On August 18, John Cena will defend the WWE title against Daniel Bryan while CM Punk meets Brock Lesnar in the co-main events of SummerSlam. There is great anticipation and much excitement surrounding those matches as many expect them to cross into "Match of the Year" territory.
SummerSlam has been defined by a number of matches. The work of men such as Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin and The Undertaker has resulted in some of the most talked-about and fondly remembered matches in the history of WWE. Others are spoken of in the same breath as the best matches of all-time.
The annual summertime spectacular has earned the reputation for being a launching point for young talent, a showcase for tremendous in-ring work and the culmination of the top post-WrestleMania feuds. It is synonymous with several displays of sports-entertainment artistry that have made it one of the founding five pay-per-views for World Wrestling Entertainment and is a big reason it still exists today.
There are many matches that have contributed to the legacy of SummerSlam, a number of them better than some of those listed within this article. But these eight have left an indelible mark on the event and have helped it to become what it is today.
The main event of the inaugural SummerSlam pay-per-view spectacular was the culmination of the hottest feud of the spring and summer of 1988.
At Wrestlemania IV, Randy Savage defeated Ted DiBiase in the finals of a WWE Championship tournament. Both Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant factored heavily into the conclusion of the match and a tag team rivalry was born instantly.
Hogan and Savage formed the Mega Powers while DiBiase and Andre were known collectively as the Mega Bucks. With Jesse Ventura serving as guest referee and questions surrounding his impartiality thanks in large part to a potential payoff at the hands of DiBiase, there was a great deal of excitement surrounding the biggest tag team match of the calendar year.
The bout lived up to the hype. Savage and Hogan took turns building sympathetic heat as the villains isolated them from their partners. This allowed for two hot tags and for the audience to stay invested in the bout.
Late in the match, it appeared as though all hope had been lost for the heroes. They had been knocked to the arena floor and there was no reason to believe that either man would be able to make the typical babyface comeback and win the match. The massive Andre the Giant had proven to be the difference maker to that point and it finally appeared as though he would get a huge, mostly-clean win over Hogan.
Then Miss Elizabeth climbed onto the ring apron.
Ventura tried his best to admonish the gorgeous young manager but the stunning brunette ripped off her skirt and captured the attention of every single man inside Madison Square Garden. As she walked around the ring, DiBiase, Andre and Ventura mesmerized by her legs, Hogan and Savage shook hands and suddenly became re-energized.
Seconds later, they caught Andre and DiBiase off-guard, leading to a huge come-from-behind victory to close out the very first SummerSlam.
The match delivered on the hype surrounding it. It was the most hyped match on an otherwise underwhelming card and birthed a tradition that exists to this day. Had Hogan, Savage, DiBiase and Andre failed to meet expectations and merely gone through the motions, fans today may never have come to know the biggest event of the summer.
What do you get when you take two of the most talented in-ring technicians in the history of professional wrestling, pit them against one another in hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden and put the prestigious Intercontinental Championship on the line at SummerSlam?
You get one of the greatest matches in World Wrestling Entertainment history.
Mr. Perfect was the cocky heel entering the 1991 event. He had revolutionized the Intercontinental title, elevating its importance to a level it had not enjoyed since the early 1980's, when Tito Santana and Greg Valentine were trading it in phenomenal back-and-forth matches.
Perfect had flirted with the main event and, even as one of the sport's top villains, had garnered the respect of die-hard fans in the two years leading up to August 26.
Hart, on the other hand, was a promising young star that had recently split from tag team partner Jim Neidhart and was attempting to find success on his own. Nicknamed the "Excellence of Execution" thanks to his impeccable in-ring abilities, he was the underdog many simply hoped would put up a good showing against someone the caliber of Perfect.
The 18-minute wrestling classic saw each man grab the upper hand at points in the match. Late, however, it was Perfect who took control and appeared well on his way to retaining his title. But, as often happens to the cockiest heels, his overconfidence cost him.
With Hart's legs pulled apart, Perfect tried for a leg drop to the lower abdomen. Hart blocked the strike, grabbed onto the champion's leg and tangled it with the other. Seconds later and The Hitman had applied his signature Sharpshooter. Perfect submitted quickly and Hart's legendary singles career saw its first great success.
The match has become an iconic one in the annals of WWE. It was the perfect example of an established star going out of his way to make a younger, gifted performer a star. Even more impressive than the quality of the match is just how spectacular Perfect was despite a severe back injury that would put him out of action for over one year.
