The best moments in wrestling are often surprises: surprise turns from face to heel, surprise victories from massive underdogs and, as we witnessed Sunday in the form of Roman Reigns making his first appearance on WWE TV since March, surprise returns.
SummerSlam's tagline was "You'll never see it coming," and for three hours, the only item that really checked that box was the backslide victory from Drew McIntyre over Randy Orton. But in the final moments of the broadcast, with The Fiend standing in the center of the ring holding his newly won Universal title, Reigns showed up and speared not only The Fiend but Braun Strowman as well.
Before the title change, we also witnessed the debut of Dominik Mysterio, the announcement that Keith Lee is heading to Monday Night Raw and some tremendous storytelling that will drive the product in a positive direction.
Arda Ocal and Tim Fiorvanti react to the WWE's latest PPV and offer ideas for what might be ahead for some of the top stars on the roster.
Was this the right time for Roman Reigns to return?
Ocal: As far as booking for SummerSlam goes, yes. SummerSlam is the second-biggest WWE event of the year, and one of the biggest names who had been away from WWE cameras returning is a big surprise, especially given the circumstances. From that standpoint, it's a big moment and the right time.
But back to the circumstances part. Roman left WWE earlier this year due to concerns over COVID-19 and the number of people traveling to and from WWE shows. "The decision was taken mainly because each performer travels so much, and we are all such a diverse group and from all over the place," he said in June. "I'm not convinced, and I can't trust the fact that everybody is taking it as seriously and locking themselves down at home like I am. I trust my life with my co-workers every time I step foot in the ring, but I just can't put the same trust when it has my children, my wife and my family involved."
So, that makes his return surprising, with a much different "I didn't see this coming" reasoning. What makes today different from when he left? Is there not as much concern on his part? What measures will he be taking now to ensure the same risks aren't there for his family? I ask these questions sincerely and I wonder if Roman will address this in the ring on TV, because it will certainly be the elephant in the room until he addresses it.
Fiorvanti: In the earliest days of the pandemic, Reigns elected to remove himself from a Universal championship match and stopped attending WWE tapings because of his history with leukemia and his wife being pregnant with twins. Reigns welcomed his fourth and fifth children into the world shortly thereafter, and remained away from WWE for five months. Judging by his appearance at SummerSlam, it seems he is comfortable enough with the working environment to return and make an impact once again.
As far as the story goes, Reigns returning on one of the biggest shows of the year and immediately inserting himself back into the Universal title picture is a big deal. In terms of star power, you aren't going to get much bigger than Reigns. SmackDown can use the shot in the arm, but the biggest question will be how to carry Reigns' momentum in the right direction without steamrolling Bray Wyatt, Braun Strowman and anyone else who might be in his way.
What was the best match at SummerSlam?
Ocal: Orton vs. McIntyre was terrific. Just the little details from both of them stand out -- the way they reacted to certain things. There was one moment where McIntyre left the ring frustrated and Orton was licking his lips and the camera angle showed both of them -- how both superstars showed emotion was money. McIntyre is a top-notch superstar and many are glad to see his success in WWE. Orton is on a gear where if you haven't watched wrestling in a while, you come back and say, "Wow, this guy is on another level." The finish was great too, with neither pulling off their finishing move and into a surprise backslide 1-2-3. The feud certainly continues. Well done.
Fiorvanti: I, too, was a big fan of McIntyre vs. Orton, but I'm going to go with Asuka vs. Sasha Banks. When you have two wrestlers in the ring that are entirely committed to their craft, have sharpened themselves against the best in the world and will go the extra mile to make their opponents look great, there's a potential for true magic. Banks and Asuka put their absolute trust in one another and the result was a very entertaining match that told a story through stark violence and reckless abandon. However many times WWE wants to match those two up again in the future, I'm in.
What did you think of Dominik Mysterio's debut?
Ocal: Very well done. Dominik had a great first match in WWE. I loved the callbacks in the match, too -- Seth Rollins with the Rey Mysterio Halloween Havoc 97 attire, Dominick using the Eddie Guerrero frog splash -- there were lots of little Easter eggs for longtime wrestling fans. Rollins just continues to prove he's the Shawn Michaels of this generation, being able to put on a great match with any opponent.
Fiorvanti: Dominik Mysterio played up to his strengths and leaned into his inexperience, and the result was better than anyone could have hoped for. Lots of credit to Rollins for taking care of Dominik and also trusting him to land high-impact moves like a spinning DDT and take big moves from Rollins like the superplex/falcon arrow combination.
Mysterio can definitely use some polish in terms of being on the microphone and building depth to his character, but the future is very bright.
Which SmackDown superstar would benefit most from a move to Raw? Which Raw superstar would be more likely to thrive on SmackDown?
Meanwhile, AJ Styles challenging McIntyre for the WWE title would be terrific, after things wrap up with Orton. McIntyre has faced monsters and apex predators. Now we can see how he does against another former champion and a wrestling purist darling.
