Part of the fun of being an adult wrestling fan is appreciating the subtext that's going on in the ring before you. While kids might just see F5's and Attitude Adjustments, we're seeing legacies being written and the end result of a backstage decision that had been rumoured to have happened weeks ago. We consume, discuss and complain on a different level to how we did as a child. It's a fascinating process, being 'smartened up' to wrestling from the days when your day would be ruined if The Rock didn't lie on Triple H for three continuous seconds. It's like a different world to the one that everyone who doesn't 'get it' is watching - and why most adults who lost interest are baffled as to why we still care.
But go to the SummerSlam Beach Party in Woolshed, Dublin on Sunday (and Wednesday, if you're reading this before then - buy a Golden Ticket from Wrestling Mania, St Stephen's Green and you've access to both the party and a table quiz/live recording of Balls.ie's official WWE podcast, 'Low Blows' this Wednesday) and you might just figure it out. Consuming wrestling as a grown-up is a combination of the fun (there's a mix of childhood nostalgia, booze, bets, songs, chants and more stupid random games than is possible in just about any comparable sport) and a fascination with the 'story behind the story'. John Cena just kicked out of the second Brock Lesnar F5 in the main event. That matters because it's pretty cool to be surrounded by 400 other drunk wrestling fans yelling "HOLY SHIT!" and also because you're watching a business you've grown up caring about continue to evolve right before your eyes. The decision was made hours, if not weeks or months, beforehand but we don't yet know what that decision was. And watching those two men literally wrestle out the story of that decision is very real drama and tension.
Still don't get it? That's fine. Here are ten delicious slices of subtext you should keep in the back of your mind while watching this Sunday's SummerSlam pay-per view!
1) Are WWE ready for a long-term, part-time WWE World Champion?
Since Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson returned and found himself as the final image of WrestleMania 27, despite the fairly innocuous title of 'Guest Host', having big name, part-time wrestlers take up positions of prestige in favour of the wrestlers doing the heavy-lifting the other 300 days of the year has become somewhat of a norm. And, for all of the complaining, who can say that matches like The Undertaker and Triple H's Hell In A Cell, the original Brock Lesnar/John Cena clash as well as memories like Hogan, Rock and Austin opening this year's Mania have been a bad thing? So, with that in mind, are fans' conditioned enough to accept someone who is presumably going to be appearing sparingly holding the company's main title belt?
If rumours are to be believed, Brock Lesnar beating John Cena this Sunday is about as sure a thing as The Undertaker beating Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, i.e. it's not a certainty at all, but come on. These rumours also have him pegged to hold onto the (newly-designed) WWE World Championship through WrestleMania for a showdown with Roman Reigns, Cesaro, Daniel Bryan, The Rock, a returning CM Punk, or any number of performers these rumour-makers would personally like to see in the spot. On the plus side, his scarcity (to the point of Paul Heyman's sole purpose with the company now being to represent him in his absence) could bring with it a prestige to the belt that we haven't seen since the days when Hogan would submit one interview and one squash match per four weeks of televised material. We've been spoiled for options with two belts in recent years, with the likes of (newly-released) Alberto Del Rio bringing an unwanted element of 'meh' to what should be bankable championship matches. But on the other hand, unless Brock is willing to significantly increase his number of dates from his current cushy, part-time gig, we could see future WWE pay-per views headlined by matches with stakes as high as number one contendership or Seth Rollins' Money In The Bank contract. And that can't be good for a period where WWE needs to sell Network subscriptions fast through its monthly PPVs.
2) Can John Cena still hold his end of the bargain as the company's top antagonist?
