Hearing the Song: SummerSlam Weekend 2016

Brooklyn in August is a seething cauldron of sounds and sights and smells, hordes of people gathering in the miserable summer heat, hoping to receive their handful of moments from the SummerSlam weekend. It’s August 20, 2016, the night of TakeOver: Brooklyn II, and Dan and I are carefully making our way down the stairs in the Barclay Arena, looking around in astonishment. Back in February, we took a long, hard look at our budget and decided that we could afford to get those top-of-the-line SummerSlam tickets, the ones with tours and meet and greets and special swag and ringside tickets to TakeOver, SummerSlam, and Raw. “TakeOver is our anniversary,” Dan said when I blanched at the cost. “Consider it our present to each other.” It’s hard to argue with that.

I’ve never been to a WWE PPV before this one, and in hindsight starting with SummerSlam might have been biting off more than I could chew, but it’s the only PPV that fits easily into our schedule, since we’re already in the US to visit relatives. “Besides,” I said, full of hope, “maybe Sami will win his first main roster title there, and I’ll be there for it.” Because at any given time, meticulously adjusted for each week’s canonical events, I have a fantasy-booking path in my mind to how Sami is going to win a title, just like I always have a path available for how Sami and Kevin will get to team up again someday (none of which ever involved Sami saving Kevin from a plummeting McMahon). “It could be amazing,” I say. We get the tickets.

Act I: Takeover

Our seats are in the front row, tucked slightly into a corner. The front row! Relieved I won’t be on the hard cam, I sit down and look around as the arena fills up with people, as the sounds shift from echoes in the cavernous space to a constant low buzz of anticipation. There’s a brief glitch in my enjoyment when a security guard takes his place at the barricade right in front of us, his back to the ring, and I realize this means someone! Will be looking at me!! All the time!!! This is DEFCON 5 levels of social anxiety for me, and Dan has to talk me back down from bailing on the entire TakeOver by saying the guard will only be looking in my direction, not at me. This is only DEFCON 3 levels of nerves (AKA “the default state when I’m in public”) so I manage to keep my seat. Some of the wrestlers I love most in the world are wrestling tonight: Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa are trying to win the tag team titles from the Revival; Asuka is defending her championship against Bayley; and Shinsuke Nakamura, whose last show in Japan we attended, is aiming to defeat Samoa Joe.

It’s a TakeOver, so you probably already know it was a great show. We get to watch Hideo Itami GTS Austin Aries while wearing sockless loafers; we see Ember Moon’s debut and I pop so hard for my first glimpse of her Eclipse finisher that I know I’ll never rest until I see her as the women’s champion. The #DIY versus Revival match is one of the most involving matches I’ve ever seen live; I hang on every hot tag and every near-fall, and when Johnny is forced to tap out I bury my head in Dan’s shoulder and refuse to look up at the Revival in triumph.

We are right on the aisle where they lead the superstars to the front row to watch a match, so as the night progresses we come an arm’s length from Mick Foley, Finn Balor, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks. At one point they bring some of the wrestlers currently starring in the Cruiserweight Classic, and we realize that Kota Ibushi is walking right by us. I am at that very moment wearing a Kota Ibushi t-shirt, and I respond the way I always do to being near my favorites: I go utterly motionless, staring. Dan’s reflexes are better: “Ibushi-senshu!” he gasps in amazement, using the Japanese honorific for an athlete. Ibushi looks over, surprised, smiles as he takes us in, and holds out his fist for Dan to fist-bump. Dan reaches up and taps his hand as he goes by.

(It’s been almost two years since then. When we come home from work sometimes, Dan and I will slump on the couch and go over the disasters of the day: paperwork misfiled, deadlines missed, the miscommunications and grinding stupid errors. After a while, I will sigh and say, with the air of one making an irrefutable counter-argument, “But… Kota Ibushi fist-bumped you.” And no matter how tired or discouraged he is, Dan will smile at this touchstone, this bead on the small precious rosary of wrestling moments that we share.)

