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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business: Summerslam 2017 - The Performance Art Review
By Samuel 'Plan
Aug 23, 2017 - 8:26:22 PM

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Just Business: Summerslam 2017 - The Performance Art Review


The card for Summerslam 2017 was stacked with matches all of which were built on a foundation of story, no matter how slight. This made me optimistic, heading into Sunday’s big show. I was left feeling disappointed after the fact.

Thankfully, Summerslam 2017 was the sort of pay-per-view that gradually got better as the night wore on (excepting a complete non-event of a WWE Championship defence). By the end of the show, thanks to a phenomenal main event in particular, it would be a lie to say I felt unsatisfied or unentertained. The same cannot be said for the first sixty to ninety minutes, though; in fact, quite the opposite should be said. The result of this mixed bag is that we continue to wait for a 4 to 6 hour version of Summerslam that successfully justifies its mammoth run time.

Thank god Sunday’s extravaganza’s high points made the slog worth it.

My name is Samuel ‘Plan, and this is the Performance Art Review of 2017.

Special Guest Referee Shane McMahon: A Demonstration in the Value of Performance Art Genre

Having been a Monday Night Raw man since day one of the Second Brand Extension, and having completely sworn off the lamentable Smackdown Live since WrestleMania, this Sunday presented me an opportunity to catch back up with Team Blue. It wasn’t inspiring.

Thankfully for me, then, the United States Championship Special Guest Referee Match exceeded my expectations.

I admired its simplicity and straight-forward narrative trajectory. These two combatants heavily dislike each other, and passionately desire the US Championship. The stiff exchanges between the two effectively emphasised this basic but powerful tone, and stood out for virtue of being intermittent. Dialling back the stylisation was something of a theme, in fact, and though there are more verbose moments that emerge, they are never in such frequency as to disrupt one’s immersion in the fiction as so often can become the case.

The hostile atmosphere that emerges from this simplified approach is intoxicating, reminding me of a personal favourite match of mine: Diesel vs. Hart at Royal Rumble ’95. Though it doesn’t devolve into the riotous territory which that under-appreciated Rumble gem of yesteryear does, this Sunday’s US title defence found itself further elevated by its conspiratorial corporate vibes, as both participants act out of paranoia resulting from Shane McMahon’s chequered history in officiating. Seeing Owens – arguably the more paranoid of the two – then be the one to manipulate McMahon’s presence as the special official transforms his performance into a beautifully old school one, straight out of the retro villain’s playbook.

The bout’s truest success, though, was ultimately the way it manipulated the Special Guest Referee stipulation. Some criticism has been levelled at the composition because of this very aspect. I think this unfair, and needlessly reductive. It is a prime example of why understanding matches as performance art genre over sports entertainment gimmickry is so much more enlightening an approach. In such a context, rather than being inexplicably out of character, this bout stands out among the library of those sharing its stipulation as frightfully original.

Usually, Special Guest Referee Matches are about one thing: unfair officiating with clearly prejudiced motivations; or more specifically, a screwjob. I thought it quite inspired how this idea was deployed conceptually on Sunday without ever becoming an active factor in the story; only the shadow of past instances loomed. Instead, the stipulation was deployed primarily as character motivation for both Styles and Owens, and as a compounding factor for this already deeply acrimonious feud. It was the opposite of a normal match of its type: all about fair officiating being misunderstood.

Some find Shane’s performance jarringly dismissive of his character’s continuity. I couldn’t disagree more. Chalk his mistakes up to inexperience; though he has officiated before, he has rarely done so fairly or properly, and he isn’t a referee after all. Certainly it is true he famously falls of impossible heights and gets up again, but it’s not like he never ‘sells’ those moments, or moves with which he is hit; his recovery times here are perfectly in keeping with those established in matches in which he is an active participant. Beyond anything else, why use the stipulation if you aren’t going to do anything with it? As a screwjob was never the intended story here, those involved produced something much more original that demonstrated alternative ways in which the Special Guest Referee Match, as a genre, can be manipulated effectively.