Hart would go on to become one of the greatest performers in the history of WWE, winning five heavyweight titles to go along with his two Intercontinental straps. None of that may have happened, however, without his strong performance against Perfect inside MSG.
A year after delivering a star-making performance by defeating Mr. Perfect to capture his first Intercontinental title, Bret Hart entered the sold-out Wembley Stadium in London, England for the biggest match of his career.
For the first time ever, the Intercontinental title match would headline a World Wrestling Entertainment pay-per-view event. His opponent? Hometown hero "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith. With Hart's sister, and Smith's wife Dianna watching from ringside, there was more than enough drama surrounding the bout.
The match was an exhibition in sportsmanship and performance art. As Curt Hennig had done for him a year earlier, the more experienced singles star Hart helped carry his real-life brother-in-law to the best match of his career, the best match in SummerSlam history and one of the finest examples of Hart's in-ring mastery.
The finish was a thing of beauty. Hart, the decorated ring technician, bounced off the ropes and attempted a sunset flip. Smith countered, stacking up the champion and pinning his shoulders to the mat. Fans inside the legendary venue exploded as their fellow countryman picked up the biggest win of his career and watched with great anticipation as Hart confronted the new champion. With Dianna standing between them, Hart embraced Smith and congratulated him.
With a card that featured the likes of Randy Savage, Ultimate Warrior and The Undertaker, it was a huge compliment to Hart's skills, the story of the match and the popularity of Smith in his home country that the promotion felt completely comfortable putting their match in the main event slot.
The match cemented Bret Hart as the best technical wrestler in the business and, eventually, helped to convince Vince McMahon that he had what it took to be the top star in the industry. Hart would win the WWE title two months later.
It also proved that a match with a solid back story and the ability to deliver in the most coveted spot on the card had the ability to main event SummerSlam when, at WrestleMania for example, they would not be allowed that opportunity.
The WWE title clash between Steve Austin and The Undertaker may very well be the most-hyped match in the history of SummerSlam.
For weeks leading into the event, video packages set to AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" built up the importance of Austin's title defense against the Dead Man, to the point that it became a must-see match. Right in the middle of the McMahon-Austin rivalry, and taking place at the height of the pro wrestling boom of the late-1990's, anticipation for the bout was through the proverbial roof.
With Undertaker having recently reunited with his brother, Kane, questions abounded as to whether or not Austin would be able to overcome the odds and leave Madison Square Garden with the WWE title still in his possession.
Early in the match, Austin was knocked loopy and wrestled the remainder of the bout with his clock cleaned. This prevented the Rattlesnake from performing to his greatest potential. The match never quite lived up to the standard the two performers set a year earlier at In Your House: A Cold Day in Hell. With that said, it did deliver everything that wrestling fans wanted, at the time, and the low blow by Austin late in the match, which ultimately led to his successful title defense, did just enough to remind fans that the champion was not your prototypical babyface and also allowed Undertaker to remain in the title picture due to the inconclusive nature of his loss.
There was a ton of promotion put into SummerSlam 1998 and the majority of that promotion centered on Austin versus Undertaker. It was almost WrestleMania-like in its relentlessness and the fact that both performers thrived under pressure and did not allow a potentially catastrophic injury get in the way of delivering a match worthy of the main event of the show is a testament to their skills.
The Hardy Boyz, Edge and Christian and the Dudley Boyz had been tearing up the tag team division in World Wrestling Entertainment for all of 2000 by the time SummerSlam rolled around in August.
Four months earlier, they stole the show at WrestleMania in a triangle ladder match and at the biggest event of the summer, they would be looked upon to one-up that performance in a dangerous and potentially career-threatening match entitled Tables, Ladders and Chairs. With chairs and tables introduced to the mix, the potential for injury was heightened.
With the opportunity to steal the show, capture the tag titles and further their careers, the three teams stopped at nothing to craft an innovative match that lay the groundwork for every specialty ladder match for years to come.
The three tag team title hopefuls through caution to the wind and put their bodies on the line, crashing and burning more often than not, in the hopes of leaving North Carolina with the tag titles around their wastes.
Despite interference from fiery redhead Lita late in the match, Christian and Edge would climb the ladder of success and retain their titles.
The TLC match at SummerSlam set the standard for chaotic gimmick matches that would follow. In the years that followed, Superstars such as Rob Van Dam, Edge, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels and Triple H would build upon the framework set up by three hungry teams all looking to achieve fame, glory and immortality.
