WWE took over the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, for a weekend for their annual summer classic, SummerSlam. And while it was a smashing success–the event, at 4 hours long, plus an NXT show featuring the talent in the wings, were brisk, fun, and stupendous–the two biggest matches from SummerSlam, WWE Champion Seth Rollins vs. US Champion John Cena in a Title v. Title Match and The Undertaker v. Brock Lesnar in their rematch after their infamous WrestleMania 30 encounter, finished in spectacularly silly ways.
Seth Rollins beat John Cena with the assistance of Jon Stewart–former host of the lauded liberal institution known as The Daily Show. Yes, the wrestling world (mainly the WWE) happily embraces celebrity guest appearances. The original WrestleMania featured Mr. T in a match. Lawrence Taylor went to work at WrestleMania 11. Stephen Amell–star of a show called Green Arrow–wrestled at SummerSlam in a tag match that was decidedly okay, with good work from Amell (a freak athlete with the willingness to try hard, even if he looked very small compared to all of his ring mates). So why in the world did we need a David Arquette-esque spotlight put on Mr. Stewart during one of the better recent title matches? Was it to help the match, to pay off a good storyline, to shock the crowd and whip them into a frenzy like only pro wrestling can? No. It was to get coverage on ESPN. Unfortunately, wrestling (and when I say “wrestling,” I mean WWE, because they are the only game in town worth a damn to non-purists and former fanatics like myself) is at a point where its media appeal far outweighs anything else. The crowd is in on it, the wrestlers aren’t as loony as they used to be about “protecting the business,” and wrestling fandom is an accepted part of the mainstream. Ever hear the inane expression, “let your freak flag fly”? Well, people are more than embracing this edict, and the inherent shame and protectiveness of any pre-Millennial wrestling fan is now long gone. And so Jon Stewart, who I am sure is a wrestling fan, couldn’t help but be into ruining a great match between two of the finer WWE talents working–Rollins finally coming into his own as the champ, and John Cena enjoying a renaissance of sorts with his open challenges of the past few months turning in some of the best wrestling matches, and most generous use of his untouchable esteem within WWE storylines, in years. Stewart’s inclusion committed what should be an unforgivable sin in wrestling–he made us realize how fake it all is. “Fake” is such an overused and abused word when it comes to wrestling that is has lost a lot of its provocativeness over the years. But one thing wrestling fans fail to do when defending wrestling against those who toss “fake” around, and punctuate it with snarky smirks of indignation, is embrace it. I’ve heard comparisons to movies and television–fake, too–but the point is that, yeah it’s fake, but the beauty of it is when they have you believing it is real. The wrestling, the near-falls, the hatred, the thrill of the victory, the agony of defeat, and how hard we cheer, jeer, and scream is all part of the masterful way the wrestling business–blue collar opera, as coined by comedian Larry Miller–is crafted, making the ridiculous, the outlandish, and the downright impossible seem so fucking real. As Seth Rollins and John Cena battled each other in a, not necessarily flawless, but passionate match–the new guard “bad guy” v. the old guard “good guy”–it became very unclear which direction WWE would go. Who will win? How will they win? What direction is the company moving? Has John Cena truly become a new man, losing to enhance new talent, giving wrestling clinics for the purists while upholding his cartoonish routine for all those kids who love him? And is Seth Rollins finally ready to be a champion? Is he now the man among the boys, who will find a way to win dirty, but convince us he could win clean if he had to? It truly felt like a wrestling moment, theater at its most insane, but so wonderfully unpredictable.
What we got was Jon Stewart hitting John Cena with a steel chair–and mind you Jon Stewart looks so puny next to Cena, its amazing he could even pick up the chair let alone hurt a guy like Cena with it–and Seth Rollins winning the match. The fans exploded, but mainly because Cena lost. But wrestling is losing its way if all that matters is if the fans cheer. Of course, funny enough, all that’s ever mattered is if the fans cheer–a butt every 18 inches is a success, as good old JR says. But at what cost? What’s the point of wrestling if it really is a big joke?