Aside from the always troll-rific Triple H, it's arguable that the biggest heel in WWE over the past decade has also been their golden boy, John Cena. Who else gets rolled out for the big matches when a Rob Van Dam or CM Punk or Daniel Bryan need to get the immediate rub? In a fascinating chapter of wrestling's history, Cena has effortlessly switched from company's biggest babyface to biggest heel without switching a thing about his act, depending on who he was facing. With the injury bug biting down hard on WWE's upper echelon (one assumes that this main event was originally scheduled to be Brock vs. Daniel Bryan), Cena now has to play irresistable force to Brock's immovable object. As is often the case with all great Cena feuds, the subtext is so juicy it has become the main narrative: sick of Cena's latest run at the top, the people want to see Brock smash Cena. It's an easy-sell. People would probably pay to see Brock smash a watermelon at this stage. But why does it all feel a little...off? Rushed? Cena's match with Bryan was hotly-anticipated this time last year and operated with the same amount of build. Is John losing his powers of persuasion as the unwanted golden boy? Are we sick of being sick of John Cena as champion? Or will we forget about the lacklustre build the second we see the visual of a hungry Brock waiting to be fed his latest prey on Sunday?
3) Will Dean Ambrose continue to scratch and claw against being the Marty Jannetty of The Shield?
People are going to be upset by that comparison. Save your rage, guys, I'm on Team Ambrose too. But the point remains: Roman Reigns is currently pencilled to be the WWE's next megastar, and Seth Rollins holds the Money In The Bank contract. This is what makes every step of Dean Ambrose's post-Shield singles push so fascinating - you can't tell where his 'loose cannon' gimmick ends and when he's legitimately fighting to continue as a top-level wrestler. It's just as feasible to see Ambrose as The Shield's most successful export in years to come as it is to see internet message boards pining for this brief interlude of relevancy this time next year, much as they do with Cesaro and Dolph Ziggler these days. WWE have cleverly kept him and Rollins from in-ring action (unless you count insane brawls) since their split three months ago, so they go into this match with added pressure to deliver. This isn't helped by having a slightly underwhelming stipulation in a Lumberjack Match, which seems more of a hurdle for them to overcome than anything else. Having watched them perform together for over 18 months, though, fans know this is a pressure that they thrive under. One senses, though, that Ambrose needs to shine to keep his star strong, and outshining a man as willing to risk his life as Seth Rollins is an unenviable task.
4) Are we about to add another classic to Stephanie's impressive match list?
No, I am not trolling you. For whatever reason, when it comes to big-time, must-deliver matches, Stephanie tends to bring it. Think about it: beating Jacqueline for the Women's Championship, losing it to Lita, beating Trish Stratus at No Way Out 2001, along with her final in-ring venture against her father Vince a whole 11 years ago (unless you count the Vickie Guerrero bit she did in June); despite her inexperience, Stephanie always delivers in a big-time scenario. Consider it one of the perks of having Triple H to plan your matches for you. So, if it makes you feel any better, think of this upcoming match against Brie Bella as a meeting of the minds of Triple H and Daniel Bryan. They've closed out two of the four available Raws to hype this show, so a stinker really isn't an option unless WWE wish to deflate its two most transcendent divas since the days of Trish and Lita. Expect this one to surprise.
5) Can Roman Reigns avoid 'The Orton Effect'?
Several months ago, I wrote of the similarities of Daniel Bryan's main event ascension to that of Chris Benoit's in 2004. Chris Benoit would later lose that championship reign to one Randy Orton at the following SummerSlam, as part of a plot to remove Orton from his Evolution stable and build him towards an eventual WrestleMania main event against Triple H. Unfortunately, a young Randy found it tough at the top as his new face character struggled to connect without the back-up of Triple H, Ric Flair and Batista, and within months he was heel again with his mega-push postponed for a future date. As WWE continues to re-live the year 2004 a decade later, one wonders if such a fate awaits one Roman Reigns, now free of the shackles of his Shield stable as fans' ponder whether or not he has the 'it' factor to sustain a similar planned run. Ironically enough, he faces Orton in a match presumably booked to tie a rocket to his career trajectory. And yet it already feels as if he's lost a significant amount of steam when you consider that fans were waiting with baited breath to see if he could become WWE Champion just a month ago. This could be a slow burn tactic from WWE, or it could be further proof that it's beyond even future Hall of Famers like Orton to sustain a first-time singles push over that length of time. Remember even an in-ring veteran like Daniel Bryan, whose momentum was in a different stratosphere, struggled with the same task just last year.