Fiorvanti: Aleister Black got sucked into the Mysterio vs. Rollins conflict, ended up maimed and then disappeared from TV. Kevin Owens name-dropped Black during the SummerSlam broadcast for an appearance on the Kevin Owens Show Monday night, and perhaps now Black can break out of his funk. But there's something about the SmackDown roster that is far more appealing in terms of potential opponents for Black down the line. Jeff Hardy, AJ Styles, Cesaro, John Morrison, Shinsuke Nakamura, Daniel Bryan and Matt Riddle all feel like they would be great opposite Black, and a future Intercontinental title run sounds like a good way to elevate him.
Sheamus has had some really good matches since returning from injury, including his battles with Hardy, but it could get easy for him to get lost in the shuffle on SmackDown without something fresh and exciting. A move to Raw would open up some new possibilities, and no matter how you feel about the Raw Underground concept, Sheamus' new attire and approach would seemingly make him a natural fit in that environment, at least in the short term. Let him get some bareknuckle boxing in, and build up that reputation.
Who wins the 2021 Royal Rumbles?
Ocal: For the women's Royal Rumble: Nia Jax. Imagine a world where Nia Jax gets a giant push and becomes the first superstar to eliminate every single competitor from a Rumble. Ring fills up, Nia enters at No. 11 and she clears the ring one by one. By No. 15 she's alone and has eliminated everyone. She then eliminates the next 10 spots in under 2 minutes before the next competitor comes out. By 26, a massive name (surprise?) enters and the ring fills up again. After a bunch of near-misses, Nia dramatically but emphatically wins and sets a record heading into WrestleMania to face Sasha Banks or Bayley for the title. I love the idea of a record being set that will be extremely difficult to be broken (say another 40-person Rumble) by a menacing superstar going into a main event match at WrestleMania.
For the men's Royal Rumble... Pat McAfee. Hear me out.
Pat had one of the most impressive debuts for a celebrity/athlete we've ever seen. He gave us a glimpse of his incredible athleticism and frankly, how impressive he was in the ring for such little experience under him between the ropes. He was much closer to Kurt Angle than Tom Magee, that's for sure.
So you have this media superstar, who has multiple shows, millions of followers and a proof of concept in the ring. So let's say Pat wins the Royal Rumble and gets a title shot at WrestleMania. Let's look at the scenarios:
Best-case scenario: he gives WWE his primary attention. He follows the Ronda Rousey blueprint and dives in head-first, making it his focus. He works on it, trains, takes bumps, learns holds, listens to advice. You have someone that has the capacity to be interesting every week on WWE television, while still doing content on the side that will only help the cause.
He goes to WrestleMania, and by then he's ready to have a good match. Put him in there with a seasoned veteran, like a Orton, who can have a good match with anyone just to guarantee success. They have a banger of a match, and Pat wins (with a punt, of course). Now you have an improbable title run that will no doubt generate buzz. You even have an episode of Raw in the NFL offseason where Gronk comes back to challenge Pat for a night -- "I won the 24/7 title, I can win that title, too."
"Worst"-case scenario: McAfee fits WWE into his already busy schedule. So what? He will still draw attention, he can train on his off time and he seems exactly like the type of driven person to want to do it. He can talk about WWE and his appearances on his shows and it's a win-win.
Plus, there are two titles (assuming they are still separate come WrestleMania). So you can have Pat challenge for one title and the other will be a mega-matchup in the main event. There are plenty of options to choose from: McIntyre vs. Reigns, Orton vs. Keith Lee, Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn, CM Punk vs. Triple H, Seth Rollins vs. Shawn Michaels, Big E vs. Brock Lesnar (there's a good Kofi Kingston redemption story there).
Of course, this is just fantasy booking. What do I know? I was just some dude named Kyle once.
Fiorvanti: For the women's Royal Rumble, it's wide open. I'm going to go with Sasha Banks. At this point, the conflict between her and Bayley is going to simmer and occasionally flare up along the way, but they will patch things up long enough to still hold onto their friendship into 2021. But the Rumble will be the flashpoint for their rematch more than five years in the making -- and that title match will be the main event of WrestleMania 36.
On the men's side, Keith Lee. It's a lot to put on Lee's broad shoulders just four months after his presumptive main roster debut, which was announced for Monday on the SummerSlam broadcast. But what we saw from Lee in late 2019 and early 2020 in major spotlights, as well as his recent work in NXT, is that he doesn't feel out of place opposite anyone in the WWE.
The scary thought is that we've only really scratched the surface of what Lee is capable of. There were moments in his matches against Dominik Dijakovic and his title defense against Karrion Kross, but Lee has an incredibly dynamic moveset that can be further unleashed as time goes on. He has the swagger of a major player as well. As soon as he locks into what he's going to be on Raw, watch out.
Whom do you want to see Keith Lee battle first on Raw?
Ocal: Someone substantial. Don't waste his momentum and leave him in the "NXT talent that fell off on the main roster" abyss. He is someone truly special, with hype around him. I'd love to see him get a couple of wins on RAW, then challenge Apollo Crews for the U.S. title.
Fiorvanti: I'd like to see him go straight for the king. McIntyre got his win over Orton at SummerSlam, and their conflict still has a long way to go. But by bringing Lee in and having him step right up to the WWE champion, you infuse him with a level of importance that is hard to manufacture. Anyone who isn't excited at the prospect of 15 minutes of Lee vs. McInytre isn't paying attention. Whether McIntyre squeezes out another win or Orton gets involved in the end, put Lee on that pedestal and then have him run over some people.