BROOKLYN – It’s never been so good to be bad.
Thanks to an assist from former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, WWE world heavyweight champion Seth Rollins retained his title at SummerSlam, and captured John Cena’s United States championship belt.
“Seth Rollins is constantly working his a-- off and getting better,” said “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. “I’m always impressed when John Cena displays his strength, which he did with that one roll-through where he stands up Rollins, but s---, a minute later, there is the same sequence and Rollins picked up Cena. He’s a great athlete and putting all the pieces together in the ring, and has really gotten better from a psychology standpoint. Cena is a big match guy, and he and Rollins were one of the best matches of the night. Rollins has a lot of confidence, a lot of steam behind him, and I think he’s kicking a--.”
The card, marred by a controversial finish in the main event that left fans voicing their displeasure, did not meet its hype, but three WWE legends–Austin, Mick Foley and Amy “Lita” Dumas–were all impressed with SummerSlam, including the Undertaker-Brock Lesnar main event.
“I was watching on a monitor [backstage], and there was a lot going on until the main event started,” said Foley, who returned on-screen for a surprise entrance. “That’s when everyone’s eyes stayed focused on the match. I wondered how the Undertaker worked himself into such great shape. He worked a very physical match and never seemed to be short of breath.”
Rumors circulated that the 50-year-old Undertaker was not happy with his WrestleMania 30 match with Lesnar. The Undertaker suffered a concussion that night in New Orleans and it clearly affected the match, so Sunday night’s rematch offered a chance for retribution.
“I saw him several months after the WrestleMania match, and there were moments from the match he was still trying to piece together,” said Foley. “That was a familiar feeling for me from my ‘Hell in a Cell’ match with the Undertaker from 1998. I know he’s a man of great pride, and he wanted a chance at professional redemption.”
Foley helped open the show with Stewart, who served as the host of SummerSlam.
“That came together about two days ago,” said Foley. “Jon Stewart asked WWE if I was available, and I mulled over his text for about ten seconds, and replied that I was, indeed, available.”
Despite his lofty position as a WWE Hall of Famer and one of the bigger names in the business, Foley was grateful to kick off Summerslam with Stewart.
“It’s kind of surreal when you realize Jon Stewart has interviewed presidents, world leaders, A-list stars, and he’s out there doing something he really enjoys doing with a guy like me,” said Foley. “I’m sure he’ll face some mainstream criticism about his involvement with WWE, but I think he’s a dad doing something with his son that he’ll remember forever. I had a nice talk with him about spending time with your kids during those really vital years.”
The champion vs. champion match between Rollins and Cena kept the crowd on its toes from the moment the bell rang.
“That’s got to be the beginning of Cena-Rollins,” said Austin. “WrestleMania is only a stone’s throw away, and now you’ve got both of those belts in Rollins’ position. The Cena haters were glad to see him lose the U.S. title, and it makes for a great story. We’ll see where they go with it, and if they can hold on until WrestleMania, which is the next big pay per view.”
Jon Stewart’s interference cost Cena the match, which was an interesting call from Austin’s perspective. Austin, arguably the biggest star to ever grace the business of pro wrestling, relished the opportunity to play a heel, and explained that the finish was designed to add heat to Rollins’ character.
“As a heel, why get the clean win?” asked Austin. “When I was ‘Stone Cold’ as a heel, I thought, ‘F--- a clean win. I’ll take a dirty win every night of the week over a clean win.’ Clean wins are what turn you baby. Pulling those trunks halfway off their a-- back when you could, using those ropes, the quote-unquote foreign object. I don’t think a clean finish would have been good for Seth Rollins. We need more reason to further his cause, which is to hate him.”
Much like the villainous Rollins, who was decked out in all white attire, Austin’s “Stone Cold” character was not above supplementary actions to win a match, even cheating to win the 1997 Royal Rumble.
“I won that Royal Rumble in San Antonio,” said Austin. “The referee didn’t see me get thrown out, so I come back in and eliminate ‘Taker and Vader, who were tangled up in the ropes, then boom, there goes Bret on his a--, and I’m the winner. Had I won that thing clean, I would have had to earn it. I got tossed out, came back in, s--- canned everybody, and that’s where the heat was, it was great.
