Summer Slam had fairly inconsequential beginnings. In it’s earliest incarnation, its main events were a showcase for contrived tag team matches pitting a pair of top faces joining forces to battle a pair of top heels and through the first four summer slams, this format was only broken for the underrated Ultimate Warrior vs. "Ravishing" Rick Rude cage match for the WWF Championship in 1990. The show began to hit its stride in 1993 at Wembley Stadium and in true McMahon fashion began its rise from the bottom to become WWE's second most important PPV, behind only WrestleMania.
This year its level of importance may be ratcheted up even more. With the recent international launch of the WWE Network and renewal time quickly approaching for stateside fans, Summer Slam could be a major key to the company’s immediate financial future. After all of the budget cuts and the repetition of the $9.99 mantra on every available television outlet, it’s clear that WWE understands the crucial nature of the current moment for their product. They know they need more subscribers. The question is, what are they going to do from a creative standpoint to draw them in?
Let’s take a look at the card:
The build to the John Cena Brock Lesnar WWE World Heavyweight Championship match has been nearly perfect. Paul Heyman has been predictably great in cutting some of the best promos in recent memory, Cena has kept the humor and sarcasm to a minimum and even the documentary, video packages and television commercials exceed the high bar the WWE production team sets for itself. Then came Monday night. As Ric Flair, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Jimmy Heart, "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, Kevin Nash and Soctt Hall celebrated The Immortal Hulk Hogan's 61st birthday during the final segment of Raw, Brock Lesnar showed up to crash the party and remind everyone that he’s not a superstar, but an asskicker. With just three words, “party’s over, grandpa” and a steely stare he threatened the well being of every legend in that ring before John Cena could rush in to make the save. But it’s worth taking another look at the names of those he saved. We’re not talking about Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake or Tugboat here; these guys are all essentially heels and outside of Hogan, who by this point had been convinced by Hall with help from the fans in attendance to dispense with the red and gold in favor of N.W.O. black and white, none of these guys would ever be associated with Cena. But heels or not, they represent the wrestling business and Cena, love him or hate him, lives the wrestling business.
Lesnar, on the other hand, is a fighter who will fight anywhere at any time and as such is seen an interloper who just happens to fighting his way to the top of the WWE at the present moment. By ever so slightly aligning Cena with these legendary heels against this part-time mercenary who seemingly has little respect for the legacy of the company, WWE is giving the “smart” wrestling fans who would normally be found chanting "CENA SUCKS!" permission to root for him instead. It’s a wise move by the powers that be and one with more than a touch of cynicism as it seems very likely that Cena will, in fact, drop the title at Summer Slam. For him to retain would mean that the company willingly wasted all of the heat generated in the breaking of a streak more than twenty years in the making by allowing the “1” in “21-1” to lose his very next match.
The real difficulty for Cena and Lesnar will be living up to the violent intensity of their 2012 Extreme Rules match. Lesnar's vicious elbows to the head immediately after the match had gotten underway sent the message that this wasn't going to be the typical John Cena match. They can give us something different, but anything less in terms of intensity and violence is likely to be seen as a disappointment. It’s possible that WWE's no bleeding policy will be suspended or broken.
*QUICK FANTASY BOOKING*
Considering that a John Cena win seems to be less likely here, an air of predictability hangs over the outcome if not the match itself. One way to dodge this would be to have Lesnar win a grueling physical war that decimates both participants only to have Seth Rollins cash in his Money in the Bank contract and take the championship. This would serve dual purposes in protecting Lesnar and his streak breaking win while leaving the belt(s) on a full-time company employee who is on television every week setting up a Triple Threat WWE World Heavyweight Championship match for Night of Champions with Rollins defending against his former Shield mates Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns. Reigns would walk away with the Championship and begin the build to a match, most likely at WrestleMania, in which Lesnar could attempt to regain the title that he feels was stolen from him. It will never happen, but it’s fun to think about, especially for those in favor of WWE's youth movement.