I admired it for such original thought. I can understand why some don’t; it is, after all, far from a conventional demonstration of its genre, and it is exactly that which doomed it to a divided reception the moment it was conceived.

The Tag Team Revival Lives

In my Performance Art Review of Great Balls of Fire 2017, I declared the Tag Team Revival to be officially dead, thanks to sub-par tag matches and a bloodbath of tag team splits in the spring. It seems Summerslam 2017 had something to say about that, with both brands delivering outstanding matches of different styles for their respective Tag Team Championships.

Closing out the pre-show, The New Day and The Usos threatened to steal a show they weren’t technically even on right from under the noses of anybody watching, with a frantic 20 minute sprint brimming with creative double-teams, unexpected intensity on the part of the babyface champions and, refreshingly, an absence of comedy; only blistering action.

Effectively demonstrating a sense of familiarity between teams that should rightfully come with any sequel, those involved do remarkably well to still keep their content fresh and forward thinking. Its utilisation of a relentlessly escalating pace owes much to the work of The Revival throughout 2016, and though they don’t quite hit those same heights they do a damn good job nonetheless. The unsuspecting brutality that emerges as a result of its rapid pacing and increasingly personal stakes, as well as the decision to switch the championships back to the Uso Penitentiary, capped off a remarkable achievement and, quite possibly, the very best pre-show match of the year.

Alternatively, Monday Night Raw delivered something that, while much steadier in pace, was much deeper in character. I have made no secret of my adoration of the Seth Rollins / Dean Ambrose reunion storyline this last month, and their effort at Summerslam capped that chapter of their ongoing tale off beautifully with an emotive feel good win. The gut wrenching emotion, of which we were reminded thanks to a typically outstanding hype package by WWE before the match, carried on through this visceral, physical and hard-hitting piece of work unafraid to play to the underlying themes of loneliness and brotherhood.

The defending champions, The Bar, are described by Corey Graves early as “a team in every sense of the word.” It was an important distinction, because the eventual story of this classic tag bout was that of a team against two brothers; not of a team against a team.

Cesaro and Sheamus come off as slickly oiled, operating cohesively as a single unit in effective fashion by constantly trying to keep the Hounds apart from one another. It’s tag team wrestling 101. The problem proves to be that they aren’t wrestling a team. Rollins and Ambrose, their relationship still fresh and noted as being so, operate undeniably as two individuals; they are not a team here. They are, however, brothers, and that never stopped being the case through all their hostilities.

Their reunion here is rough around the edges; they make mistakes and don’t watch quite as slick together as the champs. But their chemistry is instant and their synergy, though unspoken, clearly understood. They might be caught out of position to help one another time and again, but they are never too late to save one another from defeat. They might not have a ton of well-planned double team moves, but their tandem offense is utterly instinctive and never anything less than effective. Their story may be of two halves, each demonstrating famously core elements of their own individual experiences - Ambrose’s necessary resilience to pain and Rollins’ haunting knee injury - but they absolutely fight this battle together and emerge victorious together.

If The Bar are a team in every sense, Rollins and Ambrose, as they always were, are still even now brothers in every sense. Their bond, it turns out, has only been strengthened through the necessity of forgiveness, and every element of their excited, impassioned and empathetic body language demonstrated toward one another is the tell.

The results are glorious; a cerebral, spell binding demonstration of character continuity, championship aura, and seamlessly timed, seamlessly executed, densely complex work. As my friend and The Right Side of the Pond co-host Mazza tweeted: believe, then, now and forever.

Lesnar: Skull Island

Sunday’s main event, wrestled for the Universal Championship, was on another level.

That’s not to say it was necessarily the best match of the year, or that it’ll be difficult to be bettered, or even that it was better than the myriad of top flight matches since WrestleMania (though an argument could be made it was any one of those things). Rather, I have never known WWE go quite so far with quite so much destruction to demonstrate the power, violence and aggression harboured by four big men in the ring. It’s usually left to lip service on commentary or the like. It has never quite been anything like that. If ever the term “visual effects blockbuster” was appropriate, it would be for this match.

