Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The History of WWE SummerSlam, part 10 (2015-2017)

And we've come to the final installment of SummerSlam history....

SummerSlam '15 - Barclays Center - 8/23/15

Sometimes it pays to have low expectations.  Case in point the 2015 SummerSlam extravaganza.  I went into this show with the mindset of "I'll be content as long as I don't feel like my night was wasted," and what I got was a consistently very entertaining wrestling show with a ton of variety where every match felt like it got enough time, and a few actually stood out.

The much-dreaded-by-me Brock Lesnar-Undertaker main event was easily the best match delivered by these two since their No Mercy 2002 Hell in a Cell.  It was streamlined, hard-hitting, full of nice little nuances (the double situp for example), and while the ending left me baffled at first, once the replay explained everything I actually kinda liked it.  Granted we've been conditioned that the timekeeper never rings the bell until the official calls for it, but in all these years you'd think human error would get in the way at least once.  Well, this was that one occurrence.  Taker tapped out and the timekeeper jumped the gun.  It was a realistic screwup and it protected Lesnar as an unstoppable monster while reframing the feud with Taker playing more of a heel.  I liked this match a lot, and the lasting image for me was of the defiant Lesnar flipping Taker off just before passing out to Hell's Gate.

Ok this was pretty boss.

The Match of the Night however was Seth Rollins vs. John Cena.  Both guys were motivated to overshadow every other match despite being placed only 7th of 10 bouts, and aside from a couple miscues, this was a helluva contest.  Rollins essentially worked babyface, pulling out every crazy, crowd-pleasing move he could muster.  My fellow New Japan fans surely noticed Rollins borrowing from Hiroshi Tanahashi's moveset (High Fly Flow, Slingblade), and even Kota Ibushi's (standing shooting star press).  The finish, where Jon Stewart stormed the ring and whacked Cena with a chair to cost him the match, was met with a lot of scorn, but WWE covered it brilliantly the next night by having Stewart say he couldn't bear to see Ric Flair's 16-time record tied.  Simple, logical, and made for a nice little moment where Cena gave Stewart the AA.

This was even more boss.

The third standout was Kevin Owens vs. Cesaro, which was given the unfortunate second-to-last spot (in any other company that slot is a huge compliment, but not in Bizarro WWE World) in front of a crowd clearly waiting for the main event.  But the two ROH alums delivered a fine match that got a good amount of time.  It felt like the first in a series so it didn't quite steal the show.  Plus Owens was almost certainly pretty banged up from his NXT Ladder Match the night before, so the fact that he performed at the level he did is significant.

The rest of the show was full of pretty good stuff.  Sheamus vs. Randy Orton, while not quite as good as their Battleground match, was nonetheless a solid opener with a nice clean, much-needed win for Sheamus.  The 4-Way Tag Title match was loads of fun and got enough time to resonate.  The New Day deservedly regained the straps and Xavier Woods was hilariously awesome at ringside.  Rusev vs. Dolph Ziggler was so much better than I anticipated, making their twelve minutes count. The middle of the show featured the only two throwaways.  Stardust/Wade Barrett vs. Stephen Amell/Neville was short and forgettable but inoffensive.  Ditto for Ryback vs. Show vs. Miz, which should've culminated in a more decisive win for Ryback.  Dean Ambrose & Roman Reigns vs. The Wyatts 2.0 was a wild, fast-paced war that didn't resolve the feud but led to Bray adding a new Family member the next night.

Not as boss as The Shield vs. The Wyatts, but not bad.

Finally there was the Divas three-way, which shockingly got a full fifteen minutes.   Unfortunately this probably wasn't the match to allot that much time, as it exposed just how much better the NXT women were than their main roster counterparts.  Once Sasha Banks' team was out, the match hit a long lull period as the Bellas controlled most of the offense.  Despite the improvement shown by Nikki and Brie in 2014-15, in this scenario Team Paige should've dominated the action.  At least the right team won.

All in all, warts aside, SummerSlam 2015 was a very entertaining show with a lot about it to like.  While nothing on the card was MOTY-worthy I'd say seven of the ten matches were three stars or better, with only the Divas match, the Stardust bout, and the I-C triple threat falling short.  I liked how much actual wrestling was on this show and how strong WWE's time management was.  I was in the minority but I would say decisively that SummerSlam was superior to WrestleMania PlayButton.

