The golden summer of 2011 is still with us. For years, summer was just one extended dip in the shallow pool of wrestling. Apart from Summerslam, WWE never really gave us anything to get excited about and, usually, not even then. Often, the start of the hot, humid days is simply an excuse for wrestling to go to the beach, eat some ice-cream and then head off into autumn with nary a plot or developing story to take us into winter. For every Undertaker v Edge, we had a Hogan v Michaels ‘oversell-fest’. For every Rock v Brock we’d get Nexus being destroyed by the big guns. Often, it felt like WWE’s myriad of writers were simply waiting for the nights to draw in so they could bemoan the lower ratings and wait for the wrestling Christmas period that is the Road to Wrestlemania.
Things changed in the summer of 2011 though. WWE looked to Ring of Honour, it looked to CM Punk and it booked in a programme that would eventually lead to a double title haul for the straight edge superstar. Yes, he was pulled down by best buds Paul and Kevin but he fought on through, belittled Big Nasty on the mic and moved on to a Survivor Series win against Del Rio for the WWE Championship. Even with the myriad of obstacles, Punk made the Summer of Punk II exciting. For a while, Nash’s involvement was interesting, as was Laurinaitis texting away. The fact that those two elements came to nothing didn’t change the fact that WWE had a provocative, mainstream storyline to take us through summer and into autumn.
Further down that 2011 Summerslam card was a certain Mr Daniel Bryan. Another young, indie darling who had received a huge pop on his return the year before as part of Team WWE. Interestingly, that 2010 card had Big Show going over The Straight Edge Society, another build to Punk’s angry pipe-bomb. Bryan’s career has been up-and-down (writing-wise). One minute he’s winning the Money in the Bank briefcase at Punk’s PPV, the next he is getting brogue-kicked back into the pre-show by Sheamus at Wrestlemania XXVIII. Bryan could only watch from backstage as Punk and Jericho nearly stole the show from Rock, Cena, Taker and HHH.
The sun dimmed slightly last year but back then we didn’t realise that Bryan defeating Kane would lead straight on to a great tag-team run and Punk beating Cena and Show was only a small section of a 434 part story. Now, however, the sun is shining as bright as it can. In fact, my words can’t do it justice so here is a tweet from fellow TJRWrestling writer Brandon Lasher:
Cena vs Bryan. Punk vs Lesnar. Shut up and take my money! #WWE— WWE Lasher (@WWELasher) July 16, 2013
If Summer of Punk (II) was the start of a wind change in WWE with an emphasis on development of CM Punk, this year is the second great summer as the mainstream wrestlers clash with the indie experts. I think it’s fair to say that Lesnar is now free from the shackles of Triple H and already is in the middle of an incredible bit of storytelling thanks to Paul Heyman and Punk. Also, to be completely fair, Cena is still breathing in the fresh air of not having to face The Rock at some point down the line. If two, maybe even three, years of Cena’s career were left to stagnate as he waited for the Team Bring It leader to come back to the ‘universe’, Lesnar certainly had ten months of it as he battled Triple H in a feud that never really took off.
Cena versus Bryan feels as fresh as the developing Punk story did two years ago. There are rumours that the writers wanted to hold fire a couple of weeks and reward Mark Henry a bit more for his excellent return work but, with all fairness to the man who holds the keys to the Hall of Pain, why wait when the audience is clamouring for Bryan to be centre stage in the ring chanting ‘Yes!’ with 15,000 shouting with him? Again, like Punk two years ago, the WWE can’t write, buy or steal that kind of reaction. Give the audience, in the arenas and at home, a month of something fresh. Let them see how these two interact. Give both men their time in the sun. Yes, I include Cena in that comment because he always raises his game when facing a new, dangerous opponent.
I’m writing this before Raw this week but, even if the storyline only part develops in that episode, there is still a lot of talk about the Bella’s and reality programmes. I’m happy to go with it all though because I know the pay-off is a match both men have to make sure is as close to five stars as possible. Could a certain Viper be cashing in? Who knows. It doesn’t change the gift of watching Bryan, the little man, the wrestler that tells a ‘Rocky’ story for every match he’s in, taking on the corporate poster boy. Again, this isn’t a slight on Cena, but if Bryan is the little guy then Cena has to accept his standing too.