Two tables destroyed; another upturned; the steps thrown around like a toy; the barricade blown through; the Beast carried off on a stretcher no less; to call it warfare would feel like too limited a description. If anything, I almost wish they’d gone even further. Perhaps someone could have gone through the stage set; or the Monday Night Raw announce desk; or even the ring. Not that I’m complaining. What we got from Brock Lesnar, Samoa Joe, Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman was a masterpiece in its own right, another brilliant demonstration of the Lesnar-based multi-man sub-genre and a match that was, perhaps deceptively, rather quite intelligent.

It would be easy to think this was empty spectacle, but a closer look pays dividends. There is subtle character substance lying underneath all the bluster and bombast.

The Universal Champion, Brock Lesnar, is put in a vulnerable position that goes even further than what the company did with Goldberg; the Beast’s humanisation continued as he narrowly survived his encounter with these other three leviathans, and seeing him in so desperate a situation will serve only to legitimise his eventual big singles loss, now presumably quite close. Forget eat, sleep, conquer, repeat; so far in 2017, opposite Goldberg, Joe and now Reigns and Strowman too, the Beast’s final chapter has read more like eat, sleep, survive, repeat, and it is far more intriguing for it.

Survive was what he did against Samoa Joe last month at Great Balls of Fire, and for Joe’s part the so-called Destroyer came off as a true protégé of the Cerebral Assassin. Joe was an opportunist; the smartest man on the battlefield, he was sure to pick his spots, coming close to victory more than once. Dodging Reigns’ spear through the barricade; attempting a quick roll up victory amidst the carnage; ambushing Lesnar with the Coquina Clutch; Joe brought both muscle and smarts.

This is quite the opposite of Roman Reigns. The Big Dog has made a habit of looming in the background of matches like this, like an ever-present but equidistant threat. On Sunday, however, he was front and centre, and the unremitting crusading part of his nature was in full force. Moreover, the match showed him, in his interactions with Lesnar (especially the revisit of WrestleMania 31’s classic main event) to be battle hardened now, and a superior version of the rookie who was able to take Lesnar to the limit at WrestleMania 31 through natural ability alone.

And then there was Braun Strowman. At three of the last four Big Four events, the Monster Among Men has been afforded an overwhelmingly impressive platform performance, and his outing on Sunday capped off the lot. Strowman came off as a sheer force of nature unmatched, even by Lesnar himself. He decimated the Beast Incarnate with seeming ease, and pushed Reigns and Joe around – quite literally – like they were children. His former moniker, the Face of Destruction, surged back to the forefront of his time in the ring and standing in the wake of his rage it is difficult to imagine any scenario in the immediate future that does not pit this indomitable creature directly opposite the Beast Incarnate alone and unimpeded.

In truth, while it was its explosive content that made it stand out, last Sunday’s main event was underpinned by a subtle, fiercely intelligent portrayal of character that helped make the fiction all the more involving and convincing; and meaningful. Pulsing with energy, performed with an impressively swift pace and with enough spectacle to carry it through its rare moments of downtime, it was more of an experience than a match, and the type that will live in the memory for quite some time to come.

I dare call it a Summerslam classic.

In Closing

There were plenty of other matches to occur at Summerslam last weekend, but few are worthy of comment. In truth, it wasn’t a particularly great show, mainly because it took so damn long to pick up some steam. Still, it’s much better to have a show that consistently gets better than one that only gets worse.

To my mind, there is no denying that Monday Night Raw once again got the better of its Tuesday night rival, and certainly the Monday night roster seems to be in a very healthy place heading into September and their next exclusive show, No Mercy. I just hope this rumoured Superstar Shake Up doesn’t mess things up too much….

Time will tell. For now, be sure to leave your own thoughts of Summerslam 2017, and of my review, in the comments below or over on social media!

Don’t forget to pick up your copy of my book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, from the LOP Store today! Simply click here to find a mine and a host of other books and merchandise on offer, all courtesy of LOP’s own!

For more of my thoughts on the rest of the show, and WWE in general, click here to add me on Facebook!

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