For 25 years now, SummerSlam has ostensibly been WWF/WWE’s second biggest event of the year.
I use the qualifier because it didn’t come second chronologically in terms of WWF PPVs—that would be Survivor Series—and it doesn’t have a big gimmick associated with it like the Royal Rumble, but SummerSlam has always been special. The show has never had any real hook beyond being a mini-WrestleMania five months later; yet having a prominent spot on the major show of the summer means something.
For those of us who remember the days of the big four, it could be that nearly half-year drought following WrestleMania that built the August showcase up. Personally, I think that even once the pay-per-view schedule went monthly, SummerSlam’s August placement made it a landmark as the last hurrah of your school vacation and perhaps the final milestone you could enjoy with your buddies without having to worry about waking up early the next morning.
Regardless of why, when WWE has been on an upswing, they go out of their way to make SummerSlam stand out from Vengeance, Unforgiven, Fully Loaded or Breaking Point (and so on and so on). This year’s edition, with only two matches signed officially, looks to be potentially an even more exciting show than WrestleMania.
To celebrate and anticipate, the Five Count crew has assembled to pick our favorite SummerSlam main events from days gone by. As quick technical note, we qualified the final match of the night as being the eligible “main event,” thus no Savage-Warrior from 1992 or Hart brothers clash from 1994, much as we’d like to include them.
That said, let’s heat things up…
Honorable Mention: JEFF HARDY vs. CM PUNK in a TLC match for the World Championship (2009)
I wanted to tack this on simply because my list leans heavily toward older stuff and I felt this was the strongest SummerSlam main event of the “modern” era. Two guys who worked perfectly together delivering all they had in a stipulation match that required a ton of physical sacrifice and allowed them to really show off.
5. HULK HOGAN & RANDY SAVAGE vs. ANDRE THE GIANT & TED DIBIASE (1988)
The one that started it all, and a quarter century later it still leaves an indelible mark. Not a work rate marvel, but not a dog either, with Savage bouncing around like a ping pong ball, DiBiase serving as ring general, and Hogan and Andre getting their big spots in. Mostly remembered for Jesse Ventura serving as guest referee and Miss Elizabeth providing the end distraction by removing the bottom half of her dress, this was the right amount of spectacle and wrestling to shine in the late 80’s WWF era.
4. THE ROCK vs. BROCK LESNAR for the Undisputed Championship (2002)
A changing of the guard moment where The Rock made Brock Lesnar once and for all—well, Brock had something to do with it as well—and WWE began moving wholeheartedly into their post-Attitude Era push of athleticism over talk (at least for a bit). This is an instance where SummerSlam felt every bit as crucial as WrestleMania in terms of long lasting importance.
Everybody remembers the awesome Rocky IV-esque training montages leading up to the match, but both guys brought it from the opening bell onward. Rock went out of his way to ratchet the intensity and give Brock every opening to look like a beast, and Lesnar didn’t sleep on any of his opportunities. On a packed card where nearly every match was something special, this one still proved more than worthy of being the main event.
3. THE UNDERTAKER vs. BRET HART for the WWF Championship (1997)
With WCW on top of the wrestling mountain, the WWF was going dark and edgy in the summer of 1997, looking for a way to counter, and perhaps nothing personified this direction better than Bret Hart and Undertaker, two of the 90’s era’s greatest heroes, getting down and dirty in this SummerSlam main event.
Both men had a distinctive shadow going in, Hart riding his anti-America Hart Foundation gimmick and Taker having been scarred by the Mankind feud of a year earlier and with the threat of Kane looming over him. These two had clashed in the past, but more in the still cartoony trappings of the fading New Generation years; here it would be two grizzled competitors going at it as opposed to a pair of larger than life characters.
The somber feel of the WWF as a whole and the murkiness of heel/face lines lend this match a different feel, but the work of Hart and Taker can’t be questioned, as they have to my mind their most hard hitting and intense encounter. Shawn Michaels added a lot as the guest referee, enhancing the storyline but doing a nice job not drawing away from the wrestlers themselves. This is another case where SummerSlam felt like a real benchmark moment and not just a halfway point between WrestleManias.
2. BRET HART vs. THE BRITISH BULLDOG for the Intercontinental Championship (1992)
From a pure in-ring wrestling standpoint, this is the best SummerSlam main event ever.
