WWE SummerSlam 2014: Biggest Breakout Performances in PPV History

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2014

WWE SummerSlam 2014: Biggest Breakout Performances in PPV History

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Throughout the long and illustrious history of WWE's SummerSlam extravaganza, Superstars have stepped up to the plate and delivered performances that helped elevate them to the next level of competition.

    Those performances have stood the test of time and, upon further examination, were the impetus for so many current and future Hall of Famers to go on and achieve the tremendous success and championship glory that they did.

    Whether it was Bret Hart's magical performance against Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam 1991 or The Rock's gutsy showing in 1998 against Triple H, Superstars have been seizing the opportunity and spotlight that comes along with a high-profile match at SummerSlam and thriving in the weeks, months and years that follow as a result.

    On August 17, the current crop of Superstars will have the opportunity to join the ranks of past competitors who broke out with a single performance at the summertime spectacular. Will Dean Ambrose or Seth Rollins set themselves up for monumental success in a post-SummerSlam WWE? How about Roman Reigns, who already seems to have the proverbial rocket strapped to his back? Only time will tell.

    In preparation for this year's show, and in hopes of a few performances that will one day join a revised version of this list, relive the 10 greatest breakout performances in SummerSlam history.

The Ultimate Warrior (1988)

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    When Brutus Beefcake was sidelined with severe lacerations to the face courtesy of the vile Ron Bass just prior to SummerSlam in 1988, WWE intercontinental champion The Honky Tonk Man was left without a challenger.

    Letting his ego get the best of him, he issued an open challenge to anyone in the locker room. Moments later, Honky Tonk Man was shocked when The Ultimate Warrior hit the ring to a thunderous ovation from the fans inside the historic Madison Square Garden in New York.

    Warrior showed great energy and intensity as he tore through the hated Elvis rip-off, leaving him lying in a heap and ending his year-plus long title reign to the delight of the thousands in attendance and the millions watching on pay-per-view.

    Warrior almost immediately became one of the most marketable and merchandised Superstars in Vince McMahon's promotion. His face and likeness was splashed on T-shirts, programs, posters and action figures, and the maniacal character found himself one of the most popular and beloved stars of the era.

    A little over 19 months later, he would find himself squaring off with Hulk Hogan in the main event of WrestleMania VI and winning the WWE Championship, something that never would have been possible had his victory over Honky Tonk Man and his frenetic performance that August night in New York not had been as well-received as it was.

Bret "Hitman" Hart (1991)

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    One of the best matches in SummerSlam history and a benchmark for all Intercontinental Championship bouts that followed it, the Bret Hart-Mr. Perfect clash at the 1991 event stole the show and immediately launched Hart's career as a single star.

    In one of the greatest performances of his Hall of Fame career, Hart elicited sympathy from the audience as he took a hellish beating from Perfect, a man who had very much lived up to his name over the course of his two-year run with WWE.

    He later showed great resiliency, fighting back and fending off potential interference from "Coach" John Tolos while doing so. Even after being caught low by Perfect, a dastardly action that drew the ire of commentator Roddy Piper, Hart proved his toughness and alertness, catching Perfect's leg and locking him in the Sharpshooter for the win and the title.

    The passionate New York fans erupted as Hart was handed the championship. After watching him work his way up the ranks for five years, proving his greatness in tag team action before splitting off on his own, they were elated for the second-generation wrestler. That he was able to celebrate with father Stu and mother Helen made the moment that much more special.

    A year later, Hart would deliver another instant classic, this time against "The British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith. That match would cement Hart's reputation as the sport's finest wrestler and give Vince McMahon the confidence necessary to run with the Hitman as WWE champion shortly thereafter.

Shawn Michaels (1992)

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    When thinking of Shawn Michaels' legendary performances, his match with Rick Martel at SummerSlam 1992 does not immediately come to mind; in fact, it may not even come up in the conversation. After all, it is a hidden gem wedged in the middle of a card full of them. Worse yet, it was a match between two heels that was more focused on Sensational Sherri at ringside than delivering a definitive winner and loser.

    Still, the performance turned in by Michaels on the August night in Wembley Stadium proved that he was more than a blonde pretty boy. No, he was an incredibly smart performer who could work any style (against any opponent) and still turn in a quality match.

    Sherri hated the idea of two men as handsome and good-looking as Michaels and Martel fighting over her, so she demanded that neither man be allowed to punch the other in the face. That stipulation may not seem like that big of a deal, but when one factors in just how often strikes to the face occur in a regular match, it is much more difficult for Superstars to resist the urge to do so.

    Michaels and the veteran Martel did just that, though, delivering a strong match that played up the story surrounding it. Sherri was great and Martel was effective, but it was Michaels who stood out. Here was a Superstar still finding his legs as a singles competitor, and that he was able to work the quality of match that he did without relying on cheap punches to set up bigger spots or moves was a testament to his skill.

