This past weekend, WWE brought their annual Summerslam event to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It’s been clear for weeks now that the company wanted to make this year’s Summerslam particularly special. The event was extended from three hours to four, a length previously only used for Wrestlemania. WWE hyped the event with a week of interactive fan experiences and community outreach programs in New York. They secured a deal with ESPN to have the wrestling event featured on their flagship show SportsCenter.
The company was making every effort to turn their biggest show of the summer into a true spectacle. Not satisfied with their massive promotional campaign, they also made sure that they had plenty of bells and whistles prepared for the show itself. Celebrities and wrestling legends were booked, in an attempt to generate further publicity. The former Daily Show presenter Jon Stewart was hired to be the host of Summerslam. Stephen Amell, the star of the television series Arrow, was booked in a tag team match. In the main event, former UFC champion Brock Lesnar returned to the wrestling ring to take on the Undertaker, an aging wrestling legend who hadn’t appeared at Summerslam since 2008.
So on the night in question, did all of the pageantry and the pizzazz lead to an enjoyable show? It’s difficult to say. Summerslam 2015 was a pretty good show, all things considered. But this may have been in spite of the extra bells and whistles, and not because of them.
Professional Wrestling versus Sports Entertainment
Vince McMahon and the WWE have always had a strange relationship with the mainstream. During the late 90s, wrestling flirted with becoming mainstream, with WWE drawing its highest ever ratings with help from stars like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. But even at its most popular, wrestling has always been a dirty word in certain circles. It’s too real to be considered a television program, but too fake to be considered a sport. The business is still a punch-line to many.
McMahon is all too aware of the stigma, to the extent that he’s spent years trying to distance himself from the business that has made him a billionaire. He forbids the use of the word ‘wrestling’ on WWE television, instead referring to the product as ‘sports entertainment’. Instead of being called ‘wrestlers’, the company’s athletes are referred to as ‘superstars’ or ‘divas’ in the case of the female performers. And whenever possible, the company will court the mainstream media or feature celebrities on their programming. The feeling is that these mainstream stars offer the company some legitimacy.
The wrestling fans, however, don’t care about the company gaining legitimacy. They would much rather watch wrestlers on their wrestling show than actors and comedians. So when Jon Stewart opened Summerslam, the live crowd were not pleased at the extra publicity this would bring to the show. Instead they were just annoyed that he was taking time away from the wrestlers. Luckily Stewart kept his cool and started to win the fans over when he brought out wrestling legend Mick Foley for a special appearance.
But later on, things took a turn for the wacky. Stewart got involved in the finish of the WWE championship match, helping the villainous Seth Rollins overcome the babyface hero John Cena. The raucous New York crowd cheered the interference, as they had been hoping for a Rollins victory. But fans watching at home were less impressed, and Stewart’s involvement was criticised online. It came across as a transparent attempt by WWE to make headlines.
Stephen Amell fared a little better. The actor is an impressive athlete and had clearly put in a lot of work prior to his match. He executed his few moves well, including a springboard from the top rope into the ring, and a huge diving cross-body from the turnbuckle to his opponents standing on the outside of the ring. Fans seemed to respect his performance, but unfortunately they didn’t care much about the match itself and were relatively quiet throughout. They didn’t have anything invested in the actor.
The extra hour afforded to Summerslam this year meant that they were able to fit ten matches on the show. Ultimately the four hour format probably did more harm than good to the show. There were matches that would not have been missed had they been omitted, and the show certainly felt too long for comfort.
Fortunately, there was plenty of top notch action throughout the show. The first match was Orton vs Sheamus. These two have faced each other more times than I care to remember, but this was one of their better offerings. Fans didn’t care about the outcome, but the action kept their attention nonetheless.
The tag team championship match came next, with champions the Prime Time Players facing off against three other teams: the New Day, the Lucha Dragons and Los Matadores. This was fun, fast-paced wrestling, with bodies flying everywhere. This should have opened the show. The New Day reclaimed the championships to the delight of the New York crowd.
Dolph Ziggler and Rusev’s match was disappointing for performers of their standard, and that was before the cop-out finish that saw both men counted out after their girlfriends got involved. Stephen Amell’s match was decent, but forgettable. Following this with a triple threat match between the Miz, Ryback and Big Show threatened to put the crowd to sleep, but thankfully that match did not last long.
Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose faced the Wyatt Family next. WWE’s golden boy Reigns was not at all popular with the New York crowd. Fans have been slow to accept Reigns as the company’s next big star, and that has rarely been more obvious than here. People had expected Reigns and Ambrose to turn on each other following this match, but ultimately they just picked up an easy win in a match that meant nothing and might as well have happened on free television.
Things picked up substantially in the second half of the show. The match between John Cena and Seth Rollins was spectacular, before the wacky finish. Seth Rollins continues to cement himself as one of the best in-ring workers in the entire company, if not the very best. Like most Cena matches this year, they worked a fast pace and started doing false finishes just five minutes into the match. Rollins executed some awesome aerial moves from the top rope and in an impressive feat of strength, he even managed to hoist his much larger opponent onto his shoulders to take Cena down with his own finisher.
The women’s match was little more than filler. WWE have been talking a lot lately about a revolution in women’s wrestling. But even though they gave the three female teams fifteen minutes for their match here, with nine performers nobody had the chance to shine. Thankfully, Cesaro and Kevin Owens managed to bring the crowd to life again with a very physical contest. Owens might not have been too happy to work with the stiff Cesaro just one night after his ladder match with Finn Balor, but at least he picked up the win.
Undertaker and Brock Lesnar put on a very good match in the main event. Many had feared the aging Undertaker would not be able to keep up with Lesnar, as their match at last year’s Wrestlemania was infamously dull due to Undertaker getting concussed early on. Here both men managed to shine as truly larger than life figures. Each of them took an unreasonable amount of punishment, but they kept on coming. The match surpassed expectations but was marred by the third messy finish of the night. Undertaker submitted without the referee seeing it. The timekeeper rang the bell without the referee’s signal, and in the confusion Undertaker struck Lesnar in the balls, locked him in a choke and forced him to pass out. It’s a good rule of thumb that if a finish is too convoluted to be understood without the use of several replays, it probably shouldn’t be used.
Stealing the Show
So were Undertaker and Lesnar the stars of the weekend? Not quite.
You see, as part of the build towards Summerslam in Brooklyn, there was an NXT wrestling show the previous night. NXT is WWE’s developmental show: it’s the first opportunity their newly signed wrestlers have to perform in front of a live crowd. Despite being under the WWE umbrella, it’s a separate brand with its own talent roster. And on Saturday night, they set a standard that Summerslam was unable to match.
NXT Takeover: Brooklyn went two and a half hours. There were six matches, and zero convoluted finishes. There wasn’t a single bad match on the show. All the heroes won their respective matches, and the fans were psyched for each victory. There were no celebrity cameos. NXT sacrificed spectacle for good storytelling. They kept it short, they kept it simple, they gave fans a reason to invest in each match, and it worked like a charm.
The match people will remember from the weekend was the NXT women’s championship match. Fan favourite Bayley finally defeated Sasha Banks for the championship, after failing so many times in the past. It was a simple story, but one that the audience really wanted to get behind. The place erupted when she picked up the win, and there were plenty of misty eyes in the crowd when the two performers hugged after the match. The difference between this match and the women’s match at Summerslam was like night and day. The only problem I had with the NXT women’s match is that it should have been the main event. Fans cared more about this match than anything else over the entire weekend. It proves that women’s wrestling can be just as popular as men’s wrestling, provided the story is there.
Now that Summerslam is over, it’s hard to know how successful the show has been. These days the majority of people watching Summerslam are watching on the WWE Network, which is a subscription service. We can’t know at this point if they picked up many new subscribers here, or if new subscribers will stay after their free month has expired.
If television ratings see an increase, that would be another indication of success. It’s probably too early to judge on that score, but Monday night’s show saw a slight decrease from the previous week.
The only thing we can really go on at this point is the critical reaction to the show. And overall, the word of mouth on Summerslam this year has been positive. However, it pales in comparison to the response to the NXT show. People are calling NXT Takeover: Brooklyn the best WWE event of the year so far. Not bad for a warm-up act.
It turns out that you don’t need to pander to the media to put on a great wrestling show. You just need great wrestling.
Steve Hanley is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.