I went into SummerSlam expecting very little from the show. After New Japan’s amazing G1 Climax tournament, as well as the catastrophe that was Battleground, I really only saw promise in the Fatal Four-Way main event. On top of that, last year’s SummerSlam was an abysmal show saved only by John Cena and AJ Styles’ fantastic encounter. Not to mention that this year’s WrestleMania was a major let-down, so there seemed no reason to expect Vince to pick up the ball after that kind of mess.
Sure, Kevin Owens vs. AJ Styles promised to be good, albeit underwhelming given the addition of Shane McMahon as ref. And both RAW and SmackDown’s Women’s Title matches were sure to be winners given the talent of the wrestlers involved, but WWE has been giving the division sub-ten minute slots lately. Only the main event looked to be a surefire thing, and it felt like there could be a legitimate changing of the guard with rumors of Brock Lesnar’s imminent return to UFC. Those particular matches actually exceeded my expectations, and several of the other undercard bouts proved to be more than worthwhile outings.
The show kicked off with Baron Corbin vs. John Cena, ending their recent feud. Cena cost Corbin his Money in the Bank cash-in on SmackDown, signaling the company’s total loss in faith in Corbin. It wasn’t anything special as a match, although Baron did lay a pretty convincing beating into Cena. Of course, none of that mattered as Cena scored a clean win, pushing Corbin one step closer to full-on burial. While I’m not a huge fan of his, you almost have to feel bad for Baron at this point, having so many huge opportunities, deserved or not, taken away from him. He really could have used the win here.
Up next was Natalya vs. Naomi for the latter’s SmackDown Women’s championship, and they more than delivered on the initial promise of their match. As always, Naomi impressed with her innovative offense, and Natalya continues to be an underrated worker. They went a good eleven minutes, much better than the usual six-minute window Women’s title matches have been given on most shows. It was legitimately surprising to see Naomi submit to the Sharpshooter, crowning Natalya the new SmackDown Women’s champion. Even if her reign is brief, it’s well deserved and it will be interesting to see where she takes the division.
I legitimately did not care about Big Cass vs. The Big Show, and didn’t pay much attention. All I have to say is that it’s a bad sign when Enzo Amore’s real-life heat is more interesting than the build to a match. Cass won, by the way
Rusev vs. Randy Orton followed, and it was the definition of a nowhere match for a nowhere feud. Rusev jumped Orton before the bell, then got pinned after an RKO in five seconds. That was it. So two talented young stars were mercilessly buried by the old guard. Not a great sign so far.
Sasha Banks vs. Alexa Bliss was next, and at this point it seemed a lock for the women’s divisions of each brand to steal the show. This was a good, brutal, fast-paced match that benefitted from the rumors of real-life heat between the two, as well as its being given nearly fifteen minutes. Both wrestlers’ strengths were on full display, even with little reaction from the crowd, and they delivered a solid brawl with some serious wrestling mixed in. Sasha picked up a surprise win, and was given another long-overdue title run. That didn’t last however, as Alexa regained the belt on the August 28th RAW, which is fine by me as she has continually impressed over the last year.
Finn Balor vs. Bray Wyatt was kind of an oddity on the card, the definition of a midcard, B-level PPV match featuring two stars who deserve better. It’s sad to think that Finn was in the first-ever Universal Title match with Seth Rollins at this same show last year. Even sadder that he won, was stripped due to injury, and has yet to recover on RAW. Bray spent the early months of this year as WWE champion and has since gone downhill himself. Balor’s Demon King character reappeared for the first time since last year’s SummerSlam, and the crowd was going crazy for him. There was some good monster-versus-monster psychology on display, and the match actually came together much better than I had expected. Balor picked up a much-needed win, and hopefully he’ll start being taken seriously once again.
The reunion of Shield members Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins has been a big storyline lately, and it was no surprise just how good they worked together against Sheamus and Cesaro. This was one of the better Tag Team Title matches I’ve seen in a while, and it was full of exciting spots and excellent chemistry all-around. In easily the best match thus far, Ambrose and Rollins managed to win the belts from the odd couple. Everyone looked great, and it was nice to see the former Shield mates get some due recognition after floundering for most of the year.
Kevin Owens vs. AJ Styles should have been the unquestionable match of the night, and even while it was slightly disappointing, it came close. There’s been a good build to the story, although their previous two matches were somewhat underwhelming. The problem this time was the announcement of Shane McMahon as guest referee. There were the expected unnecessary ref bumps in the middle of the match, but Owens and Styles delivered the best of their three matches so far, with parts coming together perfectly. There’s bound to be a McMahon-Owens feud coming up, especially since Kevin is forbidden from challenging AJ again.