    There would be no winner, a curious decision considering Martel was anything but a featured star at that point. Still, there was definitely buzz surrounding Michaels, and by the end of November, he would already be establishing himself as the future of the business after defeating Davey Boy Smith for the WWE Intercontinental Championship. 

Mankind (1996)

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    The Boiler Room Brawl at SummerSlam 1996 was the latest chapter in the raging war between newcomer Mankind and the Phenom of WWE, The Undertaker.

    The intense rivals beat, battered and bruised one another in what was essentially Mick Foley's first real opportunity to show management and fans alike the type of performance he could deliver in a specialty match that allowed him to showcase his creativity.

    He and Undertaker crafted a beautiful, criminally underrated match that saw them brawl all the way from the bowels of the Gund Arena in Cleveland, through the backstage are and out into the arena itself. With Paul Bearer waiting, the urn in his hand for one of the Superstars to retrieve, fans were left captivated by the sheer violence and brutality the competitors dealt to one another.

    A shocking betrayal by Bearer would lead to Mankind winning the match and solidifying himself as not only a very real threat to the Undertaker but a legitimate main event star for Vince McMahon's struggling WWE.

    The win catapulted Mankind into the forefront of fan consciousness. Sure, his matches prior to SummerSlam showed just how great a performer he was, but it was the Boiler Room Brawl that made fans sit up and take notice of his uniqueness. He was a performer willing to sacrifice his well-being for the betterment of the match, something he would prove time and time again over the next decade.

    Without the Boiler Room Brawl performance, Mankind would have remained a marquee star for WWE by sheer willpower alone. With it, he achieved that status much quicker.

The Rock (1998)

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    The 1998 SummerSlam, dubbed "Highway to Hell" and accompanied by AC/DC's hit song of the same name, was built around the WWE Championship match between "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Undertaker, but it would be the Intercontinental Championship Ladder match between The Rock and Triple H that would steal the show and have the wrestling world buzzing the following morning.

    After a colossally disastrous babyface run early in his career, Rock reinvented himself as a member of the hated Nation of Domination. Turning the venomous reaction of the fans back on them, he demonstrated the pure and natural charisma he would become known for in some truly stellar mic work. So talented was he that he eventually came to overshadow the leader of the Nation, Faarooq, before booting him and taking control of the faction.

    With Rock at the helm, the group began feuding with D-Generation X, which was led by Triple H. The leaders would clash several times prior to SummerSlam, but it was the Ladder match for the coveted WWE Intercontinental Championship that would be their finest.

    Rock bludgeoned Triple H with the ladder, targeting his knee repeatedly. The Rock fought through a nasty laceration (and the the stinging of sweat and blood mixing inside of it) to nearly retrieve his title and end the night on a high note. Unfortunately, the continuation of his eight-month reign was not to be.

    Triple H capitalized on interference from Chyna and Mark Henry to win the match and the title.

    A funny thing happened, though, as the fans in New York rained down on the former champion with chants of "Rocky," indicating that they appreciated the outstanding performance he delivered for the sake of entertaining them. After years of fighting for their acceptance, regardless of whether he was a heel or babyface, WWE's first third-generation star finally had it.

    "The People's Champ" would go on to ride the wave of momentum he had coming out of SummerSlam all the way to the WWE Championship in November at the Survivor Series.

Test (1999)

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    The soap opera storyline involving Test and Stephanie McMahon helped both of those young performers gain spotlight and fan acceptance in the summer of 1999. As is the case with any loving, protective brother, Shane McMahon hated the idea of his sister dating a long-haired brute such as the rookie WWE Superstar. He wanted the relationship called off and the only way that would happen, it was decided, was if he could beat Test in a Greenwich Street Fight at SummerSlam.

    Doing so would bring an end to the relationship. Failing to do so would mean that Shane would have to back off and let his sister continue living happily with the near seven-foot blue chip athlete.

    It was against that backdrop that the largely inexperienced competitors took to the ring in Minneapolis for one of the night's higher-profile bouts.

    Dubbed "Love Her or Leave Her," the match between Test and Shane McMahon was so much better than it had any right to be. The booking and storytelling was phenomenal, with Shane relying heavily on his Mean Street Posse buddies' interference to help him out on several occasions. To his credit, the eldest McMahon child through caution to the wind, putting himself in harm's way numerous times as he and Test kept the fans emotionally invested throughout.

    It was Test that delivered the finest performance, selling the beating of Shane and the Posse superbly before mounting a comeback and showing great babyface fire while doing so.

    The drama that accompanied the near-falls was outstanding and really kept the fans on the edges of their seats.

    As determined as Shane was to prevent the relationship between Test and Stephanie from advancing any further, it was the the blonde Canadian who proved to be the better man, dropping a top-rope elbow and beating the gutsy Billion Dollar Prince at the second biggest show of the year.

