On October 17, the build to Survivor Series 2017 officially began. Jinder Mahal, the long-reigning WWE Champion (that’s the champ on the Smackdown brand), called out Universal Champ (Raw’s Championship and thus the company’s premier title) Brock Lesnar for a super-match at this Sunday’s big show. It was a straightforward sort of provocation: Since the two men are on separate shows, without a central authority figure to make the match or a happenstance brawl to set them at odds, they played it straight. The next Monday, Lesnar (or, rather, Paul Heyman) accepted the match. Sadly, Jinder, like an Indian Canadian Moses, won’t be around to see the super-match when it actually happens.
Traditionally, the Survivor Series is known for its five-on-five matches, pitting one loosely knotted quintet against another, but its metaphorical theme is a commercial one—the show was created in 1987 as an excuse to run back Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant and to rake in some more PPV dollars after that year’s wildly successful WrestleMania III. No matter what you think of Mahal, his challenge to Lesnar was significant for a show that has struggled to find relevance in recent years. Even when the traditional Survivor Series gang fight was framed as a Battle of the Brands—or especially when—the significance seemed to exist in inverse relation to the hype. A Raw vs. Smackdown match might be touted as a fight for brand supremacy, but those aren’t primal stakes, and what we’re left with is a goofy feud with minimal context in a simulacrum of a sport. It’s like the NBA All-Star Game, but instead of think pieces about how we should fix it to give it intrigue, we have the announcers screaming about how intriguing it is.
But the Lesnar-Mahal match opened the door to something actually interesting. WWE would not just have a five-on-five Raw vs. Smackdown Survivor Series match, it would also let every champion face their counterpart from the other roster. The women’s champions would face off, the tag team title holders, too—and they’d throw in a battle of popular trios to boot. Rather than search for new meaning in a 10-man tag match, WWE went back to the heart of Survivor Series: a card that makes you want to spend money on this thing.
Of course, Lesnar-Mahal is nobody’s idea of Hogan-Andre II, but it’s what we had. Or so it seemed. The company spent weeks hyping the champion-vs.-champion match—including Heyman eviscerating Mahal in a promo on Raw.
It wasn’t a worked shoot, but it would have been less damning if it were—Heyman cites reality to wink at the smart fans but also to take the piss out of them. Picking Mahal apart in character (and in story line) meant that the barbs were the official line. Maybe we should have taken the hint. On November 7, while WWE was on a U.K. tour, AJ Styles took on Mahal in the main event and won the WWE Championship, thus supplanting Jinder in the Survivor Series main event.
The oddity of all of this can’t be overstated. It was Jinder who called out Lesnar for the match, not Heyman calling out “whoever the Smackdown champ is” to leave open the possibility for a title swap. WWE is about to tour through India, and having Jinder as champion was supposedly integral to ticket sales. (Perhaps relatedly, WWE was originally supposed to do two shows, but one was canceled last week.) And on the night that he won the title, Styles was scheduled to face Rusev for a spot on the Smackdown Survivor Series team. One of those things happening could be a storytelling mistake. Two could be wily misdirection. But the total package intimates a creative staff in panic mode, rewriting on the fly.
The question is whether they’re rebooting the card to put on the best show they possibly could, or whether they decided to reboot and stumbled upon Styles-Lesnar by happenstance. Of course, “card subject to change” and all that—the first Survivor Series had such a switcheroo in the main event, when Don Muraco replaced Superstar Billy Graham after Graham learned he needed last-minute hip surgery. But the most urgent parallel to Styles-Lesnar is only a month old: at the TLC PPV last month, when a mumps diagnosis yanked Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt off the card and they were replaced, respectively, by Raw GM Kurt Angle and Styles, who was flown in from a South American tour to take on Finn Bálor in a high-flying make-good match. At Survivor Series, WWE seems to be fully vaccinated, but the swerve virus seems to have taken hold. For a company that often seems more beholden to the marketing department than the creative team—matches are set weeks out to allow for maximal promotion—this feels like a revelation.
