Last month at SummerSlam, for the first time in WWE history both the World and the United States championships went on the line in the same match, as WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins faced off against United States Champion John Cena.
After cashing in his Money in the Bank contract and seizing the world title at WrestleMania 31, Rollins’ year since culminated at the Money in the Bank PPV in June, where he retained against Dean Ambrose in a gruelling, astonishingly violent, and freewheeling thirty-five-minute ladder match. Despite a brief lull following WrestleMania 31, fighting bravely in the face of weak booking, Rollins has not only continued to excel in the ring, but has managed to add new facets to his wrestling, to his appearance, and to his personality. John Cena on the other hand dismantled in easy succession the fledgling WWE careers of Rusev and Kevin Owens, and beyond being afforded an exorbitant amount of time each week on RAW, has put in a series of inadequate performances at WWE PPVs, characterised by a flat pace, shoddy signature moves, and improper selling.
Mercifully at SummerSlam Seth Rollins won a peculiar match – which took place with a surprising lack of fanfare at the halfway point of the show – via interference from special guest host Jon Stewart. The following night on RAW, as the double champion prepared to celebrate the unveiling of a statue in his honour, Sting appeared to a huge pop to interrupt proceedings. It made a thin degree of sense: not seen in a WWE ring since his defeat at WrestleMania 31 to Triple H, who used a sledgehammer to attain victory, surely Sting should have been seeking vengeance against the head of the Authority rather than his underling. But whatever, a match between Sting and Rollins was set for Night of Champions, and it was great fun witnessing Sting as part of the WWE title picture.
Sting and Rollins put on a more than decent match on Sunday at Night of Champions, which emerged from the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, but their display was neutered and ultimately rendered meaningless by what happened before and after their main event. Preceding their title bout, John Cena had invoked his rematch clause for the United States Championship, and he defeated Rollins cleanly courtesy of an Attitude Adjustment, leaving the World Champion laying in a heap for the benefit of Sting.
So it was already established that the World Champion was not the best wrestler in the company; and more, the implication seemed to be that the ageing Sting needed a head start if he was to have any chance in the match ahead. A second-rate champion versus a faded great: hardly an appetising setup for what should have been one of the occasions of the wrestling calendar.
As Sting controlled the early stages and tried to make the most of Rollins’ predicament by finishing things quickly, going by turns for a Scorpion Death Lock and a Scorpion Death Drop, the champion sought to crawl away for a moment’s respite. He managed to turn the match in his favour on the outside of the ring, and followed up with a powerbomb into the turnbuckle. But Sting came back, and it was the high-flying Stinger of old, with a sequence of splashes and clotheslines climaxing in a crossbody from the top rope down onto Rollins on the arena floor.
Eventually several stiff kicks from Rollins appeared to take their toll, the doctor was called, and just as a faltering Sting recovered and looked to cinch in a Scorpion Death Lock, Rollins rolled the challenger up to keep hold of his belt. It subsequently became clear that Sting had suffered a spinal injury mid-match, upon receiving the corner powerbomb, and as he faces further evaluation and treatment, his future prospects inside the squared circle remain uncertain. Sting’s injury apparently hurried the match along without affecting its outcome.
The unfortunate circumstances aside, in theory this would at the very least have been the time to allow Sting to bask in the spotlight of his first – and perhaps only – WWE PPV main event. Instead, Sheamus hurried down to the ring and looked to cash in on his Money in the Bank contract, only to be halted by a returning and masked Kane. Obviously still angry about his ankle, smashed by Brock Lesnar back in July but then stomped by an agitated Rollins, and finally kickstarting a feud which has been teased for the past six months, Kane hit the champion with a couple of chokeslams and Tombstone Piledrivers as Night of Champions went off the air.
Sting winning the World Heavyweight title would not have been the right decision, given his age and the vital importance for WWE in keeping Rollins with the belt. But contriving to have Sting win the United States title should have been straightforward, and more than nostalgic for a wrestler who was twice US Champion in WCW, and who at WWE Night of Champions in 2013 was voted the greatest US Champion of all time with more than 50% of the votes: with these credentials, a short US title reign for Sting would have significantly enhanced the status of the belt, while suitably rounding off an already legendary career.
