There was a time long ago when SummerSlam was just another pro wrestling show. Sure, it was one of the “big four” WWE pay-per-views, and it was the company’s late-summer tentpole. But it was no WrestleMania, in terms of significance or scale. Now, with WWE booking a four-night stand at Barclays Center—NXT, SummerSlam, Raw, and SmackDown Live—and with a sea of indie wrestling and pop-up shows and live podcasts filling the city in the lead-up to the big event, the main difference between SummerSlam and WrestleMania is the size of the venue for the big show. And even that might be about to change. All of which is to say that this weekend is absolutely loaded with brutal content, and it’s a lot to take in.
As near as I can tell, there are 18 scheduled matches—the final tally will be over 20 for sure—for Saturday and Sunday nights alone. Between the four nights we could get more than 15 hours of action spread out across the long weekend. So what really matters? What should we be watching for? Here are the things to pay attention to at SummerSlam 2018.
Will the Reigns Era Finally Begin?
At WrestleMania 34 this past April, I welcomed the advent of the Roman Empire, if for no other reason than that WWE’s constant second-guessing was destroying Reigns’s promising career at the same time as the audience’s patience. Plus, his opponent, Brock Lesnar, was on the last day of his WWE contract and was rumored (correctly!) to be headed back to UFC, so it was a good bet! But anything can happen in pro wrestling, especially when it comes to Vince McMahon and mainstream crossover appeal. Shortly before the big match, Vince tossed Brock enough money to stick around. The Reigns era failed—again—to begin at The Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia (I was on the losing end of that bet, too). But the story line didn’t budge, and so here we are, four months and a banana-bunch-worth of Lesnar appearances later, and we’re asking the same question that we’ve been asking for years: Will WWE pull the trigger on the Big Dog as its top dog?
Just like at Mania, a lot depends on Lesnar, and whether he’s game for another bridge contract—or whether Vince has a hard-on for seeing Lesnar enter the UFC cage with the WWE belt around his waist. (And whether Dana White will let him.) The reluctance to put the belt on Reigns doesn’t jibe with the reluctance to demote him, so eventually something has to give, even if WWE seems cowed by the fans’ surly reaction to Roman’s perceived inevitability, which is, by this point, more than a little oxymoronic. If he doesn’t win on Sunday, Reigns will officially be the sport’s biggest also-ran this side of Dusty Rhodes. My take: give him the belt, or give him the polka dot treatment.
Or Wait, How About the Strowman Era?
In every way that Reigns has failed to capture the imagination of the WWE fan base, Braun Strowman—the hulking, backwoods truck-flipper—has overachieved. He’s no underdog—WWE has been on a deliberate path toward making the monster a crossover hero since the day he cut ties with Bray Wyatt. But even as he gorilla-pressed his way into the main-event scene, WWE chose not to shotgun the title onto him, leaving even the most workrate-obsessed fans to drool over a Strowman run. He won the Money in the Bank match in June, ensconcing him as a champion-in-waiting, and by this point probably every wrestling fan over the age of 9 has fantasy-booked him into Sunday’s main event. If Lesnar is leaving (a likelihood), and Reigns is getting booed (a certainty), the best way to take the title off the defending champ and send the crowd home happy is with a surprise Strowman entry into the title match.
At this point, the speculation is so rampant that the show will end on a down note if there isn’t some shocker built in—not that that means anything. Ever since Lesnar took out his bowie knife and field dressed the Undertaker’s WrestleMania win streak back in 2014, McMahon has appeared to relish in fan discomfort: confusion, sadness, unmet expectations—at least people are talking. So one can’t count Lesnar out. But a surprise seems likely, if for no other reason than because the crowd will demand it.
There’s another alternative, of course: Kevin Owens, who is fighting Strowman earlier in the night for the rights to Braun’s MITB briefcase. If WWE wants to schmozz up the proceedings but isn’t set on Strowman, it can have Owens fill the same role. It’s frankly amazing that a guy who nobody thought would ever get a shot in WWE is the safe option, but it’s true—he was the safety net the last time he surprisingly won the Universal title back in 2016, and he’s one of the most consistently great performers on the roster. If WWE wants the Reigns era but doesn’t want to risk the ire of the Brooklyn fans, letting Owens be a transitional champion would be a slick move.
Is It Rousey Time?
