A Reflection On WWE SummerSlam 2020 - A Fever Dream At The Start Of The ThunderDome Era
A look back at WWE's first ThunderDome pay-per-view
By the time this little editorial hits publication, WWE will have already held two events in front of paying fans - a live SmackDown in Houston, and the Money in the Bank pay-per-view in Fort Worth. Raw will emanate from Dallas on Monday night, as full-capacity events in America (hopefully) continue their regular roll-out as unabated as possible.
For WWE, this of course means that the ThunderDome era is past tense.
Upon introduction, the ThunderDome was considered a massive upgrade over the depressing sterility of those empty Performance Center cards (though really, anything would've been).
When the "world's largest Zoom call" debuted last August, there were a few impressed oohs and ahhs, as well as the more practical take of, "Well, it's not a live crowd, but it's certainly better than what we had."
After seeing WrestleMania 36, Money in the Bank, and other cards get ruined by lifeless environments, having a giant wall of faces was viewed as a refreshing change.
Of course, it didn't take long for even that to feel primitive. AEW managed to liven up their Daily's Place events with socially-distanced fans around that time, which (from an aesthetic standpoint) makes for a better TV experience than muted faces clapping on cue.
But for 11 months, for better or worse, that Thunderdome would be the WWE way.
The first pay-per-view to run in front of this video wall set-up was the 2020 SummerSlam, last August 23.
And regardless of what the environment was for that show, the *card* feels entirely ancient just one year later.
For reasons both internal and external, WWE hasn't produced its best possible product over the past year-plus, so it's understandable that some events from this general time-frame may look a little odd when viewed in hindsight.
Eleven months after the 2020 SummerSlam, however, you might gander at this card and be left wondering, "Was this...was this really last year's SummerSlam?"
It begins simply enough with the pre-show bout, a United States title match in which Apollo Crews retained the gold over MVP. The Hurt Business was a thing at this point, and seemed to wrestle combinations of Crews, Ricochet, and Mustafa Ali every single week on Raw for somewhere between three and 17 months.
For this match, MVP associates Bobby Lashley and Shelton Benjamin were barred from ringside, giving us our first bit of oddness: present-day WWE champion Lashley's sole involvement in the second or third biggest PPV of the year was to be banned from ringside during a match on the Kickoff show.
Today, the whittled down Business combo of Lashley and MVP is one of the centerpiece acts on Raw, whereas in 2020, they were kicking around with US champion Crews and some of his loosely-connected associates.
But enjoy it for what it was: a rare Apollo match in which Big E wasn't involved.
In the pay-per-view opener, Bayley continued her ten-plus month reign as SmackDown Women's champion, defeating Asuka. On the surface, nothing seems amiss with this one. The only unusual part about this is that Asuka was the challenger in *both* Women's title matches (we'll get to her match with Raw Women's champion Sasha Banks in a bit).
Because Banks and Bayley were partners at the time (Women's Tag Team champs, in fact), it was all tied together through storyline, with the champions colluding to help the other retain their championship against a shared threat. One could argue that with such a deep roster of women's wrestlers, Asuka maybe didn't need to challenge for both belts. But story wise, it made sense for where they were going.
The Raw Tag Team title match, however, feels quite anachronistic, as The Street Profits retained the gold over Andrade and Angel Garza. Nevermind the fact that Andrade soon became persona non grata in WWE at large (last appeared in October, released by request in March), but this whole match feels like four talented wrestlers being reduced to filler.
Just take a gander at what they've accomplished since. Garza had promise with his egotistical lothario character, only for it to not really lead anywhere interesting. Aside from a few quick wins over Drew Gulak earlier this year, Garza's really been downplayed on the A-shows. In fact, he hasn't wrestled a pay-per-view match since September.
The Street Profits remain in tact, but they eventually got stuck on the treadmill themselves. After exchanging brand belts with The New Day during the October Draft, Angelo Dawkins and Montez Ford have only wrestled at one pay-per-view (last year's Survivor Series). They dropped the belts in January, and a Ford DQ win over Chad Gable in June is the only victory either of them have been given since the end of April.
