AUGUST 19, 2012. STAPLES CENTER,
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA.
Singles Match for the United States Championship
Pre-Show: Antonio Cesaro (with Aksana) vs. Santino Marella (c)
Once again, two ‘lucky’ wrestlers received the dubious honour of competing during the SummerSlam pre-show. Last time, at Money in the Bank, the WWE shat on the tag-team division by having its champions defend their titles before the show. This time, the US Championship gets the heave-ho, dragging poor Santino and Antonio along with it. The only saving grace about this whole scenario is that no one really cares.
But the WWE can glean an important lesson from this non-event. First, by incorporating three non-title matches into the pay-per-view, but relegating a full-blown title match to the pre-show, the message they’re sending is perfectly clear: the US Championship does not matter (or, comparatively, that its champion and challenger do not matter). It matters so little that most viewers are only told about the outcome of the match two-thirds of the way through the evening. So Antonio Cesaro stripped Santino of the gold; we have a new US Champion. Does this help build Cesaro? Not really (his character is still too similar to Damien Sandow’s, and at least Sandow is attacking more formidable opponents and evincing greater facility with the microphone). Are we interested in what might emerge by way of a rematch? Hardly—can we take anything Santino does seriously? So what to do with the championship itself?
My thinking is to scrap it entirely. In fact, retire the Intercontinental Championship, too; despite its lengthy history, it’s become a slightly more glorified US Championship. And while we’re at it, retire the Divas Division completely—what’s the point if there’s not even a Divas match at a pay-per-view? Is there someone out there who’s actually interested in when Layla will next defend her title? Return to the glory days of two belts, and make the competition for each—and the ladder toward earning a title-shot—fierce and constant. We’ve seen how non-title matches can be every bit as compelling as the bouts for the big ones, so it’s not like we need these straps to generate interest. Moreover, when the WWE or World Heavyweight Championship is defended, it’ll be all the more exciting and meaningful. And isn’t that the holy grail of this whole spectacle—to make viewers actually care?
Chris Jericho vs. Dolph Ziggler (with Vicki Guerrero)
Summerslam ’12 opened with an excellent example of a compelling non-title match. This feud sizzles from the collision of Ziggler’s rising popularity as a heel (and as Money in the Bank contract-holder) and Jericho’s sudden (and unexpected) face-turn. Like I mentioned in my last column, the WWE Universe has been itching to see Jericho turn face for years. Although those unceasing ‘Y2J’ chants can now finally be encouraged, it’s still somewhat bittersweet—a kind of fading light for a superstar whose time as main-eventer has come and gone.
If you haven’t been watching, Ziggler instigated the feud by claiming that Jericho could no longer win the big matches, that he’d lost his touch. Certainly, Jericho hasn’t been able to win many recent high-profile matches (case in point: his last two pay-per-view bouts with CM Punk, which everybody knew he would lose), but this has been his purpose for quite some time—to make other guys look good. The commentators thus set up the match between Y2J and Ziggler as a test of Jericho’s abilities, to see if he can still cut the mustard. This is of course misleading and silly, as every knows this is a rather inconsequential contest—the ‘big ones’ that Ziggler referred to have all come and gone for Jericho, who won’t be eligible for a World Heavyweight or WWE Championship match for a long time.
Reviewers will probably claim that Jericho’s victory-by-submission (actually using the Walls of Jericho to make Ziggler tap out—how nice is that?) is a bad sign for Dolph, whose momentum will be squashed to no real benefit to the company or to an in-and-out Jericho, who’ll no doubt be off to tour with Fozzy. This line of thinking fails to understand that for Ziggler, nothing matters between now and the night he cashes in his Money in the Bank briefcase. He could lose a thousand times, and it still wouldn’t diminish the impact he’ll make when he cashes-in and becomes World Heavyweight Champion. Let Jericho prove that he’s still ‘got it’; let the nostalgic Y2J fans get what they want. This was an extremely entertaining match from a pure storytelling, old school wrestling perspective, and does nothing to hurt either man’s career. I say well done.
Daniel Bryan vs. Kane
Of all the matches of the evening, this one felt the most out of date and out of touch. Kane and Bryan and CM Punk reached the climax of their three-way feud two pay-per-views ago. Having Bryan and Kane rehash their animosity at SummerSlam seems like a waste of time and talent, and seems like a frantic effort on behalf of the bookers to incorporate these two into the event without any substantial feud, build, or rationale.
It’s obvious that with the most marginal of tweaks, Daniel Bryan could be one of the most popular faces in the company. As is, he’s definitely a tweener, and Kane is anything but an all-out face, which creates a scenario that lacks a clear favourite, desired finish, or riveted audience. All in all, it turns a potential slobberknocker into a throwaway.
