It’s impossible to convince Attitude Era die-hards that we’re living in the Golden Age of professional wrestling, but I think it’s true—from a writing standpoint.
Take, for instance, the main event of this year’s SummerSlam. For two straight weeks, we’ve heard Daniel Bryan and John Cena engage in verbal jousting in which each has put forth a solid case for his perspective being the one that’s best for the business itself.
Daniel Bryan’s view is that he is a real wrestler, while Cena is merely a “parody” of a wrestler. He’s also fighting as an underdog, knowing he doesn’t have Cena’s respect. Cena, by contrast, points out that Bryan is another in a long list of challengers who have taken issue with Cena’s in-ring performance or persona, only to find themselves ultimately defeated.
What makes this so well-executed is how the writers are able to have two characters—both “good guys”—who each have a distinctive, mutually-exclusive point of view. Even 15 years ago, this would have been a tall order creatively. A face vs. face feud would have involved a paint-by-numbers show of mutual respect right up until the end, when the two wrestlers would finally put their good feelings aside as their competitive nature overwhelmed their admiration.
This, however, is different. Here, we’re getting a genuine clash of worldviews—the “wrestling” part of “WWE” versus the “entertainment” portion—a difference of opinion as to what it means to be a professional wrestler. And, as I said, both guys are able to make valid arguments without drifting into heel territory. Bryan touts his passion for the business and his ability between the ropes, while Cena says that anything besides the spotlight and grand stage of the WWE isn’t worth discussing.
Another example: The promo Brock Lesnar cut last Friday night on Smackdown. In the span of about three minutes, Lesnar unloads a barrage of entirely valid points on his SummerSlam opponent, C. M. Punk. The most damning of these was perhaps the common-sense observation that, despite the fact that Punk tapes his hands and has an affinity for MMA, Brock was literally the World Heavyweight Champion of that exact thing.
I love this stuff. I love that the writers are able to strike a balance by introducing real-world elements into a sports entertainment context without destroying kayfabe. That’s a delicate balance, and one that the current creative staff pulls off more often than not.
That is not to say that everything is perfect with the current product. Far from it. With that in mind, let’s look at the card:
Dean Ambrose (c) vs. Rob Van Dam – U. S. Championship: I’m starting to worry about the Shield a bit. As well as they were pushed at the outset, they seem to be treading water now. Reigns and Rollins don’t even have an announced match, and Ambrose is on the pre-show. They all still have belts, but I’m concerned it’s less “we want these guys to get long title runs,” and more “they’re holding the belts until we can figure out who will have them next.” As for this match, Rob Van Dam has essentially replaced Chris Jericho in the former-champion-who-is-there-to-put-guys-over spot. If RVD wins here, that would be a terrible sign for The Shield. But I don’t think that will happen. Ambrose should go over—with a little help from his friends, of course. Winner: Dean Ambrose (retains title)
Natalya vs. Brie Bella: The primary purpose of this match is to promote a television show I have never watched and will never watch. As I was fast-forwarding through the RAW segment related to this angle, I feared initially that this would be a six-diva tag-team match that included the person whose name I don’t know (but is from the above-referenced television show). Thankfully, that’s not the case, although I fully expect her to get involved somehow. It’s not possible for me to care less about who wins this match. Winner: Brie Bella
Kane vs. Bray Wyatt (Ring of Fire match): This is an inferno match, which means it will probably be short and very tightly-booked. You know, to avoid horribly disfiguring someone (Again! Amirite, Kane?!?). The WWE has done a fantastic job of promoting the Wyatt Family over the last several months, and Bray Wyatt is obviously a compelling character who’s truly “different.” Kane has been one of the best, most-reliable performers in the company for over 15 years. He’ll be relied upon here to make Bray Wyatt look like a major threat in his one-on-one debut. It’s a safe prediction to say that Wyatt wins, and that something creepy will happen during or after this contest. Winner: Bray Wyatt
The Protector of the Case Cody Rhodes vs. Damien Sandow: This feud somehow feels like less than the sum of its parts, but probably only because everything involving Sandow seems like it should be an A+. The problem is that it hasn’t done what the Lesnar-Punk and Cena-Bryan feuds have done. As has been pointed out on television repeatedly of late, Cody has no legitimate beef with Sandow. He’s just being an a-hole. Rhodes is supposed to be the face, but Sandow is 100% in the right. He won the briefcase fair and square. Feuds that have that dynamic usually fall a little flat (although I did love Sandow referring to the Rhodes family as “carny folk”).
Having said all of that, this has a chance to be the best match of the night. This is also one that is sort of a puzzler. The WWE obviously likes Sandow, but the company has recently used MITB briefcases and minor titles as justification to have guys lose. To wit: Sandow lost to Christian in a match televised just two days before Summerslam.
In other words, I think the WWE believes that wrestlers who have these tokens of success don’t need to win as much as guys who don’t have that tangible evidence of importance. That’s why I think Cody might win. On the other hand, I disagree wholeheartedly with this philosophy. I think it’s counter-productive to have guys lose over and over and keep a belt—or get a belt via a MITB cash-in after not winning a meaningful match for months. That usually doesn’t wind up working out for the guy who keeps losing. Anyway, Cody has really made Sandow look bad over the last few weeks, so I expect Damien to come out on top on Sunday and maybe build some momentum toward a cash-in down the road. Winner: Damien Sandow
Dolph Ziggler and Kaitlyn vs. “Big E” Langston and A. J. Lee: This match is indicative of two problems I think the company is having right now. One, they don’t know what to do with a stagnant Divas division. Two, and much more troubling, they don’t know what to do with Dolph Ziggler.
