Over the course of any given day, those covering WWE within ESPN get to talking about a wide range of topics. Sometimes it's serious and immediate, breaking down a creative decision or a show, and sometimes it's a little more esoteric, as we sit around and imagine a world where everyone universally loves the creative direction of the WWE.
After watching Stomping Grounds on Sunday night, Marc Raimondi and Tim Fiorvanti debated some of the possible directions WWE could head in after a show that overachieved. Rather than try to synthesize how it all went down in a short list, they figured sharing the whole conversation would give a little more insight into the way they were thinking about SummerSlam -- and in the process, book the card between them.
With apologies to the cruiserweight division, Ali, Miz, Shinsuke Nakamura, Rusev, Big E, Xavier Woods, R-Truth and everyone else who was left off the imaginary card (most of whom will certainly appear on the show), here's how it all played out:
Tim Fiorvanti: Marc, we're kind of basking in the afterglow of a better-than-expected Stomping Grounds, save for maybe the main event. But we're only three weeks out from Extreme Rules, and less than two months away from SummerSlam in Toronto.
With WWE showing at least a few signs of fighting its way out of the big post-WrestleMania hole it dug for itself, I can't help but think ahead and imagine what might be in store that night at the Scotiabank Arena. I was thinking we could plot out the card from top to bottom, and then once WWE steps in and does its own thing, we can at least see how our vision lines up. That sound like something you'd be up for?
Marc Raimondi: Tim, if you're asking me to fantasy book for ESPN.com the same way I have for the last 17 years of my life playing Extreme Warfare Revenge and Total Extreme Warfare, how could I possibly turn that down? I'll bet you and I can come up with some pretty compelling storylines heading into SummerSlam season. Plus, it'll keep our minds off what's going on with our New York Mets.
Tim: Yes, I could do with thinking a little bit less about Mickey Callaway and a little more about ... basically anything else.
It's settled then. A few ground rules would probably help. Let's book the top four matches first -- the men's and women's world title bouts -- and from there we can freestyle. Winner of a coin flip gets to pick the first match, and then we'll bounce back and forth. Because SummerSlam has had 13 matches the last two years, that's what we'll have. And last but not least, the only qualification for the roster pool we can pick from is that they had to have had one match in the last 12 months (live events count, even if that's only a way to get Bray Wyatt in), and Undertaker and Goldberg are off the table because this isn't Saudi Arabia.
If that all sounds OK to you, I'll let you call the coin toss when you're ready.
Marc: Sounds good. Tails, please
Tim: And tails it is. The floor is yours.
Marc: Call me a purist (or maybe just a fan of coherence), but I'm going to book a Universal title match for SummerSlam with only members of the Raw roster. Crazy, I know. Seth Rollins will go into Toronto as the reigning champ. He'll finally get through this never-ending program with Baron Corbin, but he's nowhere close to being done having to watch his back. That's because Braun Strowman will win a fatal four-way the night after Extreme Rules for a shot at the Universal belt. So, Rollins will not only have to deal with Brock Lesnar having the ability to cash in the Money in the Bank contract whenever he wants, but also the monster Strowman coming for his neck. Very important: Strowman has to be booked very strong this summer to make this work. At SummerSlam, Rollins faces insurmountable odds against Strowman with Lesnar lurking, but he comes back from a hellacious beating to retain the title. Barely.
After the match, Lesnar comes out, hits an F-5, hands the referee the briefcase and pins Rollins to become the Universal champ. Again.
Tim: Man oh man. If I thought about that kind of end result last year or even most of this year, I probably would've been furious. But a truly carefree Lesnar, dancing and singing with the briefcase, has admittedly been fun. My guess would be that another title reign would likely carry us all the way to WrestleMania, but I digress. On to my task at hand.
I think you set a good precedent by making sure your challenger is on the same show as the champion and title they're vying for, so I'll follow along -- even if it robs me of a Kofi Kingston title defense against Samoa Joe or Cesaro. I don't want to rush Bray Wyatt along too fast, so I'll keep him away from the big titles for the time being. Kevin Owens is a tempting direction to go in, but we've seen some of that already and I think him and Sami Zayn vying for tag titles is the way to go in the short term.
In my mind, SummerSlam is the perfect kind of showcase to thrust someone like Andrade directly into the spotlight to see how he fares. His matches with Rey Mysterio, Finn Balor and AJ Styles, among others, have shown what Andrade can do in the ring, and Zelina Vega is the perfect complement to his character. He'll team with Shinsuke Nakamura, pick up a pin over Kingston and then the ball will start rolling. Andrade loses a close contest in an Extreme Rules match but then unleashes his fury upon Kofi and keeps up his pursuit through SummerSlam. Whether or not he walks out of Toronto as WWE champion is another matter, but I'll say that by mid-2020 he'll have at least one world title reign.