Best Match: Seth Rollins vs. John Cena
Worst Match: Ryback vs. Big Show vs. The Miz
What I'd Change: I'd have kept the Divas 3-way a bit shorter and faster paced and put Owens vs. Cesaro earlier on the card so the crowd would've been hotter for it.
Most Disappointing Match: Probably the Divas
Most Pleasant Surprise: Lesnar vs. Undertaker
Overall Rating: 8/10
Better than WrestleMania 31? - That's a yes.

SummerSlam '16 - Barclays Center - 8.21.16

What an exhausting show this was.  It went four-plus hours and by the second half both the live crowd and I were drained, to the point that when the second-to-last match for the US Title was a non-starter I was actually kinda relieved.

This lineup was the most stacked in many years, with no fewer than four potential Match of the Year candidates (on paper anyway), plus a good amount of variety in the undercard.  Had the execution been stronger we'd likely be including SummerSlam 2016 in the "Greatest SummerSlam Ever" conversation.  But a few things kept it from reaching that level.  First though, let's talk about what did work.

I would've liked to see Cesaro vs. Sheamus actually open the PPV, since these two always work well together and this was no exception.  It wasn't anything amazing but in the first slot this would've fit perfectly.  Sheamus won the first match of the Best of 7 series.

The actual opening match, JeriKO vs. Enzo & Cass, was just fine but it was very strange to see Kevin Owens, seemingly on the verge of breakout status at that point, relegated to an opening tag match (Though nowhere near as infuriating as Sami Zayn's position in a preshow tag match). This of course led to one of the best ongoing angles of that time period, the bromance between Owens and Jericho.  As for the match, it was okay.

Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte was the first of probably three instances where I said aloud, "This match is happening already??"  Putting this match so early on the card seemed to undermine the importance of the Women's Title and the company's new outlook on the division.  That said, this was a fine contest that suffered from a few sloppy moments and an over-reliance on big risks.  These two would go on to trade the Title back and forth throughout the fall (including a headlining Hell in a Cell match), before Charlotte finally won the feud.  Anyway, this was a splendid match all things considered, though this feud really peaked with their first meeting on RAW at the end of July.

One of several moments in this match where I feared for Sasha's life

The next standout (and the second match about which I intoned "Already??!?") was AJ Styles vs. John Cena.  Holy lord, what a match.  These two started out like a normal wrestling match but things quickly escalated into an extended flurry of huge moves, like they were both trying to kill each other for twenty minutes.  There was zero doubt by this point that AJ Styles had adapted seamlessly to his WWE surroundings.  Where Cena-Styles at Money in the Bank felt a bit tentative and had timing issues, this match flowed beautifully, all the big moves looked effortless, and these two meshed like they'd been wrestling each other for years.  I was very glad this match got the most time; this came off like a major main event and probably should've closed the show.  AJ going over clean was absolutely the right move and it led to AJ getting a nice little run with the WWE Title, eventually dropping it to Cena in an even better match at the 2017 Royal Rumble.  This was the WWE main roster's Match of the Year 2016.

Goddamn this match was awesome

Sadly everything after AJ vs. Cena was doomed to a certain extent.  There was simply no way any other match was going to follow that.  But a few managed to deliver the goods.

Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler suffered from a pretty disinterested crowd, as Ziggler's credibility had been so damaged no one bought him as a viable threat.  The audience was basically silent for all the near-falls in this match.  From a mechanical standpoint there was nothing wrong with the bout at all - it was an extremely solid showing from both guys and in front of an engaged crowd this probably would've been in the neighborhood of ****.  There just simply wasn't enough suspense over Ambrose retaining and thus no emotional stake.  On balance it was still ***1/2.  Ambrose obviously retained and went on to drop the belt to AJ the following month.