Instead, simply returning into the possession of John Cena after less than a month, Rollins’ momentary reign achieved nothing for the United States title. And champion or otherwise, Sting deserved not to have his main event moment overshadowed by Sheamus and Kane, still competent wrestlers, but superstars who have long been perceived as stale by the bulk of the WWE audience.
* * *
Elsewhere Night of Champions was a show of typical ups and downs. It is difficult to know how high WWE really are on Kevin Owens, or whether they simply feel themselves on a firmer footing with him compared to other less traditional, less White American performers; difficult to know too how highly they value the Intercontinental title, which has been in a rut since it was vacated by Daniel Bryan in May. After a three-way feud between Ryback, Big Show, and The Miz which never got going and was summarily dismissed, Kevin Owens defeated Ryback on Sunday to take the Intercontinental belt at the first time of asking. Fair enough if hardly inspiring even in theory – but Owens won the title thanks to a rake of the eyes, a remarkably shallow way to claim success.
Dolph Ziggler and Rusev put on another solid singles display, as their horrid and stunted love angle labours on. The New Day again proved one of the night’s high points, using President Obama to earn some cheap heat, before Xavier Woods caused the disqualification against the Dudleys which allowed his team to retain their tag belts – and this is a feud which should run, with the titles potentially changing hands, but the brilliant young heels eventually coming out on top.
With Nikki Bella finally wiping AJ Lee’s place in history – recently overtaking AJ’s previous record of 295 days as WWE Divas Champion – the much heralded Divas revolution was at last allowed to commence in full. Coming up against Charlotte, with a stipulation that effectively prevented the Bella twins from switching places and spoiling the result, Nikki succumbed to the Figure Eight, Charlotte’s bridging figure-four leglock, giving us a new Divas Champion. Charlotte celebrated with her recent teammates Paige and Becky Lynch, and then in the ring and backstage with her father Ric Flair.
More than returns for Sting and the Dudleys, the RAW after SummerSlam saw the debut of Braun Strowman, at six feet and eight inches the Wyatt Family’s new monster. Night of Champions offered a partial rematch of the SummerSlam tag pitting Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper against Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns. With Strowman joining Wyatt and Harper, the other addition to the match was left a mystery, and Chris Jericho certainly made for a nice surprise. But once present, it was no shock that he ended up taking the loss, choked out by a dominant Strowman after he fought off an attempted Codebreaker. Just as intriguingly, Jericho teased an issue with Dean Ambrose, bumping into him on his way out of the ring.
* * *
Hell in a Cell will take place on 25 October, and early during Night of Champions, WWE made sure to announce the upcoming PPV’s main event. And it was unquestionably a major announcement, for it will be The Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar inside the cell, in the third match of their series following WrestleMania XXX and the recent controversary at SummerSlam. Rumour has it that this match will conclude their feud, with the two superstars moving in other directions towards WrestleMania 32.
But first up for Brock, the Live from Madison Square Garden WWE Network special on 3 October will see him face the never-ending might of Big Show. That is why, on Monday night’s RAW, Big Show squashed Cesaro with a KO Punch: Cesaro a suitable candidate for the job of putting Show over, because despite possessing all of the talent and all of the fan support to make it in the main event, Vince McMahon has a seemingly insurmountable aversion to the Swiss.
RAW saw the odd attempt to engender meaningful new storylines: most prominently, Paige turned on Charlotte to suggest a bitter rivalry over the Divas title, though as with Jericho and Ambrose, this may have to wait until Hell in the Cell settles standing scores. More enticing still on the women’s front is NXT TakeOver: Respect, coming on 7 October, and headlined by Bayley vs. Sasha Banks in a thirty-minute Iron Woman match for the NXT Women’s Championshi
At least RAW entertainingly furthered the angle between Seth Rollins and Kane, courtesy of a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance from Kane, who played up his Corporate persona before closing the show in a pit of fire, pulling Rollins down under the ring as the demonic Big Red Machine. Alas, the moment was spoiled as it came on the back of yet another utterly gratuitous clean victory for John Cena over the WWE Champion.