The main event is Samoa Joe versus Shinsuke Nakamura. A violinist plays Nakamura to the ring, and everyone sings his entrance together: one of those magical themes that hooks the heart and makes it soar. We want to see Nakamura win so badly, especially after the pain of seeing #DIY and Bayley lose. We want a triumph to end the night, and near the end of the match everyone seems to burst into song together, singing Nakamura’s theme back to him, as if we can pour our hearts into it enough to give him the win.

And he does win.

When he hits Joe with his Kinshasa knee to the face, the roof seems to come off of the Barclay Center, everyone screaming with joy, singing. We sing and sing, we will not stop singing as Nakamura takes his bows, as the show ends. Dan and I make our way toward the exit, surrounded by people who keep breaking into song, the victorious notes of it rippling through the crowd, sinking and rising like waves on the ocean. As we go, we come across two Japanese women attempting to talk to arena management. They’re holding small packages and are weeping steadily with joy, all their English swept away by emotion. Dan talks to them and discovers they brought presents from Japan for Nakamura; he negotiates with management to try and get them to the new champion. I hang back shyly, smiling at them, my Japanese and their English stripped down to the basics through our tears.

Ureshii, ne?

Hai, totemo ureshii.

We’re happy.

Yes, we’re very happy.

We all go out into the sweltering Brooklyn night and discover that the subways are delayed, but we don’t care; the acoustics down in the tunnels are great, so we sing Shinsuke Nakamura’s song until we scatter into the night and are gone.


Act II: SummerSlam

SummerSlam is six hours of wrestling. Six hours of cheering and yelling, six hours of energy output. I get exhausted and overwhelmed during a half hour in the grocery store; I am completely ill-equipped for SummerSlam and I don’t even realize it yet. Still tired from TakeOver the night before, we try to get some rest during the day before heading back to Brooklyn for the meet and greet before the show.

We gather outside the Barclay Center for the Super Duper Package meet and greet, and it starts to become apparent–not surprisingly, really, but I’d never thought about it before–that a lot of these people know each other because they’re at so many PPVs together. They’ve been to dozens of SummerSlams and WrestleManias; they’re relaxed and chatting together. This is not a new experience to them. I swallow hard and try not to vibrate too obviously, feeling a sudden intense internal pressure to seem calm and not overwhelmed.

The top-line meet and greet is basically the Platonic ideal of a meet and greet: less regimented, more informal. There’s catering, and everyone stands around chatting, and various superstars show up and fucking hang out; everyone lines up for a photo and autographs but after that the wrestlers just kind of stand around and make small talk. It’s the meet and greet you come up with when you’re bored waiting in line at the supermarket and you wile away the time by imagining you get to go to one, and Your Favorite Wrestler has an animated chat with you and ends up impressed with your insights on wrestling and–uhhhh, it’s not just me that does that, right? I’m… I’m pretty sure it’s not just me.

Anyway, it’s that kind of meet and greet, and I immediately rise to the occasion by hiding in a corner, venturing out for cursory photos, nervous smiles and a hesitant compliment before beating a retreat once more. Outside the room, they’re setting up the ring and testing the sound system; the first notes of everyone’s entrance themes blare out over and over again and I feel that Pavlovian leap of the heart whenever my favorites echo through the empty arena. I feel pretty content to simply watch the wrestlers smile and hug fans from my safe distance, just trying to take everything in and process it.

As I try to hold my drink steady enough to sip from, a fellow fan approaches me and starts a conversation. She’s from Australia and has traveled to the U.S. every year for SummerSlam for almost a decade, and as the conversation unfolds I am horrified to discover that she has taken my paralysis for disappointment and believes she has found a kindred spirit. She has strong opinions about both the quantity and the quality of superstars at this meet and greet, and she wishes to share them with me. “They used to send up lots more superstars, and better ones,” she notes bitterly as I try to fade into the wall, yearning for the sweet embrace of death. She checks her texts and nods at whatever she reads; is there a group chat? “A lot of us agree.”

