Thursday, 14 August 2014

SummerSlam 2014 preview

SummerSlam looks like one of the best WWE shows in some time. It’s perhaps the best looking WWE pay-per-view, as far as match quality as opposed to spectacle is concerned, of 2014 so far. There’s a big main event featuring two of the company’s biggest stars, for the WWE championship, supported by a collection of strong pairings all of which have at least some sort of storyline explanation for taking place. WWE’s usual approach towards pay-per-views (special events, call them what you want) is to have two or three big matches and a host of randomly tossed together filler bouts. This is a welcome change.

The main event of SummerSlam will be Brock Lesnar versus John Cena. We’ll come back to that below, and start instead on the second biggest match of the card. There are actually a few potential choices for that, part of the reason this feels like a more important show than the usual WWE PPV.

There’s Randy Orton v Roman Reigns, almost the archetypal secondary pay-per-view match, featuring as it does the company’s top rising star and the second most established main event name after Cena. There’s Dean Ambrose v Seth Rollins, a feud between two over performers that’s been going for months without the two having an official (televised) singles match. It could even be argued that Swagger v Rusev is the second biggest match on the card thanks to a white hot catchphrase and ‘The Super Athlete’s’ Putin inspired heat.

But for my money the second biggest thing at SummerSlam is the Brie Bella v Stephanie McMahon match. Why it’s happening, from a company perspective, isn’t exactly clear: nobody has been crying out for either more Brie Bella matches or a ring return from Steph. The best reason I can think of is that WWE wanted to capitalise on how hated Stephanie has made herself and Brie’s marriage to overachieving yes man Daniel Bryan.

Stephanie has not wrestled since 2003, her last match being an I Quit outing against her own father. Because that’s the sort of thing Vince booked in those desperate post-Attitude Era days. It wasn’t a good match. What enjoyment could be derived from it mostly came from Vince’s lunatic facial expressions and heelish antics. Before that Stephanie had mostly appeared in short, forgettable singles matches and tag bouts where she did little but stand on the apron.

What I’m getting at here is that Stephanie is not a skilled, talented, or experienced wrestler. What she and the match have going for them is her heat. People (by which I mean fans sitting in WWE audiences) really dislike her, and they’ll react to her in a match. Which is an entirely valid reason for booking the thing.

The match also has Brie Bella in its favour. She’s no Manami Toyota, she’s not even the more realistic target of Trish Stratus, but Brie Bella is good enough to have an entertaining eight minute, distractions-heavy scrap with an in-shape non-worker. Which is good, because that’s the task in front of her. Triple H will almost certainly involve himself, as will Nikki Bella. It’s not impossible that Daniel Bryan will make a surprise appearance, but it is massively unlikely.

Either woman could win. Stephanie could cheat to remind everyone what a dastardly heel she is. Brie could overcome the odds to demonstrate that she’s a spunky babyface (also prepping her for a crack at the Divas title, although somehow I think that’s far down the list of priorities). I would usually lean towards the heel winning in this scenario, but there’s no guarantee that Stephanie’s going to work a rematch. Without that we have to assume she’ll get her comeuppance here. If Steph does win it will almost certainly come after a Nikki Bella swerve turn, leaving us with a sister versus sister rivalry. I’m hoping we don’t see that because I think it would be dull.

Back with the other potential number two matches… despite liking Orton when he’s on form and enjoying the whole Reigns package since he split from The Shield far more than I thought I would their singles match here does nothing for me. Perhaps it’s because we’ve already seen quite a bit of them together in the form of six man tags, traditional tags, and recent brawl encounters (although that hasn’t hurt my interest in Ambrose and Rollins). Reigns should go over cleanly and move on to his expected collision with ‘The Game’. ‘The Viper’ doesn’t need a victory here and I don’t think there’s enough interest in the pair together for them to have another singles encounter at Night of Champions.

Reigns’s former teammates Rollins and Ambrose have had a heated rivalry based around Rollins turning on The Shield and joining The Authority. Strangely, Reigns got over the betrayal fairly easily and has focused himself on everything from doctoring coffees to winning the WWE championship (he succeeded at one but not the other). As already noted, this will be the first singles match between Rollins and Ambrose on WWE screens. A masterful job has been done on holding off on the pair meeting, teasing us with exchanges in multi-man matches and a bevy on run-ins and brawls. It’s helped to make this first match feel like a special event and has also fleshed out their characters: Rollins is happy to be the coward and walk out on a fight when it suits him, and Ambrose is a madman motivated by gaining retribution on his former friend, desperate to stop him succeeding whenever possible.

Unfortunately, WWE have let themselves down with the stipulation of this match. Ambrose won a beat the clock challenge (itself a massively stupid gimmick) to decide what sort of match he and Seth would have. He could’ve gone for a cage match to ensure he got his hands on his foe. He could have gone for a strap match, giving him the chance to inflict a nasty and satisfying kind of beating. He could have gone with a Last man Standing match, fighting Rollins until he was unable to stand. Any of these gimmick matches would have made sense from a storyline and a character perspective but WWE had booked two of them in the last six months and repeating gimmicks in that time frame seems to contravene some sort of company law (meanwhile the strap seems at odds with their current direction… I think). So Rollins and Ambrose will meet in a lumberjack match instead.

