The 10 Best WWE Championship Matches in SummerSlam History

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2013

The 10 Best WWE Championship Matches in SummerSlam History

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    In just a few weeks, World Wrestling Entertainment will roll into the Staples Center in Los Angeles for its annual summertime blockbuster, SummerSlam.

    This year, John Cena will defend his WWE Championship against Daniel Bryan in a match many expect to go down as one of the greatest in the long and storied history of the event. Bryan has set the wrestling world on fire, stealing nearly every show he has been a part of for the last six months and garnering a groundswell of fan support.

    Cena has been his typically solid self, delivering main event quality bouts against the likes of Ryback and Mark Henry just months after a match of the year candidate against CM Punk on Raw.

    Expectations are high for the WWE title bout but no one can know for sure whether or not they will be met. There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the match, including who will leave California with the title in their possession.

    What is not a mystery, however, is that SummerSlam has produced a number of truly great WWE Championship matches in the past, some of which have gone on to define the event. Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, The Rock, Brock Lesnar, CM Punk and John Cena have all taken to the stage to showcase their talents and all have left SummerSlam better off because of it.

    These are the ten greatest WWE Championship matches in SummerSlam history.

    Will Bryan vs. Cena be able to make its presence felt on this list in the future? Fans will have to wait until August 18 to find out for sure. For now, enjoy this look back at some of the greatest matches in the history of the summertime spectacular.

10. Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar, 2003

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    In the summer of 2003, Kurt Angle was fresh off of a revolutionary neck surgery that allowed him to return to action far quicker than most. A series of vignettes set to Coldplay's "Clocks" announced his return and the images of Angle working out inside the squared circle made it difficult for fans to feel any hard feelings towards one of the great heels of the prior three years.

    It became very clear that Angle would return to action as a babyface and for that to happen, his top in-ring rival Brock Lesnar would once again embrace his inner heel. He did just that, providing the hottest event of the summer with a WrestleMania main event for the WWE Championship.

    While the 2003 incarnation of SummerSlam may best be remembered for an underwhelming Elimination Chamber match that saw Triple H overcome the challenge of Bill Goldberg to remain World champion, it was Angle and Lesnar that stole the show, delivering a near classic wrestling match that picked up right where their spectacular WrestleMania bout left off.

    Unlike the main event in Seattle some four months earlier, Angle would leave SummerSlam with his arm raised in victory having made his professional rival tap out to the dreaded ankle lock. It was a huge victory for the 1996 Olympian and only added fuel to the fire of one of the best feuds of the year.

9. The Undertaker vs. Bret Hart, 1997

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    In the middle of one of the great heel runs in World Wrestling Entertainment history, Bret "Hitman" Hart entered the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey as one of the most despised performers in America.

    Embracing his Canadian heritage and citizenry to an almost fanatical extent, Hart denounced the United States and criticized the immoral ways of its people. The leader of the reintroduced Hart Foundation, he vowed to fight for Canada and his fans across the globe against the ignorant Americans.

    At SummerSlam, national pride was at its height as those same Americans hoped and prayed the loudmouthed Canadian would not wrest the WWE Championship from The Undertaker and take it back to the Great White North.

    To make the situation even more interesting, Shawn Michaels was announced as the special guest referee for the match. Michaels and Hart had been involved in a very real rivalry, both on-screen and off, and the company utilized the tension between the two performers to their benefit.

    The atmosphere was electric for the title bout and all involved fed off of the crowd's energy, delivering a satisfying, entertaining main event that helped the company gain a bit of momentum, even if it was immeasurable in the coveted television ratings war.

    When Shawn Michaels hauled off and accidentally struck The Undertaker with a steel chair, costing him the title and assuring that Hart returned to Canada with the WWE Championship in his grasp, it changed the course of professional wrestling history and gave fans something to talk about.

    One of the more important SummerSlam title bouts ever, even if it is not immediately thought of as one.

8. Shawn Michaels vs. Vader, 1996

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    The SummerSlam 1996 main event was a modern day telling of the classic David vs. Goliath tale.

    Vader was the impressive, brutal and dominant big man that had taken World Wrestling Entertainment by storm, vanquishing some of its top stars and earning the title of number one contender.

    Shawn Michaels was the resilient WWE champion, overcoming the challenge of bigger and stronger men in order to extend his boyhood dream.