I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t be desperately eager to spend a half hour of their time before one of the biggest shows of the year with people who expect them to be trotted out like zoo exhibits, I think. “Ah. Hm,” I say.

I’m starting to panic a bit. I must look bored and aloof if she’s going to talk like this to me. I don’t want to look bored and aloof! Am I giving off disapproving vibes? Is there a way to… to not do that? My brain has become a thicket of thorns in which I flail around, attempting to figure out the correct way to look spontaneously delighted to be here. Frustratingly, I don’t seem to have a mode between “frozen” and “collapsing in tears.”

Dan saves me, although he doesn’t know it, by charging over and grabbing my arm. “It’s Shinsuke, Shinsuke’s here, we can meet Shinsuke,” he says at top speed, dragging me across the room to where the new NXT champion is beaming at fans, his hair pulled up into an adorable top-ponytail. We have an awkward conversation in which Dan and I automatically try to speak Japanese to him, and he naturally stays in English; Dan shows him the sign from his final NJPW match, brought all the way from Japan in the hopes of getting signed. Nakamura lights up and signs it with a grin and we get a picture with his arms around our shoulders. Dan looks overjoyed in it. I look shy but happy. At least I don’t look scared for once.


We’re in the front row again, tucked into a corner near the entrance stairs this time. Despite my hopes back in February, the card did not shake out terribly well for me. Sami is on the preshow; Kevin is opening the show in a tag match with Jericho against Enzo and Big Cass. There are some really good matches on the card, just not much catering to my specific desires to see my particular favorites festooned with titles and glory. However, Finn Balor, Dan’s favorite wrestler, is in a match with Seth Rollins for the brand-new Universal title, which has yet to be unveiled, so we’re excited for that match as well.

I’ve been a fan of Sami’s for about a year and a half at this point–not long, certainly, but I’ve tried to make up for it in intensity–and despite various attempts have never gotten to see him wrestle live, so I don’t care when his match is taking place, I’m incredibly excited. He’s teaming with Neville against the Dudley Boyz and it’s a short match but Neville and Sami are fantastic together. As it turns out, it’s the Dudleys’ last match in the WWE, but we don’t know that at the time. Neville hits his Red Arrow and as he comes down, in the replay you can see my face for a split-second: everyone around me is yelling, but I’m just beaming, hands clasped in front of me, radiant with delight. Looking up toward Sami standing in the corner rather than Neville making the pin on the mat.

SummerSlam proper is–well, it’s difficult. I don’t know jack about card construction or match placement, but I know that the Brooklyn crowd in 2016 is crazy to see Enzo and Cass finally win a match there, and when they lose after a fun opening bout with Kevin and Chris, that’s a bit of a blow. And they really, really want to see Sasha Banks retain her championship against Charlotte in the second match, and when she loses abruptly after a fast-paced match where we’re all a little worried she’s injured, that’s also hard. And they kinda want to see Apollo Crews win the Intercontinental title off the Miz in the third match, and when he loses we’re all pretty tired and starting to feel worn out, and there are still six matches to go. John Cena and A.J. Styles have an incredible match that lifts our spirits, but a real fatigue is starting to set in. The cheering that seemed so effortless last night feels like work tonight, somehow. By the time we’ve gotten to the six-woman tag, the arena is weirdly quiet. I’m just a few feet from Naomi and Becky as they stand on the apron, and my heart is wrenched at their increasing exasperation as they exhort us to cheer for Carmella, but it feels like yelling into a well, like every sound I make is swallowed up by white noise. We’re exhausted. We’re in a bad mood. We’re ready to take it out on someone.

Mick Foley and Stephanie McMahon come out to reveal the new Universal title, and the Brooklyn audience turns on them and on it.