6) Is Bray Wyatt the next Fandango?
Chris Jericho doesn't need to win anymore. Just hearing 'Break The Walls Down' these days is enough for fans to understand that business has, significantly, picked up. He has essentially admitted on his 'Talk Is Jericho' podcast that he's returned to do the honours for Wyatt and, given the caveat that Bray now won't have Harper and Rowan in his corner, one would imagine the latter is winning cleanly. Then again, we've all seen this before haven't we? At WrestleMania 28, Jericho took a sizable payday to lose to Fandango in the latter's debut match. It's a payday one would imagine WWE higher-ups now regret, as after briefly flirting with being a real-life meme, Fandango has yet to reach the promised land his initial push seemed to indicate. Has Jericho's popularity as a stand-alone novelty actually hindered his intentions to help develop new talent? Think Ric Flair putting over Rico in 2002. Wrestling fans today are more seasoned to seeing the older guys letting the newbies get a three-count and aren't as easily hoodwinked by the carney tricks of yore, leaving the older wrestler in a state of flux and the young buck in exactly the same predicament as before the win. Bray's initial push seems to be another that has lost steam in recent months, one feels that a monster effort on his behalf is required as a mere three-count alone won't allow him to reclaim the 'next Undertaker' status that people were bequeathing him with as the year began. Jericho is a man capable of dragging a good match out of anyone...but is simply being 'good' enough with so much competition for Bray in a stacked midcard today (and that's before the likes of Fergal Devitt, KENTA, Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn get their much-anticipated call-ups)? It's make or...'Bray'-ke time. (I'm sorry)
7) Will AJ and Paige live up to the hype for the first time?
Let's call a spade a spade: AJ Lee and Paige have had three high-profile, televised matches to-date and two of those have been absolute stinkers. Paige's Raw debut was clunky as she seemed nervous on the big stage and AJ seemed over-zealous given a hot crowd enraptured in a cool moment. Their Battleground match just never got off the ground. And while AJ's return match to reclaim her Divas Title was fine, it was deliberately shortened for impact. Could these two be the Divas division equivalent of John Cena and Randy Orton: ideal foils on paper but just incompatible in the ring? That's not a slight on either, I want to like this feud as much as you, and both are clearly capable in-ring performers with a capacity for greatness in the right circumstances. They just don't seem to 'click'. Which is an issue because, after them, Naomi is the most talented diva in the locker room. WWE kinda need them to gel if they are truly committed to raising the divisions credibility over the long-term. Perhaps the added wrinkle of Paige's heel turn will provide the spark that this feud needs in the ring, but sometimes good wrestlers just have bad matches together. It'd be a shame if a match with this much potential for good fell into that category.
8) Is the smart money on a Rusev LOSS?
Every month on the WWE Parties Ireland Facebook page, we offer a 'Rusev Temptation Special' in our PPV Prediction Contests with a juicy 10 points available for anyone who correctly predicts his opponent gets the win. Thus far a lot have tried to cash-in on that offer (the same special for Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania - offering 22 points - would've won that contest alone outright), with no winners. For the first time, I feel that this Sunday the special is truly in play. In spite of the popularity of Zeb Colter's awkwardly xenophobic 'We the people' chant, I don't think anyone could've predicted Jack Swagger would excel this much in his first WWE outing as a babyface. Thanks to the efforts of Colter and Lana on the mic, the heat for this feud has been very cheap but very forthcoming. You sense that something special is in the air as the two square off in a flag match at SummerSlam. WWE have historically liked to add little surprise 'treats' like this for fans at SummerSlam (think Chris Benoit tapping Orlando Jordan out in seconds in 2005). Rusev is where WWE's money is hedged in the immediate future, but this Sunday offers them a rare opportunity to have their cake and eat it. Losses don't always mean the end of the road for a talent on the rise, and undefeated streaks can hinder guys if they drag on long enough (they rule out certain title matches and higher profile feuds, for instance). A Swagger win by nefarious means (since a win is a win against Rusev) would see the Staples Centre explode and free up Rusev for a rise up the card where he can answer bigger questions than, "Will he beat this jobber?"