The same night we will see Punk v Lesnar. This one has been a slow build, arguably since Raw 1000, and last week on Raw it exploded into a revenge feud the likes of which we might never have seen. The double promo of Heyman and Punk was excellent. The story, the obstacles, the challenges were all set and then, the music that always makes me shout out loud ‘Oh...my...God’ started and Lesnar walked down and decimated our Punk. Two extremely technical, talented wrestlers will be going face to face this summer and it feels exciting and fresh and new...because it is. Punk has got rid of the inevitable shackles of losing the title to Rock and then again to Taker. Lesnar has finally left HHH behind to a ‘Family Ties’-style plotline which is set to run and run. Both men are ready for the challenge of, well, upstaging Cena and Bryan.
Again, we have four weeks of storytelling between the two men with Heyman, the Mafioso double-crosser, standing behind his monster. We also have Punk’s promise that he will hurt everyone his former associate knows. I’m assuming Curtis Axel has hired some security. The sun will shine down on a bloody, violent battle between two men who excite nearly every wrestling fan. Again, who knows what will happen over the next month but when Lesnar bounces from foot to foot in front of an embittered and motionless Punk in the Staples Centre, the crowd will be as loud as any other.
The thing is, it was almost inevitable that we, as fans, would be rewarded with these two main events. Since the fall-out from this year’s Wrestlemania with the contradictory ‘second once in a lifetime’ match between Cena and Rock, WWE and its bank of writers have begun to up their game. Nearly every week we get at least one match, sometimes two, that runs over twelve minutes and is often between three and four stars. We’ve had the build of Bryan. Orton slowly, ever so slowly, turning and slithering back to being a heel. Mark Henry and his retirement promo. Del Rio finally turning heel again. The Wyatt family. The Shield. Yes, three hours is still a bit of a commitment but at least it feels like we’re getting something back for the most part.
From there we have names like Ambrose, Reigns, Rollins, Bray Wyatt, Luke Harper, Erick Rowan and even Big E. Langston ready to take a step up and be counted. The work from all seven is excellent whether it is the psychotic tongue-rolling of an amped up Ambrose, the Christ-like poses of the Wyatt leader or Big E. watching and waiting and chewing. These are wrestlers who watched the Summer of Punk and thought, ‘we want that’. They now look at Bryan and they are closer than ever. It’s no coincidence though that Punk and Bryan are two of the hardest workers on the roster. This summer seems so bright not only because of almost every one of Bryan’s matches, but also because of the return of Punk. Raw is a programme we can look forward to. Summerslam is a pay-per-view we can smile about as we hand across our money.
At the moment, WWE gets it. You can’t always give the audience what they want because then it becomes stale, boring and preditable. For every Cena v Bryan, we need a Cena v Henry match. For this to work though, wrestlers like Henry need to up their game as well, and they definitely have – I simply refer you back to the retirement speech. It is a hope I’m sure we all have that WWE doesn’t lose momentum in the run-up to winter, as it often does. It needs to keep on battering us with a quality product we can’t miss. Survivor Series? Wyatt’s v Shield? I have no idea how that would work (as no-one wants a face turn for either this early on) but I’d sure as hell be interested enough to buy the PPV. Can two heel groups really co-exist and not cross paths at some point? The only thing a villain hates more than a hero is another villain stealing their limelight.
The past couple of years, the company has simply held on to the fact that the Rock was just around the corner, finishing up a film and ready to come back for a few weeks. Now, they have established stars and incredible new talent to make us invested.
Summerslam feels special this year. It already, with only two announced matches, feels like the Wrestlemania we never had. This second great summer of wrestling will take many turns, maybe history will be unkind to it, but the knock-on effect from the 2011 Summer of Punk is now being felt. If this continues, we will have lots of exciting, positive, sunny summers to come.
Please follow me on twitter @HughFirth or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org All constructive criticism is appreciated.
Ta ta for now and hopefully see you next week.