In the PPV recording, the reveal takes place during a promo package, so the crowd’s disappointed booing doesn’t make it onto the show proper, but I can tell you it’s deafening. I don’t join in the disrespect, but privately I agree with their assessment: the title is very… well, it’s very red, and a bit plasticky, and not particularly beautiful.

“It looks like it’s made of Twizzlers,” I snark at Dan as Finn and Seth come out for their match to determine who will get to be the first to hold it aloft.

Finn and Seth are putting on a solid, exciting match, but the crowd is still angry about the title. Cynical and pissy, they start making up silly chants about how much they dislike it, set to different wrestling catchphrases: “This! Belt Sucks!” to the cadence of “New! Day Rocks!”; “This belt suuuucks!” lilted like “John Cena suuuucks!” I’m uncomfortable and unhappy with this, but when they start chanting “Heyyyy we want a new belt!” I do have to giggle a little.

It’s in the middle of this specific chant, very likely while I’m snickering, that Seth Rollins tosses Finn Balor against a barricade and Finn’s shoulder completely gives way.

In our area, we don’t even see it happen; we don’t see Finn brusquely shove his shoulder back into place and stand back up to keep wrestling all the way through the match on it. When he wins, we’re oblivious and delighted: our exhaustion falling away for a moment into happiness as we applaud the new champion.

“What’s wrong?” I say to Dan, catching a glimpse of his expression as he watches Finn on the turnbuckle.

“He’s hurt,” Dan says. “I think he’s really hurt.”

We don’t know for sure, but there’s a foreboding feeling to the way he turns back on the ramp and gingerly lifts the title in triumph, and the pall is back on the evening as we limp through the last two matches. Backstage, people are scrambling to deal with Finn’s injury as the full extent of the damage starts to become clear, but out front we have no idea how bad it is, how worried he and his friends are. Out front I am so fucking tired. When I say that whatever match Sami is in, that’s the main event in my heart, I mean it, which is usually great, but tonight it means the main event was four fucking hours ago and there is still wrestling going on, my God, will it ever end, I am so tired.

My least favorite thing in wrestling is large, stoic, meaty men who punch each other like badasses while betraying no emotion.

The final match tonight is Brock Lesnar versus Randy Orton.

Hoo boy.

It’s an ugly little brawl. Re-watching it with better camera angles and commentary to help frame things it makes a little more sense, but live it’s just nasty, brutish and short. Lesnar gouges Orton’s head with his elbow and there’s a lot of blood–messy, undramatic, sickening blood–and then things just end with no particular closure or resolution and that’s it, folks, that’s the SummerSlam. Go home. Scram. The crowd makes a prolonged, exhausted “Mehhhhhhhhhhhhhh” noise for about twenty minutes and we drag our tired asses toward the doors and into the humidity.

No one is singing tonight.


Act III: Monday Night Raw

The Super Duper Package includes a tour of New York on the Monday before Raw. I wake up still exhausted and am tempted to skip it, but force myself to go. It’s a tour of the 9/11 Memorial, which is somber and depressing and doesn’t exactly get me in a great mood for the pro graps, but on the other hand it’s a useful reminder that of important things in the world, wrestling doesn’t actually rank in the top billion. After the tour, I try to get my energy back and check my phone now and then as updates on Finn’s condition come in. I hope they’re not true. (They are.)

Back at the Barclay Center, I’m slightly chagrined to find myself sitting next to the Australian woman with strong opinions about wrestler quality. It turns out she’s here to see John Cena above all, and is miserable he’s been moved to Smackdown and thus will not be here tonight. As a person whose main event was on the SummerSlam preshow last night, I can empathize with this devotion and this pain, and so we spend the time before Raw talking about the shows she’s seen Cena at, and the signs she’s made for him, and the moments she’s gathered of him.   