As legend—and the Hitman’s account—have it, Davey Boy Smith was blown up and overwhelmed by the time he got to the ring, so this is basically Bret Hart wrestling himself for 25 minutes (if you believe those admittedly biased sources). If that’s the case, kudos to Bret for an incredible feat, but more likely, large credit to him but more than a bit to Bulldog as well for an exciting back and forth duel that showcased the impressive attributes of both men. As the WWF emerged from the plodding 80’s era, this match was an athletic showcase of what was to come in an exciting new decade.
Wrestling aside, it’s hard not to argue that over 80,000 rabid British fans cheering on their countryman in the spectacular confines of an open air stadium had a lot to do with what makes this match stand the test of time. And whether it was needed or not, the “family feud” storyline revealing Davey Boy’s marriage to Bret’s sister provided extra juice as well. Finally, the novelty of the Intercontinental championship going on last gave one last little kick to boost what could have gone down as just another stellar undercard contest but instead will be remembered as a seminal main event.
1. STEVE AUSTIN vs. THE UNDERTAKER for the WWF Championship (1998)
This has a lot going for it. The Attitude Era had just kick started, Stone Cold Steve Austin had never been hotter, and the WWF had finally overtaken WCW in the ratings war seemingly once and for all. If WrestleMania XIV began the wave of momentum, SummerSlam 1998 was its early crest.
All that aside though, I remember this main event the most not just because I was 16 and at the height of my high school fandom, but because the WWF went out of their way to build it up as hugely important. It felt like a WrestleMania main event. Austin won the WWF title five months earlier and had fended off the likes of Dude Love and Kane, but Undertaker had been looming in the background practically his entire reign as the major threat he needed to overcome for true legitimacy.
The seeds had been planted way back in May when Taker first made his intent to become champion clear and the storyline careened and curved though Austin’s rivalry with Kane, Stone Cold and his rival holding and dropping the Tag Team titles, and the question of whether the Brothers of Destruction had reunited. A three-plus month build to a match even as other pay-per-views unfolded seemed impossible in 1998, but the WWF pulled it off; the Highway to Hell truly ran the length of the summer.
While maybe not an all-time classic, the match was good, with Austin in his groove and Taker starting to fully transition into a more complete worker; that didn’t matter though. The in-ring work here only had to be passable; it was the storyline and atmosphere that made this match. In Madison Square Garden, the two biggest stars in the WWF went at it in a highly anticipated match for the biggest prize in the game, and for me that makes this the best SummerSlam main event in history to date.
5. THE ROCK vs. BROCK LESNAR for the Undisputed Championship (2002)
This is the match that cemented Brock Lesnar in the main event and, arguably, the biggest reason for his worldwide wrestling fame pre-UFC. At the time, it was clear that The Rock was a placeholder designed to get Lesnar over. What wasn’t clear was just how much The Rock would throw into this feud to get Brock over.
The Rock is probably the most selfless top draw in the industry’s history, and he proved it here with a strong 16-minute bout that showcased both men’s athleticism and established Brock as a freak of nature that could more than hold his own with WWE’s finest. This also came at a time when the Rock was at the peak of his abilities as worker and could do no wrong between the ropes.
4. THE UNDERTAKER vs. BRET HART for the WWF Championship (1997)
Timing was everything for this bout. The Hitman was in the midst of his memorable heel run with the Hart Foundation stable and equally memorable feuds with Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels, while The Undertaker was barely a year into his new, more human take on the character. While he had some excellent matches with Mankind, Vader and others in 1996 and 1997, this was his first chance to really show how he had evolved as a wrestler.
Freed from the restrictions of his zombie character, ‘Taker sold to his heart’s content, making the Hitman’s leg-focused attacks seem far more believable than it had in their 1996 encounter. Both men’s selling, along with an intriguing angle involving special guest referee Shawn Michaels, led to a true SummerSlam classic.
3. CM PUNK vs. JOHN CENA for the WWE Championship (2011)
Hot on the heels of one of the best WWE pay-per-view events of all time, Money in the Bank 2011, this match attempted to capitalize on the mainstream attention garnered during WWE’s version of the “Summer of Punk.” And, at least for the duration of the match, it was successful.