    The Gund Arena in Cleveland, Ohio would be the setting for a main event match that not only extended Michaels' reign as champion but also demonstrated just how versatile a performer he was. 

    The Heartbreak Kid was his typically flashy self early in the bout, using speed and agility to his advantage. Unfortunately for him, the challenger was a rare breed of size, strength, mass and violence and it was not long before Vader took control of the match.

    In fact, Vader would win the match twice (first by count-out, then by disqualification) but demanded the match continue so he could defeat Michaels decisively and capture the sport's top prize. The third time, however, would not be the charm as HBK delivered a top rope moonsault and managed to pin the larger man to the mat for three seconds.

    Adding Vader to a list of challengers to have challenged him and failed, a list that also included the likes of Diesel and the British Bulldog, gave Michaels another notch in his belt and allowed him to lay claim to the title of most versatile champion in company history.

7. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin vs. The Undertaker, 1998

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    The biggest match of the entire summer of 1998 did not feature Bill Goldberg capturing the WCW Championship from Hulk Hogan. No, the biggest match of the summer of '98 featured "Stone Cold" Steve Austin defending the WWE Championship against The Undertaker in a match billed by World Wrestling Entertainment's marketing geniuses as the "Highway to Hell."

    Phenomenal videos set to AC/DC's song of the same title helped build to the match, as did a story involving Kane's allegiances, or lack thereof, to his brother as The Phenom prepared to challenge for Austin's coveted title.

    With Attitude Era raging on and interest in professional wrestling at its all-time height, Austin and Undertaker the entered historic Madison Square Garden for the main event of one of the most anticipated shows in company history.

    They did not fail to deliver in the most hyped match of the night.

    The bout was a display of high impact offense from two of the all-time greats in World Wrestling Entertainment. Knowing full well that he could not afford to get into a fist fight with the much larger, stronger Undertaker, Austin resorted to a more traditional offense, targeting the challenger's left knee and working it over throughout the bout.

    The Dead Man wore down the tenacious Rattlesnake, using his size and power advantage to try and put away Austin on a number of occasions. The WWE champion refused to let his title reign slip away. Kane would arrive to ringside late in the match but his older brother would order him away, wanting to win, or lose, on his own.

    In what could be considered an act of desperation, Austin would deliver a low blow as Undertaker came off the top rope for "Old School," then finished him off seconds later with the Stunner for the victory.

    It was the finest match of The Undertaker's all year and another in a line of high quality title defenses for Austin during his first run with the belt.

6. John Cena vs. Randy Orton, 2007

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    In 2007, World Wrestling Entertainment was rocked by injuries to some of its biggest and most successful stars. Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Rey Mysterio and Edge were all sidelined for different periods throughout the year while the likes of The Great Khali and Bobby Lashley were used to help fill high profiles vacancies on the roster.

    The only two consistencies throughout the first two-thirds of 2007 were John Cena and Randy Orton.

    Cena was in the middle of a year-long WWE title reign by the time SummerSlam rolled around and Orton had finally returned to the title picture after a year of being in-and-out of trouble with management. On July 23, Orton would be named the number one contender to Cena's title and the main event of the summer's hottest event would be set in stone.

    For the first time, the two young Superstars charged with leading World Wrestling Entertainment into the next generation would headline a pay-per-view event against one another in singles action.

    Orton would prove himself capable of dethroning Cena for the title in a match that showcased their chemistry with one another. It also featured a fast and sudden finish, with Cena applying the STF only for Orton to reach the ropes to facilitate the break. Seconds later, the third-generation star struck with the RKO but the sudden finisher was not enough to keep the WWE champion down.

    Orton would try to lift Cena off the mat but the champ would catch him with the then-titled FU to score the pin-fall victory after 13:42 seconds of action.

5. John Cena vs. Edge, 2006

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    The WWE Championship match between John Cena and Edge at SummerSlam 2006 was a changing of the guard, of sorts. For the first time in years at the annual summertime extravaganza, two of WWE's youngest and brightest stars were allowed the opportunity to close out the show and they capitalized on said opportunity, delivering a great pro wrestling match for the sport's top prize.

    Leading up to the bout, it had been announced that if Edge tried or did get himself disqualified, he would not only lose the match but also the title.

    The stipulation lent itself to a smarter, more methodical match that allowed both men to showcase their skills without the safety net of a special gimmick.