    The performance put Test on the map, making it clear that he was one of the future stars of the company. Unfortunately, a last-minute creative change surrounding the grand wedding between he and Stephanie months, coupled with inconsistent booking throughout his entire WWE career, prevented him from ever reaching the level of success he was capable of.

Brock Lesnar (2002)

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    Anyone denying that Brock Lesnar was clearly the Next Big Thing heading into SummerSlam 2002 was only fooling themselves. It was so abundantly clear that the super athlete was WWE's next golden boy that the outcome of his WWE Championship match against The Rock was never really in doubt. Lesnar was leaving Long Island, New York, with the top prize in the sport and, barring injury or an ill-advised attempt to make it in the National Football League, would lead WWE as its franchise player for the next decade.

    What was in question was the quality of performance Lesnar would turn in. A disappointing one would halt all momentum and create questions among fans and management about his ability to live up to the considerable hype that had been surrounding him throughout most of 2002.

    Luckily, those questions never materialized. Lesnar delivered the performance of his young career, hanging move-for-move with the Great One and proving that he could achieve success in the highest-profile matches.

    So impressive was the Beast Incarnate that the fans inside Nassau Coliseum turned on Rock and began chanting Lesnar's name, much to the chagrin of the WWE champion and the surprise of the commentators.

    By the time the F5 ended Rock's reign atop the company, the crowd was left rabidly cheering the passing of the torch and what very much felt like the beginning of a new era.

Rey Mysterio (2002)

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    While much of the focus was on Brock Lesnar's ascension to the top of the WWE mountain later in the night, Rey Mysterio proved without a shadow of doubt that the littlest big man in wrestling would be just fine in his new home.

    Thrilling the audience with a highly competitive match against 1996 Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle, Mysterio showcased skills that most assumed had departed him when knee injuries began taking their toll in WCW. He dove off the top rope with precision and executed several quality reversals as he desperately attempted to prevent being trapped in Angle's vaunted ankle lock.

    WWE fans had never seen someone like Mysterio, an incredibly talented and creative luchador who could hang with bigger, better and badder opponents. Sure, he may have been forced to tap out to the aforementioned ankle lock, but he rebounded nicely, becoming most decorated and celebrated luchador in professional wrestling history.

    Without the stellar showing against Angle in his first pay-per-view match in Vince McMahon's promotion, that may never have happened.

Randy Orton (2004)

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    Randy Orton was undoubtedly the future of WWE by the time SummerSlam 2004 approached.

    The third-generation star had survived a brutal war with Mick Foley earlier in the year and had enjoyed an eight-month Intercontinental Championship reign, continually learning from some of the best and most talented workers in the industry.

    With Triple H sidetracked in a feud with Eugene and no other viable contender readily available to take on Chris Benoit for the World Heavyweight Championship at the summertime spectacular, the man affectionately known as the Legend Killer stepped up to the plate in an attempt to prove that he was every bit the "now" as he was the future.

    If one is not a superb worker, competing against someone such as Chris Benoit will surely expose it. Luckily for Orton, the flashes of brilliance had begun to rear their heads earlier in the year, and by August, he had developed into a fine worker. He worked with Benoit to deliver a great match, the best on the card.

    By the time he delivered the RKO and pinned Benoit, a portion of the Toronto fans had already begun to sing the praises of the brash, arrogant young competitor.

    Like Brock Lesnar's win two years earlier, Orton's victory felt very much like the beginning of something new and exciting. Unlike the Minnesotan, however, Orton's rise to the top of the industry would not be followed with a mad dash to the NFL or UFC. Instead, the Superstar would become one of the faces of WWE for the next decade and one of its greatest Superstars of all time.

Dolph Ziggler (2009)

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    A former Spirit Squad member and expert at shaking hands, Dolph Ziggler's WWE career had gotten off to a extraordinarily bumpy start. The young Cleveland native clearly had talent, but his opportunities had either been limited or destined to fail from the get-go, meaning he never really had anything resembling a real chance to prove himself.

    That changed in the summer of 2009, when he engaged Rey Mysterio in a rivalry over the Intercontinental Championship.

    The two had demonstrated some outstanding chemistry in non-title and tag team matches on SmackDown, and their bout a month earlier at Night of Champions had been good but not the blow-away effort most had expected. Heading into SummerSlam, there were plenty of eyes on Ziggler in what may have been his last chance to impress.

    As he would gain a reputation for doing so many times in the future, Ziggler rose to the occasion and delivered an outstanding performance, nearly stealing the show with Mysterio right out of the gate. Reversals, counters and near-falls led to a hot crowd and a dramatic bout that was ultimately won by the champion.

    Despite the loss, Ziggler had showcased enough talent and proven himself as a key piece of WWE's future. Over the years, he would become known as WWE's resident Showoff, a competitor who basked in the glory and jumped at the opportunity to steal the show out from underneath the bigger stars on the card. Today, some five years later, he is still wowing audiences with some of the best performances in the company.