I know what you’re thinking: I can’t believe Raw‘s champion will continue to be a common no-show on Monday nights. I kid. You are, presumably, beside yourself that I’ve returned with my first in-depth PPV synopsis in months. No? Fine. Well, whether you’ve arrived at this assessment of Sunday night’s proceedings out of pure enthusiasm for the triumphs and travails of WWE’s combined Raw and SmackDown rosters or out of some perverse dedication to the re-emergence of your least-disliked wrestling recapper, here are the five key insights I took away – be it Natalya’s natural ascent, Shane McMahon’s spastic distractions or anything else between the ropes – from SummerSlam 2016.
5. Mellow Drama
A big concern heading into SummerSlam – I assume to others and not just myself – was a hastily thrown together hodgepodge of feuds fueling an event that, like WrestleMania, is better served as the culmination of long-simmering differences. It was hard to shake the feeling that matches like Sasha Banks v. Alexa Bliss, Bray Wyatt v. Finn Bálor, John Cena v. Baron Corbin, Randy Orton v. Rusev, Jinder Mahal v. Shinsuke Nakamura – you get the idea – were more about resetting or reorienting one or all competitors’ compass in the coming weeks than communicating an active grudge. That’s not to say there weren’t highlights on the road to routine or rushed conclusions (Banks and Bliss brought it). Nor were the evening’s less compelling bookings bereft of big blowoffs and bigger pops (see: Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose toppling Sheamus and Cesaro), but several hours steeped in pageantry couldn’t cover for what largely felt like low stakes.
4. Nattie By Nurture
As was observed upon her victory, Natalya’s latest title claim was six years in the making, an unthinkable purgatory for someone with Ms. Neidhart’s skill and pedigree. But so goes the merry-go-round in WWE, and the tacit understanding that legacy and taking lumps don’t always guarantee getting one’s due ahead of myriad flavors of the month. Still, Nattie never wavered, even as her real-life husband Tyson Kidd succumbed to injury after injury, and peers including Paige, Charlotte and A.J. shone with multiple turns at gold. She is the best women’s wrestler in the company, period, even if her in-character charisma’s never clicked like some of the above. That’s why it was refreshing to see the third-generation mainstay maintain her heel’s pose after polishing off former women’s champ Naomi with a Sharp Shooter, prolonging a rivalry that may not have been high on people’s radar tonight, but could easily prove best in show among a more inconspicuous card this fall.
3. Ref Jam
Let’s all take a moment to acknowledge the fine work that Mike Chioda, Jon Cone and WWE’s referees do on a nightly basis. As evidenced by Shane McMahon’s antics during A.J. Styles’ successful U.S. title defense over Kevin Owens, anything short of the aforementioned, comparatively undersized shot-callers’ zebra-striped standards simply won’t do. Even sized up against wrestling’s slapstick history of special-guest refs, Shane’s inability to get out of KO, AJ or – mostly – his own way was a test of viewers’ patience. And when the payoff failed to deliver some kind of decisive subterfuge (one assumes that story will be advanced on SmackDown, yet again creating some confusion about what WWE considers its premium programming), it was hard not to resent having missed an opportunity for a good, clean, classic coup de grace between these two. Or wonder whether they did, too.
2. Jinder Block
While Jinder Mahal has explained how the Khallas was an apt name for his ultimate move because of its literal translation to “finish,” he hasn’t come clean about Khallas’ failure to stir awe in anyone staring agape at his unlikely run as WWE Champion. Putting aside its debt to Ted DiBiase Jr.’s Dream Street, Khallas simply fails to make an appropriate impact for a man of Mahal’s size and sudden stature. Even tonight, Nakamura hardly appeared twisted in two after getting slammed from a modest height while in Mahal’s cobra clutches, let alone how much less convincing the maneuver’s come across against adversaries of greater mass. All is clicking for Mahal right now, enough to have survived the maligned Punjabi Prison clash against Randy Orton with both title reign and reputation intact. But the Khallas never fails to land with an impressionistic thud, rather than a visceral fine point. And if Big Cass, Baron Corbin and others can abruptly tweak their entrance themes, no reason it’s too late for Mahal to go out with a bang.
1. It’s The Bigs’ Show
The Big Show himself wrestled what could be his final PPV match, but the man he put over – Big Cass – along with Braun Strowman, are where the future of Raw is headed. It’s not a bad idea to let Brock Lesnar loiter around as Universal Champion a bit longer as younger charges keep improving and impressing and getting chances to grow exponentially sharing the spotlight with no-nonsense vets like Samoa Joe. But if SmackDown is distinguishing itself as a laboratory for eccentricity and ethnic duplicity (the two being mutually exclusive), then Raw is where we see WWE’s more traditional aims of pushing giants to the fore. Guys like Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Bálor appear to be pegged more for their utility than singular presence, while the door is ajar just enough for Cass, Strowman and – on the women’s side, the likes of Nia Jax – to kick down. Callous Cass staring down fan favorite Braun for all the marbles by this time next summer, if not sooner? That’s a slam dunk.
Below the Belt
· Still hard not to double-take seeing Mahal on a PPV poster.
· New rule: If it’s for a heavyweight title/titles, it’s on the main show.
· Is Cena Jeff Ross’ new trainer? (And can he be Baron Corbin’s?)
· Natalya definitely missed a spray-tan spot.
· Lil’ Kim did the hook, but “Money, Power & Respect” was a Lox line. And Brooklyn knew it.
· Maybe third time can be a charm with Big Cass’ music?
· Rusev really took one for the team there.
· Re: Bliss’ “diminutive stature,” it’s not like she was up against Nicole Bass.
· Alexa Bliss really took one for the team there.
· Regarding the above: Who breaks bad, Sasha or Bayley?
· Loved Booker T confirming that, yes, his tag team was Harlem Heat.
· Sheamus and Cesaro really took one for the team there.
· Jeez, Tom Phillips, way to be a title-change jinx.
· If Mahal v. Nakamura passed muster overseas, expect a blockbuster, all-international main event at WrestleMania sooner than later.
· Corey Graves must have forgotten recent FEMA history.
· Samoa Joe’s a brute, but maybe WWE’s most nuanced performer.
· If Roman is to go full kayfabe heel, is there a better moment than when his old Shield buddies are running the tag-team yard?