“I don’t know why Stewart came down with the chair. I’ll rewatch the show again before I break it down this week with [the Pro Wrestling Torch’s] Wade Keller on my [Steve Austin Show] podcast, but all I can remember is I loved the match. It took that chair to defeat him, so Cena has something to be angry about and gives him a reason to be hot. And it helps that piece of s--- Rollins from a heel standpoint – he’s such a sorry, mother------- heel that he needed Jon Stewart to help him beat Cena. I loved it. It came out of the blue.”
Foley also enjoyed the unexpected finish to such an entertaining title match.
“The Cena-Rollins match was something you couldn’t take your eyes off,” said Foley. “I never saw the Jon Stewart turn coming, but I enjoyed it very much and I think it will get some national publicity. That’s something a clean finish wouldn’t have done. I hadn’t seen a WWE ref bump in a while, so it was actually quite refreshing.”
Foley added that the match worked so well because there were two extremely talented performers in the ring.
“I’m impressed every week by Seth Rollins,” said Foley. “He plays his character so well that some fans don’t appreciate how great he is in the ring on a nightly basis. He’s been delivering for many years, and he’s getting better all the time.
“And John Cena is such a workhorse, nothing stops him. When I asked him if that [recently broken] nose was going to hold up, he just said, ‘We’ll see.’ I’m someone who lost an ear in my career, and I can’t see John Cena ending a match on his own volition for any reason. He’s a great wrestler and the backbone of the company.”
Much to the dismay of wrestling fans, Cena has been using a variation of Austin’s “Stone Cold Stunner.” Unfortunately, Cena’s springboard stunner–despite adding a nice visual to the match–delivers zero impact.
“I posted a rib on my Twitter timeline, but I think John really ought to think about removing that from his arsenal,” said Austin. “It’s not effective. That being said, I’m the biggest John Cena fan in the world. I love that guy, I love his work ethic, and I love what he’s been able to do for the business. For 10-plus years, he’s been a premiere, grade-A guy that you want leading the charge of your company. I was at the top, the highest of the highs, and for a guy to come around and have the career that he’s had, I have a lot of respect for that guy. I love John Cena, but he does need to eliminate that move from his arsenal.”
Cena, like Austin before him, is the face of the WWE, but Austin was able to connect far more intimately with a more mature audience. Fans of the business – whether hardcore, casual, or children – could relate to and enjoy Austin’s work, where Cena receives a great deal of hate from the core part of the WWE’s adult audience. The fans in the Barclays Center were relentless in booing Cena.
“At one point, a couple years ago, the boos rattled Cena,” explained Austin. “But John Cena is just so mentally strong. And he plays to that crowd, and he’ll play that crowd against themselves. Whenever Cena goes to that damn ring, that arena is electric and those people are on fire. From a mental standpoint, that could f--- with a lot of guys’ psyche, but to John Cena–because he’s been around so long, because of his confidence, and because he’s still the number one guy that no one has been able to knock off–I don’t think it phases him one bit. Just like he said last week on Raw, as long as they’re making noise, he’s cool.”
Austin sees Cena’s feud with Rollins continuing tonight on Raw, and also hopes that viewers will see even more of two future WWE champions in Cesaro and Kevin Owens. Owens defeated Cesaro on Sunday night at SummerSlam after a pop-up powerbomb fourteen minutes into a very rugged affair.
“Raw will point us in the right direction, but I think you should continue with Cena-Rollins and Cesaro-Kevin Owens,” said Austin. “Owens-Cesaro was a hell of a damn match, and both those guys are so damn physical. I love the athletic ability that Kevin Owens possesses, and his arsenal of moves. He doesn’t look like your typical in-shape wrestler, and Cesaro is a physical freak, so those two guys had a knock-down, drag out, which I really enjoyed. You need to keep those two guys together to keep elevating themselves from a competitive standpoint.
“Cesaro keeps cranking out these bad-a-- matches, so the reason why they won’t get more behind him and give him a green-light push is beyond me. Kevin Owens has just come in, but he’s a fifteen-year vet who’s damn near worked his a-- off. He has a presence, and his character is abrasive, and that ‘it’ factor. You leave those two together, and you leave Cena-Rollins together for a little while longer, too.”