The Ronda Rousey era in WWE started the moment she walked into the ring at the Royal Rumble earlier this year. Stilted promos aside, it was only a matter of time before the entire women’s division was hers. After her incredible (and reassuring) performance at WrestleMania 34, the timeline got shorter. On Sunday she’s facing Alexa Bliss, a wonderfully hateable munchkin who will make Rousey look great—and dominant. It wouldn’t be unthinkable for Bliss to retain by some sort of chicanery, and it would be hard to argue she wouldn’t deserve it after her blistering performance as a villain over the past couple of years. Except … in kayfabe, she doesn’t deserve it, and if this were a proper sport, this would be such a mismatch that no sports commission could condone it. Rousey’s got a couple of weight classes—and a history of actual, ruthless violence—on her opponent. And the setting—the event, the venue, the crowd, the mainstream media attention—feels like too good an opporuntity for McMahon to pass up. The smart money’s on this being the title match with the happy ending—and the inevitable ESPN feature to follow. That’s a double win for WWE.
Will Daniel Bryan vs. Miz Live Up to the Hype?
Despite the Sam-and-Diane nature of the Lesnar-Reigns title picture, there’s no feud in WWE with the history and tension of Daniel Bryan and the Miz. They’ve been beefing since 2010, a feud that hit its emotional peak in a postgame segment while Bryan was formally retired. But since Bryan’s shocking return to action in March, the question of when the two would finally meet on a big stage has hung in the air, second only to unspoken concerns about Bryan’s longevity. (Thankfully, he seems totally fine.) With the Miz promoting a new reality show and Bryan looking to re-establish himself in a top-flight program, the answer turned out to be, well, now.
They rushed it a bit in the beginning, restarting the hostility in medias res with Bryan dickishly accosting Miz and Miz throwing a fake baby at Bryan. (It made only slightly more sense than that.) And the penultimate episode—a three-act re-hashing of their epic tale told over this week’s episode of SmackDown—nodded to the significance of their match, even if it was a little on the overproduced side. But there’s no overproducing what they’ll do on Sunday, and the stakes are real. These are two former champions who could either—or both—headline WrestleMania next year and for years to come. Sunday’s match won’t be the deciding factor in their futures, but we’ve evolved past “just happy to see Bryan back.” Miz, for his part has gone from an overpushed twit to an underrated gem. Expectations for him are uncomfortably high. If they live up to the hype at SummerSlam, it’ll be a small miracle. And honestly, I have every confidence that they’ll do it.
The theme of the feud, stretching back to the days when Bryan was a world-class indie wrestler getting his first real shot in WWE, and Miz was his mouthy mentor, a funhouse mirror version of Bryan—none of the in-ring résumé, but with charisma to spare and the WWE hype machine at his back—is that Miz thought Bryan needed him more than Miz needed Bryan, and vice versa. The real answer is that they both need each other. On Sunday we’ll see if they’ve learned their lesson.
Will Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano Steal the Weekend?
On Saturday night—SummerSlam eve—NXT takes center stage in its semi-annual attempt to steal the spotlight from its main-stage cohorts. The NXT shows before WrestleMania and SummerSlam are a star-making platform for the big names of the Triple-A division. But more than anything they’re primal screams, defiantly calling attention to a different style of pro wrestling, existing in a weird parallel universe to WWE. Every match on the Takeover card threatens to be the match of the weekend: Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane, Adam Cole vs. Ricochet, Velveteen Dream vs. EC3, the Undisputed Era vs. Mustache Mountain. (Yes, that’s a thing, and they’re fantastic.) But no match defines the distance between NXT and the main roster more so than the grudge match between Ciampa and Gargano.
These two have been frenemies for years, before both got their WWE shots. And as much as I throw around the word “unlikely” for guys like Owens and Bryan, the former DIY teammates really deserve the distinction. They started out in NXT as uncontracted competitors in a tag team tournament in 2015, and they fought against each other in the Cruiserweight Classic tourney the next year. Despite NXT’s consistent excellence and the hope surrounding the 205-pound division at its start, the cruiserweight realm didn’t feel like a platform for future headliners. And yet, here we are: a fight between two indie luminaries with higher expectations and more pent-up emotion than the wrestling ring should be able to bear. It’s like Hogan vs. Andre minus 450 pounds, reenacted by video game versions of Steamboat and Savage. Turn on your TV on Saturday night and watch Gargano and Ciampa brawl a hole in the pro wrestling space-time continuum.
Aleister Black was supposed to be a third party in this match until an injury forced his withdrawal, and as much as I love Black—and as much as his burgeoning star power would lend to the proceedings—his absence is for the best. Now Gargano and Ciampa have more odds to overcome, and if history is any guide, they will.
