WWE SummerSlam 2018: Greatest Title Matches in PPV's History
On August 19, WWE will roll into Brooklyn's Barclays Center for the 2018 incarnation of its SummerSlam pay-per-view, headlined this year by a Universal Championship defense by Brock Lesnar and a WWE title defense by AJ Styles.
While neither's opponent has been announced as of yet, the matches continue the summertime spectacular's long and illustrious history of star-studded championship bouts.
Certain matches have, over the 30 years WWE has presented the event, excelled beyond even the loftiest of expectations, earning recognition among the greatest title bouts in company history.
As WWE prepares a card that will certainly have matches with the potential to steal the show and take their place among the most iconic, relive the rich history of SummerSlam through these 10 title bouts (and two honorable mentions) that have made the annual extravaganza the fan-favorite show it has become.
Honorable Mention: Universal Championship Match (2016)
The Universal Championship was up for grabs for the first time in 2016 as Finn Balor and Seth Rollins sought to make history midway through that year's stacked lineup.
His Demon King paint caked on his face, Balor fought through tremendous pain to etch his name in the history books. The Irish-born competitor suffered a "180-degree labrum, a torn bicep and pectoral tendon, cartilage damage and a fracture to the glenoid neck socket" when he was propelled into the guardrail by a Rollins powerbomb.
Showing incredible intestinal fortitude, Balor fought through agonizing pain to defeat Rollins in what was an energetic, intense, back-and-forth battle that culminated with the Coup de Grace and the NXT export's finest main-roster moment to date.
The injury, and Balor's forced relinquishment of the title, unquestionably altered the overall quality of the match and kept it from missing out on the top 10 by the slightest of margins.
Honorable Mention: SmackDown Tag Team Championship Match (2017)
It is hardly a testament to the card, or the planning of the writing team, when the best match of the night occurs on the Kickoff Show yet that was the case in 2017 when The New Day defended the SmackDown Tag Team Championships against The Usos in a stellar contest.
Following up a show-stealing performance at Battleground the month prior, Xavier Woods, Big E, Jimmy and Jey Uso wowed a half-full Barclays Center in Brooklyn with a dynamic, explosive and dramatic championship clash.
Woods, in particular, delivered a phenomenal performance as he unleashed his intense frustration on the competition.
For as passionate a performance as Woods delivered, it would not be enough to secure the successful defense of the titles as the challengers delivered a jarring double top-rope splash to Big E to win the gold and extend the tremendous in-ring rivalry.
Its place as part of the deep, dark, insignificant pre-show is the only thing keeping it from recognition as one of the best title bouts in event history as main show bouts are, for better or worse, more historically significant.
10. WWE Championship Match: John Cena vs. CM Punk (2011)
At Money in the Bank in July 2011, CM Punk stunned the wrestling world by defeating John Cena to win the WWE Championship and seemingly ride off into the sunset, his contractual status with the biggest company in sports entertainment uncertain.
He re-signed, of course, and returned to television in time to defend his title against interim champion Cena in a title vs. title match at SummerSlam. Triple H, the COO of WWE at odds with the rebellious and disrespectful Punk, would serve as the guest referee.
Just as they did in the epic main event of the previous month's show, Punk and Cena delivered a stellar bout that may have lacked the heat and excitement of its predecessor but was still superb nonetheless.
The execution, and kickouts, of several of the competitors' finishing maneuvers created a drama that had fans in Los Angeles on the edge of their seats. Unfortunately, the running story of Triple H's presence coupled with a controversial finish in which he missed Cena's foot on the rope and awarded the match to Punk, dragged the quality down a notch.
Without it, this may have landed in the top half of this countdown.
9. TLC Match for the World Heavyweight Championship (2009)
The feud between Jeff Hardy and CM Punk over the World Heavyweight Championship dominated the SmackDown brand in the summer of 2009 and featured some of the finest work of either man's legendary career.
Punk was riding a wave of momentum, a recent heel turn reinvigorating the performer and leading to a re-imagining of a Straight Edge character that was so incredibly effective during his days on the indies. Hardy was the defiant babyface, pledging to live his life the way he wanted, to hell with Punk's preaching.
The mounting tension and trading of the World Heavyweight Championship culminated in a Hardy specialty—the Tables, Ladders and Chairs match—in the main event of SummerSlam. Given the preferential treatment given to the Raw brand at the time, the fact that SmackDown was given the most prominent spot on the card was a testament to the performers and their story.
The competitors used the full arsenal of weapons at their disposal, both tasting the unforgiving punishment of being drive through tables. It was Hardy's Swanton Bomb onto Punk, through the broadcast table, that remains the lasting image of the bout, though.
Still, despite his jaw-dropping leap of faith, it was Punk who would retrieve the World Heavyweight Championship at night's end.
