By Nathan C. Vance
For those of you who have been following for the last several months, it should come as no surprise that I like professional wrestling. Even at the ripe old age of thirty-two, even with the choreographed violence and pre-determined endings, I absolutely love it! And when it’s good, which 2017 has been an exceptional year for the world of sports entertainment, it’s so fulfilling. But when it’s bad, as has been the case with the industry leader, World Wrestling Entertainment, more often than not this year, it is so incredibly bad. The recent Summerslam pay-per-view saw a bit of both.
I’ll start with the bad. The bad included the build-up to basically the entire show and it also included the overall execution. There were only three matches that had any real appeal to me, the lifelong fan, so I imagine there was even less appeal to the casual consumer. From what I understand, the pre-show matches were contested in front of a completely empty arena. Now, there have been extremely successful empty arena matches in wrestling’s long, unique history, most famously, Terry Funk versus Jerry “the King” Lawler in the early 1980s, and The Rock versus Mankind during a SuperBowl halftime show in 1999. These were not that. These were matches that were contested as though the arena was full, only the arena was empty. I feel so bad for the poor performers. What an impossible task: to get excited and perform at the highest level in what basically amounted to be a practice. Shame on WWE.
From there, the main show opened with John Cena versus up-and-comer Baron Corbin. I’m sure the thought was that John Cena, love him or hate him, is about as must-see as a wrestler can be. My guess is that he was used to jumpstart the audience. Unfortunately for him, the push given to his opponent, or lack of push, made the ending of this match little more than a foregone conclusion. Baron Corbin went from a hot, young prospect to an afterthought in one night when he failed cashing in his Money in the Bank contract on Tuesday’s edition of Smackdown. All of his momentum was killed. All of his energy was lost. Basically, he was a doormat for John Cena to step on and may now disappear into obscurity forever. I hate it because his size and persona represented hope for an edgier style of performance for the future of WWE, now, he may never have a future in the company. My guess is that last night was the beginning of the end for the “Lone Wolf.”
Then there was AJ Styles versus Kevin Owens. In spite of a poor storyline, I was genuinely excited for this match. If the match and build had been left solely on the shoulders of the two performers, my guess is that we would have seen an all-time SummerSlam classic. Comparisons would have been made to the 1991 edition that featured Bret Hart vesus Mr. Perfect for the Intercontinental Championship. This match could have, should have absolutely stolen, and in another sense, made the show. Instead, it was bogged down with a clunky storyline that pit Shane McMahon as the special referee and became more about the program that I assume he will start this Tuesday with Kevin Owens, than the climax of the Styles Owens feud. It wasn’t horrible. There were matches during this event that were horrible. It was just fine. For workers the caliber of Owens and Styles, fine equals horrible. This was WWE’s chance to compete with New Japan Pro Wrestling in terms of match quality, and instead, WWE settled for good enough rather than great. It is typical and what I have come to expect. Somehow, given my tempered expectations, it was still incredibly disappointing.
And then there was the biggest failure of all. The Smackdown Championship match between super-dooper star, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Indian villain, Jinder Mahal. I realize that Mahal has worked incredibly hard on his physique and is being rewarded for it. I also realize that the WWE sees him as a gateway into an Indian market with seemingly limitless resources. What I don’t understand is how a person so dedicated to their craft can be so bad at it. This match featured one of the ten best in-ring performers in the world in Nakamura. He also happens to have more charisma than ten people ought to have. And yet, in a championship match with a crowd desperate to cheer him on, Nakamura was made to look average by what was obviously a below-average dance partner. This came on the heels of a triumphant victory over WWE legend in his own time, John Cena, just two weeks ago. This was the time to catapult Nakamura to the head of the Smackdown brand. That incredible moment, after that “match,” feels wasted. In its way, while not the worst match on the card, Mahal versus Nakamura was the absolute worst of Summerslam.
And then, there was the last chapter. Based on what had led up to the main event, my expectations had lowered dramatically. I was certain that there was really no point in even watching. Fortunately for me, my love for wrestling keeps me from turning events off regardless of how bad they get. So, as Brock Lesnar, Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman, and Roman Reigns stood in the ring awaiting the bell, and the anticipation grew, I was drawn back in.
The bell rang, and what came next was an ending fitting a much better show. It was so good, and so epic, that it could have, and maybe should have been, on a Summerslam card all by itself. The brightest star came in the form of part-time champion Brock Lesnar. Lesnar is champion for a reason. He is a legitimate tough guy who looks like an all-time tough guy. He is a super athlete. He is intimidating and imposing, and when he wants to be, he is an incredible professional wrestler. Had it not been for his year’s long flirtation with other combat sports, Lesnar would have no doubt carved his face in a Mt. Rushmore of WWE history. As it stands, he will go down as one of the all-time greats in company history. He provides legitimacy, and toughness, and physicality that others cannot, and last night, he added a new element; vulnerability. From the get-go, the other three competitors went right after Lesnar. And, after an iconic spear by Roman Reigns that sent him hard through the barricade, and then two explosive powerslams through announce tables by mountain man Braun Strowman, Brock Lesnar looked beatable. He was carted away on a stretcher and seemed to be gone completely from the match.
In his absence, Strowman, Reigns, and Joe more than made up for his disappearance. They continued to beat on each other with weapons and force that are usually not a staple of the WWE. Each man looked great. And each man looked like he was going to take the championship. And then, doing it better than anyone since Mankind, Brock Lesnar came charging back through a sea of security and suits. He was breathing heavily and holding his abdomen. He was clearly working against the wishes of the medical staff, but in that moment, he became a huge babyface! He gave the feeling that he was literally willing to walk through hell to make sure that his championship stayed with him. It was the moment of the night. From that point, Lesnar was back to form. He was a suplex machine. He was a gladiator. He was BROCK LESNAR! He might as well have been Hulk Hogan circa 1987! The crowd was effectively eating out of the palms of his huge hands.
In the end, he and WWE’s future hope, Roman Reigns, stood toe-to-toe. It was a perfect moment. It is a picture that will live on in WWE for generations. And it was a moment that I, and many others, probably assumed was going to mark the changing of the guard. This was Roman Reigns time. He loaded up and speared the Beast incarnate and the referee counted 1-2- and Brock Lesnar did the unthinkable…He kicked out! Reigns continued to take advantage of a bruised and beaten champion. And then, he set Lesnar up for another spear. The end of the era of the beast was upon us, or so I thought. Just as Reigns ducked down to drive his shoulder into the belly of the champion, Lesnar, in superhuman fashion, stooped even lower than the sprinting Reigns, and with quickness that a 300 pound man should not possess, hoisted Reigns up on his massive shoulders, delivered a thunderous F-5, and pinned the challenger. There was no doubt. The referee counted the 1-2-3! The crowd erupted in glee. And I’m sure WWE executives all high fived each other in mass! The conqueror, conquered his opponents, and conquered a crowd that had been all but lost but an otherwise lackluster event. In this final chapter of Summerslam, the WWE somehow managed to put out a product that could actually live in a New Japan Pro Wrestling ring. It may not have been the technical match of the year, but this was every bit as entertaining as either Kenny Omega versus Kazuchka Okada match of 2017. On a 5-star scale, this deserved 6 stars!
I’m not sure that the WWE can continue to have mediocre writing, lackluster performances, and incoherent events saved by the superhuman efforts of a few good men, but in the fatal 4-way for the Universal Championship, they saved a terrible book by giving us a superb ending! I guess that’s all a fan can really ask for.