    The two Superstars delivered a stellar match that came to its conclusion when the referee became distracted by Cena and his refusal to break the STF. This allowed Lita the opportunity to slide Edge a pair of brass knuckles. After a crowd-pleasing moment that saw Cena deliver the Attitude Adjustment to Lita, "the Rated R Superstar" utilized his weapon and knocked Cena unconscious, unbeknownst to the official.

    Three seconds later and Edge would leave Cena's hometown of Boston with his arm raised in victory and the WWE title still in his grasp.

    A main event that shaped the future of the company.

4. Kurt Angle vs. Steve Austin, 2001

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    The WWE Championship match at SummerSlam in 2001 was the crowning jewel in the otherwise massive failure that was the Invasion storyline that dominated the summer and fall of that year.

    Kurt Angle, representing Vince McMahon's then-World Wrestling Federation, challenged turncoat, and the face of the Alliance, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in the night's semi-main event. The bout would feature brutal violence, spilled blood, assaulted officials and all of the drama one could handle with a series of near-falls that kept shrouded in mystery just who would leave the Compaq Center in San Jose, California with the coveted WWE title around their waist.

    Late in the match, with the proverbial crimson mask caking his face, it appeared as though Angle would return the title to the company to which it belonged. Unfortunately, a conspiracy formulated by the Alliance would prevent that from happening.

    After numerous attacks on officials by Austin, it was Alliance referee Nick Patrick who would disqualify the Texas Rattlesnake and award the match to Angle. Despite the loss, Austin would retain the title and the Alliance would retain all of the power that comes along with it.

    Angle would snap following Patrick's decision, attacking him and applying the ankle lock to the joy of all of the fans in attendance.

    The bout, unlike others on this list, had a less-than desirable finish. No one likes seeing a disqualification or count-out ending on a major pay-per-view broadcast but the weakness of the finish cannot be allowed to overpower what was a phenomenal title match. Angle and Austin crafted a near-classic that had every element one would want from a high profile main event.

    Unfortunately, the ending did not live up to the groundwork set before it. As a result, it keeps the Austin-Angle bout out of the top three.

3. The Rock vs. Brock Lesnar, 2002

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    When The Rock decided to leave a full-time pro wrestling career to try his luck in Hollywood, it was only a matter of time before fans turned on him. They resented the fact that he called himself the People's Champion, that they were responsible for helping to make him a multi-million dollar championship athlete and he repaid them by running to the world of glitz and glamour and celebrity that is the film industry.

    By the time SummerSlam in August of 2002 rolled around and the WWE champion was scheduled to defend his title against the aptly titled "Next Big Thing" Brock Lesnar, the fans inside the Nassau Coliseum were more-than ready to voice their displeasure with the star of that summer's Scorpion King.

    The promos leading up to the match were phenomenal, treating both Rock and Lesnar as if they were legitimate athletes preparing for the biggest match of their lives. They trained, put their bodies through unimaginable tests of endurance and strength all to help get the match over as something truly special. Adding to the hype was the fact that neither man had been allowed to touch the other in the weeks leading up to the bout.

    All of this built to a main event match that would see one of the top stars in the history of the industry pass the torch to one of the most physically-gifted, freakish athletes in any sport in recent memory in a truly selfless display.

    The fans in Uniondale, New York booed The Rock with great intensity, cheering every bit of offense the younger, bigger, faster and stronger challenger was able to land on his more experienced opponent. Late in the match, as he tended to do throughout his career, Rock would make a Herculean comeback but this time, his trademark maneuvers would fall short. 

    Trading a series of finisher attempts, Rock would finally grab a hold of Lesnar for the Rock Bottom. Brock would counter, however, and pull his opponent into the F5. The Nassau Coliseum erupted as Lesnar pinned the Attitude Era star and captured his first WWE title.

2. John Cena vs. CM Punk, 2011

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    Imagine having one of the greatest matches in WWE history, in front of one of the most vocal and passionate audiences the sport has to offer.

    Now, imagine being asked to do it again, this time in front of fans that have traveled to Los Angeles from different cities and locations across the country for the annual SummerSlam pay-per-view event.

    It was no easy task for John Cena and CM Punk and, while the match may not have lived up to their Money in the Bank classic from a month prior, their title bout on August 14, 2011 proved to be the second best in the SummerSlam annals.

    Punk entered the Staples Center in Los Angeles as the hottest star in the industry. Two months after delivering the "pipe bomb" heard around the world, he was as popular as any performer in the sport and was riding a wave of momentum rarely seen in World Wrestling Entertainment.

