This past weekend was a big one for WWE, as they not only presented their biggest show of the summer, the four-hour-long SummerSlam Pay-Per-View, they also put on the largest NXT special of the developmental league’s young existence, showcasing their future stars in front of thousands of fans at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Both shows were full of great wrestling, memorable moments, and shocking results, leaving all sorts of questions to be answered in the weeks ahead. But before we leave SummerSlam and Takeover behind, let’s look at some of the greatest individual performances done by the men and women of WWE and NXT during a very eventful weekend.
10. Jushin “Thunder” Liger
A true Japanese wrestling legend, known to North American audiences for his time in WCW and spectacular matches with the likes of Brian Pillman and Rey Mysterio, it was apparently always a dream of Liger to wrestle at least once in front of a WWE audience, and thanks to a phone call from good friend William Regal, at Takeover his dream was realized. Despite wrestling at the significantly advanced age of 50, Liger showed that while he may have lost a step from his prime, he is still every bit the fierce competitor that he was during his younger days. With a game opponent in the talented Tyler Breeze, Liger put on a match that would have been considered excellent if done by wrestlers half his age, making it all the more spectacular for being done by a man over two decades older than most of the NXT (and WWE) roster. While this was only set up as a one-time appearance by Liger, anyone who was impressed by his work last night should definitely dip into the archives of the WWE Network to check out some of the exemplary work Liger has done over the years.
9. Blue Pants
For weeks, the charming old-timey tag team known as The Vaudevillains had promised that while they would certainly never stoop to striking a lady themselves, they had prepared a solution for dealing with the devious Alexa Bliss, manager of the NXT Tag Team champions Blake and Murphy. At Takeover, their master plan was revealed to be Blue Pants, a female wrestler who has made recurring appearances on NXT as an enhancement talent, but who was not (at least, as far as anyone knew) a contacted WWE wrestler. Well, hopefully her arrangement will soon become a permanent one, as Blue Pants’ presence paid immediate dividends for The Vaudevillains, who defeated Blake and Murphy to become champions. In addition, the enthusiastic Brooklyn crowd led several pro-Blue Pants cheers during the course of the match, turning her from a lesser-known presence into a notable figure.
8. Apollo Crews
Crews is NXT’s newest big signing from the ranks of independent wrestling, and the man formerly known as Uhaa Nation broke onto the scene in the biggest possible fashion, with his featured debut match taking place in front of NXT’s largest crowd ever. In fact, the size and grandeur of the event even seemed to briefly throw Crews for a loop, as he loudly exclaimed with joy and amazement at the mass of humanity and the fact that he was actually wrestling on an NXT special event. His sheer happiness was invigorating, and immediately forged a connection with the audience. And once his debut match began, Crews showed off a remarkable combination of inhuman strength and ridiculous agility, combined into a polished package that would seem to ear-mark him as a potential big star for WWE in the future.
While the NXT Title bout may have been the main event and final match of Takeover, it can be argued that the biggest match on the card was the one fought over the NXT Women’s Championship. Billed in advertisements as the “co-main event”, this match featured one of the newest NXT graduates, Sasha Banks, defending the title against fan favorite Bayley, in the culmination of a two-year-long story of Bayley’s quest to become champion despite being betrayed by all of her friends along the way. The larger story, however, was about the self-dubbed “4 Horsewomen of NXT” (Charlotte, Bayley, Sasha, and Becky Lynch), who shared a bond of wanting to make professional women’s wrestling a credible and featured part of NXT and WWE, rescuing it from a history of “bra and panties” matches fought by non-wrestling bikini models. And while Charlotte, Sasha, and Becky had all “graduated” to WWE’s main programming in recent months, Bayley suffered a hand injury and was left behind in NXT, missing out on the Divas Revolution for at least the immediate future. When she returned to NXT after recovering from the injury, Bayley made it clear that she was back to prove that she could hang with the best, and that she wanted to win the NXT Women’s title.
After defeating Emma, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch on consecutive weeks in order to establish herself as the #1 Contender, Bayley received her title shot at NXT Takeover. Sporting black and gold polka dots in tribute to her mentor, the late Dusty Rhodes, Bayley pulled out all the stops against Sasha Banks, in a match that was as much about pure emotion than it was about wrestling skill (although it had plenty of both), ultimately pulling out the victory following a spectacular top-rope reverse hurricanrana and her signature “Bayley-to-belly” suplex. Post-match, the 4 Horsewomen reunited one more time, celebrating the establishment of a new brand of women’s wrestling in front of a sold-out Barclay’s Center.