The match was the latest, greatest addition to the duo's series of bouts and a defining moment for Punk, who was still attempting to put years of creative and professional disappointment as a member of the WWE roster behind him.
8. WWE Championship Match: Kurt Angle vs. Steve Austin (2001)
When looking back at the long and illustrious history of SummerSlam, it is difficult to find a match more underappreciated and underrated than the WWE Championship bout between Kurt Angle and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin from 2001.
The 1996 Olympic gold medalist represented WWE against the vaunted Alliance's lead dog Austin in one of two main events on that year's card. Seeking vengeance for a shocking betrayal by The Texas Rattlesnake, Angle took the fight to the toughest S.O.B. in wrestling and in the process, established himself equally as badass.
Angle fought through a tremendous beating by Austin that left him bloodied, kicking out and frustrating the WWE champion. Austin took out his anger on official after official, leaving them lying until the only option left as biased Alliance official Nick Patrick, who disqualified Austin and preserved his title reign, much to the dismay of Angle.
Summoning all of his rage, Angle unleashed an ass-kicking and put an exclamation on what was a wild, chaotic, red-hot championship match.
In the years since, some have cited the finish as the reason they often overlook the match as one of the greatest in event history. Hindsight tells us, though, that the rematch in Pittsburgh one month later was both more memorable and emotional because Angle had been screwed over a month earlier.
Thus, as unsatisfying as the finish may have been, it set the stage for Angle's eventual win.
The performance from Angle, the frustration shown by Austin and the story they told trumps all and earns the contest a much-deserved spot on this countdown.
7. No Holds Barred for the World Championship: Randy Orton vs. Christian (2011)
The rivalry between Randy Orton and Christian ran throughout the summer of 2011 and established Captain Charisma as a main event-worthy competitor in WWE. After years of coming just shy of cementing his spot at the top of the card, the Toronto-born star finally earned the spotlight his talent deserved.
His dance partner for his main event run? A Randy Orton in the midst of the greatest and most acclaimed run of his career.
Together, they consistently delivered one of the best matches on any show in which they appeared and the 2011 edition of SummerSlam was no different. In fact, it can be argued, they stole the show out from underneath a hotly anticipated John Cena-CM Punk main event.
In a No Holds Barred match that allowed Orton to unleash months of frustration on his opponent, the Superstars wowed the fans in Los Angeles' Staples Center with a war over SmackDown's World Heavyweight Championship.
Orton delivered an RKO through the announce table, caught Christian with a snap powerslam through another table and executed his draping DDT onto a trash can. The heel champion, to his credit, bumped around the ring and paid off the story of Orton's revenge spectacularly, adding significantly to the match.
It was an attempt as a crossbody from the middle rope that Orton countered into an RKO onto the steel steps that put an emphatic exclamation point on the match and landed it at No. 7 on this list.
6. Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match: Triple H vs. the Rock (1998)
The Attitude Era was in full swing as the 1998 SummerSlam extravaganza invaded the historic Madison Square Garden and while the majority of the hype may have been centered around "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Undertaker's Highway to Hell, it was the Intercontinental Championship Ladder match between D-Generation X's Triple H and The Nation's Rock that stole the show.
Two young stars tapped to be the future of WWE waged war in a brutal, violent ladder match that featured strong in-ring psychology and a red-hot crowd.
The culmination of a rivalry that spanned months of television, the match featured The Rock relentless and cerebral assault on his opponent's injured knee, an attempt by the champion to prevent Triple H from climbing the ladder and retrieving the coveted title.
Interference from Mark Henry and Chyna, who had been embroiled in their own secondary story of sorts, actually enhanced the match and gave way to Triple H overcoming tremendous pain and punishment to capture the title.
The in-ring chemistry between the two had been apparent long before the SummerSlam 1998 battle but it was this match that suggested both could hang at the top of the card. Rock, in particular, rode a wave of momentum coming out of the match and would parlay it into a WWE Championship run within three months.
5. Intercontinental Championship Match: Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect (1991)
There are certain matches one can point to as the moment a given Superstar delivered a performance that elevated their star instantly. For Bret Hart, that match came on August 26, 1991, in New York's famed Madison Square Garden.
On that night, he challenged Mr. Perfect for the Intercontinental Championship that not only stole the show but established The Hitman as one of the best workers in the industry and paid off his latest attempt to find stardom as a singles competitor.
Perfect, enduring tremendous pain from a back injury, bumped around the squared circle to help put Hart over as a credible contender. He also portrayed the arrogant, egotistical champion to, well, perfection.
Obviously taking Hart lightly, he slapped him around late. Perhaps his own hubris is why he was so gobsmacked when The Hitman shot his shoulder off the mat, becoming one of the few to ever kick out of the Perfectplex.