Interestingly, Bryan’s roll-up victory and the enthusiastic crowd reaction are telling of D-Bry’s charisma, and another clear sign that the WWE could have a phenomenon on their hands if they turned him hero. Kane’s rampage after the match was somewhat amusing, but I don’t buy this anymore. Is he angry with Bryan, or just angry? These days, good old Kane only gets exciting when he’s involved with the Undertaker, and hardly otherwise. It’s time for both of these workers to develop new feuds and be pushed in new directions.
Singles Match for the WWE Intercontinental Championship
The Miz (c) vs. Rey Mysterio
The brief, underwhelming set-up: Rey Mysterio returns from nearly a year off, assaults Alberto Del Rio to avenge an injury, loses in a singles match to CM Punk, and finally earns an Intercontinental Championship title shot. But he is swiftly defeated at SummerSlam (to little surprise, really) by a newly championed Miz: a wrestler who’s similarly had some lengthy time off and received a renewed push. So where does Rey—wearing ever-stranger superhero costumes in what must surely be some form of late-career eccentricity—now fit within the current WWE landscape? For me, Rey seems directionless, even superfluous, and with this swift loss to the Miz, even less compelling as a threat.
There was absolutely no heat between the competitors and very little build. The match was quick and unexciting, which wasn’t the fault of either man but merely a creative misfire. The next feud for both Miz and Rey will no doubt take them into more interesting positions and pairings.
Singles Match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Sheamus (c) vs. Alberto Del Rio
For this somewhat stale re-match from Money in the Bank, the most compelling moment happened right at the finish. It was one of those (rare) instances that makes you gleefully doubt what’s real and what’s scripted, and therefore one of the better-booked elements of the evening.
First, Ricardo Rodriguez attempts to toss his shoe over the referee’s head, presumably so Del Rio can use it as a weapon (sigh). The toss goes high, sails over Alberto, and lands in Sheamus’s hand; he immediately grins and wails on the Mexican before the referee can turn to see the infraction. This was handled so expertly that it seemed like a genuine blunder. But then the magic happened—Sheamus gives Del Rio the Irish Curse Backbreaker and hooks a leg for the pin. For neophytes, the Irish Curse is part of Sheamus’s regular move set, and is in no way a proper finisher or a move that could disable a competitor of Del Rio’s stature. Between the second and third count, Del Rio throws his boot onto the bottom rope, nullifying the pin, but the ref goes ahead and counts him down anyway, giving Sheamus the victory.
The match felt unfinished, as if it were only two-thirds through, adding a real element of surprise to the sudden ending. And predictably, Del Rio and Rodriguez went bananas over the faulty decision, lending more credibility to the feeling that this was flubbed—that perhaps the official was expecting Del Rio to kick out, rather than use the ropes. In retrospect, it gives Del Rio another excuse to pursue one more match with the Irishman, adding the unfairness of the ‘botch’ to his need for revenge. Really, though—it was the best thing about this match and their ongoing, uninspired feud, couched in terms of phony class-war, pitting the working-class Shemus against an aristocratic Del Rio. It gave it an air of realism so often lacking from wrestling in 2012.
Again, surprise trumps reliability as the most redeeming quality of the ‘sport.’
Tag Team Match for the WWE Tag Team Championships
R-Truth & Kofi Kingston (c) vs. The Prime Time Players (Darren Young & Titus O’Neil)
Recently, the WWE fired AW (The Prime Time Players’ loud-mouthed manager) for making an on-air joke about Kobe Bryant’s rape charges (definitely not kayfabe). AW retaliated on Twitter for the WWE not “having his back” and for their double standards, claiming that The Big Show once made a comparable rape joke and received no chastising (and also that the WWE encouraged him to be brash and mildly offensive, that it wasn’t even his idea in the first place, and so forth). CM Punk said “rape isn’t funny” and we all moved on, perhaps worried over whether the Prime Time Players would get a proper push in the wake of losing their mouthpiece.
Please tell me: what other television show (forget sporting event) is so bizarre and downright meta that its live audience will begin resoundingly chanting “Ko-be Bry-ant” during the next match involving the PTP? Such public, unscripted, and unpredictable outbursts keep professional wrestling squarely married to anarchy, despite the dull predictability of some matches, and keeps the show dangerously, politically volatile.
So much for interest. R-Truth and Kofi did away with Young and O’Neil without much contest, producing a result that defied the majority of commentators who predicted a long-awaited change of title for the languishing tag-team division. The chorus is growing: we need more tag teams, we need them to differentiate themselves, and we want to believe in the tag-team championships. When these changes might come about is anyone’s guess; for now, Truth and Kofi continue to ride out the mid-point of their careers as mid-card marginalia.