The Divas competed in a three-way elimination match, and built some momentum in a movement referred to as their “Revolution.” The nine women were given over 15 minutes to perform in a match that ultimately saw Becky Lynch pin Brie Bella for the win, but the true highlight for women’s wrestling occurred at the Barclays on Saturday night. Underdog Bayley defeated NXT women’s champion Sasha Banks in a five-star match that had a sold-out Barclays crowd believing.
“We have this influx of girls with incredible backstory,” said Dumas, a four-time WWE women’s champion. “Our NXT fans feel that connection, whereas a lot of the girls on the main roster have had so many different storylines over the years that you’re not sure what to think about them, but we’re on the right track.”
Foley may be known as the “Hardcore Legend,” but he also sees a lot of himself in one of the WWE Divas.
“I see myself in guys like Dean Ambrose or Kevin Owens, and, believe it or not, in WWE Diva Sasha Banks,” said Foley. “I had to be really creative to overcome my limited genetic hand, and I love her creativity. I watch her matches and I envy them.”
The 23-year-old Banks is only 5’5”, but makes up for her lack of size with an innovative arsenal of moves and a compelling way of storytelling in the ring. A major road block, however, for all the women is the lack of opportunity to cut meaningful promos.
“I was a guy who really thrived solely on personal issues instead of championships,” said Foley. “In my heart, I was always a guy who thrived on personal issues. Without the microphone, that process is so much more difficult. As I mentioned on my facebook post, there’s a line from the David Allen Coe song ‘The Ride’ that’s been one of the driving forces of my career. It simply said, ‘Boy, can you make folks feel what you feel inside?’ If you have that passion for the wrestling business and a microphone, you can make people feel what you’re feel inside.
“The next step in the Diva Revolution will come down to personal issues. The talent is there to change the game, so it comes down to patience and personal issues. I just try to encourage people to stay positive but resilient.”
The opening contest saw “Mr. Money in the Bank” Sheamus defeat Randy Orton after delivering two brogue kicks. The 37-year-old “Celtic Warrior” is still struggling to connect with the audience enough to reach main event status.
“There is still time for Sheamus,” Austin said of the 37-year-old Celtic Warrior. “He just needs to put a little more into his matches. Look at someone like Bret Hart, or Bobby Eaton, or even myself. I like the kid a lot, and I’m really trying to put the pieces together as to why that guy isn’t higher up than he is, but he just needs to find that other level.”
The four-way tag team championship match followed Orton-Sheamus, and the New Day regained the tag titles in a very entertaining match. Despite a rocky start to the New Day gimmick, the trio of Kofi Kingston, Big E and Xavier Woods is extremely popular with the fanbase.
“The New Day is so damn good,” said Dumas. “They do their own thing because they know the crowd is going to react. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they piss you off, but they’re just so talented.”
Dumas was involved in major tag team feuds during the Attitude Era with the Hardys and Dudleys, but she feels the tag division is in healthy enough shape without bringing back some of the more veteran teams performing outside the WWE.
“There was more talk of that a year or two ago,” said Dumas, who is working as a trainer for WWE’s Tough Enough. “But I don’t think the tag division needs help, especially with all the excitement with the NXT guys coming up.”
Count Foley, who captured the WWE tag titles on eight separate occasions, among those who enjoy watching the New Day.
“Those are three of the most entertaining people in the company,” said Foley. “Everything’s clicked.”
New Day began teaming as fan favorites, but struggled to generate a positive response from the crowd until their heel turn. Another integral member of the WWE roster who continues to tweak his character is Cody Rhodes, who is the son of the late, great Dusty Rhodes. Rhodes–as the Stardust character–lost in a tag team match with Wade Barrett against Neville and “Arrow” actor Stephen Amell.
“Cody Rhodes is really playing a character he can sink his teeth into,” said Foley. “I know he puts so much into it, he’s really proud of it, and it will continue to evolve.”
Neville pinned Barrett to finish the match, which allows Amell and Rhodes to continue their feud.
“The potential is obviously there for a return, but that decision is high above my pay scale,” added a joking Foley. “But I remember Cody as a young kid, going back to 1991, so I’ve see him evolve as a great amateur wrestler, grow into a fine young man, and become a really creative WWE superstar.”
Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose defeated the Wyatt Family in a match where the live crowd treated the two fan favorites very differently. Ambrose is beloved by the Brooklyn audience, but Reigns was booed heavily during all of his high spots. Austin knows the only fix for Reigns.
