Navigating the Dream State of 2017 WWE
Breaking down some of the year's unexpected moments in anticipation of tonight's Summerslam WWE Championship match.
by PETE STEGMAN
Tonight at Summerslam, Shinsuke Nakamura is scheduled to face WWE Champion Jinder Mahal. While I would normally try to avoid making statements that date us concretely in an effort to appeal to a longer-term audience, this is important to establish right away. The contemporary landscape of WWE is a radical departure from what fans had grown accustomed to, and frankly grown tired of, just a couple years ago. Though having slowly built to this current state, it is still not easy to adjust to some of the unexpected, exciting, and, in some cases, bizarre happenings that would have seemed impossible only a short while ago. For that very reason, this is a time and place worth documenting and a statement worth repeating: Tonight at Summerslam, after defeating John Cena for the #1 Contendership, Shinsuke Nakamura, the adored New Japan veteran, will face WWE Champion Jinder Mahal, formally of 3MB. Weird.
To some, this is instantly written off as blasphemous booking. Imagine having a living legend like Nakamura lose a title match against Jinder. To others—myself included— this is an exciting opportunity to witness a formerly lower-card talent in a showcase against a performer who is internationally renowned as one of the best in the business. This is an opportunity to prove to the WWE Universe that Jinder Mahal is worthy of the most prestigious title in the industry after a long program with the consistently middle-of-the-road Randy Orton. Whether or not this will actually be the outcome remains to be seen, but the infamous metaphorical brass ring that nobody saw coming just a few months ago is hanging in front of us all, waiting to be grabbed, and we should all wait to see it happen before we pass judgement.
It might be easiest for some to deal with the idea of this match being a reality by immediately writing it off as a mistake. It would be a travesty in the event that Jinder should retain the WWE Championship, right? Not necessarily. This is just another bullet point in the growing list of happenings in WWE that feel as if they are part of some kind of dream sequence, and not all dreams are bad ones.
In anticipation of tonight’s improbable co-main event, it is worth taking time to reflect on other unlikely scenarios that have come to fruition this year and ended up being not only magnificent, but memorable for all the best reasons.
Shane McMahon vs. AJ Styles (Wrestlemania 33)
At the beginning of 2016, only a month apart, the 1-2 punch of AJ Styles’ WWE debut and Shane McMahon’s surprise return may have already been enough to justify what many people were saying: 2016 is the craziest year in wrestling so far. AJ’s Wrestlemania debut later that year was disappointing to many after he was defeated by Chris Jericho. After what some fans were arguing was a booking blunder, we were keeping a close eye on what was in store for AJ at his second chance to be in the spotlight at the industry’s biggest event only to realize that they actually didn’t have an opponent for him all. As the AJ/Shane angle became apparent, it was initially met with criticism that AJ deserved better, but by the time these two finally crossed paths, thanks to a wonderfully executed build-up, the result was a show-stealing match on the biggest stage of them all.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. John Cena (Raw, August 1)
The US arrival of Shinsuke Nakamura was another major moment of 2016. When rumblings began to surface that the King of Strong Style was considering splitting with New Japan Pro Wrestling after 14 years in pursuit of American wrestling stardom, potential dream opponents began popping up in everyone’s minds. Nothing felt bigger, however, than the idea that one day we would see him take on John Cena in a battle of two men known for being synonymous with their respective countries’ largest companies. That dream match came almost out of left field when it was announced that it would take place on Raw in a match for the #1 Contendership, but the duo delivered, and even gave us a taste of strong style, as John Cena was dropped directly on his neck in an already infamous spot that supposedly left Vince McMahon furious.
Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne (NXT TakeOver: Chicago)
Around the time of the Cruiserweight Classic when the internet began to buzz about WWE offering Superstars new types of contracts that did not demand exclusivity, it would have seemed completely out of the question to imagine that there could be an entirely new WWE Championship that also was not exclusive. The United Kingdom Championship became exactly that, however, having been touted around the U.K. in various promotions by its inaugural Champion Tyler Bate, and even defended once before this at an event for Progress Wrestling. When it was brought back home to WWE for its first defense at NXT TakeOver: Chicago, however, not only legitimized the division in the eyes of some of the more casual viewers who may not have paid attention to the tournament when it took place, but stole the spotlight from the other matches on the card, and has since been named by WWE.com as this year’s best match to date.
The Return of Kurt Angle and The Hardy Boyz
Kurt Angle and the Hardys all made mainstream headlines with their returns to the company around Wrestlemania 33. Angle, who recently reconciled a major falling out with Vince McMahon, was finally given his long overdue induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, while The Hardy Boyz jumped right back into the WWE Tag Team Championship picture after 7-year absence spent in TNA.
In addition to Angle and the Hardys, 2017 has seen a handful of other unlikely returns in Mickie James, The Great Kahli, and Drew McIntyre, who is in a very similar position to Jinder Mahal. Both former 3MB members have been given much more serious, dominant roles since their returns, and one can only hope that they will work a program together in the future.
Beyond the aforementioned happenings, there are many other moments from this year to appreciate. We were gifted with not just one, but two, all-female Money In The Bank matches. The Undertaker has retired. In his final moment, he left us with the gesture of leaving his hat and jacket in the ring as he walked back up the ramp for the last time just to remind us that he is the king of iconic wrestling imagery. After over 15 years making his name as one of the most prominent figures on the independent scene, Roderick Strong is finally in the WWE. There was a pay-per-view event called Great Balls of Fire and it didn’t suck. Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton started a match in a haunted house, then were driven by chauffeurs back to the arena to finish it for some reason.
All of these things are reminders that wrestling is in a fun and exciting time. It is important that we don’t forget why we are here in the first place: to have fun. It’s easy to forget this on the internet where everybody has a voice and opinion about why something isn’t right or how they could do it better, but when something isn’t done the way the general fanbase vocalizes, that doesn’t make it inherently bad. When we want somebody new to get a major opportunity in the company and it doesn’t end up being the person we wanted, that doesn’t make it inherently bad. When Shinsuke Nakamura’s first WWE Championship opportunity is against Jinder Mahal, that doesn’t make it inherently bad. What does make it bad is the lack of open-mindedness and immediate rejection of unexpected ideas. As we have learned time and time again, these unexpected ideas often work themselves out in wonderful ways when we allow them to and when we do what we do best: have fun and be a fan.