Marc: Love that. I think that'll be a great match. I'm a huge Andrade fan. Just going back a second to my SummerSlam finish plan, for a second: Lesnar will leave Toronto as the champion, but Rollins will win it back before the end of the year is out - when the odds are not completely stacked against him. Long-term booking, Fiorvanti!
Let me stick with SmackDown here and book this women's title match for the blue brand. The options are pretty limited if Bayley is heading into SummerSlam still the champion, which I suspect she will be. As much as my gut would go with an Asuka heel run this summer, she's tied up in this tag team with Kairi Sane, and that's fine. We'll keep it realistic. Charlotte Flair has yet to get her revenge on Bayley for winning the title via Money in the Bank contract cash-in last month.
Bayley vs. Charlotte will be the program through Extreme Rules into SummerSlam. It makes sense, even if we've seen it before. Bayley retains the title clean in Toronto, only to be ambushed by Shayna Baszler, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir from NXT, announcing their arrival on the main roster. That sets up the rest of the year in the SmackDown women's division, including an eventual Flair babyface turn to kick-start the long-awaited Horsewomen vs. Horsewomen feud, culminating in Ronda Rousey's return.
Tim: I like where your head's at, and that's a no-brainer on both accounts. Obviously this plan greatly depends on the status of both Sasha Banks and Ronda Rousey.
As far as the Raw women's title goes, it feels like we're full steam ahead with Becky Lynch as champ for the foreseeable future. She saved the day after a monumentally misguided main event, and fans are universally behind her. After putting the last of Lacey Evans behind her with a mixed tag team match at Extreme Rules, the path to SummerSlam becomes the primary focus. There's plenty of history with Alexa Bliss that can be revisited, although that seems a little formulaic coming right after Bliss' challenge against Bayley. I'd love to see Nikki Cross get a big chance, but it seems she'll be tied at the hip to Bliss for the time being. I'll be optimistic and say that the night after Extreme Rules, Lynch calls out for a new challenger and Banks makes her return. Having all four of the Horsewomen battling for the titles is a smart way to reconnect them directly before they join forces to battle Rousey and Co.
Marc: Great idea. I really like how this card is shaping up. SummerSlam weekend is kind of where Flair, Banks, Bayley and Lynch made their names, so I appreciate this cohesion.
Sticking with Raw, let's book the United States title. Ricochet won the belt from Samoa Joe at Stomping Grounds for his first singles gold on the main roster. That program is far from done. I'd expect there to be a rematch with a stipulation at Extreme Rules and perhaps it'll carry all the way into SummerSlam. Rey Mysterio is hopeful about coming back from a shoulder injury in July. A triple threat between Mysterio, Joe and Ricochet for the U.S. title at SummerSlam would be juicy. Know what would be even better? How about a Fatal 4-Way. Add Cesaro, who has beaten Ricochet recently, into the mix. That will blow the roof off. Ricochet has history with all three, in fact; Mysterio and Joe obviously have a lot of unfinished business, and Ricochet and Mysterio have history from before WWE, in Lucha Underground. Samoa Joe just happens to be one of the best triple-threat match wrestlers in history. Eventually, there will be a Joe vs. Mysterio blow-off match, but this will be another teaser and all should shine.
Tim: It blew my mind when I looked back and saw Ricochet and Samoa Joe had never crossed paths before WWE, and their title match at Stomping Grounds was a great base upon which to build out a rivalry. Ideally I'd love for Joe to step back into the world title picture before too long, but that's a longer timeline and a different story.
I'm all about balance here, so let's answer the question of the Intercontinental championship. Finn Balor had some tremendous matches with Andrade over the last few months, and I'd like to see him get the chance to show off his talents as a workhorse. There's one name on the SmackDown roster that's just screaming out to me, and it's Aleister Black. It's time to get him out of that dark room he's been brooding in for months, and after a tune-up or two, an Intercontinental championship opportunity is the perfect way to show those unfamiliar with Black at this point what he's capable of. The thought of Black vs. Balor in a WWE ring is a can't-miss in my book, and could quite honestly steal the show with as little as 12-15 minutes (though I'd obviously love more).
Marc: Damn, the demon vs. the darkness. Count me all the way in for that one. I have no doubt that those two would work well together and I think Black is in for a monster push at some point. No better time like the present.
I'm going to jump back to Raw before we go too long without booking one of the best wrestlers on the planet, AJ Styles. WWE has been putting Styles back with his former Bullet Club cohorts Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson recently -- just in time for G1 season, I might add. There has been some tension in the ranks, though, if you've noticed. That will lead to a turn by Gallows and Anderson on Styles. In search of an opponent to take on the Good Brothers at SummerSlam, Styles turns to one of his idols: Shawn Michaels. Styles and Michaels win and this storyline leads to the eventual Styles vs. Michaels dream match at WrestleMania 36.