AJ Styles and Samoa Joe Are the Best—That’s Not a Question
For years I called SummerSlam “WrestleMania for hard-core fans.” Now SummerSlam is, well, WrestleMania for August. We’ve got a headline match that, on paper, doesn’t have an outcome that will possibly get the Brooklyn fans out of their seats, unless it’s to go to the bathroom. AJ-Joe is our consolation prize, a title match between two top-shelf performers who walked (separately) into WWE after years in the wilderness and grabbed the company’s decision-makers—and fans—by their lapels. They both exist as a wry counterpoint to the Reigns conundrum—that as WWE spent a decade trying to mint a new star, those stars already existed, even if it was on a different cable channel in a different pro wrestling universe.
On Sunday, they’ll fight for the WWE World Title, but they’ll also fight for the right to keep flipping the bird at whoever it was that decided they didn’t meet the standards of WWE. It’s kind of amazing: the best wrestler in WWE versus the most compelling talker (who’s also a top-flight wrestler). It could be Shawn Michaels vs. Steve Austin if WWE let it be. If WWE gives these two a chance to really make a mark on Sunday, they could steal the spotlight from Lesnar-Reigns—and if WWE knew what was good for it, that’s exactly what it’d want them to do.
Am I Really Not Going to Write About Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler?
Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler have been going back and forth over the Intercontinental Title for months, having a string of great matches that would be modern legends if they were happening in Japan or Reseda, California. But this is WWE, and the format here never quite jelled with the content. They’ll go at it again on Sunday, almost certainly hamstrung by time constraints, and with the added elements of Ziggler’s running buddy Drew McIntyre (a world champion in waiting) and Rollins’s newly returned pal Dean Ambrose, who’s back from the DL with a new haircut and double the beef. My guess is it’ll end in a no-contest, and they’ll save the good stuff for Raw. Speaking of which ...
How Obnoxious Will the Raw Crowd Be?
If there’s one WrestleMania tradition I wish had never come to SummerSlam weekend, it’s the unruly Raw crowd the night after the big event, wherein punch-drunk fans express their group volition by starting random chants and tossing beach balls throughout the night. It’s like a college sit-in for better cafeteria conditions crossed with a Comic-Con flash mob, but worse. It’d be embarrassing even if it weren’t wholly disrespectful to the performers. Come on people, be better.
When Does SmackDown Make Its Move?
If the Raw crowd is a little bit of a wild card, I can safely predict what the SmackDown crowd will be like: tired. The company will probably break out a big match or two—a Styles-Joe-Bryan triple threat maybe?—to stave off the beach-ball-tossing hordes. Functionally it would make more sense to put on SmackDown in another city, where fans aren’t already three days into the live show slog, but WWE can’t lowball the Tuesday brand, even if it makes sense—SmackDown is going to Fox (and Friday nights) in October 2019, and even though that’s a long time away, the company has at least a year’s worth of work to do for it to be seen as an equal to Raw, even though Raw has the A-show legacy.
The real question is when WWE will start promoting SmackDown like the majors. In years past, the talent distribution skewed to Raw, but it’s hard to make that case now, with Styles, Joe, the New Day, Bryan, Charlotte Flair, Miz, Shinsuke Nakamura, Asuka (who’s somehow not even on the SummerSlam card), and Randy Orton holding down a supremely loaded Tuesday night roster. The only thing holding back SmackDown now is, well, that it’s the B-show. As long as it’s on Tuesdays and as long as it’s on the same network as Raw, that’s going to be the perception and the reality. (I haven’t even written about the Flair–Becky Lynch–Carmella match, despite how much I’m looking forward to it, because it feels like a placeholder, and the New Day and Nakamura deserve much, much better than they’re going to get on Sunday.)
So if the company wants to start gassing up the Fox era before it gets there, WWE will have to consider some roster moves: a run on Tuesdays for John Cena, or—dare I say—Roman Reigns might actually move the perception needle.
Which leads us to …
Will There Be a Post-SummerSlam Shake-up?
Now that SummerSlam has functionally become the second WrestleMania, will WWE follow the Mania norm of soft-rebooting after the big show? (Not to be confused with the constant soft reboots of the Big Show.) Will there be NXT call-ups? Will there be a roster trade or two to spice things up? SmackDown could use a jolt of mainstream star power to pair with its immaculate content, as discussed, and any of the SD headliners could slide smoothly into a Raw main event. At a minimum, will the post-SummerSlam moment see fresh starts for the performers left adrift in the Raw second tier—like Finn Bálor, Elias, and even Drew McIntyre?
WWE will have to find its footing soon, because as soon as SummerSlam is over, the march toward WrestleMania 35 begins, and we’ll have a whole new set of questions to ask.