Sports entertainment fans! It’s mid-August and that means SummerSlam weekend is upon us. The WWE, wants you to believe that that SummerSlam is the second biggest annual event of the year, right behind WrestleMania. Whether that’s true or not is up for debate, but this isn’t the time or place. Frankly, the main SummerSlam card itself isn’t even the wrestling event I’m most excited for this weekend. My theory is that if you are one of the millions that subscribe to the WWE Network, then you fall more on the die hard side of “pro wrestling” fandom and you’re likely to be more excited for tonight’s NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV event than you are the main card on Sunday.
It’s no secret that in 2018, WWE remains the best and most well-known wrestling promotion in the world, mostly because of Vince McMahon’s billions and their forward-thinking ways in the late 1990’s. However, the best bit of actual wrestling that exists within WWE is not on Monday Night Raw or Smackdown Live or their monthly pay-per-view events on the network, like SummerSlam, WrestleMania, Royal Rumble. The best technical wrestling that exists under the WWE umbrella takes place on NXT, which airs for one hour on every Wednesday night, with a few Saturday night pay-per-view events sprinkled in the mix as well throughout the calendar year.
To someone who doesn’t follow WWE or NXT closely, this idea that NXT — which functions as sort of a minor leagues for aspiring WWE superstars — could not only feel totally different from traditional WWE programming, but also be actually the superior product, must sound ridiculous. But it’s the truth.
NXT has the edge over WWE in every way imaginable except for prestige, arena size, show length, special PPV events throughout the year and the number of household names on the roster. NXT has crisper and more viewer-friendly production, a far more lively crowd, much better announcers, more interesting storylines and most importantly, far superior WRESTLING matches. Just watch this weekend’s Takeover: Brooklyn IV and SummerSlam events on back-to-back nights and see which one is a more enjoyable viewing experience. I would bet all of the money in Ted DiBiase’s bank account that you’ll prefer NXT. In two and a half hours, Takeover will deliver likely three matches than will be better than anything you’ll have to spend five hours waiting for during the big show.
One match in particular that will be earmarked as “match of the weekend” is Takeover’s main event, the next chapter in the best rivalry in professional wrestling today, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa.
At this point, Ciampa and Gargano — real life friends, former tag team partners, and now on-air bitter enemies –have faced each other in two consecutive Takeover main events that have far exceeded any WWE PPV main event in years. This is not an exaggeration. The last WWE PPV main event that was on that level was John Cena vs. CM Punk at Money In The Bank (and that was all the way back in 2011). From a work-rate perspective, Ciampa vs. Gargano is this decade’s equivalent of watching Ricky Steamboat vs. Ric Flair or Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart do battle time and time again. For the third installment in less than six months, we’ll be treated again at Takeover tonight.
Since NXT is up on a separate night ahead of big guns, SummerSlam as an event will be measured against Takeover, and more specifically, each match at SummerSlam will be compared to the matches on the Takeover card. Assuming that Ciampa and Gargano will bring that Brooklyn crowd to a frenzy and tear the Barclays Center to the ground, it’s a stacked deck that WWE is going up against. Looking at what I consider to be the five biggest matches at SummerSlam, the question lingers… “will any of them approach Gargano vs. Ciampa?” Let’s proceed with the investigation and even make some picks.
Braun Strowman vs. Kevin Owens (for Strowman’s Money in the Bank briefcase)
Because of some heel authoritarian chicanery on Monday Night Raw, Strowman’s recently-captured Money in the Bank briefcase is on the line in this match. Though it would seem that Strowman, arguably the most over babyface on Raw, is a safe bet to retain his contract to a future title match, he doesn’t really need the Money in the Bank briefcase to work his way into the title picture. Strowman’s status on Raw is secure enough that even without the guaranteed title match, he could just demand a title match whenever he pleases and it would make perfect sense from a storyline perspective that he would be granted it.
Owens needs the Money in the Bank briefcase. KO has never quite regained his footing on the roster since WWE made the unforgivable decision to book Owens to lose to Bill Fucking Goldberg a month before WrestleMania 33. Owens is as good as any traditional heel on the WWE roster.
