My Summer Fling With Wrestling: Returning To WWE After Years Away, Part 2

Sasha Banks AJ Styles

Editor’s note: While we here at With Spandex pride ourselves on our pro wrestling acumen and expertise, we found the following pitch too good to pass up. One of our UPROXX Sports writers wanted to dip his toe back into the wrestling waters after being out of the game for over a decade and spend a summer with the squared circle, so we were fascinated at what a lapsed fan would think to look at wrestling in 2016 with completely fresh eyes. Please enjoy Chris Morgan’s two-part summer journey, which continues below. You can find Part 1 here.

I wasn’t planning on writing about the first Raw and Smackdown post-Battleground. However, there were a couple of notable things that occurred that I came to feel were important to make mention of. First, the shows have taken on a more sportslike, “realistic” demeanor. Apparently, WWE’s desire to try and make itself over in the image of ESPN, and other “legitimate” sports outlets, had not yet been sated. Second, Finn Bálor (who as you now I had no prior knowledge of), quickly shot to the top of Raw, as he won two matches in order to face off with Seth Rollins for WWE’s new “Universal” Championship. This is a silly name for a belt, but Bálor is pretty good.

Third, and last, Charlotte and Sasha Banks had a great match for the WWE Women’s Championship. One of the reasons I stopped watching wrestling was because women had a role with the company I was dissatisfied with. That is no longer the case. These two are sterling examples of the investment made in women’s wrestling in WWE. Both of these women are very talented, and they put on a wonderful match. Charlotte did a moonsault off the top rope onto Banks on the floor. Candice Michelle wasn’t doing that back when I was last watching, you know? Banks won, a big moment for the first post-draft Raw. It was a really good show.

I watched the August 1 edition of Raw from a hotel in Amarillo, Texas, which is a weird place for anybody to watch anything. I was in the process of moving across the country, from Los Angeles to my native Michigan, which meant several days on the road and several nights in hotel rooms. My life had taken a turn. When I began this project at the beginning of the summer, I was not expecting to find myself catching WWE shows on the road, but here I was.

I don’t want to say that I found it comforting to watch Raw that Monday night, but that’s maybe because I don’t want to describe it as comforting. I am a pop culture fanatic, but I have always blanched at being associated with nostalgia. I love old pop culture. For me, though, it has never been about trying to recreate some feeling from my youth, or a longing for a simpler time in my life. I love to talk about this stuff and write about this stuff because I find it all interesting. Even stuff I have no fondness for. I used to watch I Dream of Jeannie every weeknight. I didn’t think it was good then, and I don’t think it’s good now. But I will talk about it for hours if you want.

So while I do think I felt some comfort in having Raw to watch, I don’t think it was because of my childhood. I don’t think it was because of all the Monday nights I spent watching wrestling as a kid. It wasn’t about the time my dad took me and my brother to his bowling night and plopped us in front of a TV in a bar and had them put on Nitro so we could watch it. However, I did feel a real sense of relief to know that I would be watching Raw after a long day of driving. If I were to have asked myself, at the time, what I would have done that evening if I hadn’t been doing this project, and hadn’t planned to watch wrestling, my answer would have been, “I don’t know.”

Wrestling moves in cycles, which means my experience with the build to SummerSlam was similar to the lead-up to Battleground. After a couple weeks, when the storylines become clear, I start to get antsy for the pay-per-view payoff. Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton were back, but neither of them clicked with me. I saw Finn Bálor’s “Demon King” persona. This is a key indication of the changes in wrestling from my childhood. The “Demon King” is considered an alter ego of Balor. It’s a persona he puts on. Back in the day of The Undertaker and Kane and Papa Shango, they would probably make this actually supernatural, and it would be very silly. This allows WWE to have its cake and eat it too, even if it takes Demon King Finn Bálor a million years to get into the ring.

Roman Reigns got bumped down to feuding with U.S. Champion Rusev. They confronted each other during a wedding celebration for Rusev and Lana, which was a long walk to the obvious payoff of Lana getting her face in the cake. Reigns seemed a lot more laid back on the mic, and actually came across okay. In terms of his delivery, at least. He was making terrible jokes. Faces who try to be funny remain terrible, by and large. Their jokes tend to be lame, even if they go over well with the audience in the crowd. At least that never changes. Meanwhile, Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho are heels, and they are quite funny. Heels get to be funny, and faces don’t, which is why it is always better to be a heel.

