SummerSlam is Saturday night, the second-biggest night in pro wrestling behind WrestleMania, and as a casual fan of the grapples, I’ll be tuning in as usual.
Given the gulf between WWE’s television ratings and how widespread WWE is in our culture, I don’t think I’m alone in being someone who doesn’t watch multiple hours of wrestling per week, but still tunes in for the big events. I’ve gone through some phases of being really into it — as a kid, for a bit in college, and for a really good spell between Seth Rollins’ run with the Money in the Bank briefcase and the Kofi Kingston/Becky Lynch WrestleMania — but these days, I’m catching probably half of the pay-per-views, which aren’t really even pay-per-views these days, they’re just lumped into my Peacock subscription.
It’s that last bit that ensures I’m not going anywhere. So long as I’ve already paid for the thing that’s going to let me watch the big nights of wrestling, I will. I don’t need to put more money directly into the pocket of the inimitable Vince McMahon — and yeah, he and WWE are still getting that money out of Peacock — but it’s one of those things where you make the old calculation about where the line is given that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism. I had long since canceled my WWE Network subscription, but I would have Peacock regardless of whether they had a deal with McMahon’s company. So here we are.
The big draw at SummerSlam this time around is Roman Reigns against John Cena, two archetypal WWE figures. They’re merchandising powerhouses, look like they just stepped off the pages of a comic book, and have comparable histories of winning matches in a style that’s just short of deus ex machina.
A reason for Reigns and Cena squaring off now, as well as for their lofty status in WWE, is… all of that. For kids who don’t stay up to watch three hours of Monday Night Raw every week, they’re still the guys whose action figures are the most desirable. For folks who watch wrestling only once or twice a year, they’re dependable figures whose stories don’t tend to need too much explanation. For wrestling diehards, they’re Hall of Fame-level talents who, for all the corporate shtick that leads to their placement at the top of the card, do still inarguably belong at the top of the card.
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Ten years ago, CM Punk was absolutely right about a lot of things in his “Pipe Bomb” promo, including his claim that “I am the best wrestler in the world.” Whether or not that’s true now, we’ll surely see soon enough, given that AEW has made no secret of Punk’s impending arrival. Same for Bryan Danielson, known in his WWE career as Daniel Bryan. While Bryan’s “Yes! Movement” became more culturally widespread than anything from Punk’s time in WWE, he, like Punk, is a wrestling fan’s wrestler.
Jon Moxley? Same deal. He’s a huge star in AEW, free to do a lot of things that wouldn’t be possible in WWE for his old character Dean Ambrose, especially when it comes to over-the-top violence. But I’m someone who got back into wrestling in no small part because of landing on USA one night flipping channels, and seeing Ambrose attack some heels with a hot dog cart, complete with spraying condiments, not because of anyone’s technical brilliance or brutality.
Part of what I like about WWE is how silly and stupid it can be, and that’s not to say AEW doesn’t have any fun, goofy nonsense. Orange Cassidy’s entire character exists, after all. But it’s also setting itself up as a showcase for the best wrestlers in the world to show how incredible they are at wrestling.
Right down to having a broadcast deal with Turner, there are a lot of echoes of WCW in what AEW is doing. It’s WCW, where Ric Flair did his best work and became the legend that WWE bought. WCW had much better wrestling, but WWE has always had a broader appeal.
So, come Friday night, I’ll watch AEW’s Rampage, because all the Punk teases have made it into an event. But I already know I won’t be sticking around. It’s nothing against AEW, which from the couple of shows I’ve seen, does look like it has an objectively better product, just as WCW was. It’s just that we don’t always want what’s better, we want what’s easy and comfortable.
There’s definitely room for what AEW is doing, and the ability to be wildly successful doing it. But there’s also a reason that they go up against NXT every week, and not Raw or SmackDown. The Monday Night Wars were already waged, and it’s good that AEW is looking to fill the territory on the wrestling landscape that WCW once did. That’s the most exciting thing about Punk’s arrival, that he’ll get to have a run showing himself as “the best in the world,” and in front of an audience that will truly appreciate it. I just know enough about myself as a wrestling fan to know that I’m not really that audience, and Punk was right, most of the “WWE Universe” isn’t that audience either.