Punk and Cena have some of the best chemistry of any two performers in wrestling, and in some ways this match was better than their encounter a month before. While the crowd wasn’t as molten-hot and the finish was somewhat unsatisfying, both wrestlers were crisp and brought tremendous effort into the match. Many of the spots played directly off their Money in the Bank classic, and by the end of the match, the story was clear that these two were equals. It wasn’t their best encounter, but it deserves a spot in the pantheon of great Cena-Punk matches.
2. THE UNDERTAKER vs. EDGE in a Hell in a Cell match (2008)
Now THIS is how you blow off a feud. The Undertaker and Edge had been feuding for the better part of the last six months, and it all culminated in this, the best match of their tremendous series.
Both guys will go down alongside the likes of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels as all-time SummerSlam MVPs, and in this match they had the advantage of working against each other and wrapping up one of the meatier feuds in recent memory. Though hampered by WWE’s PG restrictions (meaning no blood could be shed in the encounter), both veterans worked around it to provide an aggressive blow off match that paid tribute to their previous bouts while ramping up the violence.
What I really appreciated about this match was how it provided a clear story from the start. After months of shenanigans, Edge was forced to confront a pissed-off Deadman inside his favorite structure, with no hope of outside help. A desperate Rated-R Superstar threw caution to the wind in an attempt to slay the demon, but in the end The Undertaker got his revenge by using many of Edge’s favorite tactics against him and, finally, finishing him off by metaphorically chokeslamming him straight to hell. It was brilliant, old-school work mixed with a bit of WWE flair.
1. BRET HART vs. THE BRITISH BULLDOG for the Intercontinental Championship (1992)
In front of one of the biggest crowds in WWE history, Davey Boy Smith realized his greatest career accomplishment, and Bret Hart put a stamp on his label as the then-best wrestler in North America. By most accounts, the Hitman carried the Bulldog through perhaps Smith’s best match, an undeniable ***** classic for what was, at the time, the title that most reflected workrate.
Without this match, it’s possible Vince McMahon wouldn’t have had enough faith in Bret to pull the trigger on his WWF title victory a little over a month later. The two legendary Stampede workers put on a show, trading holds and counter-holds for more than 25 minutes in front of a raucous and partisan Wembley Stadium crowd. Hart, one of WWE’s most popular wrestlers, comfortably settled into the role of a heel for the match, trash-talking some members of the crowd while showing a distinctly ruthless style. The Bulldog’s comebacks were perfectly timed, and the two threw caution to the wind multiple times, including a memorable plancha from Hart.
This match has appeared on numerous DVD sets for good reason: it’s one of the greatest main events in WWE history.
Honorable Mention: THE UNDERTAKER vs. EDGE in a Hell in a Cell match (2008)
For a show in which its most important moment was probably a promo between Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho, this match quickly gets lost as a terrific main event in SummerSlam history. The feud between Edge and The Undertaker that went all the way back to the previous spring when Edge cashed in Money in the Bank on Undertaker and won the World title from him, which led to a fantastic main event match at WrestleMania XXIV. The two go for an encore at SummerSlam to blow off the feud in Hell in a Cell, and it did not disappoint. Although it was the first Hell in a Cell match in the blood-free PG Era, it was also one of the most chaotic and enjoyable ones in the match’s history.
5. STEVE AUSTIN vs. THE UNDERTAKER for the WWF Championship (1998)
The “Highway to Hell” themed build-up to this match was enormous to its importance along with the raging mainstream popularity of Austin 3:16. It has also turned out to be the final SummerSlam match that has been wrestled at fabled Madison Square Garden. The match hit a major speed bump when Austin suffered a concussion early on, and it definitely shows when you roll the tape back. Austin is not his usually spry self in the final 15 or so minutes of the match.
But I remember this match being one of the few truly great wrestling-based main events of the McMahon-Russo version of the Attitude Era, without a run-in or swerve ending in sight. The leg drop through the table by Taker is still an amazing feat of agility to this day, and it felt like a really big match in a time period where everything was promoted as the biggest match we had ever seen. Austin vs. Undertaker finished off a summer that not only put WWF back on the map in terms of popularity, but also helped nudge them to the top of ratings war over WCW.
