Will WWE's Gamble On A WrestleMania-Sized SummerSlam 2021 Pay Off?
Can this year's SummerSlam hold up under the pressure of mega-hype, huge stars & the Las Vegas lights?
‘I’m not gonna waste your time. But I am gonna wait until SummerSlam to embarrass you on the biggest stage of them all.’ So said John Cena to Roman Reigns on last week’s WWE Friday Night SmackDown.
Whether it was a scripted line or a throwaway remark in what seemed to be a semi-improvised mic segment, it was certainly very telling.
Because any other year, that statement wouldn’t be true. In terms of the WWE calendar, SummerSlam is probably only the third biggest stage of them all - maybe second if the Rumble lacks a little magnitude.
In terms of gigantic pay per views, though, there’s only ever one winner. But as unique and joyous an occasion as this year’s WrestleMania was, SummerSlam could well take the crown in 2021.
As we approach Saturday’s event, it almost feels more like a modern ‘Mania than WrestleMania 37 itself. Firstly, it’ll be a one-day affair, and while the past couple of ‘Manias have spanned a whole weekend, we’re not quite used to the granddaddy being a double header just yet. Taking place in Nevada, SummerSlam will also ape the feel of many stadium-era ‘Manias by enjoying a brief window of sunlight at the top of the night.
And also, like any real 'Showcase Of The Immortals', the big names are back in force.
In terms of wrestling’s history-making megastars, WrestleMania 37 had Edge. SummerSlam 2021 will have Edge too, accompanied by a little-known pair named Bill Goldberg and John Cena. This evidence suggests that WWE itself perhaps also views SummerSlam as the premier event of the year.
Treating it as such is understandable. ‘Mania saw the exciting, temporary return of a live stadium crowd, but SummerSlam (hopefully) symbolises something more permanent, and is therefore more of a celebration.
But is this a gamble worth taking?
Hyping a pay per view to the level of WrestleMania raises the stakes, meaning that if it were to fall flat, the fans’ disappointment would surely be greater.
On the plus side, when looking at the SummerSlam card, I think there’s cause for cautious optimism. Cena vs. Reigns and Goldberg vs. Lashley are huge title matches, with most assuming that the current champions will triumph over the part-timers. That’s certainly what should happen, and while I’m not completely at ease just yet, I’m hopeful that the right decisions are made.
The undercard looks largely solid as well, with all the makings of a well-balanced night. Rollins vs. Edge could easily be a show-stealer, both tag title bouts seem set to deliver, and Big E continues to lurk with his Money in the Bank briefcase. (Alright, so it’s currently in the possession of Baron Corbin, but we’ll see what happens on Friday night.)
Despite its deep pool of talent, the women’s division is perhaps where SummerSlam falls down slightly. First and foremost, there are fears that Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair’s highly-anticipated rematch might not go ahead. The pair were pulled from live events over the weekend, with PWInsider reporting that several sources within WWE had ‘expressed concern’ over the likelihood of the bout taking place.
On the Raw side of things, the wheels are threatening to come off. Champion Nikki A.S.H., for all her natural likability, has been scripted as an immensely patronising figure, drawing the ire of live crowds in recent weeks. The booking of Charlotte Flair continues to complicate title scenes rather than elevate them, and Rhea Ripley should arguably never have dropped the belt in the first place.
Generally though, SummerSlam feels like a big deal - but will it live up to its billing? The bells and whistles appear to be there, but does the show have the required substance to act as a WrestleMania equivalent?
By substance, I suppose I mean storylines. ‘Mania traditionally sees the culmination of long, intense feuds. Some are fantastic, others less so, but in the modern era the quality largely becomes irrelevant on the big night itself. WrestleMania 31 was a prime example of that, as were the victories of Becky Lynch and Kofi Kingston in 2019.
If we’ve learned anything about ‘Mania in recent years, it’s that even if the storylines become convoluted or shoddy, things usually turn out fine as long as they retain a sense of scale. This really speaks to the talent of WWE’s roster; if the set-up is simply big enough, they can spin it into gold when it really matters.
But I don’t know if SummerSlam 2021’s big matches have enjoyed this type of build. The names involved are certainly big, but something’s missing. Cena’s rivalry with Reigns feels like a slightly rushed step in a far larger, louder story, and Goldberg vs. Lashley is even more straightforward. Even if these star-studded title matches deliver in the ring, I’m not convinced that their stories have been given enough time to grow.
With that in mind, while this year’s SummerSlam certainly feels bigger than most of its predecessors, it’s actually far more similar than we’d like to think.
Let’s look at the last non-lockdown example as a point of comparison. SummerSlam 2019 had big names too: Brock Lesnar, Trish Stratus, even Goldberg appeared then as well. Both cards are also light on stipulations. 2019 saw a submission match for the SmackDown Women’s Championship, and Elias in the special guest referee slot for Kevin Owens vs. Shane McMahon.
This year’s SummerSlam is even more conventional, with only Drew McIntyre’s clash with Jinder Mahal featuring any sort of condition at the time of writing (the banning of Veer and Shanky from ringside - let's not get too whacky now, WWE).
I’m not suggesting that a lack of stipulations indicates a lack of excitement or quality, but it’s another sign that SummerSlam may not reach the heights of an average ‘Mania after all.
But then, we've previously discussed an overuse of gimmick-style matches too.
In any case, while this weekend’s SummerSlam may be viewed by many as the real grandest stage of the year, I’m not sure if that really is the situation.
But, to be completely fair, I’m also not annoyed about it. If SummerSlam 2021 falls short of the hype while delivering in the ring, I’ll certainly be satisfied.
After all, with a shock new IMPACT World Champion, New Japan’s G1 Climax looming, and the impending AEW debuts of CM Punk and Bryan Danielson, a bloated, overindulgent big four pay per view may be too much for one summer.