The other real standout was, not surprisingly, Seth Rollins vs. Finn Balor for the new Universal Championship.  Sadly the first two-thirds of this match was hurt by the Brooklyn crowd being distracted over the Universal belt reveal.  It almost certainly would've been prudent for WWE to reveal the design on RAW instead of building up the suspense only to present an exact copy of the existing WWE Title but with a red strap (which our own Dan Moore said "looks like it's made of Fruit Roll-Ups").  That said, this was definitely the second-best match of the night; Balor and Rollins worked really hard and delivered some excellently crisp action.  Unexpectedly Balor took the win and the Title with a Coup de Grace, but sadly he'd suffered a dislocated shoulder off a buckle bomb on the dasher boards and had to relinquish the belt 24 hours later.  Rollins would then get screwed over by Triple H in the 4-way match to determine a new Champion, and Kevin Owens got the strap instead.

Balor got the shaft with that injury

The Brock Lesnar-Randy Orton main event was a thumbs-in-the-middle situation.  I was hoping they'd book Orton to be too crafty to fall into the Suplex City trap, but WWE recycled the same ol' Brock formula.  Lesnar dominated the first half of this match, hitting numerous German suplexes and more or less repeating the exact match he had with Cena two years prior.  Orton came back outside the ring, hitting the RKO on the announce table, followed by a draping DDT and another RKO inside the ring for a near-fall no one bought into.  But then Lesnar jumped on top of Orton and ripped his forehead open with a hardway elbow.  And then the match just ended with Lesnar getting the win by TKO.  Wait, TKO is a thing in pro wrestling?  Since the fuck when???  What should've happened was Orton giving one last effort to turn the match around only for Lesnar to hit another F5 for the win.  The visual of a bloody Orton landing an RKO Outta Nowhere but being too exhausted to go for a cover would've been epic.  Or even better, this should've actually been a back-and-forth match where Orton held his own for most of it before Lesnar split him open with an elbow and lowered the boom.  Furthermore, if they wanted blood here, just let Orton blade.  It's far safer than allowing a 300-pound man to split him open for real with an elbow.  Orton suffered a concussion as the result of this and I hope Vince isn't stupid enough to ever book this type of thing again.

Thank god he didn't blade, this is way safer.  Idiots.

Brock-Orton should not have closed the show, especially after Roman Reigns and Rusev had a non-match brawl with no winner in the semi-main event slot.  Why would you have the final two matches on a SummerSlam PPV both end in non-finishes??  This was baffling and only served to undermine what was a pretty damn good PPV for the first three hours.  Much like WrestleMania 32 (and 33), SummerSlam limped across the finish line when it needed to surge in the final hour.

This show had a very weird "every other" pattern to it, meaning every other match was good or great.  The rest was filler.  Aside from the opening tag match, the rest of the B stuff was totally forgettable.  Miz vs. Apollo Crews was short and quick but felt like a standard free TV match, hardly doing the Intercontinental Title any favors.  The New Day vs. The Club started out okay but quickly degenerated into a dumb comedy match with Jon Stewart getting involved to help The New Day retain.  The Smackdown six-woman tag was technically fine but the crowd was absolutely dead.  And of course the "death spot" went to Reigns vs. Rusev, which was simply a feud-advancing angle.

So you're basically looking at six good matches out of ten, plus a strong Preshow bout that should've been on the main card.  By no means a bad SummerSlam; on the contrary, this was a very strong overall show with a lot to like, but it was only very good when it should've been truly great.  The placement of the various matches was confounding; I still maintain that a great PPV should build to a peak rather than bring everyone down in between important matches.  The booking of the last two bouts was appalling; why in the world would you end the PPV on such an unsatisfying note?

Best Match: John Cena vs. AJ Styles
Worst Match: Rusev vs. Roman Reigns, since it didn't even happen
What I'd Change: Make the main event an actual back-and-forth match where Orton frustrates Lesnar at every turn before finally succumbing to Suplex City, change the match order so the show doesn't feel so up-and-down
Most Disappointing Match: Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Orton
Most Pleasant Surprise: I liked everything I expected to like, aside from the main event letdown
Overall Rating: 8/10
Better than WrestleMania 32? - Yup

SummerSlam '17 - Barclays Center - 8.20.17

SummerSlam 2017 felt a bit like one of those older WWF PPVs that had a ton of variety and was oddly more enjoyable than it probably deserved to be.  The ten main PPV matches cruised by at a decent pace and this show never felt to me like a slog, a la SummerSlam 2016.  There wasn't anything truly great on the show, but there were several very good matches, most of which occurred in the second half.  In that way this was like the anti-WrestleMania; the previous two 'Manias started out strong and become a major drag by the final hour.