I think every wrestling fan was dreading Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Jinder Mahal for the WWE Championship. I know I was. It never should have been booked in the first place, as it’s debatable whether Shinsuke is currently equipped to carry the entire SmackDown brand, and that meant he would have to lose to someone far inferior to him in the ring. Which is what happened. Don’t get me wrong, as with all of his recent matches, Jinder was far from terrible, but also just as far from exceptional. They used the same distraction finish with the Singh Bros.’ interference costing Shinsuke the match. That was awful.
The Fatal Four-Way between Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman, Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship was the bright light on the card. Joe and Lesnar have proven to be a good match for one another, Reigns and Strowman have done the same, and a Lesnar-Strowman match-up has been teased for some time as the next big thing. On top of that, Lesnar’s promise to leave the company should he lose and the real news of his interest in a UFC return made this legitimately unpredictable. Keeping with the company’s good track record of multi-man matches this year, this one delivered non-stop, chaotic and crowd-pleasing action. Braun vs. Brock surpassed all expectations, with Strowman dominating Lesnar on the outside, destroying two tables and flipping a third onto the stunned champion. Braun looked absolutely vicious and credible here, nothing like the green monster heel of this time last year. He really is ready for bigger things, and demonstrated that in true fashion with this career-best performance. Nobody looked bad, but Strowman just delivered such a powerhouse showing that it’s hard to focus on much else. They carried Brock out on a stretcher for the middle portion of the match, which all but ensured his victory, although it made him look vulnerable for the first time in far too long. It was one of the main roster’s best all-round matches this year, and the space I have here truly can’t do justice to the carnage they captured in its twenty-minutes length. A great end to a rocky show, albeit one eclipsed in every way by NXT, yet again.
This next part is a lot trickier to address, so I’ll just approach the facts of the matter: WWE have come under fire from a number of longtime fans and supporters for failing to comment on the president’s recent comments regarding the violence in Charlottesville. This isn’t a political column, and my opinions are not going on record at this time, especially since I don’t feel that I’m qualified to discuss such matters. Despite that, the fact remains that Donald Trump has been involved in the WWE product in varying capacities over the years, and is a member of the Hall of Fame’s beyond-dubious celebrity wing. In addition to this, the McMahons donated millions of dollars to Trump’s campaign, which all but ensured Linda McMahon’s appointment as Administrator of the Small Business Administration. Also worth noting is that wrestlers in the company were reportedly forbidden from commenting on the 2016 election on social media. Regardless of one’s feelings on any of these matters, it’s hard to argue that WWE (or at the least, the McMahons) is tied up into the whole issue through their long association. That being said, it’s kind of pointless to expect accountability for WWE’s behavior as it pertains to ethical issues, and there are a number of examples in the recent past that exemplify this.
Brock Lesnar is one of the clearest example of the company’s problems with accountability for their and their performers’ actions. It gets brought up every once in a while, but not often, that in 2004 Brock Lesnar told an ESPN reporter, “I don't like gays. Write that down in your little notebook. I don't like gays.” So not only is he on record with a homophobic statement (and off the record with even more offensive language), but he went through the motions to specify his meaning, not caring that it was made public. And he continues to be one of the company’s highest-paid, -drawing, and most protected wrestlers, not to mention the current Universal Champion. I don’t know of anyone going out of their way to call Brock Lesnar a good person, and that isn’t his intention in the slightest. He’s made it clear that he shows up, works, gets paid, and goes home. That’s all they need him to do as long as he draws big, gets a good reaction, and occasionally have decent matches. All of which he does.
Then again, that interview is over a decade old at this point, and Brock wasn’t even in the company at the time it occurred. However, after his concussion-inducing beatdown on Randy Orton at last year’s SummerSlam, Brock was approached by an angry, concerned Chris Jericho. In the skirmish that ensued, Brock is rumored to have called Jericho a number of homophobic and sexist names. Not only was Lesnar on WWE’s dime at the time, but he was also backstage at one of their events. And to this day, a full year later, there’s still been no release on the actual content of his comments, but that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone, and the event has basically been forgotten. All of this has conveniently faded away, especially for a company that openly touts its affiliation with GLAAD (not to even get into the issue of their essentially scripting a legit concussion).
This is all meandering on my part, so it’s important to remember that WWE is openly affiliated with GLAAD (not that they haven’t had several fallings out in the past). I obviously can’t speak for anyone else, but it makes you wonder how an openly-gay superstar like Darren Young must feel being part of the same company as a person on record as Lesnar is, all the while they tout their progressive affiliations and attitudes. Seems hypocritical. And imagine if Young were to try and call WWE to task for supporting Lesnar following his homophobic remarks. Is there any doubt that Young would essentially be told to take a hike if he doesn’t like it, simply because Lesnar is so much bigger a draw, with greater crossover appeal? Or what about Pat Patterson, who’s been with the company for decades, openly gay for much of that time, and who was even falsely demonized during the company’s early-90s sex scandals because of his sexual orientation? You have to wonder what his thoughts are regarding Lesnar’s role in the company, and how he feels about that infamous interview. The thing is, nobody has asked either of them, as Lesnar’s homophobic remarks are never discussed anymore. They’re on the public record for everyone to see, and WWE seems fine to let things rest at that because they don’t need another PR nightmare.
