By Keith Elliot Greenberg
Before stepping into the ring to defend his WWE Championship against Shinsuke Nakamura at SummerSlam this Sunday, Jinder Mahal took the time to recount a childhood memory that ignited the passion that’s led him to the big event.
“SummerSlam 1992,” the “Modern Day Maharaja” enthused. “I was a huge Bret Hart fan, and to see him defend his Intercontinental title against the British Bulldog is something I’ll never forget.”
On that particular day, more than 80,000 fans packed into London’s Wembley Stadium to witness the nail-biter between the “Hit Man” and his English foe. Although Hart ultimately dropped the title, the match made both gladiators bigger stars than they already were. Part of this had to do with the talents of Hart and the Bulldog. An even bigger part had to do with SummerSlam itself, an annual classic that some say is rivaled only by WWE’s ultimate extravaganza, WrestleMania.
As the years have passed, SummerSlam -- which will fill the Brooklyn's Barclays Center in New York City for the third year in a row -- is no longer an isolated event. USA Network’s broadcasts of WWE’s flagship shows, Raw (Monday at 8/7c) and Smackdown (Tuesday at 8/7c) next week are considered continuations of the spectacle.
Viewers can expect conflicts that start at SummerSlam to boil over into Raw and Smackdown Live. With each show containing its own roster of Superstars, fans will witness two unique nights of programming. That both shows will also be broadcast live from the Barclays Center only enhances the expectations.
“It is very special,” noted Finn Balor, WWE’s first-ever Universal Champion -- whose favorite SummerSlam moment occurred in 1995, when Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon reprised their WrestleMania X ladder match with an even more masterful confrontation. “I feel like it’s a new chapter, where feuds are buried or furthered. There are fresh starts. And there’s a huge international fan base that come to Raw and Smackdown Live, which adds to the excitement.”
By WWE’s estimate, 70 percent of those who gathered at WrestleMania 33 in April traveled from abroad. After SummerSlam, many of the visitors will remain in Brooklyn and attend both Raw and Smackdown Live. Television viewers will immediately notice that this is a different type of audience, with fans -- particularly those from the UK -- singing and chanting in a style more suited to a European football match than a North American sporting event.
“What you have to understand is that these fans have already been in New York for a week, attending a number of WWE events,” said Mahal. “By the time they get to Raw and Smackdown Live, the energy is off the charts.” What’s particularly intriguing to fans is the uncertainty of what they might see -- or who might appear.
“I debuted on Raw the day after SummerSlam in 2015,” said Braun Strowman, who appears in a Fatal 4-Way at SummerSlam for Brock Lesnar’s WWE Universal crown with Roman Reigns and Samoa Joe. “Two years later, I have the opportunity to show that I am a monster among men and no one can stop me from becoming Universal Champion. When people talk about their SummerSlam memory, I tell them I don’t have a favorite yet. I plan on making everyone else’s SummerSlam moment this year.”
Lesnar’s Universal Championship is the premier trophy defended on Raw, while Mahal’s Championship is the ultimate prize on Smackdown Live. SummerSlam -- available to WWE Network subscribers -- is only one of four annual events featuring performers from both brands. The stipulation for the Fatal 4-Way allows any combatant to score the pin –- over any other competitor –- and capture the Universal title. According to Lesnar’s “advocate” Paul Heyman, the rules have been designed to undermine “The Beast Incarnate” -– a former UFC heavyweight champion who’s been rumored to be considering outside opportunities. Although Heyman vows that Lesnar will vanquish his adversaries, the pair have threatened to leave WWE if the results are different.
In other Raw-related SummerSlam intrigue:
- After a long period of hostility, former close friends Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins will warily shelve their differences to battle Sheamus and Cesaro for the WWE Raw Tag Team Championship.
- In a battle of giants, seven-footers Big Cass and Big Show collide, while Cass’ ex-bestie –- and current Big Show ally -– Enzo Amore is suspended from a shark cage above the ring.
- After being doused by a mysterious red liquid by swamp preacher Bray Wyatt, Balor has resolved to show his foe that “I have demons, too.”
On the Smackdown Live side, Mahal defends his title against a man many believe could emerge as the face of the current era. A former three-time holder of Japan’s prestigious IWGP heavyweight title, Shinsuke Nakamura was an international megastar before he even entered WWE. Within two months of debuting in the company’s heralded developmental league, NXT, Nakamura captured the group’s championship. Nakamura is so charismatic that fans sing along to his entrance music. The “King of Strong Style” is known to execute hard blows that echo off the rafters. But Mahal has grown to rely on a series of henchman who share his Punjabi heritage, including the Singh Brothers and the Great Khali, to help him secure victory. Among the other rivalries impacting Smackdown Live:
- “The Franchise” John Cena tangles with Baron Corbin -– who’s still irate after the future Hall-of-Famer’s interference cost him an opportunity to claim Mahal’s Championship.
- Following their victory over the New Day in a non-title clash, the Usos plan to “make it count” at SummerSlam.
- Shane McMahon is the special referee in the latest installment of the skirmish between WWE United States Champion AJ Styles and Kevin Owens. McMahon says the bout requires a referee tough enough to insert himself in the middle of the raging combatants, and rise to his feet after being knocked down.
SummerSlam takes place this Sunday, Aug. 20! For more info, visit WWE.com.
Keith Elliot Greenberg is the co-author of the third edition of the WWE Encyclopedia of Sports Entertainment, as well as the autobiographies of WWE Hall of Famers Ric Flair, Freddie Blassie, and Superstar Billy Graham.