the Divas division got two full matches, both of which were impressive, and you have the beginning of a recipe for real success.
At SummerSlam, we’ll presumably see the fruition of the semi-arbitrary teams6 that Stephanie McMahon assigned last week with a three-by-three match featuring the Bellas and Alicia Fox against Paige–Charlotte–Becky Lynch and Naomi–Tamina–Sasha Banks. It won’t be the best match ever, but judging by the past few weeks, it won’t be a throwaway, either, and that’s something.
Prediction and WrestleMania Fallout: Team Paige wins. If we’re lucky, the division will continue developing so rapidly that predicting WrestleMania will be impossible. But if I had to guess? Paige vs. Charlotte vs. Nikki Bella for the title. Or for top billing on the new season of Total Divas, because some things never change.
Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose vs. Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper
At the risk of sounding like a WWE apologist, I can’t imagine a better use of Reigns than this match. As a matter of fact, I can’t imagine a better use of any of these performers. Reigns and Wyatt have a standing beef, and Ambrose and Wyatt have history, too. Reigns and Ambrose are longtime buds who’ve helped each other out in the past, and Harper is a former acolyte of Wyatt who has since returned to the fold, and he had a recent clash of his own with Ambrose. All of these guys were part of the epic Shield–Wyatt Family rivalry of 2013. I can hardly believe I’m typing this, but: This is a big match with a logical, compelling two-year backstory! On Monday, these four ended up in a brawl that, had it not been on the same episode as the Lesnar-Undertaker melee, would have inspired a night of effusive tweets. When they all collide at SummerSlam, fans may enjoy the rivalry enough to effectively put a lid on the Roman Reigns apology tour of 2015 and allow him back into our good graces. Now that would be an accomplishment.
Prediction and WrestleMania Fallout: I’m going with the good guys, only because Harper is far and away the most likely of this bunch to eat the pin. But I could see the villains taking a win, because this feud could drag out for months if WWE wants and nobody would mind. When ’Mania rolls around, Reigns and Ambrose will be feuding with Rollins, and Wyatt will be cryptically challenging somebody new: either a returning legend (Sting?) or a younger star like, well, Harper.
Tag Team Turmoil
The Prime Time Players surprised everyone by retaining the tag titles for a second straight PPV, defeating former champs the New Day. On Monday night, they lost a nontitle contest to Los Matadores when the New Day arrived to distract them. And we all know what it means when Los Matadores win a match: a multi-team match for the belts at a big event.
Prediction and WrestleMania Fallout: Nobody could predict a winner with much certainty, but one thing is certain: There will be a multi-team tag match at WrestleMania.
Some things are easy to predict, but as is always the case with pro wrestling, nothing’s ever easy to call with any sort of specificity. SummerSlam will rise or fall on its own merits, but our excitement leading up to it will ride on Lesnar punching the Undertaker in the face down the entrance ramp, and the Divas division’s meteoric rise, and Cena trying to elevate Rollins. It’ll be on Reigns and Ambrose and Wyatt trying to out-future-star each other. It’ll be whatever Owens does to make us swoon.
SummerSlam may be a bigger deal than WrestleMania, but that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be a great event. ’Mania is on autopilot. SummerSlam has to earn it. This year, WWE seems headed for a memorable show. Let’s just hope it’s not too good, though, because if it is, SummerSlam 2016 will be in a football stadium and I’ll be writing about how Battleground is the WrestleMania for hard-core fans.