Over on Smackdown, Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose’s feud over the WWE Championship had some good moments, but nothing else really grabbed me. They did use their two best women’s wrestlers, Becky Lynch and Natalya, to put over a couple of the new female wrestlers added to the show. Kudos to them for doing the job to put over new talent. However, by the time of the final Smackdown before SummerSlam, I was ready for the pay-per-view to finally happen.

Finally, SummerSlam arrived. The culmination of my return to wrestling was here. Just a few months earlier, I had watched Dean Ambrose walk into the arena carrying his title belt and it literally meant nothing to me. By the time SummerSlam rolled around, I was well-versed in the modern WWE. I even watched one NXT match! I hope you won’t mind if I go through my final WWE show of the summer step by step.

Enzo and Big Cass went up against Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. Enzo and Cass never grew on me. They were a reminder of the tedious “in your face” attitude of the bygone era of wrestling. I did come to like Owens quite a bit, and Jericho as a heel has always been one of my favorites. It’s been over a decade now, and Jericho being a pompous bad guy still delights me. Surprisingly, the slapped-together team of Owens and Jericho beat Enzo and Big Cass, who seemed to be in line for a big win.

Then came Sasha Banks versus Charlotte. I love Sasha and Charlotte. They have become two of my favorite wrestlers (although I prefer Charlotte, because heels are always more fun). Together they stand as a rebuke to the old dichotomy of women’s wrestling in WWE. Their match at SummerSlam was great. I could watch them wrestle each other over and over.

The Miz beat Apollo Crews. I wish I could conjure up some sort of facile, profound insight about how I feel about these two, but I can’t. They are okay, I guess. Their match was super short.

AJ Styles and John Cena fought each other in the middle of the show, but it was still one of the biggest matches of the night. It was also the longest match of the night, clocking in at around 23 minutes. Cena always loses at SummerSlam. I did some reading up on wrestling leading into the pay-per-view. SummerSlam is the show for the “savvy” wrestling fan, which is to say, people who tend to like to watch Cena lose. Cena has been around for a while. I remember watching him back in the day, and I remember smarks despising him then. I sort of get it. You can’t complain about his performance at SummerSlam, though. Cena pulled out moves I hadn’t seen him do before. He and Styles had a really good match. I enjoyed it.

Gallows and Anderson versus New Day reminded me how bad wrestling is when it comes to comedy most of the time. New Day’s schtick always annoys me. Gallows and Anderson made a bunch of testicle jokes. In the end, Jon Stewart was part of this SummerSlam match, and wrestling’s sense of comedy is so poor that instead of Stewart lifting the comedy up, wrestling pulled him down. I wish wrestling could actually be funny. If WWE could make me laugh, I would definitely watch it more often. Alas, the laughs are few and far between, and when they try and be funny, it’s almost always death.

Dean Ambrose beat Dolph Ziggler. Ambrose was the WWE World Champion the entire time I watched wrestling this summer. He’s fine. I also watched his status get deflated by the WWE Universal Championship, thanks to the brand split. It just goes to show you that internal stakes don’t guarantee excitement or intrigue.

The ladies of Smackdown had a match. Nikki Bella made her return. I didn’t know who she was, but people seemed excited for her. Apparently she had a serious neck injury? That’s very concerning. I saw a commercial during SummerSlam for a reality show with her and her sister and Daniel Bryan and John Cena. I’m a big proponent of women’s wrestling, and of the role women have within WWE. I think I probably made that clear, even overly clear, in the course of this article. That being said, none of these women really click for me, save for perhaps Becky Lynch. Natalya is good in the ring, but boring. Their match was fine.

Finn Bálor and Seth Rollins fought for the new Universal Championship. The fans were mad at the belt, because it’s red. It literally looks like the World Championship, but red. People just like to complain. That, or they really hate the color red, like a bull. Bálor hadn’t even debuted when I started watching wrestling again, which was only a couple months ago. At SummerSlam, he became the top guy. He’s a good wrestler. He has an elaborate makeup-heavy look sometimes that walks the line between cool and cheesy as all hell. Would that be a fitting description of pro wrestling? Or is that too neat a conclusion? Seth Rollins is great, though. That guy is good at everything.