I predicted on several occasions in 2011 and 2012 that “In 18 months, Ziggler will be the top heel in the company, and will remain so for years.” Well, not only has he not become a huge star, but, incredibly, Ziggler is also now a full-blown face. And he became one by dumping and mocking A. J. Lee. I have no idea how that works.
So, I’m not sure how we got here, but, well, here we are.
As for this match, if they have any shred of decency, they’ll let either Ziggler or A. J. Lee pick up the victory for their respective teams. My money’s on Ziggler, but, as noted above, I might not be the best person to ask when it comes to his career trajectory. Winners: Dolph Ziggler and Kaitlyn.
Alberto Del Rio (c) vs. Christian – World Heavyweight Championship: I don’t know why Christian is in this match. I like him, but he seems like a placeholder here. The match itself should be good, but this is a microwave feud with no real “hook” to get me interested. The only things that makes any real sense would be if (1) Christian is about to retire, and/or (2) if Christian will be a transitional champion for a Sandow cash-in. I’m not sure how committed the company is to either Del Rio or Christian as a World Champion, long-term.
I’ve given up on predicting cash-ins, even though it would make sense to get one on Sunday. Instead, I’ll say that Christian wins the match (but possibly not the title) with some help from a disgruntled Ricardo Rodriguez. Sandow tries to cash in on whoever has the belt, but Cody has stolen the handcuff key, and Damien is unable to get the briefcase to the ring (or off of his person) to present the contract to the WWE official. Hilarity ensues. Winner: Christian (only if Sandow will cash in within 48 hours. Otherwise – Alberto Del Rio)
Brock Lesnar vs. C. M. Punk: How this match should unfold and how this match will unfold are two different things. What should happen is a glorified squash by Lesnar over Punk. Make this a long-term feud, with Punk eventually getting Lesnar after a long struggle, maybe in the main event of Survivor Series (or even later). For right now, Lesnar should steamroll Punk.
Lesnar is the only true, pure, monster heel we have left, and he is glorious in that role. Yet, because of Brock’s part-time status, I think WWE is reluctant to put him in the title picture, or in anything that lasts more than a couple of months. That sort of privilege is reserved for full-time guys, with one obvious exception.
Here, though, Lesnar really should play the Vader to Punk’s Sting. The match should be straightforward, with a shockingly clean finish. But what will happen instead will be Punk improbably going over, likely after being unintentionally injured, compressing what could be a six-month or even year-long feud into twenty minutes. It’s a shame, especially in light of the credibility issues that Lesnar addressed two weeks ago. Still, I’m sure this will be entertaining, as anything involving these two (not to mention Paul Heyman!) almost always is. Winner: C. M. Punk
John Cena (c) vs. Daniel Bryan – WWE Championship: As great as the build-up to this match has been in terms of what Cena and Bryan have done, this is a classic example of the WWE outsmarting themselves. The appeal of Cena vs. Bryan stands on its own merits. As I said at the top, this is a clash of philosophies about what professional wrestling is supposed to be. There’s also the built-in storyline of an established champion taking on an up-and-comer. Bryan has gotten himself over with tremendous in-ring work, and now he’s being rewarded with a shot at the biggest prize in the business.
Yet, WWE feels the need to add a dollop of McMahon on top of this otherwise-perfect premise. Vince has said that he doesn’t (kayfabe) want either guy to be WWE Champion, which is an absurdity that, if it were true, would make McMahon look like an imbecile. Triple H, because he’s a super-face and we all love him, has stood up for Bryan. Long story short, HHH is now the referee for this match (because no one would buy Summerslam if he weren’t involved somehow!), and we can all look forward to an intriguing match being wildly overbooked.
My fear is that Cena will somehow come out on top (after an obligatory mistake by HHH), but Vince (because he doesn’t want either guy to be WWE champ, remember!) will help a turning-heel Randy Orton cash in and win the title.
I hope that’s not what happens. Whether Cena goes over or Bryan does, just let them have a good, long match that shows off just how great Bryan is and has Cena pulling out a few moves he doesn’t normally try. I think Bryan can get Cena out of his comfort zone and put together a fun match, regardless of who wins.
Unfortunately, interference by multiple parties and guest referee shenanigans could make this match ultimately feel like it was booked in the late 1990s. However, they teased that kind of clusterf*** on Smackdown, and, when they tip something off, that usually means they’re not going to do it. So, maybe that’s a good sign.
The good news is that the potential overbooking makes picking an actual winner that much tougher. Still, all else being equal . . . Cena wins. The only time the “W” comes before the “E” is in the name. Winner: John Cena (retains title)
Overall Thoughts: So, the only big question that remains is whether we’ll see an Orton cash-in. I think they may pull the trigger, and the fact that he’s not on the card elsewhere (unlike Sandow) definitely points to that possibility. I just wonder if they’ll have Orton help Bryan win, only to have Cena then prevent Orton from cashing in on a weakened Bryan right after the match.
I’m also a little curious about what Miz will be doing, although I think whatever his role is will just serve to make me sad about how entertaining he used to be. Best guess is that he says ten words and hands a mic to Darren Young, but who knows?
Anyway, I have a feeling I’ll like almost everything about this show, except for the Total Divas match and the booking I just referenced. That said, they may surprise me in that regard. This is one of those shows that definitely falls into the “worth $55” category, thanks in large part to the superb work the writing staff and the performers have done in building up the top two matches on the card. Recommendation: BUY.