They or Garza *could* wind up on this year's SummerSlam, but right now, it doesn't seem likely.
That was followed by a well-anticipated match that was unfortunately hampered by a real life horror show. After months of feuding, former allies Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville were going to square off in a hair vs. hair match. However, one week before SummerSlam, Deville's home was broken into by an armed stalker. The man was arrested without incident, but the story changed the tone going into the SummerSlam match.
Rose went on to defeat Deville in what was changed to a "loser leaves" match, giving Deville an out to deal with this real life drama. She didn't return to TV until January, where she subsequently became an authority figure, and hasn't wrestled since.
As for Rose, her 2020-21 could've certainly gone better creatively. A well-received angle with Otis was gradually snuffed out, and the story with Deville abruptly ended for reasons beyond WWE's control. Her eventual partnership with Dana Brooke didn't accomplish much, and she was recently moved to NXT from Raw.
Speaking of, "Wow, that was a year ago?", Dominik Mysterio made his pro wrestling debut in the next match, working against a reliable star in Seth Rollins. While most of the Mysterio family/Rollins' cult melodrama was a little beyond the pale (Rey losing an eye, the short-lived Murphy/Aalyah romance), this match was pretty damn good.
For a newcomer, Dominik showed lots of promise, though credit certainly has to be given to Rollins for leading the 23-year-old rookie as well as he did. Compared to most of the rest of interminable feud, Rollins vs. Dominik was a genuine highlight, even if its existence reminds us of all of the soap opera silliness that occurred within the angle.
The two went on to have a pretty decent steel cage match on Raw in September, before the angle mercifully petered out later in the autumn.
As a wrestler, Dominik has held up alright, going on to reign with his father as SmackDown Tag Team champions. Though the kayfabe surname helps, you can argue that WWE has been consistent with how they've used a new star like Dominik since debuting him.
Next up, Asuka ended her night 1-for-2, defeating Banks to win the Raw Women's title, despite Bayley's attempts at interference. This continued the road to dissolution for Banks and Bayley, and ultimately their SmackDown Women's title match at Hell in a Cell.
The WWE title match followed, in which Drew McIntyre retained over Randy Orton. The feud between the two stretched deep into the autumn months, in the grand WWE tradition of, "Who wants rematches? We got'cher rematches here!"
Though in this case, McIntyre scored two emphatic wins on Orton - a clean pin here in a standard singles bout, then a chicanery-filled win in an Ambulance match at Clash of Champions. Then Orton won the belt inside Hell in a Cell in October, before ceding it back to McIntyre in a street fight on Raw weeks later.
Not a bad feud or anything, but one with many moments that felt like they should've been blowoffs.
But that's WWE for you - rematches, get'cher rematches here!
While McIntyre and Orton would feel comfortably contemporary in 2021, Braun Strowman and The Fiend's Universal title match is already a dust-collector. The defending champion was released last month, while the challenger has been on hiatus for over three months.
But neither those facts, nor their middling match, really matter. SummerSlam was promoted with the tagline, "You'll never see it coming," and indeed, nobody saw Roman Reigns making an unadvertised return, in which he attacked both men post-title bout. Days later, a new alliance was born, as a heelish Roman joined up with Paul Heyman to form what has since been SmackDown's ruling class.
Reigns' comeback really made the Strowman/Fiend match all the more pale. More so, the present status of the two match combatants caps off a retrospectively odd-feeling SummerSlam.
If you've read this far, I suspect you've probably gone, "Oh right, that happened" a few times. It's true: SummerSlam 2020 feels like a fever dream through the present day lens, a ThunderDome housewarming that was distinctly a product of its moment.
That's bound to happen when two of the 17 wrestlers get released, several more sink deeper into the undercard, and a few wind up inactive, be it due to injuries or personal issues.
In undesirable times, SummerSlam 2020 was a step in a better direction, upgrading the product's aesthetic into something more closely resembling a preferred reality.
But man is the show ever weird to look back on.