I’m predicting a Rollins loss here. The lumberjack gimmick is an easy way of having him lose in a protected, indecisive fashion, allowing the feud to continue. Which I think it will. Because there’s not really anyone else for either man to face until some new names get established as people we should care about. And because they’re only just wrestling a singles match after months of build. Clearly this is a feud in it for the long haul.

On that note, we have the Dolph Ziggler v Miz Intercontinental championship match. It would be nice to think that we’re finally seeing ‘The Show Off’ get his push refreshed but to be honest I’ve seen far too many false dawns from WWE to believe that just yet. In an ideal world the IC strap would go to Ziggler, here or at Night of Champions, and an athletic mid-card would be built around him. Fingers crossed that happens.

I think Ziggler will lose here, mostly because The Miz has only had the championship for a short time. WWE likes him a lot and it’s hard to imagine them switching the belt off of him so soon. If there’s a rematch at NOC I’ll pick Ziggler. I think Miz will leave SummerSlam as the champ. Whoever wins I think this will be one of the night’s best matches if they get more than six minutes.

While I don’t tend to be a fan of big lads in wrestling I also think that Swagger and Rusev could turn out a belter. They had an entertaining enough tussle at Battleground. There’s no reason they can’t do the same here. Cheap heat and casual racism aside I think the programme’s been really good. It’s proof that managers, which seemed to be going out of style at one point, can still play an important role.

I don’t think there can be any doubt that Rusev’s going to win here. He’s the man on the rise. That said a Swagger win is the prime candidate for a swerve on this show, and it could be used to launch Swagger up to the top. For a programme opposite fellow amateur standout Brock Lesnar, perhaps? In truth I don’t think we’ll see that, but it’s an option for WWE if they decide they want to do something unexpected.

Paige and AJ Lee’s frenemies story has gone off the rails since it started. There was a lot of potential there but it’s been wasted on the standard WWE approach. Paige has skipped out during AJ matches and distracted her. That’s about it. This was the perfect opportunity for WWE to present a serious plot about two women who consider themselves the best wanting to prove it by winning the championship. I suppose it still could be, but a sterling performance at SummerSlam would be a must. With the card looking the way it does I don’t think Paige and AJ Lee will have the time to give us that. I’m picking Paige to win the title back to create a reason for another encounter, perhaps one with a gimmick, at Night of Champions.

The final match to discuss before the main event is Bray Wyatt v Chris Jericho. After their letdown of a match at Battleground, mostly the fault of a sloppy ‘Y2J’ performance, and a series of nauseatingly tedious promos over the last month I’m not expecting much from them. Wyatt henchmen Harper and Rowan are banned from ringside, which should make Wyatt’s inevitable win mean more as he’ll have accomplished it by himself. And it is inevitable. WWE loves a three pay-per-view series and with Jericho having beaten ‘The Eater of Worlds’ at Battleground it’s his turn to lie down here.

Lastly there’s the main event. Brock Lesnar, the man who has been hyped as an unstoppable mercenary who cares only about himself, the man who did the unthinkable and broke The Undertaker’s WrestleMania undefeated Streak, will challenge John Cena, the fifteen time world champion who’s been the face of the company for nigh on a decade, for the WWE championship. With or without Daniel Bryan, the man who was almost certainly originally planned to headline this event opposite Lesnar, this is the biggest match WWE can promote.

Which is not to say it’s the best match they can promote. The match Lesnar and Cena had at Extreme Rules two years ago was rough, and that was when the pair had access to all the shortcuts a wild brawl offers. Part of the reason that match was not great is probably attributable to it being Lesnar’s first pro wrestling outing in several years. Things should be better here, but the match will still not feel the same as a Lesnar-Bryan match would have done, or as a Lesnar-Reigns match will. But, y’know, WWE is most often about spectacle, and their golden boy taking on the former UFC champion is just that.

Lesnar is most people’s pick to win this, and with good reason. Cena does not need the championship to be over and it is an overly familiar scenario. Lesnar as champion, on the other hand, has not been seen for years, and hasn’t happened at all since he went away and further legitimised himself with a stint in the UFC. It could create interest for lapsed fans. It will certainly reinvigorate the title picture and the title itself.

The title is something that WWE wants reinvigorated for a reason. The long term plan looks very much like a Reigns v Lesnar match at WrestleMania 31. If ‘The Beast’ goes into that match having held the championship for over half a year, having defeated everyone put in front of him, starting with top boy Cena, and as the man that ended The Streak then it will look like unbeatable odds for Reigns. So it’ll be a sensational, star-making moment when he overcomes those odds and drops Lesnar to win his first world championship.

Lesnar versus Cena won’t be bad but I doubt it’ll be that great. There’s a good chance it won’t even be the best thing on the show, especially if you discount a sense of spectacle and focus on the actual wrestling. It’s designed as something to hook lapsed and casual fans, perhaps encouraging them to sign up to the Network, and as part of the building process for a future main event. On those grounds I think it, and SummerSlam in general, is already looking like a success.

Predictions summary:
Brock Lesnar to defeat
Brie Bella to defeat Stephanie McMahon
Roman Reigns to defeat Randy Orton
Dean Ambrose to defeat Seth Rollins
Rusev to defeat Jack Swagger
Bray Wyatt to defeat Chris Jericho
The Miz to defeat Dolph Ziggler
Paige to defeat AJ Lee

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