Probably the most interesting thing to note about this year's SummerSlam is that it's the first time in what feels like years that there's been a WWE pay-per-view involving what feels like a substantial mid-card. It's become the norm to toss non-main event names into matches for the Intercontinental and US championships or pit them against established top boys like John Cena and Randy Orton in a token effort at getting them over. It's an approach that has yielded success occasionally (Cena v Owens) but has failed more often than not (Cena v Rusev, Cena v Wyatt).
I picked Cena as an example there deliberately. Despite being the biggest star on the roster it's actually Cena that's been at the heart of this mid-card resurgence. The Owens versus Cesaro rivalry has spun off from the Owens versus Cena rivalry. During that Owens was able to defeat Cena once, in a non-title match. He lost subsequent matches in which the US championship was up for grabs. Meanwhile Cena also made spirited defences against 'The Swiss Superman', with Owens interfering in many of them as he became increasingly frustrated at his own inability to beat Cena for the gold. He didn't want to see Cesaro accomplish something he was unable to.
We could also attribute the Rusev and Ziggler feud to Cena too, although his involvement there is less direct. He was the man who not only took the United States championship from Rusev but also handed him his first loss. This embarrassed 'The Super Athlete', causing him to flip out at his manager and girlfriend Lana1. She left him and became empowered by her newfound single status because that's what happens in the good ol' US of A. There is no oppression for women, only empowerment. Anyway, while Lana was getting said empowerment (by hooking up with a new hot guy, obvs) Rusev suffered further televised losses, highlighting how important Lana had been to his career prior to their split.
Deciding to show that he was totes over Lana, Rusev hooked up with Summer Rae and encouraged her to dress like Lana. Because he'd been cast as a psychology ex-boyfriend and that's totally what psycho ex-boyfriends do. Summer also proved willing to act more submissive to Rusev, a reversal of the Lana-Rusev relationship in which it was Lana who was the dominant force. All of which could have become a very interesting story exploring the nature of relationships, moving on, and getting hung up on exes. But it didn't. Not because wrestling is ill-equipped for this sort of thing (I actually think this type of story is something wrestling can excel at) but because it wasn't given enough thought towards the start and was later hampered by Dolph Ziggler, Lana's new beau, disappearing after a beating from big Ru2.
Cena himself will be both defending his United States championship and challenging for the WWE world championship. He'll be in a title versus title match against Seth Rollins. The idea here is absolutely sound. Since becoming a four time US champ at WrestleMania Cena has, amazingly, made the title mean something with exciting weekly title defences against some of the best wrestlers on the roster. Meanwhile Rollins has been a cowardly world champion, relying on interference, favourable rules and other assorted cheating to keep hold of the belt.
The story essentially sees a worthy champion who takes pride in defending and retaining his prize the right way facing off with a champion who cares only about protecting his status. It's an interesting look at what it actually means to be a champion in wrestling, and is noteworthy because it is emphatically not the sort of thing WWE usually does. Despite the high chance of the match having a screwy finish (to avoid titles changing hands) I'm looking forward to this match, because another way of looking at the match is to see it as the natural culmination of Cena's streak of matches against The New School: he's facing the original NXT champion, Triple H's on-screen golden boy, Seth Rollins. It's basically the ultimate US Open Challenge without actually being part of that series.
Away from Cena-spurred plots there's been the issues between Stardust and Green Arrow star Stephen Amell. Stardust, believing himself to be a real life super villain, took exception to Amell being in attendance at an episode of RAW and attacked him. Amell leapt the barrier and fought back (which security allowed because WWE are marks for outside talent). 'Don't Call Him Adrian' Neville then got involved, because he wears a cape and performs a move called the Red Arrow, making him a natural Amell ally in Stardust's mind. Then King Bad News Wade Barrett I got involved too, because tag matches, playa3!
Summarised here it sounds entirely daft. It has been, but to be fair that's the point of it. Stardust is a deranged character and that's what's driven the story. It works and it's a nice change of pace from the stuff that usually makes it onto RAW.
The Sheamus versus Randy Orton rivalry has continued from last month. I failed to care about it then and I still feel the same way now. 'The Viper's' character is deathly dull right now and the most interesting thing about 'The Celtic Warrior' is that he has a Money in the Bank briefcase to cash in. I don't necessarily think it will happen on this show but if it did it would be the most interesting thing Sheamus did all evening.
