The dying days of August are a time of new beginnings and bittersweet ends. Springtime planted the seeds of hope and ambition, and while some of those seeds blossom into fantastic opportunities over the hot summer months, others languish and bear bitter-tasting fruits. For World Wrestling Entertainment, inc (WWE), SummerSlam weekend is the payoff to that summer season, when the seeds sowed at WrestleMania are harvested for the long winter ahead. At this year’s installment, two standout performers emphasized the gulf between the company’s old and new growth.
Since returning to WWE in 2012, Brock Lesnar has been a staple of SummerSlam. For five years straight, his matches have been the big draw, four taking top billing in the main event. His match against Randy Orton on Sunday overshadowed both of the top-tier championship matches for the recently split Raw and Smackdown brands, and was backed by nearly two months of hype. The match itself lasted only 12 minutes—uncharacteristically brief for an exhausting six-hour show—and was stopped as a result of Lesnar splitting Orton’s forehead open, leaving him in a pool of blood that would have been excessive even before WWE started cracking down on such visceral displays of carnage.
It’s a style that’s become par for the course in Lesnar’s matches. He often seems disinterested in setting the pace of a match if it gets in the way of pummelling his opponents. Two years ago, his systematic dismantling of the infallible John Cena gave Lesnar his fourth WWE Championship and had fans hoping that the tide was turning in WWE’s stale main event scene.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. The one-sided beatdown was the beginning of Lesnar’s ubiquitous Suplex City gimmick, and his matches since have been less about wrestling and more about spamming German suplexes like a button-mashing amateur playing WWE 2K16. On Sunday, he’d hit nearly a dozen before the match was half over, and long before he’d considered anything resembling a compelling in-ring story.
Until now, there’s been plenty of novelty to be found in Lesnar’s against-the-grain style. In the last five years, he’s been at the epicentre of some of the most unexpected wrestling angles, fuelled largely by his desire to set his own course—or more accurately, his unwillingness to take orders.
He carries himself with the nonchalance of a man who doesn’t care for his boss’ rules, and knows he brings in enough money to ignore them. While most of his co-workers are barred from doing any work outside of WWE’s ecosystem, as a part-time attraction, Lesnar has filled his ample free time with regular freelance gigs, going so far as working a high-profile match earlier this month for UFC, one of WWE’s biggest competitors for market share. That he later failed an in-competition drug test on the night of the fight and faced no consequences from WWE shows just how long of a leash Lesnar’s been given by the hand that feeds him. (The UFC did temporarily suspend Lesnar. WWE fined him $500 earlier this week for his behaviour at SummerSlam.)
Lesnar’s devil-may-care attitude has made him a standout in WWE’s often conservative main-event narratives, but this summer, the veneer of character is finally starting to chip away, revealing a self-important performer who doesn’t seem interested in telling a story, so long as he’s getting paid.
The day before SummerSlam, WWE told a very different kind of story at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn. The women’s title match brought a definitive close to the feud between defending champion Asuka and perennial favourite Bayley, signalling an emotional end of an era for the company’s developmental branch, and a new beginning for Bayley herself.
Bayley was signed to WWE the same year Lesnar returned, and while the two have never crossed paths, she’s become the antithesis of The Beast Incarnate. The neon-clad grappler with a penchant for hugs might be wrestling’s most pure embodiment of good and wholesomeness. The saga of Bayley has played out through her character as much as the performer. In an industry where characters settle feuds through treachery and backstabbing, and politicking can kill the careers of anyone not willing to play out those tactics backstage, Bayley represents the triumph of hope and idealism.
Together with Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch, she’s revolutionized and legitimized women’s wrestling. In what’s traditionally been a barren landscape of exploitative and shallow storytelling, The Four Horsewomen have helped transform the portrayal of WWE’s female performers from “Divas” into true athletes, demonstrating the demand for these stories from WWE audiences.
Bayley secured her rank at the top of the women’s division at last year’s TakeOver: Brooklyn when she won the championship from Sasha Banks in one of the greatest matches in WWE history. Earlier that summer, her three companions were called up to the main roster—a promotion that means a wider audience, a bigger paycheque, and a grander platform to tell your stories. Meanwhile, Bayley remained in NXT—a development division for WWE—ostensibly serving as the anchor between her own generation and the class of newcomers.
In the months that passed, Bayley lost the NXT Women’s Championship to Asuka, missed the big spring show due to injury, and proceeded to watch those newcomers surpass her in July’s WWE Draft. It’s been a grim second act for Bayley’s journey through NXT, but when she was finally granted a rematch against Asuka in Brooklyn this year, it seemed redemption was in her future.
On Saturday, Bayley lost.
Of course, any longtime follower of NXT has learned that redemption can manifest in the most painful form. Amidst the shock and tears washing over the faces of the children who idolize her, Bayley left the arena to cheers of thanks from the fans. Deep down, they seemed to realize that the best characters are those who suffer the hardest knocks before they reach the greatest heights. Two days later, when Bayley finally showed up on Monday Night Raw, she found that redemption.
It’s a choice that’s both an emotional payoff and a logical next step for Bayley’s WWE career. While it’s the next step of her NXT story, the main-roster call-up has become a symbol of evolution for characters in WWE, and there are none more deserving of it than Bayley, whose hard work and determination were finally rewarded. With NXT regularly producing top-tier talent, WWE’s writers now have a powerful narrative device by treating the call-up as a character development tool.
In a storytelling medium where the story never ends, NXT characters like Bayley are helping to revolutionize how these narratives play out, bringing emotional depth through hard work. While performers like Lesnar may have come to rely on guaranteed paydays that feed lazy writing, SummerSlam weekend has shown that there’s an entire garden of new talent in WWE ready to push up through the weeds and tell the stories that matter.