9) Is Ziggler finally here to show the world (bring it on)?
You would be forgiven for not noticing, but something has changed in Dolph Ziggler, or at least in the way WWE have treated him in recent months. From nearly convincing even the most jaded of his fans that he would win the 'baby' Money In The Bank ladder match two months ago to pulling the same trick in the Intercontinental Championship Battle Royal last month, fans are finally venting their frustrations on his lack of push in a way that's productive to his career: by making noise on his behalf. That's happened before, of course, and often led to very little long-term, but the difference this time is that WWE seem to be actively encouraging these emotions for once. Someone in the back seems to want fans to want Ziggler to win, which in wrestling terms typically means a big win is forthcoming. This is the kind of small touch that propelled Daniel Bryan to the main event of WrestleMania 30, so if they really wish to keep his momentum going then there's really no alternative on Sunday but to have him...lose. Yes, I said lose. If you want Ziggler to continue to excel, you don't want him as Intercontinental Champion, trust me. It's been done. The best course of action would be to continue this active trolling of the audience and continue to make a martyr out of their darling, as once they catch onto it en masse Ziggler's rise may become unstoppable. Of course, since this is WWE, always disregard what you think should happen and go with the predictable. Ziggler will win on Sunday and continued in midcard purgatory. But if he loses and WWE want you to be very upset by that fact, let them know that you're very upset by that fact.
10) Is SummerSlam still 'the biggest party of the summer'?
The 21st century has not been kind to the reputation of SummerSlam as the second biggest event of the WWE calendar. Recent years have seen such lackluster main events served up as: CM Punk/John Cena/Big Show, Team Nexus versus Team Cena and John Cena/Randy Orton (twice). All decent enough, but not becoming of an event of SummerSlam's supposed stature. At times it felt like SummerSlam was just another themed-night of the WWE calendar, take down the American flags of the Great American Bash, put some sand on the stage and put out a card that could happen on any other month. Last year, that appeared to change as it got back on course with Daniel Bryan/John Cena and CM Punk/Brock Lesnar - blockbuster matches that whet fans' appetite AND delivered in the ring. SummerSlam should feel like a mini-WrestleMania, it should be high stakes but also fun. Give us the dream matches that, okay, mightn't look ideal on the biggest show of the year but that we really want to see anyway. Matches that would feel hard-done-by if you stuck them on a Battleground or Payback. This year's card seems a bit half-cooked in that regard: Cena/Brock is blockbuster, no doubt, but while Ambrose/Rollins and Stephanie/Brie among others could be fun they don't jump off the page that SummerSlam co-main events should. The show could be great, it has enough meaty stuff on there that it could turn out one of WWE's best efforts of the year, but do fans believe that yet? I'm not so sure.
Rick's WWE SummerSlam Quick Picks
BROCK LESNAR over WWE World Champion, JOHN CENA
BRIE BELLA over STEPHANIE MCMAHON
ROMAN REIGNS over RANDY ORTON
SETH ROLLINS over DEAN AMBROSE
Divas Champion, AJ LEE over PAIGE
Flag Match: JACK SWAGGER over RUSEV
BRAY WYATT over CHRIS JERICHO
DOLPH ZIGGLER over Intercontinental Champion, THE MIZ
Rick Nash is a former professional wrestler, the co-host of Balls.ie's official WWE podcast, Low Blows, and the founder of WWE Parties Ireland. He is also a DJ and terrible sports gambler, so feel free to share some tips with him on Twitter.