Styles isn’t the only last-minute shocker on the Survivor Series card, either. Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose dropped the Raw tag team title to Sheamus and Cesaro after the WWE had already teased a crossover match with the Usos, and then Rollins and Ambrose were redirected into a three-on-three match, alongside their Shield-mate Roman Reigns, against Smackdown’s the New Day. This is a huge match between six of WWE’s most compelling figures—which makes it all the stranger that the match was announced less than a week out from the event. Similarly, Charlotte Flair toppled her rival Natalya on Tuesday to earn a spot against Raw women’s champ Alexa Bliss on Sunday. There were rumors that they put Charlotte back on top to capitalize on the attention her dad Ric is getting for his new 30 for 30 doc—and for his recent brush with death—but the end result here is what matters. Charlotte is far and away the biggest star on Smackdown, and swapping her in took this from a match about some vague notion of brand loyalty and transformed it into a dream bout between the two top women in the company.
But wait, there’s more. The final spot on the Smackdown Survivor Series squad went to John Cena, who’s too busy promoting Daddy’s Home 2 to show up on WWE television in the PPV build-up. Remember, if Styles hadn’t been moved into the Lesnar match, his match against Rusev would have been for this spot. If this was part of the plan all along, WWE’s plan is suspect. Even if the company has opted for the element of surprise, announcing Cena’s return via a back-loaded, Trumpian tweet is a strangely unexciting way to do it. I don’t know if WWE woke up in a cold sweat 10 days ago and called in an urgent care visit from the Doctor of Thuganomics, but if it did do that, this is exactly how it would look.
One more: At the end of Raw on Monday, Triple H—who hadn’t been seen in ages, unless you count the international shows—reappeared to take Jason Jordan’s place on the Raw Survivor Series team. Now this at least felt like the result of long-term storytelling, what with Trips’ being married to Stephanie McMahon, who’s been riding Angle for ruining Raw’s reputation by letting the Smackdown crew (helmed by her brother Shane) invade Raw. Jordan, who is incidentally Angle’s “illegitimate son,” “hurt his knee” earlier in the night, so Triple H serves both as an injury substitution and a political weapon. But even if it was planned, it’s part of a pattern. And Jordan, whose search for his birth father was, unironically, part of a big push for him, is now lumped in with Natty and Jinder as performers suddenly in search of direction—and, maybe, in search of their bosses’ confidence.
Of course, one downside to building a supercard is that some talent will be left off, even if it’s just for story line purposes. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, two of the company’s best performers, aren’t scheduled for the show either, though it’s unclear if it’s a punishment or a setup for a surprise appearance. In the state of high alert WWE seems to be in, bet on the latter.
In the end, it matters less how we got here than that we’re here at all. On paper, this is one of the greatest Survivor Series cards ever, and whether it’s fear or altruism that brought WWE here, here we are. The only question that remains is whether this supercard booking will lead to an actual super card—whether the “on paper” will translate to “in the ring.” It’s almost infeasible that Sunday will live up to its potential. But the potential is compelling. Normally, Survivor Series is the kickoff to WrestleMania season, and the most we can hope for is a nod in the direction of the supercard to come. On Sunday, WWE has a chance to set the bar for ’Mania rather than to just tee it up. The company has a chance to recapture some of the magic that made that first Survivor Series so epic.
When I watched that first Survivor Series all those years ago as a kid, I didn’t feel fleeced when Hogan got counted out—I felt outraged. I was caught up in the spectacle and the impossibility of it all. And now, 30 years later, I’ll try my level best to enjoy Sunday’s show through that same lens—with high hopes for Lesnar vs. Styles and Charlotte vs. Alexa Bliss and the Shield vs. the New Day. Thirty years ago, I didn’t understand booking, and now I can honestly say I don’t understand this booking. Not knowing what the hell’s going on has me on the edge of my seat.