Let's get this out of the way: no pro-wrestling event needs to be six hours long. Toss in seating, parking, and getting food, and you're talking another hour or two on top of that for the live crowd. That's a shift at your job. It's a transatlantic flight. It's watching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy end to end. It's too much.
This year's SummerSlam was defined by that sheer interminability, not just in the raw terms of number of minutes but in the way a show that long demands a certain format to maintain audience enthusiasm—something that WWE irretrievably screwed up.
In pro wrestling, there's a notion of audience burnout. You think, as a fan, that you want a parade of five-star matches with tons of acrobatics and cool spots; wrestling promoters for nearly a hundred years will say that you're wrong. A good wrestling show needs ebbs and flows. It needs to tease the crowd's emotions, so the best match happens at the right moment: if it's too late or too spread out, the crowd gets antsy; if it's too early or too packed together, the crowd is unable to sustain the cheers over the length of a show.
The latter is what happened to SummerSlam. The crescendo was reached early on, with one spectacular match and one appallingly dangerous one; by the time they were over, fans had another two and a half hours of wrestling to go. The matches looked good on paper, but they were unable to hold people's attention for that much longer.
First, the good match: John Cena and A.J. Styles had a modern-day classic, one laden with portents of Cena's transition to "special attraction" status—something reserved for men like Andre the Giant and the Undertaker, wrestlers who can still draw but can no longer do the regular grind. It served as a rematch between the two men; Styles had won the first through interference, after an athletic exhibition that left both men winded.
Cena and Styles have a remarkable chemistry with each other, something that goes even beyond Styles' ability to draw good-to-great matches out of nearly anyone he faces. And as Cena has become less active, he has reinvented himself as "Big Match John," throwing down great matches with startling regularity over the past few years. It's almost as if de-emphasizing his role in the title scene has liberated him, letting him just be a wrestling machine.
Still, if we knew one thing going into the match, it was that Cena doesn't lose twice in a row, and he definitely doesn't lose a second match in a series clean. Except, at SummerSlam, he did. Styles, the ostensible heel, took a powered-up version of Cena's finishing move off the top rope, kicking out and leaving Cena stunned.
When wrestling works well, there's an element of pathos to it, and here it was. The men are the same age, but Styles is the newcomer and feels younger. Cena, the cagey veteran on top of the wrestling world for almost over a decade, had expended all of his energy to no avail. You could see it in his face and in his gait as he got up from the move: he could not win. And he didn't; the post-match closed with a beaten Cena taking off one of his armbands and leaving it in the ring, a mute but obvious testimony to his fading.
By contrast, the match between Charlotte and Sasha Banks for the women's title was a study in how to get someone killed in the ring. Sandwiched between some good back and forth was a cringeworthy spotfest that seemed doomed to leave one or both women injured, though thankfully it did not.
It began when Charlotte inexplicably took Banks to the top rope and simply dropped her. Watching it was bizarre; the line between legitimate fuck-up, a spot planned to look like a fuck-up, and a good idea on the drawing board but disastrous in practice is forever a smudged one in pro wrestling. Whatever was going through Charlotte's head, it was not good: Banks went down hard and with no chance to break her fall, bending her neck awkwardly and cracking her back on the way down.
That spot was just the beginning. Banks countered another top-rope move of indeterminate outcome into a hurricanrana—standard fare in wrestling, but she damn near landed like a lawn dart on the mat, a good recipe for a spinal fracture. It was frightening enough that old hands at acrobatic wrestling were spooked.
It just kept going. Banks jumped into Charlotte's face with such force with her knees that the latter's head cracked hard on the ground; even with a mat, it was tough to watch. Knees were driven into backs, which is a fair enough part of both wrestlers' offenses, but in the context of the botches, the near-botches, and the sloppy spots, the anticipation of it all going wrong was omnipresent.
There's certainly an understandable element at play. WWE has a talented roster of women, arguably the best ever assembled, but the pressure to perform must be tremendous. To gain the respect of an audience that for decades has been force-fed McMahon's fantasies of lingerie models and mud wrestlers must take more work than can be reasonably expected. It's worth bearing that in mind.
But there's working hard and there's being dangerous, and this match was dangerous. Charlotte dropping Banks was inexcusable, accident or not. Banks, for her part, seems to have a death wish, with her habit of diving head first at hard-to-catch angles.
Banks has the tools to be an all-timer; if she keeps wrestling the she is with the care for her body she shows, she'll be retired by 34. Whatever the pressures, the women's roster—and especially Sasha Banks—have got to exercise just a bit more caution.
The rest of the show? Things happened, but nobody cared. Finn Balor, newly arrived from NXT, became the first-ever WWE Universal Champion; the crowd was too tired to care. (On Monday, WWE announced that Balor relinquished his title due to injury.) Dean Ambrose retained over Dolph Ziggler in front of an audience so still it could've been an empty stadium. Brock Lesnar beat Randy Orton when he opened his forehead wide open with an elbow, causing a forfeit; that popped the crowd a bit, mostly in shock and only momentarily. They were tired, emotionally, physically, and intellectually. They were simply done, and it affected everything that came after Cena laid down his armband and Sasha Banks almost cracked her spine.
It was simply too much wrestling, even for people who love wrestling. The emotional spark burned so bright, so early, that nothing could reignite it. As with so much about pro wrestling, excess defines, but this time it's an excess of the wrestling itself instead of cocaine and steroids. Hopefully, WWE can rein it in just a bit, but with a slate of new PPVs—more than one a month now—there's not much cause for optimism.
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