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Kill your enthusiasm: SummerSlam reviewed

When all you really recall is the crappy ending, it doesn’t matter how good the preceding match was. And SummerSlam‘s main event was indeed a very good match, if not a great one. We were teased the big Undertaker comeback, the Dead Man getting his revenge on the dastardly Brock Lesnar for ending his WrestleMania streak 18 months ago. But Brock was having none of it, not even letting Taker remove his hat and trenchcoat before launching his assault. The rest of the match was a pure fight, playing to Brock’s strengths as a ring bully while hiding Taker’s weaknesses as a performer well past his prime, and making them both look like they belonged in the main event of the second-biggest show of the year. Also, there was this:

Brock and Taker laugh it up at SummerSlam 2015

Which made what happened at the end of the match all the more mind-bogglingly stupid: Brock locks Taker in a kimura in such a way that the Beast’s shoulders are down on the mat; referee Charles ‘Little Naitch’ Robinson begins counting the pin when the bell suddenly rings, the timekeeper (who turns out to be the Shockmaster‘s actual, non-kayfabe son) apparently going into business for himself after seeing Taker tap out on the side the referee couldn’t see (it emerged later that he saw it on the Titantron, because the hand Taker used to tap was facing away from the timekeeper’s corner); amid that confusion, Taker sneak-attacks Brock with only the latest in a series of heelish low blows (an angle that may not even be an angle … more on that later) to lock in his Hell’s Gate finisher and steal the victory by referee stoppage when Brock passes out (but doesn’t submit).

The outcome isn’t completely objectionable — Taker got his win back, while Brock, in character, can reasonably dispute the result — but they way they went about it? Nope. It shows utter contempt for common sense, as far as common sense in wrestling goes. As ‘fake’ as pro wrestling is, there’s still an internal logic, as flimsy as it may be, that enables us as fans to suspend our disbelief. We’ll accept a referee ignoring blatant shenanigans behind his back while distracted by a tag team partner or a manager or whoever because that’s a convention of the form. But there’s no precedent for a timekeeper to go into business for themselves.

Despite my learned friend (internet acquaintance) Jordan Campbell seeing this “botched call” in light of their feud’s trend towards MMA-style realism over ‘sports entertainment’ — the “humanity of sport”, as it were — and therefore broken free from wrestling’s conventions, it doesn’t work for me. Sport is sport and wrestling is wrestling, no matter how sporty you style your wrestling to be. And when it comes to wrestling, the referee makes all the decisions, for better or worse. That’s how it’s always been. (Unless we’re talking executive interference — say, the Authority making decrees on the fly — which is a whole other thing entirely.)

There’s no reason why whoever booked this match couldn’t have worked around those conventions. Here’s one scenario: the enmity between the two men, perhaps underlined by a pull-apart before the show (or demanded by Paul Heyman in a promo burning with righteous indignation over Taker’s heel tactics — mostly low-blows behind the referee’s back — since their last encounter on PPV, a notion that’s been strangely ignored by WWE’s commentators), necessitates a second referee at ringside to keep peace, who just happens to be position to see the hand tap and call for the bell, giving us the exact same ending, and the best of both worlds, but without the bullshit feeling that ruined SummerSlam for a lot of people, myself included. One bad apple spoils the bunch.

That’s the off-the-cuff emotional response at four in the morning after watching five hours of wrestling, at any rate. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s unfair to let that one bad move ruin what was actually a half-decent show, although one that fell short of the WrestleMania-like supercard feel promised in the build-up.

Curtain jerkers Randy Orton and Sheamus did little to get the blood pumping. As much as I enjoy Sheamus’ schtick — he’s a great heel, and I love that ‘Are you not entertained?’ bit he does — he usually works to the level of his opponent, and Randy Orton being the most boring wrestler on the roster meant this was the usual snooze-fest for me. Sure, they were doing stuff and hitting each other and such, but my eyes glazed over just like the umpteen other times I’ve sat through this match-up. Let’s face it, it was no Val Venis/D’Lo Brown at SummerSlam ’98. Still, I’ll give marks to Sheamus for some primo crowd reaction towards the end, pausing with a filthy look as they started counting his blows on a prone Orton. Little things like that often go overlooked with wrestlers of Sheamus’ style — y’know, big men who usually get auto-pushed because they’re big.