Rounding out the non-tag mid-card action is a triple threat for the Intercontinental championship. Originally scheduled for last month's Battleground it had to be postponed because Ryback suffered some sort of super-gross hernia. That show gave us a brief altercation between Miz and Big Show, his scheduled opponents, that hinted at 'The World's Largest Athlete' turning face (again) with the match itself being postponed because it was too valuable to simply not do4. Ultimately Big Show would remain a heel, surprising the many of us who have become accustomed to frequent Show swerve turns.
In all honesty I quite like this triple threat. I don't mind Ryback and I can appreciate The Miz for the effective heel he is. Big Show isn't especially welcome but if he has to be on a card this is the sort of level he should be at. It's the kind of match that establishes 'The Big Guy' as a legitimate champ, beating two upper mid-card lads at once. It doesn't hurt the IC title either, and that's not something we've been getting to say much over the last several years.
Outside of the main event the rest of the card is comprised of tag matches. The natural culmination of the rejuvenated Divas division, a nine woman, three-way trios match, has been booked already. I understand why this was done: it gets everyone on the show. The trouble is that it's a match that fees like it should end the current era of the Divas division. As the current era only started on July 13 this feels premature.
Meanwhile the tag belts will be defended in a four-way match even more blatantly slung together to get more lads onto the card to kill time. If it gets long enough it should be fun but it will be too busy and spot-heavy to become something meaningful.
Which is something that can't be said for the Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose versus Wyatt Family match. This is a rivalry that started with Bray randomly attacking Roman and cutting enigmatic promos that seemed to hint at the involvement of the latter's kid. Family-stuff aside this shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone: all Bray Wyatt feuds begin with him attacking someone for literally no reason at all.
The end of their singles match at Battleground saw Luke Harper run-in and throw Reigns into a ring post, allowing 'The Eater of Worlds' to win. This signalled the reunion of the Wyatt Family, a faction which makes the already enjoyable Harper and Wyatt so much better. Wyatt is more eerie when he has vacant followers at his beck and call, while Harper benefits from being associated with someone who can provide him with things to do.
Reigns brought in backup against the Family in the form of his buddy and old Shield teammate Dean Ambrose. The original plan was apparently for Sting to join up with Ambrose and Reigns but when Erick Rowan was unable to rejoin the Wyatt flock (because he's not healed up from an injury yet) that was nixed. Frankly it feels like a bullet was dodged there. 'The Stinger' would almost certainly have looked out of place alongside Reigns and Ambrose and I can't imagine a match involving him in the Seth Rollins spot could have done justice to the enjoyable Shield-Wyatts showdowns we had in 2014.
Which just leaves the main event: Brock Lesnar versus The Undertaker. There's so much history to this that I doubt I can do it justice in a couple of paragraphs but I'll give it a go...
WrestleMania XXX saw Lesnar hand 'Taker his first ever defeat at in the series' history. This was a significant deal because 'The Dead Man' had appeared at twenty-one previous 'Mania's and it was the sort of record that nobody in wrestling ever gets close to. It's something that not even the greatest of bookers could have planned.
This victory shocked pretty much everyone and set Lesnar up as an unstoppable beast, to the point where his advocate Paul Heyman actually began referring to him as 'The Beast Incarnate'. Lesnar went on a tear, trouncing John Cena in a staggeringly one-sided match for the WWE championship at SummerSlam 2014 and holding the gold until WrestleMania 31 eight months later. Though he lost the title at 'Mania he was not pinned or submitted: Seth Rollins cashed in his magical get-a-title-match-whenever-you-like contract and pinned Lesnar's opponent, Roman Reigns, to become the champ.
Naturally this annoyed 'The Beast' and he went nuts the next night on RAW. This caused on-screen bosses The Authority to suspend indefinitely. Surprisingly that suspension didn't actually last too long and Lesnar was brought back for his contractually obligated rematch with Rollins at Battleground. There 'The Pain' seemed to be on course to win the title back... until the lights cut out and came back on to reveal The Undertaker.
'The Phenom' made short work of Lesnar at Battleground, giving him a choke slam, a pair of Tombstone piledrivers and a kick in the privates. Things would be different the next evening on RAW: Lesnar was prepared and they had an intense brawl that saw a large portion of the roster hit the ring to join security in holding the two powerhouses apart. Since then Undertaker has (glossed over his return earlier in the year to defeat Wyatt at WrestleMania and) revealed that the reason he attacked Lesnar was that he was tired of Heyman going on and on and on and on and on and on about The Streak being taken from him. On the one hand you can empathise with 'Taker on that: it was humiliating. But on the other Heyman was obviously going to talk it up because it will go down as one of the biggest moment's of his client's career.