4. HULK HOGAN vs. SHAWN MICHAELS (2005)
The match took place in Washington D.C. in 2005, but it seemed more like a timeless dream match: The best wrestler from the New Generation of the 90’s against the biggest star of the 80’s for the first time and the only time. Shawn Michaels that year had teamed with Hogan (who was promoting his reality show Hogan Knows Best on VH1 at the time) for random tag matches, but it was after one tag match on Raw that Michaels stunned fans with a superkick to Hogan’s chops. We were now on a path to two Hall of Fame superstars and two undeniable legends hooking up in the ring.
Michaels went on to channel his inner heel for the next month and cut some of the best, most devious promos you will ever see. The Larry King Live spoof is quotably hilarious and the debate one has a very uncomfortable shoot style to it. The match itself was not expected to be a masterpiece, and it wasn’t, but it was Shawn’s over-the-top bumping and commitment to being the bad guy in this feud that made the match better than average. Hogan does put a mighty blade job in there for his services before getting the leg drop in there for the pinfall. Many have claimed that Shawn oversold Hogan in a way to make his offense look bad, but be honest, if Michaels just ran through the motions, would the match have been enjoyable at all? Probably not.
3. CM PUNK vs. JEFF HARDY in a TLC match for the World Championship (2009)
Although SummerSlam ’09 in Los Angeles was focused on Hollywood stars, the return of DX, and a horribly mishandled John Cena/Randy Orton WWE title match, Vince had enough smarts to close out the show with a match between CM Punk and Jeff Hardy that stole the show and dropped a lot of jaws. The feud went on for months on SmackDown and was an example of art imitating life: Punk as the condescending voice of straight-edge against the thrill seeking (and drug abusing) ways of Jeff Hardy. It turned Punk into the most conniving heel in the company and gave him his first blow away main event match.
Hardy was about to quit the company, but he really went out with a bang at SummerSlam, taking sick bumps on chairs and ladders while holding his own when it came to tempo. The Swanton off the ladder to the table is about as dangerous a highspot as you’ll see in the WWE. Punk won the title to close the show and a summer on SmackDown that gave us one of the hottest wrestling programs in the company’s history. Punk went on to feud with The Undertaker, but believe me, this was the match that turned him into a star.
2. THE ROCK vs. BROCK LESNAR for the Undisputed Championship (2002)
I just wrote an article detailing the importance of this match, so that alone should tell you how highly I think of this match. SummerSlam ’02 was not only an all-time show but, in my eyes, the most important pay-per-view of 2002, where the torch was officially passed and the Raw and SmackDown exclusivity was being stabilized. Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H in a phenomenal return bout one match earlier could have taken the air out of any arena at that time, but thankfully, we had the Brahma Bull versus the Next Big Thing.
The lead-up only lasted a few weeks with the majority being vignettes of the two going through rigorous training, but the match was an exhilarating 16-minute affair. It was like Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior if you played it in fast forward. Lesnar pinned The Rock to turn him into the new face of the company overnight while The Rock played off of the boo birds at Nassau Coliseum like a pro, realizing that fans were ready for something fresh at the top. It was athletic display that was slightly ahead of its time for a main event.
1. BRET HART vs. THE BRITISH BULLDOG for the Intercontinental Championship (1992)
There are plenty of great SummerSlam main events, but for me, my top pick was pretty easy. In the first WWF pay-per-view ever without Hulk Hogan, Vince McMahon put the more character-driven (and good in its own way) Randy Savage/Ultimate Warrior WWF title match to the side in favor of the Bulldog wrestling his brother-in-law on home turf in front of 80,000 fans. And neither guy took the chance that Vince gave them lightly. The match was so great, if they had a roof on top of Wembley Stadium that night, they probably would have blown it off.
Bret Hart was ascending quickly as the best wrestler in the world at the time (if he wasn’t already) and this match was his Mona Lisa. Davey Boy did a whole lot of his own work in that match, but Bret’s individual performance is just a sight to behold, just about perfect in execution and timing. It is definitely the Bulldog’s greatest match, and it might even be Bret’s, which is saying something. The brilliant-yet-simple rollup finish was revolutionary in the WWF at the time to the joy of the fans live in the U.K. and anyone who saw it on television. This match also ushered in the WWF’s new generation of superstars in the early to mid-1990’s. It is about as close to a perfect match as you can get in pro wrestling.