Rusev and Roman Reigns didn’t even have a match. Reigns just beat up Rusev. When I started watching wrestling, Reigns was in the main event scene. Then he got busted by the Wellness Policy. For a month of the time I was watching WWE, he wasn’t even on TV. People don’t like him. I think he’s fine.

The evening ended with Brock Lesnar versus Randy Orton. Lesnar beat up Orton. He hit Orton in the head and the match was stopped because Orton was bleeding. This was an example of wrestling taking “realness” to a level I don’t find interesting. I don’t watch MMA. I have no interest in it. I get not having magical people anymore. I appreciate Finn Bálor’s Demon King being a “persona” and that he can dress up like that, but then also kiss his mom at ringside. I don’t want to watch a staged “fight.” I want to see cool wrestling moves and improbable fights. Pro wrestling isn’t MMA. Fortunately, they don’t try and make it that way most of the time. I was not particularly pleased with the way SummerSlam ended, as such, but I did enjoy the show. However, it was also over four hours. That’s more time than any but the more laborious college football games. It was a fitting end to my summer of wrestling; it just could have used, like, 20 minutes trimmed.

A lot of the wrestlers I grew up watching are dead. An inordinate number of them, in fact, based on both percentage and based on their age when they died. You know this. When you drop out of wrestling, like I did, basically the only time you ever hear about a pro wrestler you remember, the only time you think about them, is when you find out they died. Your only relationship with wrestling is untimely death. It feels weird. Obviously, eventually, everybody dies, and we all watch people we loved and admired and had fond feelings for die. It’s just that our favorite pop culture figures, our heroes and icons, usually die when we are middle-aged, or even older. People my age, people in their late 20s, don’t have that experience to the same degree. I’ve only now grown accustomed to athletes I grew up watching retiring on the regular. Those athletes aren’t dying in unusually high numbers, though.

These deaths, of course, aren’t natural. Some of the older wrestlers may be dying of natural causes now, but most of them aren’t. They are ugly, abrupt, sad deaths. Macho Man Randy Savage was one of the most successful and beloved wrestlers of all time. He had a goddamn heart attack while driving. He was 58. This sort of thing really gave me a warped, morbid relationship to pro wrestling. Wrestling became nothing but a never-ending parade of dead people from my childhood.

Now, though, that’s obviously no longer the case. I’ve spent a couple of months watching wrestling again. It’s a different world now, and for the better. Wrestling’s present doesn’t feel as ugly as its past, and there is stuff to enjoy about it. Some of the wrestlers are really talented, and some of those talented wrestlers are women. I enjoyed myself, although I wasn’t completely swept away in the process. There are still people who get a lot of screen time I’m not really a fan of, and there is still a lot of lackluster comedy. Wrestling has never been as funny as it wishes it was, at least in WWE.

Am I glad I spent the summer watching wrestling? Yes, and only in part because it was a weird, occasionally challenging, summer for me and having a distraction was helpful. Summer is a time that can get fallow, entertainment wise, especially for pop culture fanatics such as me. I think that’s what WWE is going to be for me going forward. During the rest of the year, there’s just too much competing with wrestling for my attention.

I enjoyed it and I had fun, but it didn’t hook me again, or at least it didn’t hook me deeply. I’ll keep up with it during the year, and maybe watch it occasionally. You know, just to keep up. Then, next summer, when the NHL and the NBA have put their seasons to rest, I will get back into watching WWE. I’ll watch Raw and Smackdown and maybe even the pay-per-views. Also, I may watch Royal Rumble, because that’s such a cool event.

Going forward, WWE will be my summer fling. I know the movie Grease posits that a summer fling don’t mean a thing, but that’s not the case here. This started off as a curiosity, but it ended up being a valuable, worthwhile experience. Now, I have a relationship with wrestling that isn’t solely about people I remember dying. That feels like a strange thing to be happy about, but the world is a strange place.