6. The New Day
This trio of incredibly talented wrestlers has come a long way from their original incarnation as a bland group of babyfaces whose gimmick was based off the stereotype of enthusiastic black evangelists professing positive attitudes. As good guys, the act was a dud. However, by pushing it way over the top and upping the annoyance factor, The New Day found new life as top heels in the tag team division. The Tag Team titles followed shortly thereafter, but their first reigns was surprisingly cut short by an unexpected upset at the hands of the Prime Time Players. The New Day was undeterred, however, and continued to express their (admittedly skewed) views on the power of positivity while finding new and exciting ways to irritate their opponents.
At SummerSlam, The New Day was in fine form, starting with a spectacular pre-match exhibition of their singing talents and ending with a clever use of in-match strategy (including a smart, but ultimately foiled attempt to subvert Fatal Four-Way tag rules so that they could pin their own team-mate and win the match that way) where they came away with the win and their second run as WWE Tag Team Champions. The match, involving three other tag teams, was a hidden gem of a mostly forgettable first part of SummerSlam, and much of that was due to the charisma and wrestling ability of the three men that make up The New Day.
5. Stephen Amell
Celebrity involvement in professional wrestling has always been a mixed bag. For every decent match involving Lawrence Taylor, there are a dozen abominations like David Arquette or Jay Leno. So when the star of The CW’s Arrow professed his love for WWE in several interviews, the countdown was on for when that love would be used for cross-promotional purposes. Sure enough, Amell eventually found himself embroiled in a Twitter feud with WWE’s Stardust, who was played by noted comic book enthusiast Cody Rhodes, which seemed to be building towards an inevitable match at SummerSlam. Fans were cautiously optimistic about Amell’s involvement; he was known for doing most of his own stunts on Arrow, but hadn’t done any formal wrestling training. To his credit, Amell threw himself into learning the craft with enthusiasm, to the point that he reportedly suffered a serious jaw injury (which probably didn’t sit too well with the people behind his hit TV show). For their part, WWE took every precaution to ensure that Amell’s match at SummerSlam wouldn’t be a disaster, inserting popular new star Neville as Amell’s tag team partner to share the workload should things go awry.
However, they probably didn’t need to worry, as Amell took his big chance to be a pro wrestler and ran with it. While he wasn’t the most polished wrestler in the world, he was more than competent, wrestling more than his fair share of the match and looking like he’d been training for far longer than a few weeks. In addition, he performed one of the biggest spots of the night, climbing to the top rope and launching himself onto Stardust and King Barrett on the floor below. While Neville and Amell claimed victory, one can’t help but hope that this is not the last time that we see The Arrow patrolling the rings of WWE.
4. Seth Rollins
To say that Seth Rollins has been portrayed as a fairly weak WWE World Heavyweight Champion is, perhaps, an understatement. Whether he was hiding behind his security team, the Director of Operations Kane, or The Authority itself, it seemed like Rollins remained champion more due to the actions of others than any ability on his part. Certainly, he won matches when it mattered, but he had never seemed truly dominant in victory, often taking the lion’s share of the punishment before escaping with the win.
At SummerSlam, Rollins faced one of the biggest threats to his reign in the form of the 15-time former champion and record-setting Make-A-Wish recipient John Cena, who had been spending the last several months tearing the house down in a series of WWE United States Open Challenges. With his bodyguards nowhere to be seen and The Authority seemingly uninterested in providing Rollins with any protection, it was up to Rollins to take on the seemingly unstoppable Cena by himself. And in the match at SummerSlam, Rollins showed all the wrestling talent that got him to WWE and put him in the position to be WWE World Heavyweight Champion in the first place. From the opening bell, Rollins took the fight directly to John Cena, targeting the challenger’s recently broken nose and putting him on the defensive early. Rollins kept up the pressure, reaching into the depths of his arsenal to deliver previously unseen moves, many of them spectacularly high-risk, showing the skills that had made him one of the brightest young talents on the independent scene. And in the end, Rollins did the unthinkable and emerged victorious, claiming Cena’s United States title while retaining his own. Although, to be fair, he did end up having a little help…
3. Jon Stewart
Speculation had run rampant for months about what Jon Stewart’s first public appearance would be post-Daily Show. The fact that he might actually retire quietly to a farm in New Jersey never occurred to anyone, for some reason. So when the admittedly life-long wrestling fan and native New York-area resident, who had already been involved in WWE storylines earlier in the year, was announced as the guest host of SummerSlam, it was an unexpected, but welcome, addition to an already-packed show. Many expected Stewart to have the usual limited involvement that other guest hosts have had in the past, and for the first part of SummerSlam, that appeared to be the case. Stewart opened the show with a nice comedic promo where he promised to interview Brock Lesnar, bringing in Long Island’s own Mick Foley for protection (much to Stewart’s chagrin, once Foley learned why he’d been brought in, he showed absolutely no interest in visiting Suplex City). Several smaller backstage vignettes followed, of a similar comedic tone, ending with Stewart being rebuffed by Lesnar’s advocate, Paul Heyman.