Tim: If Shawn Michaels is willing to strap the boots on a few more times, I'm all for it. I'll admit I wouldn't have thought of this one, but that's some strong long-term booking right there.
We've crossed the halfway mark, and while I'm sure there will be a few more title matches to make to fill out the card, I want to swing back to Bray Wyatt. His only appearances on WWE TV over the last few months have been the stuff of children's show nightmares inside of the Firefly Fun House. But if the ramping up of his appearances in that weekly spot are any indication, we're on the precipice of his in-ring return. What better way to show his growth and readiness to take over WWE than by exorcising the demons of his greatest letdown -- his WrestleMania 33 WWE championship loss to Randy Orton? Orton is a name that's too big to be left off a show like SummerSlam, and everything Orton and Wyatt did before that fateful match was really good.
Marc: I dig that recognition of history and where the new Wyatt character could go. He absolutely needs a rocket ship strapped to his back upon an in-ring return. A win over Orton would be a great start.
Let's shift gears to some tag team wrestling, specifically the Raw tag title. The Revival hold the belts currently, but not for long. They'll fall to the Usos in a stipulation match to finally blow off that feud at Extreme Rules. The Viking Raiders (or whatever it is they're being called now) win a multi-team match on Raw to earn a title shot at SummerSlam. Samoans vs. Vikings in the North.
Tim: I was tempted to try to make a multiway match for the Raw tag belts at SummerSlam, but as I think about it, the women's tag team titles offer a nice opportunity to cross over brands without doing too much in the way of disruption. The IIconics and Asuka/Kairi Sane are two obvious entries, and then we can add a return of Beth Phoenix (to tag with Natalya) and Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross. Bliss and Cross walking out of SummerSlam as champions would be a nice way to further strengthen their bond.
Marc: I can't believe we've gone this long without booking the best in the world, Tim! Shane McMahon needs a SummerSlam match. The boss' son has been running wild and there's only one man who can put a stop to it: Triple H. Shane vs. Hunter in a no disqualification match. The loser retires from in-ring competition. Triple H goes over to finally put an end to this Shane push.
Tim: The battle between Vince McMahon's son and son-in-law. An inspired choice. We're down to two more matches, and there are a couple of glaring holes. While we still don't have matches on this card for Bobby Lashley, Drew McIntyre or Roman Reigns (and boy, did Stomping Grounds prove Reigns needs to evolve before fans start outright booing him again), there's a juicy possibility that's still lingering out there. Daniel Bryan and Rowan defending the SmackDown tag team titles against Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. KO and Sami were among the world's best tag teams before signing with WWE, and we haven't seen enough of them against top-level teams. This would be a great match. Putting the straps on KO and Sami would be a tremendous idea for the long-term health of tag-team wrestling in the WWE.
Marc: Doing this just shows how much talent WWE has. It's pretty incredible that we've come this far and not booked those names -- or a cruiserweight title match.
Shane McMahon has been feuding with Reigns for some time now. He won't face him at SummerSlam, but has other plans for The Big Dog: a fatal four-way pitting Reigns against the on-again-off-again trio of McIntyre, Lashley and Corbin. The deck is stacked against Reigns versus 3 Man Band 2020, but he perseveres when they turn on each other after this added stipulation: winner gets a future Universal title shot.
Recapping our card:
Universal championship: Seth Rollins (c) vs. Braun Strowman (Brock Lesnar cashes in after Rollins retains)
WWE championship: Kofi Kingston (c) vs. Andrade
SmackDown women's championship: Bayley (c) vs. Charlotte Flair
Raw women's championship: Becky Lynch (c) vs. Sasha Banks
Fatal 4-Way for the United States championship: Ricochet (c) vs. Samoa Joe vs. Rey Mysterio vs. Cesaro
Intercontinental championship: Finn Balor (c) vs. Aleister Black
AJ Styles & Shawn Michaels vs. Karl Anderson & Luke Gallows
Bray Wyatt vs. Randy Orton
Raw tag team championships: The Usos (c) vs. The Viking Raiders
Fatal 4-Way for the women's tag team championships: The IIconics (c) vs. Asuka & Kairi Sane vs. Beth Phoenix & Natalya vs. Alexa Bliss & Nikki Cross
No DQ (loser must retire): Triple H vs. Shane McMahon
SmackDown tag team championships: Daniel Bryan & Rowan (c) vs. Sami Zayn & Kevin Owens
Fatal 4-Way match for a future world title shot: Roman Reigns vs. Bobby Lashley vs. Drew McIntyre vs. Baron Corbin