Raw begins with Mick Foley and Stephanie McMahon coming to the ring and introducing Finn, who comes out with his title over his shoulder and his arm in a sling, smiling a little wryly at our dismay. He explains about his injury, a blur of medical words I don’t understand, I refuse to understand, because I’m still hoping–as I always do until the moment I can no longer–that Seth will interrupt, that Finn will just punch him, that we’ll all cheer. Mick comes to take the title, the beautiful shining title that Finn will not even be allowed to hold for a full twenty-four hours, and when he pauses and waits for Finn to have one last moment before nodding in resignation, I cover my face with my hands, unable to bear it.

After Finn walks away, wrestlers come to the ring to demand a shot at the title: Seth, Sami, Chris Jericho. When Kevin’s music hits and the audience roars, Dan fumbles for his camera: “Kevin and Sami in the same ring,” he says. “Who knows when we’ll ever get to see that again live?” He’s right, so I watch with fierce concentration as matches are set up to determine who will be in a four-way bout for the title next week.

The first is Sami versus Seth. I’m not good with words when watching wrestling; I’ll yell or chant or even scream, but I’m usually too self-conscious to articulate actual statements. I have to be totally transported, swept away by emotion. Case in point: only twice during this whole weekend do I remember saying anything specific, and the first time is as Sami starts the match and I suddenly hear myself beg him very loudly, “Please win, Sami, please please please win.” Which makes no sense because in no world at all does Sami decide if he gets to win a match, but that’s what I say anyway.

It’s a perfect match to open the show. Sami lands awkwardly on his ankle early on and spends most of the match hobbling around, wincing; I’m not that worried that it’s a legit injury because after all, the match is continuing–

(Finn wrestled an entire match last night on an injured shoulder)

I’m pretty confident that Sami is just fine–

(Sami once wrestled a whole match against John Cena with an injured shoulder and then he was out for seven months)

–And I suspect it’s that intersection of legit sorrow for Finn and fictionalized worry for Sami that finally gets me back into the right mindset for wrestling, past the jaded exhausted snark of the night before. By the time Sami loses and I applaud sadly for him (someday, someday), I’m fully back in the story: ready to cheer with abandoned joy when Bayley makes her debut, ready to jump up with spontaneous delight at discovering I get to see Kevin versus Neville live for the third time in my life, a fantastic match every time.

(“I don’t remember who I cheered for,” I say in 2018, re-watching the show to refresh my memory. “You’re kidding, right?” Dan laughs. “You cheered for Kevin.”)

The main event is Chris Jericho versus Roman Reigns; Chris interfered in Kevin’s match earlier to help him get the win, and soon enough Kevin comes charging to the ring to try (in vain, as it turns out) to turn the tide for his friend. He takes a punch to the face and tumbles off the apron right in front of us, and I startle myself by jumping up and yelling at the top of my lungs like I’m demented: “YOU’RE A GOOD FRIEND, KEVIN, SEE? YOU CAN BE A GOOD FRIEND, KEVIN!”

“I didn’t know you cared so much about Chris Jericho,” Dan notes sardonically as the match ends and Kevin helps a defeated Chris up the ramp. I bounce on my toes a bit, grinning: he knows perfectly well I’m not terribly invested in Chris Jericho, but I am immensely invested in Kevin learning to value friendship and be a good friend. Someday, someday he’ll learn to trust and care about someone. He’ll come to understand what it means to be a friend. And then he’ll finally get what he deserves. I know this in my bones with a merciless pity. He’ll suffer, someday.

There’s a dark match after the broadcast ends, and to my delight John Cena comes to the ring to team up with Dean Ambrose against Styles and Rollins. “I’m so glad you got to see Cena!” I say to my Australian neighbor as the show closes. “And he looked right at you and waved as he came to the ring, that’s incredible!”

She sighs. “He used to stop and actually talk to me,” she says morosely. “He’s changed so much. He doesn’t care as much about the fans anymore.”

I look over to where John Cena is hugging a group of small children in neon colors, baseball caps covering their hairless heads. “Ah,” I say. “Hm.”

As we leave the arena, I turn to Dan and say fervently, “If I ever start to sound like that woman, I want you to kill–”

“–our subscription to the Network? In a heartbeat,” Dan promises me.