The Fatal 4-Way for the Tag Team Championship meant only one thing to me: The New Day. And the bookers seemed to be on the same page, letting Big E and Kofi Kingston control the majority of what could’ve been a messy match with four teams involved — plenty of the multi-man spots you might expect, but story came first — and rewarding their months of effort in becoming the most entertaining guys on the main roster with another title run. Well deserved! Plus we were treated to Xavier Woods’ golden ringside commentary. Just a pity he saved his trombone playing till the following night’s Raw (yes, he played the trombone for real, and yes, it was awesome) but we got Big E sexy dancing to celebrate the win, so there’s that.

Backstage next to a skit with Jon Stewart, who was hosting the show — ‘hosting’ in WWE parlance meaning coming out to do a bit in front of the crowd before all but disappearing for the rest of the night. The running gag is that Stewart was collecting autographs on his son Nate’s T-shirt so he could scalp it on eBay, supplementing his income since he no longer has Daily Show cheques coming in. That was funny, and as it turns out, it foreshadowed something that would come later in the show…

Dolph Ziggler and Rusev came next in a nothing match wasting both of their talents. I love both guys — Ziggler might overdo the bumping, but he’s the closest they have to a latter-day Mr Perfect, while I’ve long been a fan of Rusev as a big man who can go like a wrestler half his size (see also: Big E) — but this is a comedy feud, there’s feck-all at stake, and it’s depressing to see wrestlers of this quality languish below the midcard. The double countout ending? That says it all, really. A couple of nice spots, but nothing that you wouldn’t see on an average Monday or Thursday night, or a B-level pay-per-view.

Speaking of B-level pay-per-views, I’m convinced the triple threat match for the Intercontinental Title was transplanted wholesale from the previous ‘special event’, Battleground, when it was supposed to take place before the champion Ryback got injured. Rather than cook up a contest fit for a bigger show, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he, the Miz and the Big Show did the exact same match they’d planned to do before, because that’s exactly what it felt like to watch it. So, so lazy. And so much for that WrestleMania feel. SummerSlam 2015 was certainly shaping up to be just another pay-per-view.

And that’s coming after the first big ‘celebrity wrestler’ angle the company’s done since Bam Bam Bigelow and Lawrence Taylor (yes, there have been a few others since, but none of them count to the same degree). It’s been exciting to see Stardust (and WWE Creative) getting fired up for his feud against the star of Arrow, Stephen Amell. And it was refreshing to see a TV star, and definite non-wrestler, look decent in the ring; well he is a fan, and he does his own stunts on his series, so I imagine he didn’t want to look a right show, create-a-wrestler boxing shorts aside. Smartly they made it a tag team match, and even smarter gave Amell a stellar partner in Neville to do the heavy lifting and score the pin on Stardust’s partner King Barrett after his breathtaking corkscrew shooting star press. Now that’s how you do a match on the second-biggest show of the year.

Even Roman Reigns and his only friend in the world, Dean Ambrose, pulled out all the stops for their tag battle against Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper (there sure were a lot of tag matches on this show, which makes for a nice change actually) but it’s gonna be hard for the Wyatt Family to regain the unpredictable edginess they lost many months ago upon the incredibly stupid decision to break them up. (They introduced a new member of the family the following night, a large man in a ‘black sheep’ mask, but it remains to be seen how that will fare.) Without that edge, which even dulled the ‘Lunatic Fringe’ Ambrose by proxy, this match was missing that certain something, but not for want of trying.

Reigns and Ambrose’s erstwhile Shield colleague Seth Rollins, the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, came out dressed like Mordecai for his title-for-title clash against US Champ John Cena. I love that! It’s like, I don’t care how ridiculous I look, I’m the best and I’ll show it in the ring. Even against Cena, whose recent gimmick as would-be indie spot monkey has made his matches slightly more interesting to watch, if only for the morbid curiosity of what PWG moves he’s gonna bust out (or botch) this time round.

I’m not sure when this happened, or if it’s even a thing because I rarely watch Raw or SmackDown! these days, but Rollins’ gimmick appears to be steal everyone else’s finisher because I’m the best so fuck ’em. Unfortunately, my biggest takeaway from this match was that Rollins stole Finn Bálor’s finisher (the double foot stomp from the turnbuckles) and didn’t even get the pin with it. Way to make the NXT guys look good. Feeling a little sore that TakeOver Brooklyn stole the weekend, were we?

