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It’s pretty much impossible to talk about SummerSlam without acknowledging that just one night earlier, NXT tore the roof off the Barclays Center with its latest Takeover, a stunning, moving, expertly structured show that, hands down, is the best wrestling event of 2015 (sorry Ultima Lucha!). NXT has been its own brand for some time now, but Saturday’s show brought that idea to the next level. It was inevitable that SummerSlam would be in the shadow of that show. Comparing the details of the two shows won’t get us very far, but there’s a single aspect that, for better or worse, defines each show: storytelling.

SummerSlam isn’t a bad PPV in terms of wrestling, in that there are a handful of matches that are technically sound. That said, there’s little to no storytelling behind each match, and the relatively solid in-ring product can’t make up for that. It’s strange that WWE wasn’t able to pull off a huge SummerSlam because, for the most part, the episodes of Raw that led up to tonight were fun and compelling. With a good build in place, the next step is to blow out the PPV, especially one marketed the way SummerSlam is every single year. Tonight’s PPV doesn’t feel any different than an episode of Raw though.

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Looking up and down the card, too few matches have a big fight feel to them, or really any backstory to drive the feuds to another level. Rusev and Ziggler have one of the more straightforward reasons for wanting to fight one another, but their match ends in a double count out and is basically an excuse to get Lana and Summer fighting again. It’s the same narrative beats that have been predominant on Raw for weeks now, and that’s an unfortunate pattern throughout the rest of the night.

Take, for instance, Sheamus vs. Randy Orton. It’s a match we’ve seen over and over again for months now, and it’s never been engaging. The two are great performers, but together they don’t amount to much. Plus, again, what’s the story? There isn’t one; Orton spoiling Sheamus’ cash-in doesn’t count because they were feuding before that. That kind of match is fine on an episode of Smackdown, but it shouldn’t have a place on the second biggest PPV of the year. The same goes for Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose vs. Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper. What’s different about this match compared to every other match they’ve wrestled against one another in the last few weeks, either in tag team or singles competition? What makes it worthy of a spot on the SummerSlam card? Nothing in this match develops, deepens, or furthers the story of these feuding families. Considering the history these four men have together, that’s unforgivable. There’s absolutely no reason why this match shouldn’t be filled with stakes and history.

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Unfortunately, the trend of lazy booking and non-existent storytelling extends to the #DivaRevolution, a movement that’s quickly becoming shorthand for, “hey, we’re giving women more time to wrestle.” It’s great that the Divas are getting this much time on such a huge platform, but what does it really amount to if there’s no emotion, no story, no tension and payoff? This is a match where Tamina gets more time than Sasha Banks, where Team B.A.D. gets sent home early, and where everyone does cool moves to the outside while simultaneously accomplishing nothing of value. Again, the wrestling part of the match isn’t bad, but imagine how much better it would be if the built-in feud wasn’t just one giant shrug emoji.

SummerSlam has its moments though, short bursts where the storytelling really shines through. First, there’s the mercifully brief Intercontinental Championship match. It’s not a barnburner, but it actually tells a story, in large part because of WWE’s most consistently underrated superstar, the Miz. He understands how this match needs to be structured, so he lies in wait, tries to steal wins off of other peoples’ moves, and uses his face to tell a compelling story the entire time. Even Ryback and Big Show understand their roles as dominant big men, creating an interesting dynamic between the three performers, allowing for clear, concise storytelling, something absent from the rest of the night. The same can be said of the match where Stephen Amell and Neville take down Stardust and King Barrett. The match benefits from the fact that Amell is clearly committed to telling a story with Stardust, but it also serves to further drive a wedge between Neville and Stardust. With Neville pinning Barrett, he and Stardust still haven’t settled their feud. It’s a finish that opens up more possibilities for those two going forward (sorry Barrett, maybe you can just fight R-Truth again?), and that’s never a bad thing.