Stephanie McMahon vs. Brie Bella - It’s pretty clear that WWE went with the Stephanie McMahon arrest angle a couple of weeks too early. Had this all transpired in the last week with the arrest on Monday and the challenge and matchmaking on SmackDown! this match would be the second most anticipated on the card. Instead the whole thing jumped the shark on the go home edition of Raw with a groan worthy subplot about Daniel Bryan having an affair with his physical therapist that will have to be unwound long after anyone cares about it. That’s if anyone care about it to begin with. As is is, the match should be fun with high potential for some sort of swerve. There are rumors of a Nikki Bella heel turn floating in the air.
Roman Reigns vs. Randy Orton - Early on in this program there were rumors of terrible, boring matches at house shows supposedly due to Randy Orton's reliance on long rest holds and general unwillingness to put Reigns over. Everything on television, however, has been handled extremely well. Orton, whose attention seems to wane at times, as been as interesting as he’s been in quite some time and you can see Reigns gaining confidence in both mic work and ring psychology. I expect Orton to step up to the plate and to his part in putting on an incredible match as the next step in the ascent of Roman Reigns.
Lumberjack Match: Mr. Money in the Bank Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose - Theonly reason to use a lumberjack match is to put wrestlers who aren’t on the card into an event. The stipulation does a poor job of achieving its stated intent of confining combatants to the ring and the match is almost never well executed. A ladder or cage match would have been ideal in this situation leading to the conclusion that this one will probably not be the blow-off to the feud and will likely end in some sort of schmoze. Fine by me; Ambrose has nudged ahead of Bray Wyatt as the most must watch character on WWE TV and Rollins is as good as anyone inside the squared circle. The can run this program until WrestleMania as far as I’m concerned.
WWE Divas Championship Match: AJ Lee vs. Paige - Kudos to WWE for running two concurrent Divas programs, neither of which revolves around Total Divas storylines or dance competitions. You can see the improvements in the ring work of both of young ladies each time they work together. Paige's character has really taken off since turning heel and AJ has settled in into the face role nicely while handling all of the meta issues that come being the wife of the dearly departed CM Punk. If these girls get time to work a real match, they won’t disappoint.
Flag Match: Rusev (with Lana) vs. Jack Swagger (with Zeb Colter) - This feud has consistently been one of the best things about WWE TV in recent weeks and has singlehandedly rejuvenated the career of Jack Swagger who was threatening to tumble into irrelevance. I’m not sure he has much of a chance to win given WWE's slow and meticulous build of the Rusev and Lana characters, but I can see them continuing the program for a month or so considering the synergy of their respective gimmicks.
Bray Wyatt vs. Chris Jericho (Luke Harper and Erick Rowan are banned from ringside) - This match should have been near the top of the card but somewhere along the way this feud fell flat. Maybe Chris Jericho's now predictable part time schedule is the reason or the fact that WWE decision makers have watered down Wyatt's dark mastermind persona with a string of losses. Whatever it is, something just hasn't quite clicked. Wyatt is still the most entertaining guy on the mic this side of Paul Heyman and Jericho is an all time great but sometimes the chemistry just isn’t quite right. Their sit down interview on Raw this week was well executed, as was Wyatt’s appearance on Jericho's podcast, so both men seem fully invested in the program and the actual match should be a good one. Even with Jericho scheduled to be around for another month to put over the Eater of Worlds, a loss for Wyatt here could further damage his relevance.
WWE Intercontinental Championship Match: The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler - Keep your fingers crossed that this match doesn’t get consigned to Pre-Show hell and it that it get more than the ten minutes suggested by the list of match times that leaked earlier this week. What The Miz lacks in pure wrestling ability he more than makes up for with his understanding of selling and how to draw legitimate heel heat and Ziggler is quite simply on the short list of the company’s best workers. If given enough time and the proper booking this has the potential to be the most entertaining match on the card.
On paper, the card looks pretty stacked. Nearly every match has the potential to steal the show with none looking like obvious bathroom break material. With all that’s riding on Summer Slam and the current state of the WWE product, it isn’t hard to imagine the company pushing all of their chips to the center of the table, coming up with a few swerves and going all in to put on one of the best, most jaw dropping PPVs of the year.