WWE SummerSlam and how to not tell a story

As a grown man, I should probably not be as quick to admit that I watch wrestling as much as I do, but whatever. It is completely ridiculous, over-the-top storytelling, and I honestly have more fun watching it as an adult than I did as a kid. It is ridiculous, but if you watch it like any other television show, you can have some fun. Max Landis summed it up brilliantly in his hilarious short film, Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling, saying, “Don’t get me wrong, a lot of wrestling sucks. But when it’s good, it’s fucking great.”

Wrestling is at its best when it relies on the simple formula of good vs. evil. There are dastardly villains doing bad things, and we follow the hero on their journey to ensure the bad guys get their proper comeuppance. And we see it all played out with absurd characters.
Despite that relatively simple formula, WWE managed to completely bungle the art of storytelling at their super major SummerSlam pay-per-view event over the weekend.

SummerSlam is WWE’s second-biggest event of the year and was sold on a main event of Brock Lesnar vs. the Undertaker – “The rematch too big for WrestleMania.” This was a rematch of their bout from WrestleMania XXX last year in which the Lesnar shocked the world and ended the Undertaker’s 21-match win streak at the event. A streak that started all the way back in 1991 at WrestleMania VII. Saying it was a shock is a vast understatement. The crowd reacted like somebody died.

The go-to image for shocked fans over Taker's loss. This guy wanted Brock Lesnar to win, and even he was stunned.
The go-to image for shocked fans over Taker’s loss. This guy wanted Brock Lesnar to win, and even he was stunned.

Grown men cried. Not me, but other grown men cried. I mean, this is the Undertaker we’re talking about. The undead outlaw that beats everybody’s asses and sends them to hell. Yes, I did say the characters are absurd. But Undertaker is just about the most untouchable and loved character in all of WWE. Then along comes the massive, terrifying, evil WWE champ-turned UFC champ-turned WWE champ Brock Lesnar to end a streak the crowd had a huge emotional investment in. Heartbreaking.

Seriously, the crowd reaction is some of the funniest shit you will ever see in wrestling. They were too stunned to even boo initially.

After Undertaker lost his WrestleMania streak, it was unclear if we’d ever see him again. A career spanning more than two decades, seemingly gone. He ended up returning for Mania this year, defeating Bray Wyatt, and then called out Brock Lesnar to finally take his revenge for the streak ending.

It was a pretty clear-cut story: Undertaker, the ultra fan-favorite, loses his beloved win streak at the biggest stage in wrestling to the ultra villain, Brock Lesnar. Every week, Lesnar’s manager, Paul Heyman, rubs the conquering of the streak in the faces of the fans. Lesnar hasn’t been beaten in one-on-one competition in years and continually dominates everybody. Finally, Undertaker returns and the stage is set for him to get his win back and shut Lesnar and Heyman up once and for all. It’s the battle of good vs. evil, the hero’s quest, a story so simple it practically writes itself.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it played it out. Taker and Lesnar had a great, physical brawl that culminated in one of the most confusing endings I’ve ever seen in a lifetime of watching wrestling. I understood what I saw, but I don’t understand why I saw it.

Lesnar locked Undertaker in the kimura submission hold, but Undertaker tried to turn it into a pinfall. As the referee was watching Lesnar’s shoulders to see if there was a pin, Taker tapped out. The ref didn’t see it, but the timekeeper noticed Taker tapping and rang the bell. The referee jumped up and said the match wasn’t over since he never saw Taker submit.

While the ref was chastising the timekeeper, Undertaker punched Lesnar in the nuts and locked him in the Hell’s Gate chokehold. The ref turned around to resume the match, Lesnar eventually passed out in the choke, and Undertaker won. He left, and the replay of his tapout was played over and over to show the “controversy.”

I have never been so puzzled at the end of a wrestling event. As storytelling, what is the purpose of this? The big, bad, undead outlaw rose from the ashes for revenge, and then lost once again, though technically the referee didn’t see it. Then he cheated and managed to secure a submission victory.

Rather than riding in like this huge badass, fulfilling his promise to crush Lesnar and exact vengeance, Taker instead looks like a conniving old man who got his “redemption” on a technicality.

Even this bizarre moment of Taker and Lesnar laughing wasn't enough to help.
Even this bizarre moment of Taker and Lesnar laughing wasn’t enough to help.

Brock Lesnar returned from MMA and has wreaked havoc on the WWE roster for three years now, and nobody’s been able to put a stop to it. After SummerSlam, it is still not clear to me who is going to be the one to knock Lesnar down a peg. The one guy it seemed like was destined to make the big return and do it – the guy who Lesnar took the most from – instead came back and kind of sort of won but didn’t really.

Not to mention, this also opens up a whole can of worms as to why the timekeeper would ring the bell then, but not every other time in history when he’s seen something the ref didn’t. People getting hit with chairs, interference, etc. Why now?

I hoped Monday’s episode of Raw would provide answers, but at the same time I feel like you shouldn’t have to watch a three-hour episode of Raw to understand what happened in the biggest match of a four-hour PPV.

Sadly, no answers were given. Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman opened the show, called out Undertaker, and Taker didn’t show up. It was just reiterated that the ending was controversial. Now we have to let this fester for weeks or, heaven help us, months to figure out where this story is going. The story has already been going on for a year and a half. It was able to last that long on the fact that Undertaker would come for revenge and finally be the one to defeat Brock Lesnar.

Now, it drags on since the villain has become the wronged party, and we’ll likely get an unnecessary rubber match due to the “controversy.” All this despite the fact Brock Lesnar has now twice been established as the superior competitor. So what was the point? What’s the hero’s journey that sells a third match? Is Undertaker a bad guy now?

These are questions we won’t see answered for a very long time, and the fact these are questions that even come up show that this is not how you tell a story.