Shawn Michaels had been out of action for four years when he entered the Nassau Coliseum for his match against Triple H at SummerSlam in 2002. Their match, one built on personal relationships and friendships, would prove to be the best of the night on a card widely considered to be the best in the history of the event.
The former friends brutalized one another, Triple H targeting the surgically-repaired back of the Heartbreak Kid while Michaels did everything in his power to fight from underneath, landing just enough blows to stay competitive, all the while burning with desire to beat the man who he was, at one time, closer to than anyone else.
Ladders came into play, as did tables and chairs. Blood flowed freely and the bodies of the competitors were wrecked with pain as the bout drew to a close. Triple H hooked the arms of his opponent in an attempt to finish him off with the Pedigree. Then, from out of nowhere, Michaels escaped and rolled up The Game, scoring a quick, unexpected three count and picking up his first win in a WWE ring since 1998.
The match proved that Michaels still had a lot of mileage left as an in-ring performer and, by the time 2003 kicked off, he would once again be a full-time performer for the promotion. Triple H, on the other hand, had his first truly great match since returning from his much-publicized quadriceps injury.
It was a wild and chaotic match built on a personal feud that fans could sink their teeth into. It also ushered in the return of an all-time great to the business and delivered a phenomenal bout on a card full of them.
The best match on the best card in SummerSlam history? That means a lot.
Over the years, young Superstars such as Randy Orton, Alberto Del Rio, CM Punk and Edge have seen their stars made, or brightened, at SummerSlam. Perhaps no single wrestler has ever been made in one night, in one match than Brock Lesnar was in 2002, when he challenged The Rock for the WWE title.
Lesnar had been billed as the "Next Big Thing" throughout the spring and summer of 2002 and wasted no time proving it, soundly defeating the Hardy Boyz in a one-sided rivalry and becoming King of the Ring. As a result of his tournament win in June, he earned a shot at the WWE title.
The Rock held that title, having defeated champion The Undertaker and Kurt Angle in a triple threat match. A multi-tasking performer, Rock was experiencing a wave of popularity and celebrity following the success of The Scorpion King and it was only a matter of time before the People's Champion left the ring to tackle Hollywood.
Smart fans knew his days in wrestling were numbered and reacted accordingly. The fans in Uniondale, New York rained down on him with a chorus of boos. Lesnar, on the other hand, experienced a great deal of support and thrived in a performance that would ultimately convince management that he could succeed as a babyface.
The match was a physical and athletic showcase. The weeks that led to the match featured video vignettes of each performer intensely training for the match. Ultimately, it would be Lesnar who would make the most of his training, countering a Rock Bottom and delivering the F5 to pin Rock and capture the title.
The ascension of Lesnar to the top of the industry ushered in a youth movement that would be responsible for John Cena, Randy Orton, Shelton Benjamin, Charlie Haas and more arriving on the scene. He was the first star the company felt comfortable taking a huge risk on in years and it is now paying off, some eleven years later, with Lesnar serving as a major attraction for the company.
With a main event pitting two of the biggest stars in wrestling history against one another in one of the few dream matches the sport had left to offer, the 2005 installment of SummerSlam served as an announcement to the entire industry that not only was the summertime spectacular the biggest event of the season, it was also the second biggest show of the year.
Michaels was the obnoxious villain leading into the match, tapping into the HBK of the late-1990's, the one that rubbed so many people the wrong way and introduced attitude to Vince McMahon's pro wrestling empire. He was defiant in the idea that he had to respect Hogan, making fun of the Hall of Famer's age on more than one occasion.
The build-up to the match was stellar, largely due to the fresh performances by Michaels, who did everything in his power to tell a fantastic story. Hogan was Hogan, delivering when asked to and helping to promote his biggest match since returning to the company in 2002.
The match was stellar, with Michaels taking control and doing just enough to assure that Hogan was not asked to do too much. Visibly irritated by the idea that Hogan was the better wrestler or the greater icon, Michaels pushed the limit by over-selling much of Hogan's offense in defiance of his opponent.
As is the case in most Hogan matches, the big boot and leg drop finished Michaels in but not before solidifying his spot as the most talented in-ring performer of all-time.
A match worthy of a WrestleMania main event, Hogan versus Michaels was a real once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that answered the age-old question of "what if" and added to the impeccable legacies of both men.
It also set the stage for matches of WrestleMania quality, title or non-title, to headline the show. Triple H versus Brock Lesnar from 2012 being a prime example.