Basically this is being built as a big deal of a rematch. It absolutely is but there are slight problems with the premise. Firstly, the conflict between the two centres around Undertaker's Streak, so having them face off at event that isn't WrestleMania feels peculiar. Secondly, it feels strange for 'Taker to be positioned as the heel. And he is being positioned as the heel, whether people are going to react to him as one or not. He's kicked Brock low twice. It's nice in that it plays up Undertaker's I-will-gain-vengeance-at-any-cost mentality but at this point in his career (very likely less than a year away from retiring after playing the same character for two and a half decades) it feels like Undie should be a babyface.
Which isn't to say the match won't be good. It will be. Undertaker suffered a concussion in their WM30 showdown and he'll want to prove all the doubters that say he can't have a cracking match anymore wrong. When they feuded in 2003 (admittedly twelve years and many injures ago) Lesnar and 'Taker had wild chemistry. There's no reason to think they don't still have it. They just need to avoid head trauma to get through this.
All of which brings me to predictions. Rollins v Cena seems like a shmoz waiting to happen. Ryback retaining seems like a safe assumption seeing as it's his first title reign in WWE and he's not really gotten to do much yet, while the time feels right for a title change with the tag straps. I'd like to say the Lucha Dragons will win but I think New Day could regain to set up a proper title chase for Sin Cara and Kalisto (which they totally deserve). In the same vein I think Paige, Becky and Charlotte could win their Divas triple threat to set them up as the top contenders for Nikki's championship.
I'll be surprised if the celebrity special tag bout doesn't end with Stephen Amell proving he can defeat fully trained and experienced professional wrestlers, because WWE, as stated above, love to make outside stars look strong (although admittedly this wouldn't be the worst decision in the world). I expect the other big tag match to be won by Reigns and Ambrose. A swerve turn by Ambrose seems likely at some point because it's the sort of feud that could stretch for a while and see Reigns through to December or January, when he can start focusing on winning the WWE title again. SummerSlam seems the wrong time for it though: if it happened the NYC crowd would favour Ambrose, making Reigns look like a heel and a chump. I can't believe WWE would want to put their next golden boy, who they've been handling with kid gloves, in that situation.
Orton v Sheamus, Cesaro v Owens and Ziggler v Rusev could each go either way. I'll pick Sheamus, because it's his turn, Owens, because the company has seemed higher on him lately than tey have Cesaro (and they can book him to cheat), and Ziggler because Lana shenanigans are Rusev's Achilles heel.
The main event is tough. I could see each guy going over. Undertaker "needs" his win back and further rebuilding for his last hurrah next year (assuming it's coming). Lesnar needs to remain the dominating, unstoppable force he's been for much of the past few years. The Streak ending stalled Undertaker and caused the final years of his career to lose steam, because without The Streak he's pretty much just an old lad with a phantastical gimmick who may or may not deliver once the bell ring. Having the suspense his Streak provided really helped him. It's not on the same scale but Lesnar's continued dominance helps him in a similar fashion. It's for that reason that I hope 'The Beast' wins, just as I hoped he'd lose on the night he became 'The Conqueror of The Streak'.
Predictions summary:Brock Lesnar to defeat The Undertaker
John Cena v Seth Rollins to end in a draw
Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns to defeat The Wyatt Family
Paige, Becky Lynch and Charlotte to defeat BAD and Team Bella
Kevin Owens to defeat Cesaro
Adrian Neville and Stephen Amell to defeat Stardust and King Barrett
Ryback to retain the Intercontinental championship against The Miz and Big Show
New Day to win the tag team championship
Dolph Ziggler to defeat Rusev
Sheamus to defeat Randy Orton
1 Here I just want to pause and comment on the nature of the Rusev-Lana relationship. Between Rusev's debut and WrestleMania 31 the pair seemed to be nothing more than colleagues. Once Rusev went crazy and blamed Lana for his loss to Big Match Jern in an I Quit match this was retconned and we were informed that they'd basically been knocking boots all along.
Which would be fine if it weren't for the confusing wrinkle that Rusev and Lana are a real life couple who love together. When they were being presented as manager and client they were dating. Now they're separated on-screen but still dating. This is one of those times when the best thing to do is roll your eyes and say "Wrestling, eh?"
2 In reality he was filming a probably terrible WWE Studios film.
3 Holla holla!
4 At least that's wat I'm assuming WWE thinks. Obviously Ryback versus The Miz versus Big Show is not an especially great match but at least assuming there's some value attached to it within the company gives it some logical reason for happening here.