Hart took advantage of further ignorance and arrogance by Perfect, catching his leg and quickly applying the Sharpshooter to win his first Intercontinental Championship.
Celebrating the victory with his mother Helen and father Stu, Hart took his place among the stars of the future and earned his first entry on this list.
4. WWE Championship Match: John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan (2013)
Months spent listening to Vince McMahon tell him he was not the champion he wanted to lead his company fueled Daniel Bryan as he entered SummerSlam in 2013, John Cena's hand-picked opponent. The bearded wonder was receiving his first shot at the WWE Championship and his first opportunity to headline a pay-per-view event in singles competition.
Three years after Cena ushered in Bryan's return to the company by choosing him as a partner in the war against Nexus, the two delivered a five-star classic that more than deserves its placement in our countdown.
Cena, in one of his gutsiest performances ever, worked the match with a torn triceps. Not only was it a testament to his toughness but also to his desire to put Bryan over as the guy in WWE. He did just that, making the celebrated technician look every bit his equal before eating a running knee to the face that ended his title reign and ignited Bryan's run at the top of the company.
Remembered as much for the shocking betrayal by special referee Triple H after the match, and the subsequent cash-in by Money in the Bank winner Randy Orton that sparked a story that would culminate in Bryan's triumphant WrestleMania moment months later, the match is a superb one that probably deserves more credit than it typically receives for being as outstanding as it was.
3. WWE Championship Steel Cage Match: Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart (1994)
Speaking of matches even better than they are remembered for...
The sibling rivalry between Bret and Owen Hart dominated airwaves in 1994 and featured some of the most emotional storytelling the company had featured since the Mega Powers storyline between Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage.
With family watching from the first few rows, The Hitman defended his WWE Championship against the 1994 King of the Ring inside a steel cage. Providing fans a true alternative to the bloody battles that had been staples of the popular gimmick bout for decades, the immensely talented performers opted for a more dramatic bout that captivated fans in Chicago's United Center.
Teasing escapes over the top and through the cage door, they kept fans on the edges of their seats, waiting with bated breath to see just which brother would emerge victoriously.
In the end, The Hitman would catch his brother in the cage, entrapping him in the bars so that he could escape uncontested, his championship reign preserved.
A brilliant match that utilized drama over blood and violence, it was revolutionary in that it erased preconceived notions as to what a steel cage match should be while simultaneously presenting a match that lived up to the lofty expectations set by their WrestleMania X five-star classic.
2. TLC Match for the WWE Tag Team Championships (2000)
When The Hardy Boyz, Edge and Christian and The Dudley Boyz stole the show at WrestleMania 2000 in a Triangle Ladder match for the WWE Tag Team Championships, it became apparent the company had three teams it could build its division around.
That each had weapons immediately associated with them only made the idea of a second three-way match between the teams at SummerSlam that easier to book. Announced by commissioner Mick Foley, the teams would do battle in the first-ever Tables, Ladders and Chairs match in which all three weapons were legal and the only way to win was by scaling a ladder and retrieving the titles.
Taking place in the Hardys' home state of North Carolina, many expected Matt and Jeff to finally capture the titles in a grand homecoming.
Instead, the wild and chaotic match complete with death-defying high spots and a crowd-popping run-in from Lita culminated in Edge and Christian overcoming the odds and retaining their titles, much to the dismay of the fans.
The Superstars once again revolutionized professional wrestling, delivering a gimmick match that would become one of the most popular in all of WWE. It would become a staple of its programming and even earn its own pay-per-view event in 2009.
Most importantly, it provided SummerSlam with another signature bout to boost its status as one of the most significant events on the WWE calendar.
1. Intercontinental Championship: Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog (1992)
For nearly a decade, WWE pay-per-view was dominated by muscle-bound cartoon characters competing over the promotion's heavyweight championship in the main event spot. Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior were routinely at the top of the card while more talented, smaller wrestlers carried the show from the undercard.
One night in London, in August of 1992, that changed.
Bret Hart entered the historic Wembley Stadium the intercontinental champion for a showdown with his real-life brother-in-law and the country's hometown hero, "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith.
While it would lack the star power of Hogan, Warrior or Randy Savage, it brought to the main event spot a quality unmatched by those industry icons. In front of 80,000-plus screaming fans, Hart and Bulldog tore the house down with a five-star battle that instantly enhanced the legitimacy and prestige of the IC title.
The Hitman, in particular, was great as he carried Bulldog to the greatest match of his career. In doing so, Hart earned the attention of management, who then saw him as a Superstar capable of carrying the mantle for the promotion as its world champion.
Bulldog would win the match and the IC title, but it was Hart who would springboard to the top of the card and provide fans with classic matches for years to come, beginning with the one in Wembley.
Inarguably the greatest match in SummerSlam history, it is hard to imagine a match that can (or ever will) replace it at the top spot on this countdown.