“That’s the Brooklyn crowd,” said Austin. “They’re pretty hardcore, they’ve seen a lot. They booed him pretty good during the match. But the finish caught me the wrong way. Ambrose hit ‘Dirty Deeds,’ and then tags in Roman to finish off Bray Wyatt with the spear. So ‘Dirty Deeds’ wasn’t good enough because they wanted Roman to go over, but they wanted Dean to get his s--- in, too.”
Reigns also disappeared outside the ring for a portion of the match, which the crowd immediately criticized him for during the action.
“Reigns will eventually be a superstar who is going to draw you some money, but it’s clear he has to undergo a strong, organic heel turn,” explained Austin. “It’s damn near a mirror image of what The Rock did back in the day. He needs to walk through the fire, get burned, have the [WWE] Universe hate him, and then they’ll eventually end up loving him forever more.
“He’s got a great look. And, when he was with the Shield, doing one-third of the work, he’d come in with power moves and pop the crowd. All of a sudden, he became the favorite and heir apparent. The problem is, when they broke up the Shield, he got exposed. He doesn’t have enough tools right now in his tool box to straighten together a match, with some different bump sets and working a body part. I think he needs to do a little bit of homework and add some more offensive moves. Daniel Bryan carried him to a hell of a match at Fastlane and he’s been in a handful of really good matches with people that can carry him. I like the guy, I really do, and I think he’s going to be a big star one of these days. But here’s the thing–nothing is guaranteed in this business.”
Austin just wrapped filming season three of Broken Skull Challenge, the number one show on Country Music Television, and is now headed to Lake Hartwell, Georgia to start season five of Redneck Island. He is also a brand ambassador for Kawasaki Motors.
“This time, for my relaxation, I’m going to be driving a Kawasaki ULTRA 310LX jet ski. Instead of riding my mule, I’ll be riding the most powerful jet on planet Earth, supporting the Kawasaki brand, kicking it at the lake in Georgia.”
Another compelling element of the Lesnar-Undertaker main event was the work of Paul Heyman outside the squared circle.
“Paul and Brock are like peanut butter and jelly,” said Austin. “I love them together, and Paul has such a presence. I loved the visuals, I loved the facials outside the ring. When Brock took over, Paul was feeling good–and when Brock was in danger, he was concerned. Sometimes he played it just stone-faced.
“That main event was a hell of a match. ‘Taker brought it, Brock brought it and even got [blood] the hard way. Those are two physical dudes. They started this thing off with a jumpstart, they settled it down, then they got back into it. They grabbed a couple of holds, an F5 out of the blue on the table, and I thought it was an outstanding match and really delivered. It sets up a rubber match for WrestleMania.”
The finish of Lesnar-Undertaker frustrated many viewers who hoped the second biggest pay-per-view of the year would deliver a clean finish. Unbeknownst to the referee, the Undertaker tapped out to Lesnar’s Kimura lock. The timekeeper rang the bell to signal the end of the match, but the referee was adamant that he never witnessed the ‘Taker tap. Then, while his back turned trying to sort out the confusion, the Undertaker delivered a low blow to Lesnar before forcing him to pass out in his Hell’s Gate submission maneuver.
Despite the controversial finish, Austin feels it was necessary in order to progress the story, as well as placate Lesnar.
“I don’t know if the Undertaker tapping was to appease Brock Lesnar for doing the favors,” said Austin. “‘Taker did the favors the first time, and that’s why I knew Brock was going to be doing the favors this time. The problem is that’s the same finish from Cena-Rusev just a few months ago [from Fastlane with Cena passing out before tapping], but I think Vince McMahon was happy with the finish. ‘Taker tapping was a safety-valve for the next match, which is a retirement match at WrestleMania 32 in front of 105,000 people for the Undertaker.
“The ending set up the necessity for the rematch,” said Austin. “It was a little discombobulating, and I’ll watch it again to make heads and tails of it, but I don’t think the live audience saw ‘Taker tapping. I didn’t see the tap out until they showed it on the replay. It’s a dirty finish with a lot of elements that need to be explained on television, and it will be compelling TV to see how they explain this. I’m a lifelong wrestling fan, and I can’t wait to hear the backstory and the explanation.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.