But the night was not over for Stewart, as in one of the more shocking moments in SummerSlam history, he got involved in the match between John Cena and current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins (with whom Stewart had clashed before), surprising everyone by hitting Cena with a steel chair and allowing Rollins to win the match and the WWE United States title, becoming a dual champion in the process. Now, questions abound about the reasons behind Stewart’s dastardly actions. Was it a mistake? Was he paid off by The Authority? Or, perhaps, did he just see an opportunity to further inflame the heated New York-Boston rivalry? Whatever the case, despite his retirement, the name of Jon Stewart is still on everybody’s lips thanks to his actions at SummerSlam.
2. Kevin Owens
One of the biggest strikes against Kevin Owens even making it into WWE has always been the fact that he simply doesn’t look like a professional wrestler. He’s short by wrestling standards, he’s not that attractive, and his physique is more in line with someone who watches wrestling than an actual wrestler. But Kevin Owens has the charisma, the drive, and more importantly, the skills to be one of the best wrestlers of all time, even while carrying around a near 300-pound body. He showed that over this past weekend, when he only competed in a brutal ladder match against Finn Balor at NXT Takeover, in an unsuccessful attempt to win back the NXT Title. Owens and Balor tore into each other from the start, and with multiple ladders coming into play, the match quickly began to resemble a slow motion car crash. Bodies repeatedly slammed into steel, sometimes from great heights, and Owens, in the end, took the brunt of the beating, leaving him unable to prevent Balor from ascending the ladder and claiming the title.
For any other wrestler, that would be enough. But Kevin Owens didn’t even get a day off, as he was right back in action the very next night at SummerSlam, facing the incredibly talented Cesaro, with both men having something to prove. Given Owens’ exploits the previous evening, it’s likely that nobody would have blamed him for taking it a little easier in a match that was for relatively lower stakes. There was no title on the line, no reward for winning outside of bragging rights and pride. But for the two former independent wrestlers in the match, it was seen as a potential star-making moment, a chance to make their mark on the big stage. Within minutes, Owens was catapulting himself over the top rope to the floor, taking multiple ear-ringing uppercuts from Cesaro, and executing ridiculous high-risk maneuvers in an attempt to put away the Swiss Superman. The match was not as long as his bout with Finn Balor, but it was just as hard-hitting, and in the end, Owens emerged victorious, showing that even if he doesn’t sport a six-pack, he is every bit a fantastic professional wrestler.
1. The Undertaker
The circumstances of his tainted victory over Brock Lesnar will probably go down in history as one of the worst ways anyone has ever won a wrestling match, but that’s an entirely different argument that is currently ongoing in the corners of the Internet and will probably, one day, destroy us all. Instead, what needs to be focused on is the fact that this match was expected to be terrible, and it wasn’t. Anyone who had predicted that the mostly-retired, oft-injured and seriously getting up there in years Undertaker would go toe-to-toe with Brock Lesnar and look not just decent, but downright incredible, should probably be playing the lottery right now. The fact of the matter is that The Undertaker gave as good as he got, taking multiple suplexes from The Beast Incarnate and delivering some strong power moves of his own. While he was ultimately forced to resort to taking a short-cut in the form of a low blow, it was at least believable that there was a chance that The Undertaker could not just survive Brock Lesnar, he could even defeat him, which is not something anyone would have thought going into the match. Much like Liger at Takeover, Undertaker showed that in professional wrestling, sometimes age is just a number, even if it is a little on the higher side, and the result was an unexpectedly great main event of SummerSlam. Well, until the ending, of course.