The biggest takeaway for everyone else is probably the climactic twist on the Dusty Finish, when Jon Stewart ran in after the referee was knocked down and hit Cena with a steel chair OMGWTF! to gift Rollins the win and both titles. It was silly as hell, it wasn’t even executed properly (Stewart hummed and hawed for way to long, looking like he was prepared to hit either guy before choosing Cena) and got burdened with a laboured over-explanation on Raw (Stewart’s motivation, apparently, was not wanting to see Cena match Ric Flair’s record for most title wins) yet as a finish, it didn’t leave nearly as bad a taste as Brock/Taker II.

But let’s get back to that TakeOver show for a minute. Part of what gave this year’s SummerSlam that WrestleMania feel ahead of the show itself was that WWE made a whole weekend out of it, booking out Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for three nights straight: the PPV on Sunday and Raw the following night, plus, and for the first time ever, an extra live show on the Saturday night, showcasing the NXT developmental crew on their biggest stage yet before a sell-out crowd of 13,000. Bear in mind that’s only 2,000 or so fewer than the house for SummerSlam itself (due to different venue configuration) and 10 times more than the largest crowd TNA ever drew in the States, for a promotion-slash-brand with a one-hour weekly programme that’s only available on the WWE Network. That’s quite something.

And it was a show that turned expectations on their head, promoted on the backs of the return match between NXT Champion Finn Bálor and Kevin Owens, plus the first WWE-related appearance by my favourite wrestler, Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger, but far more memorable for the incredible NXT Women’s Title match between ‘The Boss’ Sasha Banks and the underestimated underdog Bayley. That the women were allowed to stand on their own and steal the show from the ostensible main eventers in that promotion? That’s what makes NXT really special. Compare with SummerSlam’s so-called ‘Divas Revolution’ three-way tag match (an elimination match, rather than the potentially disastrous triple threat I expected) which was intended as a showcase for new NXT graduates Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks, but only emphasised how subservient they are to the established main-roster Divas.

Only Charlotte and Becky Lynch really have a chance to make something of this poor Gang Rulz facsimile, being paired with fellow NXT-to-WWE-er Paige; Sasha Banks (who was expected to be the Next Big Thing, because she really is that good) is a mere lackey to the god-awful Naomi and her glorified muscle Tamina Snuka. Look at it this way: on Saturday night, Banks and Bayley got to put on a classic, easily WWE’s match of the weekend if not the year thus far; on Sunday, Banks had to mill around at ringside waiting for the Bellas or whoever to do their ‘leap out of the ring onto a crowd of people’ spots in a match booked clearly so that the far more talented newcomers didn’t outshine the established names, even if Lynch did score the pin (via a mistake by Brie Bella rather than overwhelming offence on her part). Sigh.

Thanks heavens for small mercies, as the opposite was true for Kevin Owens. After a disappointing ladder match against Bálor the previous evening — disappointing because ladder matches are supposed to have dangerous looking high-spots and the like, but their attempt was fairly muted — he got a much-needed high-profile victory against fellow indie darling Cesaro, and in the semi-main-event slot too. Story-wise they could have made it a squash, Owens being overcome by his upset at failing twice against Bálor and taking it out on Cesaro, like he did to Sami Zayn in dramatic fashion months ago. Instead we got a fresh Cesaro taking it straight to a tired but desperate Owens with a flurry of uppercuts, and the rest was far better than what I’d hoped, the best wrestling match on the card (in terms of both ‘work rate’ and ring psychology) and one that showed alleged Triple H favourite Owens and the consummate bad-ass Cesaro in the best possible light.

Imagine a world where a match like that is closing the second-biggest show of the year, and not a ham-fisted attempt at injecting sport-ish ‘realism’ by upending the conventions that make pro wrestling what it is to me. Even beyond WWE, say in Japan, where kayfabe is very much alive and puroresu is presented more like a legitimate sport, a ‘botched call’ like that would be unheard of, because fans would see through it for the bullshit that it is. But maybe the most damning criticism is how much the finish to Brock/Taker II reminded me and so many others of the dark days of WCW, of illogical and deliberately provocative ‘controversial’ finishes, designed to grab ratings for the Monday night show, at the expense of the PPV buyers. And we all know what happened to them.