    He was the rebel, the outcast, the people's champion.

    Cena was the machine's champion, the face of the company. He was the guy that sold merchandise, that was a hero to millions of children around the world. Moments after Rey Mysterio won a tournament to become WWE champion, he defeated the ultimate underdog in a second title match and became champion. Again.

    The showdown between the two WWE champions to determine just who the rightful titleholder was would captivate fans in Los Angeles and watching around the world.

    The inclusion of Triple H as referee helped to tell a much larger story involving management and their disapproval of Punk as champion, though it really was just The Game's attempt to mooch off of the unbelievable heat involving two Superstars that were not him.

    As has become custom when the two of them compete against one another, Punk and Cena through their entire arsenal at one another, all with the goal of leaving the City of Angels with the WWE title in their grasp. Near-falls were plentiful and the fans were left on the edges of their seats as drama built one kick out after another.

    After 24 minutes of action, Punk would hoist Cena onto his shoulders and deliver the Go To Sleep. He would cover, Triple H would count the three and the Best in the World would be declared the victor, despite the fact that Cena had draped his foot over the bottom rope moments before The Game's hand hit the mat for the third time.

    The pure euphoria of the fans who had cheered Punk to victory would be short-lived, however, as Kevin Nash made his way to the ring through the audience and delivered a jackknife power bomb to Punk. Alberto Del Rio would capitalize on the opportunity and cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase, pinning the fallen champion and winning the title to close out the show.

    Del Rio would never have great success as champion and, despite attempts to push he and John Cena as the top feud on Raw, it would once again be Punk who captured the attention of the fans. He would defeat Del Rio for the title in front of a sold-out crowd in the historic Madison Square Garden at Survivor Series.

1. Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart, 1994

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    The title of "greatest steel cage match in WWE history" carries a lot of weight. Men, such as Jimmy Snuka, Don Muraco, Hulk Hogan, Paul Orndorff, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Triple H, Mick Foley and John Cena spent years revolutionizing the cage match, including the much more hyped Hell in a Cell, but it was two brothers in the much maligned World Wrestling Federation of 1994 that set the benchmark for what a cage match could be.

    A benchmark that has yet to be met by any two other performers.

    The sibling rivalry between Bret and Owen Hart dominated Vince McMahon's promotion at a time when the state of the company was in limbo. McMahon was facing charges of steroid distribution and was on trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The charges had brought about a change in the type of performer that starred for the company and, as a result, Owen was able to join his brother in the main event scene.

    In March, the younger brother upset his older sibling, pinning his shoulders to the mat in a five-star classic to kick off WrestleMania X. Later in the night, Bret would put that loss behind him and defeat Yokozuna to capture the then-WWF title for a second time, celebrating with several babyfaces to close out the show while his jealous brother watched from ringside.

    The stage was set for a rivalry that would dominate the spring and summer of 1994. Bret would be the proud and respected champion, taking on all comers while Owen had to fight for his chance at the title. In June, he would underhandedly become King of the Ring, thanks in part to his returning brother in-law, Jim Neidhart. With the crown came the opportunity to challenge Bret for the title and the match was made official for August's SummerSlam card.

    In an attempt to keep out the entire Hart family, which would be seated at ringside for the emotion-filled clash, a steel cage would surround the ring. There would be no way in, or out, except over the top of the structure or through the door, which would be locked until it was demanded opened.

    With the eyes of the wrestling world trained on them, and without permission to use blood to tell their story, the brothers delivered one of the finest examples of pure wrestling and drama in the history of McMahon's company.

    Every attempt at an escape over the top of the cage or through the door was done so well that the fans in Chicago's United Center believed it could be the end of the bout. The brothers worked with one another to deliver a legitimate five-star match that lived up to the very lofty standards they had set five months earlier in New York City.

    The bout proved to be brilliant in its simplicity. There were no death-defying spots or needless attempts at a move that would put either man in any real danger. Instead, a simple superplex from the side of the cage provided one of the loudest pops of the night. It was masterful work by two of the best in the industry and a match that proved to be their finest together.

    In the end, Bret would fend off his brother's challenge by trapping his legs in between the bars of the cage and leap to the ground, successfully retaining the title to the joy and admiration of the Chicago fans.

    The Hart family drama would continue on WWE programming well after SummerSlam but it would never again elicit the emotion from the family and fans as it did on that hot August night.