On Monday night, Brock Lesnar deigned to address Heath Slater, WWE’s undrafted free agent who — in story line — is trying to land a job back on the roster. Slater was given an opportunity to face Brock, and would be rewarded with a contract if he won. It was a low-probability bet — borderline jobber versus multisport world beater — but Slater said he had to do it.
"Everyone here knows he’s gonna whoop my ass, but I have to," because, see, his kids were depending on him.
"I can appreciate that," said Lesnar. "You’ve got guts. You’ve got responsibilities, right? You gotta put food on the table, right? You’ve got mouths to feed. You’ve got kids. I’ve got kids too. … Let’s talk about your kids. I don’t give a shit about your kids."
Then, of course, Lesnar pummeled Slater into the mat.
It was an enjoyable if obvious outcome. It was the current WWE in microcosm: Slater’s free-agency story line represents the new, sports-centric world of WWE, a world that Lesnar’s return from the UFC helped bring about. But the beatdown could have been from any point over the last decade or longer. WWE is ringing in a new era but still relying on the trappings of the old one, tired (and tarnished) as they may be. To their credit, some things never get old, and monster beatdowns, especially those performed by Lesnar, are among that group of delicious chestnuts.
But Lesnar’s bleeped-out pronouncement was more than a T-shirt waiting to be silk-screened — it was a mission statement. Lesnar has never been — and never tried to be — a Hulk Hogan-esque, baby-oiled superhero. He’s a real prizefighter, and a brutal, bloodthirsty one to boot. His aura — his character — is built on that lack of, well, character. He’s the real thing, and that’s what’s so scary about him. (And if he’s chemically enhanced, well, that just makes him all the scarier.) Brock doesn’t care about your kids, even as they buy his T-shirts.
On Sunday, WWE presents SummerSlam, the annual acme of WWE not caring about your kids either. As I’ve written before, SummerSlam is the WrestleMania for smarks — the fans who are into the big lie and embrace it, along with backstage rumors and off-script podcasts, which is to say, probably you, if you’re reading this. WrestleMania is a playground for celebrity guests and one-off matches for legends. SummerSlam is the biggest show of the year for the internet-approved wrestlers beloved by the most hardcore of fans. John Cena — the face of smark dissatisfaction — hasn’t won a singles match at SummerSlam since 2007. Cena has (deservedly) wormed his way into the hearts of smark fans over the past couple of years, but the point stands — instead of the Rock guest spots or Diddy performances, SummerSlam this year features a card straight out of a fantasy-booking message board.
It’s also a sprawling card, a UFC 100-level smorgasborg of five-star match potential. Last month, WWE split its roster into two brands — Raw and Smackdown Live — which means the number of big-time matches this Sunday roughly doubled. There’s a WWE title match, a match for the new Universal title, a Women’s Championship match, a tag team title match, and (potentially) separate matches that may be setting up a second set of women’s and tag belts, and that’s not even counting Brock Lesnar and John Cena. What’s really at stake, belts be damned, is whether this card is a sign of things to come in the new Brand Split age, or whether it’s the inverse of the Rock with a blowtorch — a one-off, another annual paean to the smart fans.
So let’s break down the big matches to see what’s really at stake.
Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler — WWE World Championship Match
Despite being the also-ran of the three members of The Shield, Ambrose won the title at Money in the Bank, retained it last month at Battleground, and since then has morphed in real time into a full-bodied standard bearer. On Smackdown, and out of the shadow of his old buddies Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns, he’s steadily proven that he has the ability to be a legitimate headliner. Ziggler is, in some ways, Ambrose 1.0 — he was a fan favorite who surprised conventional wisdom to win the (now defunct) World Heavyweight Championship in 2013, only to have his reign (and career) derailed by concussions. Ambrose winning and continuing his legitimization seems like the easiest pick of the headline matches, but there’s a wide-open lane for Ziggler to grab if he turns heel, so anything can happen. What’s really at stake is whether Smackdown — perennially the B-show in the WWE universe — remains relevant long enough for its championship to even matter.
Seth Rollins vs. Finn Bálor — WWE Universal Championship Match
We haven’t seen the Universal belt — its existence was only announced after the WWE title went to Smackdown in the brand split. But the first champ will either be Rollins — the anchor of WWE for the past 18 months — or Bálor, the rookie who was drafted straight from NXT to the Raw main event. Finn may have the upside to be the future of the company, but Rollins is five years younger and a much more well-rounded performer, so they’ll be carrying the company together for a while, no matter who wins on Sunday. Rollins winning would be a logical notch on the belt of the laureled star, but Bálor winning would conjure a new headliner for the new-look WWE, and, more than any other option on the card, project that the new look is more than a passing fad. Smarks won’t be upset with either outcome, but the company needs Finn to succeed, and Sunday might be the first step in a huge career.
Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte — Women’s Championship Match
Charlotte, who debuted a year ago and immediately became indispensable, was the only logical choice to ferry the division from the Divas division to its current incarnation as the women’s division. In many ways, the women’s division was a harbinger of the shift the company at large is going through, from a period of silliness to one of legitimacy and real-sports trappings. Nobody this side of Lesnar projects real athleticism like Charlotte does — but nobody has the indefinable star power that Sasha Banks does. WWE shocked its fans by putting the belt on Banks on Raw last month, but it makes marketing sense — a title rematch is an easier sell than an underdog story. But despite holding the title (and despite all her potential), Banks is still the underdog. I’m picking Charlotte (maybe with an assist from her dad, Ric Flair), but what matters here is the platform. If they give these two a chance to shine, they could steal the show, just like Sasha stole SummerSlam weekend last year with her match against Bayley at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn.
Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Orton
Before Lesnar fought at UFC 200 (and well before he was pinged for a doping violation), WWE was put in the unenviable position of having to set his SummerSlam opponent without knowing if he’d be returning from UFC a conquering hero or as your uncle with the convertible who pulled his quad striking out in league softball. So they tabbed Orton, the longtime headliner returning from an injury. Orton has never been a Cena-level star, and WWE has overinflated the Dream Matchiness of this showdown, but they’ve done a great job building it up, and suddenly Lesnar’s sullied rep and Orton’s middlingness are starting to feel like a faraway dream. This is basically an exhibition match, so there’s nothing metaphysical at stake here, but it’ll be interesting to see who WWE tabs for the win — the part-timer who dragged the company by its hair into the mainstream, or the company lifer who didn’t recently jump ship to another company or fail a public drug test. The smark fan is torn — Lesnar represents the vaunted notion of reality, but his heart isn’t always in it. This is what soured fans on Lesnar at the end of his first run — but do they care enough to side with Orton? We shall see.
John Cena vs. AJ Styles
This feud, now in its third month, symbolized WWE’s acceptance of the greater wrestling world — that a guy who made his name in smaller feds and around the world could go toe-to-toe with WWE’s face (and win) spoke to a new ethos for the company. It says a lot about how much WWE has changed in the intervening period that this match is so far down the card, and that it feels so, well, normal. In story line terms, there’s no title at stake here. It’s a fight between two guys who are each offended by the other’s existence. But it’s still as relevant as it was back in May. The ongoing normalization of AJ Styles is as significant as his shocking debut. The longer this feud goes, the better off we are.
• Roman Reigns takes on United States champ Rusev to see how deep into the doghouse Reigns’s Wellness Policy suspension got him.
• The New Day face off with Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson to see if tag-team wrestling can matter in the modern WWE.
• The Miz defends the Intercontinental title against Apollo Crews in a minor version of the Old Guard vs. New Blood meta story line that permeates the entire card.
• Cesaro and Sheamus square off in the first of a best-of-seven match series to determine the masochistic endurance of the WWE fan base.
• Carmella, Becky Lynch, and Naomi take on Natalya, Eva Marie, and Alexa Bliss to try and establish a pirate women’s division on the Smackdown brand.
• Likely there’ll be a multiparty Smackdown tag-team match along the same lines.
• On Saturday night at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II, Samoa Joe-Shinsuke Nakamura and Bayley-Asuka will try to earn mention amongst all the weekend’s big matches.
The most intriguing match of the SummerSlam undercard is Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho against Enzo Amore and Big Cass. Owens is one of the real breakout stars of the new generation of performers, an unlikely indie wrestler who has every tangible and intangible skill a wrestler could hope for, even if he doesn’t have the prototypical look — which puts him not too far off from where his partner was when he debuted in the WWF in 1999, Jericho’s blond mane and six pack set aside. Cass has the look of a traditional pro wrestling champ, but it’s his diminutive partner that may have the most upside in this match. Enzo can do more on the mic than Michael Phelps can do in a pool, and there’s no reason he can’t be this generation’s Roddy Piper.
And unlike in the ’80s, in 2016, Roddy Piper would 100 percent be your world champion.
Of the top-10 wrestlers on Sunday’s show, eight are smark favorites — nine if you count Cena, which you should, and the 10th is Orton. That’s a pretty good lineup for any WWE show, even though this is becoming standard fare for SummerSlam. But is this kind of card going to be standard fare for the new WWE? We’ll find out on Sunday — or on Monday, when we see whether they start sweeping the smarkier aspects of the summer under the red-and-black carpet.
My guess — and my sincere hope — is that they won’t. In the modern era, WWE has done everything it could to come off as a real sport — not in terms of trying to convince us that it’s real, but in terms of presentation: from the announce teams and the studio shows to the UFC-style PPVs with a hundred titles on the line to the draft and Heath Slater’s comical free agency. The only aspect of modern sports fandom WWE is missing is the internet rumor mill — except, well, we already have that. And since the internet started, that’s how smarks have self-identified. As WWE embraces modernity, it embraces smarks.
Is SummerSlam a sign of things to come? If WWE can learn one thing from the NBA or the NFL, it’s that it should give the fans what they want. SummerSlam is a good start.