An even more recent, infamous, and actively troubling example of the company’s failure to hold itself or its employees accountable for their questionable actions is the entire Mauro Ranall-JBL bullying controversy. Mauro is easily the best announcer working full-time in professional wrestling today, and his presence on the SmackDown commentary team raised that brand’s play-by-play up from utter nonsense. He also suffers from bipolar disorder and has been very open about this fact, doing all he can to spread awareness and help others like him. Fans love Mauro, and his excellence as an announcer is highly-esteemed throughout the industry. JBL is a terrible person with limited wrestling skills, esteemed highly within WWE simply because he is a company man and has stayed loyal for over two decades, which led to his lengthy world title run on SmackDown over a decade ago.* He has a long history of harassment, bullying, and out-and-out drunken jackassery. Because of his tenure, and a seeming closeness with Vince McMahon, all of his actions are excused and swept under the rug. WWE has an alliance with anti-bullying campaign Be a Star, a fact they shove down every fan’s throat with endless commercial vignettes. This should not be a bad thing.
Earlier this year, JBL openly mocked Mauro receiving the Wrestling Observer’s Announcer of the Year award on-air, a move that was absolutely endorsed and approved by Vince McMahon himself. After missing several weeks for various reasons, it came out that Mauro had actually been suffering from severe depression. The culpability of JBL’s taunts were heightened when former ring announcer Justin Roberts’ autobiography was released shortly after, as that book contained several stories of specific bullying perpetrated by the former champion. The larger issue is that this is an ongoing thing, as other wrestlers (Edge, to name one), in biographies as well as interviews, have confirmed JBL’s influence backstage, as well as his brash, aggressive nature.
Ultimately, Mauro missed weeks of television and PPVs, before reporting his departure from the company. In the weeks prior to this announcement, fans and journalists were calling for JBL’s head, and considering his behavior and the risk at which it put Mauro, it makes sense. But after Ranallo’s departure, the whole thing kind of died down, stopping just before it became a full-blown scandal. In a statement that reeked of a non-disclosure agreement, Ranallo stated that his leaving had nothing to do with JBL. If that seems fishy, what then of his hasty return to the company a few months later, now working full-time on NXT, far away from JBL? I do have to say that it’s fantastic to have him back on a major stage, and NXT is arguably a much better fit for his hyper-energetic commentary style. But even with his return, there was little discussion of the events that made him leave in the first place, and that seems wrong.
I guess I’m just rambling, but the main point, I think, is that it’s kind of ridiculous to expect WWE to really back what they’re saying and work toward positive, progressive change in light of this kind of history. And that’s really discouraging, and I know of several folks who have given up on the company entirely in recent months because of such behavior. It makes it seem that the majority of the company’s charitable gestures and associations are solely for appearances, which makes sense in the most cynical of senses. To look at it historically, wrestling was never clean, family entertainment until Vince McMahon raided the territories and built up his semi-cartoon empire in the mid 1980s. At that point, wrestling became sports entertainment and was then answerable to network decency standards. Remember, the “family-friendly” WWE (then still the WWF) was beset with a host of cocaine and steroid addiction issues. Down the line the company faced a major steroid trial (although the testing policies resumed their formerly-lax course shortly after until the late 2000s), a sex scandal involving ring boys and enhancement talent accusing high-ranking officials, controversy over the raunchiness of Attitude Era storylines, Owen Hart’s horrific death during a PPV, and most notably the now-decade-old Chris Benoit tragedy. That’s a lot of dirt to dig up on such a public company, so no wonder they want to keep their image squeaky-clean. But why has nobody been prying into these more recent issues?
Things change in some respects, and remain entirely the same in most others. Vince McMahon is still reportedly body-shaming talent (Kevin Owens), putting titles on the most impressively-muscled guys on the roster, and burying popular underdogs (that would be Sami Zayn, as well as Bayley). As much as we may want the things and people we like and support to endorse the same beliefs as ourselves, it often ends in disappointment. Even when major issues like these arise, no matter what the fan backlash may be, WWE is an entertainment corporation above all else, and they will only take a stance on what they feel looks the best for them. To not comment on the violence in Charlottesville or the political situation it is wrapped up in, or even Lesnar’s homophobic attitudes and JBL’s line-crossing, is entirely within their rights. As disappointing as that is, it’s just where things rest nowadays.