”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Who walks out of Summerslam as WWE Champion? Is your answer the result you want?
There are several marquee match-ups that highlight a fairly stacked Summerslam 2018 weekend (also including the NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV card), but perhaps the most anticipated is the WWE Championship bout between AJ Styles and Samoa Joe. Legitimate reasons exist as to why fans should rightfully be skeptical of their ability to live up to considerable hype just as legitimate reasons exist as to why fans should be rightfully expecting the WWE Title match to steal the thunder from every other competitor on both Saturday and Sunday. The following exploration delves into the various talking points that shape WWE’s initial presentation of the rivalry previously made famous by TNA.
A few weeks ago, one of the primary narratives surrounding Joe-Styles on The Doc Says podcast (which featured a variety of special guests recently) was whether or not they would repeat the reasonable disappointment of this year’s other massively ballyhooed Phenomenal feud from the past – versus Shinsuke Nakamura. WWE promoted Nak-AJ as a dream match and used the run-time at The Show of Shows to set-up a heel turn and, though the pair were able to win over a lot of people with a great Last Man Standing Match and The King of Strong Style’s character work as an antagonist, many still feel like the overall situation was a disappointment compared to the NJPW WrestleKingdom performance that made AJ vs. Shinsuke on the WWE stage worthy of “dream” labeling in the first place. The WrestleKingdom bout was in January 2016, mind you, while we are a decade removed from the matches between Styles and Joe that were so well regarded in TNA.
Classifying, at least on paper, Joe-AJ as a potential successor to Styles-Nakamura in the above described category does inherently ask a couple of interesting questions about the cause of the former’s letdown, one centered on WWE booking (something I have been more critical of than ever over the past 16 months) and the other focused on the performers involved. If we shine the spotlight on WWE booking, then we are essentially asking if WWE will allow Joe vs. Styles to be everything that some think it can still be, whereas if we pull on the narrative thread regarding the combatants, lights brighten on the idea that Styles may have finally lost a step (or something of that ilk) and that Joe, like Nakamura perhaps, just no longer possesses the next-level gear that once allowed him to hit figurative home-runs in the ring that the critical community hailed “all-time classics.”
If you consider the Joe criticism to be logical, it is because you have established in your mind the modern dichotomy between his character and his bell-to-bell work. On the microphone, there might not be a better heel promo in the game among active wrestlers. However, in his highest profile matches since joining WWE via NXT in 2015, the artist formerly known as the Samoan Submission Machine could, in performances that were heavily hyped, be characterized by his excellent displays of attitude but general lack of that extra something to get his work over the hump; to date, Joe’s singles matches at special events have never been critically rated better than their competition (as defined by a composite of various star-based systems). Say what you will about star ratings, but they are a general reflection of how the critical community feels about wrestling matches, and it says something that a guy like Joe who a decade ago was involved in a half dozen “Top 20 bouts of the 2000s” contenders has come to WWE and not been able to replicate that same success.
As for The Phenomenal One, it was discussed in this column a few months ago the pattern that he has fallen into, unsurprisingly unable to maintain the pace he set when he started in WWE (that was the finest 12 month stretch of PPV performances arguably ever), but one might say discouragingly unable to even sustain thus far in 2018 the standard he set for himself in the 2017/2018 season.
All of those criticisms notwithstanding, though, the current #1 contender and the longest reigning WWE Champion in the Smackdown brand’s history did have amazing chemistry back in the day, the type that traditionally does not go away. Remember when Steamboat and Flair faced off in a series of WCW Title bouts in 1994? They were not anything close to the fantastic series produced by the pair in 1989, when both were in the latter stages of their respective primes, but they were still some of the best matches of their given year. Chemistry of that sort does not disappear with age and the consequent loss of prime athleticism, even though youth and peak athleticism are part of what allows chemistry to be such an integral piece of the in-ring puzzle, especially when certain all-time great matches earn their reputations on being physical games of chess. Clocks can be turned back and elite chemistry, when lessened, can be replaced by grander environments and larger, more raucous crowds under the right set of circumstances.
For his part, Samoa Joe has done everything that he could to, over the past few weeks, make this feud leading into Summerslam worthy of one of those “right set of circumstances.” A major gripe I had with the Styles-Nakamura match at WrestleMania was that it had no storyline – it was reduced, rather, to a tagline – and my major issue with the entirety of their rivalry in hindsight was that the biggest show of the year featuring the grandiose tagline for their match was treated as the starting point rather than the finish line (as I honestly believe the so-termed Super Bowl of professional wrestling should be), but in a year when so little creative verve has accentuated the matches presented on pay-per-view, Joe’s promos over the past month have stood out because they established a reason for us to get more emotionally invested and feel like Summerslam will be the culmination of something with greater meaning.
What I love about Joe’s scathing remarks about AJ’s family is that, not only are they relatable and not only do they make sense given the intriguing “Styles is getting burned out on the WWE schedule” narrative, they also revolve around the WWE Championship; the title keeps Styles in that all-important spot in the hierarchy, which keeps him on the road and away from his family, so Joe would be doing his family a favor by taking the title from AJ and assuming his role as one of WWE’s leading men. Joe’s trash talk packs a psychological punch and makes clear his intentions to end AJ’s reign with the gold; as a result, Joe vs. Styles feels like the most important WWE Championship match since The Phenomenal One wrapped up his series with John Cena at Royal Rumble 2017. Think about it; Wyatt vs. Orton moved the title to the background, Jinder Mahal labeled the title a prop, AJ’s second run with the strap was handicapped for its initial quarter year by its involvement with the never-ending, critically-panned Smackdown GM vs. KO and Sami saga and then castrated for its second quarter by poor booking and an endless supply of kicks to the groin. Easily, Joe vs. AJ feels like the biggest WWE Championship match in a year-and-a-half at least.
Another element that Joe and Styles have going for them is that their match is unpredictable. I advocate that unpredictability should never be the most important element working in favor of a performance or the anticipation thereof, but its a wonderful tertiary piece of the puzzle. The anticipation has been built by their reputations primarily and the strength of Joe’s character in compliment to them; the unpredictability spices things up a bit. There are a lot of pros and cons to either of them as champ, if we’re honest, and compelling cases can be for either wrestler.
Overall, Joe vs. Styles is the most dynamic event of this upcoming weekend because it could be remembered in so many potential ways. From disappointing to overhyped to Summerslam classic to crowning Joe achievement and seemingly every possibility in between, the WWE Championship match on Sunday will undoubtedly be one of the biggest talking points next week.