In the second fuck up of the night, The Undertaker abandoned every little thing that made him “The Undertaker” for twenty-plus years in the business in a thankfully much better rematch with Brock Lesnar. At WrestleMania 30, when these two first took each other on, “The Dead Man” looked like he was actually dying. He looked old–with a terrible, strange mohawk, and a mostly shaven face, underlining the point–and he wrestled like an old dog trying to walk around before inevitably plopping down with a defeated thud. This time, the Undertaker looked buff, had some hair again, and got back to his roots–brawling with those long-armed strikes and big boots at the end of tree trunk legs. Brock Lesnar, who had been on a beastly run as an unbeatable freak of nature, sold well enough to make the match into the kind of “classic” worthy of this clash of the mat titans. But something was off with Taker. It was the little things. When he mustered the strength to counter a Brock Lesnar choke, he did so with a whimpering yell. The Undertaker, in all the years I’ve seen him wrestle, hardly ever yelled. He’s a fucking dead guy. He’s the grim reaper’s mean older brother. He doesn’t yell like a mere mortal when he’s doing something physically demanding. He just does it. Even when he was a biker version of the character, he yelled like a guy at a bike rally yells as he’s beating the beer belly off of some big mouthed loser. He doesn’t yell with all his might like the little engine that could. Brock Lesnar is a big, bad man, but The Undertaker is supposed to stare down these foes with the peerless eyes of the undead–he did so with King Kong Bundy, Diesel, Psycho Sid, Kane, Hulk Hogan, Mabel, Yokozuna, Giant Gonzalez, Stone Cold, The Rock, Triple H, and a litany of other pretty big fellas. I’m getting off track. We’re supposed to be talking finishes, but The Undertaker’s underdog yelps play into the finish.
If we are accepting Taker as an aging wrestler trying to exact revenge for his epic defeat at WrestleMania 30, then perhaps we can understand the subtle change in his character. He’s not “The Dead Man” anymore as much as he is the guy who plays “The Dead Man” trying to go out on a high note. Fine, whatever.
But then Taker cheats to win. In a convoluted finish that only those watching on television could understand (with the help of the broadcasters and camera angles), the bell keeper saw Taker tap out to a Brock Lesnar applied submission hold, only to have the referee (conveniently out of position to see the tap out) restart the match, because he says when a match ends, not the bell keeper. Okay. Fine. But then Taker, who up until this point had basically been the good guy in this scenario–much in the same “walk the line” fashion as when Undertaker wrestled Stone Cold Steve Austin during Austin’s red hot run as an “F You Babyface” not unlike what Brock has been pulling off the last few months–hits Brock Lesnar in between the legs, right in the gonads. This is not a “bad guy” move necessarily, but it certainly isn’t an Undertaker move. Never has been. It’s beneath him. Then the Undertaker chokes broke out (with a “legal” submission hold) and watches Brock flip him off right before slipping unconscious and giving Taker the win.
Now, with all I said about The Undertaker having his character twisted every which way to suit the moment more so than to tell the overarching story, it is so, so sad to see him cheat to win. No, the low blow isn’t the cheating, though it was so out of character, it made me cringe. The guy gave up. He lost. It’s the type of thing Ric Flair, or even heel Steve Austin, would do–take advantage of referee incompetence to ensure a victory. But not The Undertaker. Taker has always been a bastion of the biker mentality, even when his character was in its cartoony infancy. He fights to the death, but once someone is dead, it’s over. I don’t think I can recall one match in the entirety of Taker’s career that saw such blatant abuse of a technicality. He’s fought in so many matches that specifically avoided such BS–Hell in a Cell, Casket Match, Buried Alive, Inferno Match–that is was a really weak moment for the history of WWE to see him take advantage of such a dumb storyline defect.
I’ve sometimes thought that endings, in their inevitability, are stressed too much in regard to the larger picture. So what if an ending is a bit off? It’s hard to end things well. And the ending is usually a small bit of the whole. It shouldn’t outweigh all that came before it. But in wrestling, it is all building to the finish. Ring psychology, pacing, spots, near-falls, false finishes, all this stuff is building to the big finish, to who will win, who will lose, and how it will happen. And to see two finishes so obviously and lazily built for impure purposes–one for cross-over and mass media appeal, the other to keep the story going without “hurting” the momentum of either character–tells me that wrestling, in the way I knew it, and the way so many people knew it for so many years, is dead. It’s not the time honored Dusty Finishes that bothered me, or the modern move towards more complex and “less realistic” choreography, or an embracing of acrobatics over brawling and technical styles, of a more family friendly product, or of the Reality Era pushing a product willing to show more of its hand to better strengthen what is has up its sleeve. Its the lack of common sense, of continuity, and of sacrificing the “sport” itself in favor of dollar signs and Jon Stewart sightings.