The future implications of this match, as it relates to the Universal Title picture, is far more interesting than the match itself. The fourth match in the Brock Lesnar / Roman Reigns saga is expected to be an absolute dud and if there is a straight-forward finish with no Money in the Bank run-in, the crowd in Brooklyn will be ready to riot.
Prediction: There has to be a swerve somewhere on the card and I think it comes here. Owens has the deck stacked in his favor (if Strowman loses via disqualification or count out, Owens still wins the Money in the Bank contract) and I think he wins by nefarious means.
Will it compare to Gargano vs. Ciampa? Not so much. Owens is a high quality worker and Strowman is significantly better in the ring than I and many others ever thought he would be. I just don’t think these two get close to the amount of time necessary that they would need to do their best work with each other. And even then, the stylistic fit just isn’t there like it is with Ciampa and Gargano.
Daniel Bryan vs. The Miz
This is the most compelling match on the card. It’s the one that should be for the Universal Title. I realize that this is a “Smackdown” match and the Universal Title is on Raw, but I’m still forced to ask how in the utter hell are Bryan and Miz not competing for a title, but Lesnar and Reigns are. Seriously, what the fuck? This is a REAL match and as I outlined earlier this week, reality is a very important element in this fake industry that we all enjoy so much.
The rivalry between Bryan and Miz is fantastic. I would even compare it to the time when Edge beat Matt Hardy to a bloody pulp in a five minute match at SummerSlam, which felt so much like a real fight, that it was actually a little uncomfortable to watch. There is animosity between Bryan and Miz, both personally and professionally, with that added anticipation that fans hoped would come to fruition.
With many detours along the way, we finally get Bryan vs. Miz after years of a cold war that WWE turned into a brilliant three-part hype package for their SummerSlam bout. Just click here, here and here to check those videos out if you haven’t seen them yet. It’s a masterclass in promo work.
Prediction: This will NOT be the final match between Daniel Bryan and The Miz, Eventually, Bryan will come out on top, but not here at SummerSlam. For the purpose of continuing the story, it’s better if Miz wins on Sunday and unless WWE’s creative team is in even worse shape than I think they are, there is no way this is a one-off.
Will it compare to Gargano vs. Ciampa? From a crowd engagement standpoint, yes. It’s hard to imagine the Brooklyn crowd not going berserk for the long-awaited physical confrontation between Miz and Bryan. And in terms of in-ring work, this could very well be the match of the night. It doesn’t get to the Gargano/Ciampa level of “Holy Shit! I’m watching one of the best wrestling matches ever” though.
Samoa Joe vs. AJ Styles (WWE Championship)
Seeing Joe and Styles are co-headliners on the marquee for a big time WWE event like SummerSlam, was every wrestling fan’s dream ten years ago. Now we’ve arrived. The two most iconic wrestlers in TNA history will compete for the most prestigious championship in the company, regardless of WWE’s newfound preference to the Universal Championship.
WWE has decided to book this match with a cheesy twist — the indirect involvement of Styles family and their apparent displeasure with A.J.’s commitment as a father and husband, or something like that — but fans can look the other way when it’s two legitimate legends of the business going head-to-head for the strap. We can look past the fact that Styles and Joe are very close friends in real life. The storyline here, or the reality of their situation, doesn’t matter as much as how sensational we expect that the end product will.
Prediction: For the third straight match, I’ll take the functional heel to get the victory. Styles recently became the longest reigning WWE Champion in Smackdown history, a distinction that is well-deserved, but it’s time to change things up a bit. Styles feuding with Joe will be a nice change of pace from previous feuds with Jinder Mahal and the disappointing Shinsuke Nakamura program.
Will it compare to Gargano vs. Ciampa? Styles and Joe, along with Christopher Daniels, were involved in the only “five-star” rated match in TNA’s history at TNA Unbreakable 2005, so it’s no secret that even thirteen years later these two can still get after it. But there biggest match won’t be taking place at SummerSlam. Somewhere in the very near future we’ll see the best possible match that Styles and Joe can put on together at this stage in their careers, and it could very well be the best match we see in WWE all year (NXT not included).