Of note, the crowd for NXT TakeOver the night before was electric from start to finish.  The SummerSlam crowd was mostly pretty dead except during a few select matches.  I've asked this before, but isn't Vince bothered by this phenomenon?  You'd think he'd figure out a way to make the main roster crowds' enthusiasm match that of the NXT audience.

Things kicked off in very strange fashion, with the John Cena-Baron Corbin match.  I'm not sure who thought this would make for a hot opener, but it wasn't; Corbin's nondescript offense and Cena's seeming lack of motivation of late failed to jumpstart the Brooklyn crowd.  There was a nice callback near the end of the match, where Cena tossed Corbin to the buckles, Corbin slid out of the ring, and immediately slid back in.  Earlier in the bout this spot resulted in Corbin leveling Cena with a clothesline, but Cena turned the tables the second time, hitting a clothesline of his own, followed by the AA for the win.  Not much of a match, but I got some enjoyment out of it because my son watched it with me and he's a big Cena fan.

Next up was a much stronger match, pitting Smackdown Womens' Champ Naomi vs. Natalya.  These two strung together some nice, innovative offense, the wrestling was fairly crisp, and Nattie finally got a well-deserved Title win with the Sharpshooter.  Perfectly serviceable undercard match with the right winner.

The worst match of the night was third, as Big Cass and Big Show sleepwalked through a fairly excruciating ten minutes.  I'm not sure why this needed to be on the main card while the Smackdown Tag Title match wasn't, nor were The Miz or The Hardyz, and Sami Zayn and Dolph Ziggler were absent from this show completely.  The only memorable bit was Enzo squeezing out of the shark cage, which immediately led to him getting murdered by Cass.  Pointless, particularly since less than a year later both Enzo and Cass were gone.

Speaking of pointless, Randy Orton beat Rusev with an RKO in ten seconds.  Poor Rusev.  Not that I was excited about this match anyway, but Jeezus this was a waste.

Things picked up again with the RAW Women's Title match, as Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks delivered a well-worked 13-minute bout on par with Naomi-Nattie.  This wasn't on the level of Sasha and Charlotte's matches, and certainly nowhere near as good as the show stealing Asuka-Ember Moon match from the night before, but Alexa played the douchebag heel to perfection and these two had undeniable chemistry.  Sasha won the belt for the fourth time via Bank Statement tapout.

So the first five matches definitely felt like an undercard, in the same way that New Japan structures their PPVs.  The last five matches felt like the real meat of the show.

Finn Balor vs. Bray Wyatt was a solid outing, with Balor no-selling Wyatt's theatrics.  The action was just pretty good, but it was interesting to see Balor throw everything back in Wyatt's face, so to speak.  Balor was one step ahead most of the bout and finished it with the Coup de Grace for the decisive win.  This unexpectedly ended the feud, as the blowoff match scheduled for No Mercy that fall was derailed by a Wyatt stomach bug.

The first unequivocal hit of the night, and the first match that really woke the crowd up, was the RAW Tag Title match.  This was splendid stuff.  Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose rekindled their team chemistry, playing the beleagured face team beautifully.  Cesaro and Sheamus dominated much of the match, perfectly realistic considering they've been teaming for months.  The finish came when Rollins thwarted a big tandem move by the heels, hit Sheamus with the V-Trigger, and then Ambrose nailed Dirty Deeds to win the belts.  Easily the best thing on the show to this point and it would lead to a brief Shield reunion.

This is a grand sight.

Slightly better than that was the US Title match, with AJ Styles and Kevin Owens finally delivering a match worthy of their talent.  Sadly there was a bit much of the special referee shenanigans, with Shane getting knocked down multiple times and missing pin attempts from both guys.  But the action was strong enough to rate this match an easy hit in spite of all that.  AJ retained the Title after hitting the Phenomenal Forearm followed by a Styles Clash.  This of course led to a neverending Owens vs. Shane feud that lasted until WrestleMania.  Still this was in the running for Match of the Night.  Solid **** match.