It’s not exactly how I was going to finish that sentence, but it’s close enough.

Outside the arena, the Brooklyn night hits us like a sopping hot washcloth to the face. “So it’s going to be Cass, Seth, Roman, and Kevin in a four-way match for the Universal title next week,” I say, casting my mind forward. “Cass would be a great surprise, but I don’t see that happening.”

“It’ll be Seth. Good story possibilities there. Maybe he’ll finally turn face,” Dan says.

“Nah, it’ll be Roman,” I counter. “Gotta make ‘im look strong,” I say in a rough approximation of a stereotypical cynical Reddit smark, and then giggle, ruining the effect. We start down the subway steps, and I sigh and cut that line of conversation short. “Honestly, really any of them would be worthy of that title.”

Dan lifts an eyebrow at the reverent way I say “that title.” “You do remember that yesterday you were calling it the Twizzler Title,” he says, and I round on him in fury.

“Don’t you dare insult Finn’s title like that,” I snarl, fighting back sudden tears. It’s the belt that Finn gave up six months of his life to win, and that means it’s beautiful, it’s precious, and I want none but hands I love to ever touch it again. Because that’s the thing, right? Every pro wrestling title is just metal and leather–let’s be starkly blunt, every title is just a tv show prop–without the meaning the wrestlers infuse it with through their work. I remember the first time I ever realized the power of this: in 2008, C.M. Punk defended the WWE title against JBL and near the end of the match took a huge gash to the back of his head. After he won, he held up one hand, red with his own blood, and lifted the title in the other to announce with fierce intensity: “I will bleed for this!”

It felt like a live wire touched to my heart: yes, this has value, this is worth bleeding for, it must be.

Titles have meaning through the work of the wrestlers, but also through the work that we, the audience, do; if we sit back and refuse to believe in the belt, it’s just a chunk of metal, with as much power in it as a movie prop of Excalibur. We have to meet the story halfway, we have to believe too. Not just with titles, but with all of wrestling, because sometimes wrestling will work stiff with you, sometimes it will Kinshasa you lovingly in the face and you’ll have no choice but to go down for the count. But most of the time–shh, this is a secret–you and wrestling are actually working together to create an illusion. You have to take some bumps, you have to sell a little, you have to let wrestling get its shit in for it to work. And it’s not always easy, but when it all comes together, it’s magic.

It’s magic that night in Brooklyn as I get onto the subway–a quiet magic, but real. My heart is full: I got to see Sami and Kevin in the same ring, I saw Bayley debut, I yelled things! Emotional nonsensical things! And next week in Houston, Big Cass, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and Kevin Owens will be fighting for the Universal title.

“You know who else could win it?” Dan says as we sit together, leaning on each other. “There’s a chance that Ke–”

“–don’t even say it,” I say quickly. “Just…don’t.” I close my eyes, holding the unsaid words in my heart. It’s seven days until the next Raw. Seven days that I can imagine I live in a world where Kevin Owens will win Finn’s title. I intend to enjoy every single one of them.

No one is singing on the subway tonight either, but that’s okay. The song is mine to make.

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J.J. McGee Written by:

I'm an American expat who lives in Japan and spends most of my free time being painfully earnest about narrative, character development, and slippage between kayfabe and reality in wrestling.

2 Comments

  1. Stef
    February 8, 2018
    Reply

    I am always so happy to see that you’ve posted another article. Thank you for elivating our silly little hobby.

    • J.J. McGee
      February 9, 2018
      Reply

      The wonderful thing about wrestling is that it is always simultaneously a silly little hobby AND an amazing, profound, resonant work of art! Or, well, it has the possibility of it, at least. 😀 I’m so glad you enjoyed this! See, I have to keep having wrestling experiences so I’ll have more to write about! (I don’t have an essay-able experience every other week, so I’m going to have to slow down here fairly soon…)

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