Ronda Rousey vs. Alexa Bliss (Raw Women’s Championship)
I have been very critical of WWE’s booking decisions for years, but they’ve managed to book both Rousey and Bliss very smartly since Rousey’s arrival at the Royal Rumble. This feud has been fun to watch, even with Rousey sidelined because of a “suspension” for a portion of that time. Bliss can carry the heavy lifting on the mic, and Rousey can be a goddamn freight train each and every time she steps in the ring and it works out well. The cat and mouse game between the two has been well-executed and on Sunday Bliss won’t be able to run anymore.
Prediction: It’s difficult to imagine Rousey not walking out of SummerSlam with the Raw Women’s Title. Bliss seems to be well-respected and well-established in her position as the best heel on the women’s roster and normally pushing someone with only three matches of experience to the very top would be met with some crowd push back, but Rousey’s star is incredible bright. She’s been better in the ring than anyone could’ve imagined she would be in such a short period of time. She’ll win the title and get a really nice pop from the crowd in the process.
Will it compare to Gargano vs. Ciampa? Not even close. Bliss is consistently solid in the ring and Rousey has exceeded expectations in each of her first two PPV bouts, but this match might be the quickest of the evening. Rousey could very well steamroll her way through Bliss super fast on the way to capturing her first title in WWE.
I will say this though, if anyone on the women’s roster has the potential to put together a five star match (or something close) in the next year or so, it’s going to be Ronda Rousey. Athletically, she’s on a plane that very few people, male or female, are at in WWE, and she has a better feel for the in-ring mechanics than I ever thought she’d get a grasp of. If the rumors are true and the penciled in main event for WrestleMania 35 is Rousey vs. Charlotte Flair, then we’ll be spending multiple months watching the build towards what will be the best women’s match in WWE history.
Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar (WWE Universal Championship)
Jesus. I can’t even.
Prediction: Reigns. And nobody else.
Will it compare to Gargano vs. Ciampa? Haha! Nah.
Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa (NXT Championship – Last Man Standing Match)
I’ve been a wrestling fan for a very long time. I’m 26-years old and started stealing pay-per-view VHS tapes from my cousin Tony when I was 3-years old. I’ve been in this game for a really long time and I’m really into this shit. I mean, I’ve spent my entire Friday night writing about it, so it must mean a lot to me, right? I can’t imagine how many hours of wrestling I’ve watched in my life, or how many matches that equates to. I’ve seen matches from all different promotions from events that were from fifteen years before I was born. I’ve seen just about every relevant moment, promo, rivalry, and match in real time over the last sixteen years because that’s when I started watching Raw/Smackdown and pay-per-views religiously.
About a year ago I found myself slightly less interested than I had been in the past. I don’t know if it was because the same old storyline progressions weren’t cutting it anymore, or because the quality just wasn’t the same as it once was. But I just couldn’t remain interested. Raw’s and Smackdown’s would sit in my DVR unwatched for weeks until I eventually just deleted them. I’d half-halfheartedly watch the pay-per-views, with most matches on the card serving as nothing more than background noise. To quote the great Shawn Michaels, somewhere along the line I lost my smile, and I knew I had to go find it.
I found my smile watching NXT and my smile hasn’t been bigger than when I’ve been watching Ciampa and Gargano in the ring. Ciampa and Gargano wrestled a technical masterpiece in the 2016 Cruiserweight Classic Tournament and went on to perform as a tag team until last Summer when Ciampa turned on Gargano at the conclusion of Takeover: Chicago.
Ciampa was shelved for nearly a year with an ACL tear and he returned to face Gargano, their first time as rivals, in an Unsanctioned Match at Takeover: New Orleans the night before WrestleMania 34. It was the best match of the weekend. Two months later, Ciampa and Gargano stepped in the squared circle again at Takeover: Chicago II on the weekend of WWE’s Money in the Bank pay-per-view. Yet again, Ciampa and Gargano stole the show and the weekend, this time in a Chicago Street Fight. Tonight Gargano and Ciampa face off in a Last Man Standing Match, this time for Ciampa’s recently won NXT Championship.
Again, assuming that fellow wrestling fans are reading this, I feel as though it’s my obligation to implore you to watch this match and the first two matches of the Gargano/Ciampa rivalry if you haven’t already. You will cheer, you will gasp, and you will smile a very big smile as you are reminded of what made you fall in love with professional wrestling in the first place.
Prediction: Gargano wins, and so does everybody else.