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The Tag Team Championship match boasts an interesting dynamic too, and while it was always going to come down to the Prime Time Players and New Day battling for the titles, the rest of the match is a fun spot fest. Just because it’s a spot fest though doesn’t meant it lacks in storytelling. New Day getting the win after Titus wrecked every single person in the ring once again escalates the feud between the two teams. It’s simple booking really, but sometimes that’s all WWE needs to do. Tell a clear story, like New Day stealing a win like the heels they are and then dancing like maniacs who just pulled off the best coup in WWE history, and suddenly your next few weeks of tag division matches look much more promising. Even Kevin Owens vs. Cesaro, which shouldn’t be much more than the fun indie match of the night, manages to be so much more than that due to the in-ring performance and storytelling. The two put on an absolute clinic in technical wrestling and pure athleticism, but it’s everything else going on that makes it one of the best matches of the night. It’s in the way Owens seems more aggressive than usual, a symptom of his loss at NXT Takeover the night before. It’s in the way Cesaro clearly knows he’s near the top of the card, so he needs to hit Owens with everything he has to push himself into that next level. Finally, it’s in the way Owens gets in the win, a clean one, reestablishing him as a legitimate threat on this roster.

Then, of course, there’s Seth Rollins vs. John Cena, with the winner taking home both the Unites States and World Heavyweight Championship. It’s a strange, beautiful, thrilling match, with Rollins wrestling in full babyface mode, using just about everything in his arsenal to lay Cena out. Now, Rollins doesn’t get the cleanest of wins (due to a Jon Stewart heel turn!), but he gets the win and walks out champ, and that’s a big deal. Just like at Wrestlemania XXXI, it suggests that WWE has all the faith in the world in Rollins, and considering his performance tonight, it’d be hard to argue against their decision to put him at the top of the company. The match also serves as a nice preview of what Rollins will look like as a babyface champion. I’m not saying that’s coming any time soon, but it’ll happen eventually, and it’s clear that Rollins has all the tools to be at the top of the card for a long time to come.

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If only SummerSlam ended on that note instead of the main event that’s “too big for Wrestlemania.” First of all, credit where credit is due: Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker put on one hell of a match, the sheer physicality of it far exceeding just about everyone’s expectations. Undertaker definitely looked winded, but he kept up with Brock, throwing punches and countering submissions like his life depended on it; considering that Brock used an F5 to put him through the announce table, I think his life did depend on it. The majority of Undertaker vs. Brock is a compelling rematch, built on all the tension and hatred that comes with a rematch, and the crowd’s into it. It’s all undercut by that ending though, where the bellkeeper rings the bell after seeing Undertaker tap out, forcing the ref to restart the match because he didn’t see it, which allows Undertaker to sneak in another low blow and then make Lesnar pass out with the Hell’s Gate. Here’s a rule of wrestling that’s practically ironclad: if your finish only works once the crowd/viewer has seen the replay, it probably won’t be exciting. That’s certainly true here, as the false finish sucks the life out of an already exhausted crowd, and does a disservice to both Brock and the Undertaker, both of whom were doing everything they could to make sure that this rematch felt bigger than their fight for The Streak.

Stray observations:

  • Results: Sheamus defeated Randy Orton; New Day defeated the Prime Time Players, Lucha Dragons, and Los Matadores (Tag Team Championship); Dolph Ziggler vs. Rusev ended in a double count out; Neville and Stephen Amell defeated Stardust and King Barrett; Ryback defeated the Miz and Big Show (Triple Threat, Intercontinental Championship); Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose defeated Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper; Seth Rollins defeated John Cena (Title for Title, WWE World Heavyweight Championship and United States Championship); Team P.C.B. defeated Team Bella and Team B.A.D.; Kevin Owens defeated Cesaro; The Undertaker defeated Brock Lesnar.
  • Serious props to Stephen Amell for taking a beating during his match. I did not see that many bumps coming.
  • Seth Rollins is the best wrestler and performer in the WWE, hands down. Apologies to Kevin Owens.
  • Hey, Mick Foley showed up for no reason at all.
  • The promo that Jon Stewart cut on Paul Heyman was absolutely brilliant. Honest and on-point.
  • I really love Rollins’ white gear.
  • Time to start printing “Pitch Pipes to C” shirts for New Day. I’ll take two of them along with a “Tricep Meat” one, please and thank you.
  • The sequence where Titus wrecks the entire tag division is one of my favorites from the whole night.
  • “Rocks!! Like a bag of rocks!!” Never change, Xavier Woods.
  • Is there a kayfabe reason why Lana and Ziggler are an ‘80s couple?
  • If you haven’t already, go watch NXT Takeover: Brooklyn immediately, cry tears of joy, and then read LaToya’s great review.

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