I liked that this card didn't have a "death spot."  The two top-billed matches went on at the end.  The WWE Title match was treated as a big deal and had kind of a big fight feel at the beginning.  The match itself was a passable free television match for the most part; Shinsuke Nakamura got out of Jinder Mahal what he could, and then the finish happened.  The same stupid fucking finish as every Jinder match during his ill-conceived WWE Title run.  The Singh Brothers interfere, the babyface beats them up, and then Jinder magically recovers from getting his ass kicked to hit his Khallas for the pin.  Except this time Jinder screwed up the move.  Legit, Jinder Mahal has ONE MOVE in his repertoire.  One move.  And he fucked it up.  It is still embarrassing that this man got to be the WWE Champion.  This was a **1/2 match dragged down to *1/2 by a stupid finish.

It's Nakamura vs. The Modern Day Dino Bravo

Fortunately the main event saved the day, as Brock Lesnar, Samoa Joe, Roman Reigns, and Braun Strowman unleashed absolute bedlam on the Barclays Center.  Man this match was insane.  Strowman in particular looked like a star, tossing Lesnar around like a bag of laundry, powerslamming him through two tables, and flipping a table on top of him.  The first ten minutes or so were awesome, then after Lesnar was carted away the energy hit a bit of a lull till Brock inevitably came back to the ring.  The final stretch was full of great false finishes before Roman took the pin off an F5 at the end.  It looked like perhaps WWE was moving away from their stubborn "Roman is The Guy" stance, but by WrestleMania season we were of course back to Brock vs. Roman again.  Yawn.  Still this main event was awesome.

Overall this was roughly on par with the last few SummerSlams, but in a different way.  The 2014 and 2015 shows were very strong all the way through, while 2016's show was very uneven but the good stuff shined.  This show was somewhere in between.  Most of the big matches delivered, and most of the undercard was fine.  My two biggest gripes were the dull as dogshit Show-Cass match and the intelligence-insulting Jinder-Nakamura match.

Best Match: Brock vs. Brawn vs. Roman vs. Joe
Worst Match: Big Show vs. Cass
What I'd Change: Nak should've won the belt, or at least not fallen for the same stupid shit as Orton; Show-Cass should've been on the pre-show, New Day-Usos should've been on the main show, and Sami Zayn vs. Dolph Ziggler should've been added
Most Disappointing Match: Jinder vs. Nakamura I guess
Most Pleasant Surprise: That Shane's involvement didn't derail the US Title match
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
Better than WrestleMania 33? - It's a tough call.  'Mania had a much better first half, SummerSlam had a better second half.  I guess 'Mania wins by the slightest of margins.

And that brings us to the present day.  I hope you've enjoyed our little jaunt down SummerSlam Memory Lane.

Anyway, before I go, let's take a look at the Top Ten SummerSlams in history, and the Top 20 SummerSlam matches, according to me.

Top Ten SummerSlams

10. 1992
9. 2014
8. 2015
7. 2009
6. 1997
5. 1998
4. 2001
3. 2013
2. 2011
1. 2002

Top Twenty SummerSlam Matches

20. Steve Austin vs. Undertaker - 1998
19. Rick Rude vs. Ultimate Warrior - 1989
18. The Rock vs. Brock Lesnar - 2002
17. CM Punk vs. John Cena - 2011
16. Undertaker vs. Edge - 2008
15. Jeff Hardy vs. CM Punk - 2009
14. Kurt Angle vs. Eddie Guerrero - 2004
13. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels - 2002
12. Kurt Angle vs. Rey Mysterio - 2002
11. Brain Busters vs. Hart Foundation - 1989
10. Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon - 1995
9. Shawn Michaels vs. Vader - 1996
8. TLC - 2000
7. Christian vs. Randy Orton - 2011
6. John Cena vs. AJ Styles - 2016
5. Chris Benoit vs. Randy Orton - 2004
4. CM Punk vs. Brock Lesnar - 2013
3. Steve Austin vs. Kurt Angle - 2001
2. John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan - 2013
1. Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog - 1992

Agree?  Think I'm way off base?  Let me know in the Comments section below!  Follow us on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter (@EnuffaDotCom)!

Part 9

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