Triple Threat Match for the WWE Championship
CM Punk (c) vs. John Cena vs. The Big Show
The only match on last night’s card that warranted any real speculation was this triple-threat contest for the WWE Championship, and only because of Punk’s recent theatrics and swerving, there-and-back-again heel turn. It all started the week after Money in the Bank, when Punk gave The Rock some GTS medicine, stared down at his trembling hands in high-Shakespearian confliction, and walked out of a ring littered with bodies. Since then, Punk’s character has swerved like an electric eel between retaining his face persona and embracing the dark side. His berating of Jerry Lawler? Mark-out gold. His whining about the triple-threat match? Predictable ‘bad-guy’ behaviour. His mockery of Cena’s “you can’t see me”? Blew the roof off the arena. His repetitive demands for respect? Run-of-the-mill heel work. So by the time this three-way battle came around, the only things I wanted to know were a) would Punk retain the title, and b) how would he be played—as face, heel, or something in between? Forget Paul White and Cena—this was Punk’s show, and Michael Cole made this perfectly clear when he voiced what many have noted for a long time: that Punk hasn’t main-evented a pay-per-view in what feels like forever, even though he’s WWE Champion and the ostensible face of the company.
Surprisingly—and awesomely—the Staples Center was firmly behind the Straight Edge Superstar as he made his way to the ring (wearing hot pink trunks and boots in what appeared to be an homage to Bret “The Hitman” Hart). I assumed Cena would get the applause, but perhaps the threat of him winning the belt added some venom to the spectators’ boos.
The match itself featured The Big Show as super-dominant, throwing both Cena and Punk around the ring and generally building a rather unstoppable aura. That is, until both Punk and Cena locked Show into their own submission holds at the same time and the giant tapped out. As there was no clear winner, the match was re-started. After a few hard-fought minutes, Cena dropped the Attitude Adjustment on a dazed Big Show, setting up a Cena victory. But wait! Here’s Punk, suddenly tossing Cena from the ring and covering Show, reaping the benefits of Cena’s finisher and thereby grabbing the victory for himself!
This was a great victory for Punk, and another reinforcement of his character’s unpredictability. Yes, a victory means that the title reign continues, as does the respect that comes with being champion. But it was certainly a ‘heel’ victory—this was Cena’s move, and Punk simply capitalized and picked up the pieces, much to the audience’s delight. If the WWE wants Punk to turn heel outright, he’s going to have to be pretty damn evil indeed to push the fly-by-night fans away and get the boos that are certainly coming when (and if) he meets The Rock at The Royal Rumble.
Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar
And here’s the match that captivated the non-wrestling world: an ex-UFC Brock Lesnar vs. the WWE-C.O.O. (and semi-retired) Triple H. This was, I think, supposed to appear as a clash between industries—at one point in the match, Triple H yelled that “this is WWE, not UFC,” which is an extremely confusing remark from a post-kayfabe perspective, but nevertheless indicative of the WWE’s anxieties over UFC legitimacy. Moreover, Triple H’s tearful “I’m sorry” stuff at the end of the bout seemed like an apology to wrestling fans in general. Gosh—Trips, one of the industry’s last remaining giants, could not defeat the UFC legend in a WWE ring? What a great blow to wrestling! Maybe. Or maybe the whole teary send-off was Trips’s way of saying goodbye, which is always how wrestlers say goodbye before they go away for a little while and then come back.
Sigh. In any case, Brock Lesnar had to win this match if he wanted to continue a career with the company; his first match back was a loss to Cena (made, I think, to salvage Cena’s character after The Rock beat him at Mania) and one that dropped him down from unstoppable beast to mildly threatening heel. Triple H vs. Lesnar was a slow, plodding affair, with lots of punches and knees, some good body language from Lesnar (double over from the blows Triple H gave to his stomach, recalling his public difficulties with diverticulitis), and a satisfying tap-out ending from the C.O.O. Where this takes Lesnar is anyone’s guess (perhaps a return from Shawn Michaels?), but it cemented him as a true monster and at least pushed Triple H away for a while.
But instead of a Lesnar victory lap about the ring, the pay-per-view faded out to an injured—and weeping—Triple H stumbling up the ramp and toward the locker room, thoroughly beaten. This went on for way too long; I assumed someone (Lesnar again? Wade Barrett?) was gonna appear, bash him up again, or at least come out to give the poor guy a hug. But alas—SummerSlam 2012 ended on this mopey, rather pathetic note.