The Best and Worst WWE SummerSlam Moments of the Last 20 Years

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2021

The Best and Worst WWE SummerSlam Moments of the Last 20 Years

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    WWE will host The Biggest Party of the Summer in Las Vegas on August 21 when it presents SummerSlam, one of the most prestigious pay-per-view events of its calendar, from Allegiant Stadium, and it certainly hopes to create new and unforgettable moments for its fans.

    Much like it has over the past two decades.

    Since 2001, WWE has used SummerSlam as a catapult for new stories and stars, crowning new champions and introducing fresh faces to an unsuspecting fanbase.

    From the rises of Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar to the return of Shawn Michaels, the event has housed some great moments. It has also produced a few stinkers, right? Alberto Del Rio cashing in on CM Punk, anyone?

    In preparation for the whirlwind WWE will take its fans on in Sin City, these moments, not ranked in any particular order, have helped shape the event over the past 20 years.

Best: The Beast Is Unleashed (2002)

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    From the moment he arrived on the WWE main roster in March 2002, it was clear Brock Lesnar was destined for greatness. He had the look, the skill set and the support of CEO Vince McMahon.

    The proverbial rocket was strapped to him early, and five months after his debut, he was booked to challenge The Rock for the WWE Championship in the main event of SummerSlam.

    The match, a heavyweight battle between one of the greatest performers of his era and the up-and-comer who would go on to define his own generation, thrilled fans in Long Island, New York, culminating in Lesnar sending The Great One off to Hollywood with an F-5.

    The new champion of wrestling's greatest empire emphatically introduced fans to the Ruthless Aggression Era, taking center stage while one of The Attitude Era's most prolific champions limped off into the sunset. 

    At least for the time being, if you smell what I'm cooking.

Best: The Legend Killer Strikes Gold (2004)

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    Just two years after Lesnar became the youngest WWE champion in history, Randy Orton came along and bested him, winning the World Heavyweight Championship from Chris Benoit in the main event of the 2004 show.

    On the heels of a star-making performance against Mick Foley at WrestleMania four months earlier, Orton rode a wave of momentum throughout the summer, culminating in the RKO that earned the third-generation star his first taste of a world title.

    The image of Orton leaning over and kissing his prize, the reflection of the gold illuminating his face, is an iconic one in the career of one of WWE's most decorated Superstars. 

    History tells us the reign was probably a bit too soon for Orton, who lost the title a month later when it became clear that he wasn't quite ready to carry the ball as the company's top babyface. But it was the launching pad for a Hall of Fame career and proof of the company's commitment to The Legend Killer.

Worst: Kevin Nash, Alberto Del Rio Screw CM Punk Out of the WWE Title (2011)

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    SummerSlam 2011 should have been the moment WWE unequivocally committed to CM Punk and the rush of excitement he brought back to the pro wrestling business beginning the previous July.

    Instead, it was the latest indication that no organically over wrestler would ever stand in the way of Vince McMahon's unwavering desire to prove that no one knows what the fans want more than him.

    Just moments after defeating John Cena in another classic encounter between the two, Punk received a massive jackknife powerbomb from the returning Kevin Nash. From there, Alberto Del Rio hit the ring and cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase, pinning Punk to win the title and end SummerSlam on a definitively sour note.

    Undoubtedly designed to create a buzz coming out of the show, the angle did just that. As history tells us, though, it was a wasted opportunity to put a much-earned seal of approval on Punk in favor of another McMahon pet project.

    A project he would have no choice but to set aside in favor of Punk by the time Survivor Series rolled around.

Best: Heartbreak and Triumph (2002)

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    Four years after suffering a back injury that forced him to prematurely retire, Shawn Michaels made an emotional and awe-inspiring comeback at SummerSlam in August 2002 to battle Triple H in an Unsanctioned Street Fight, the result of a monthslong storyline that saw the former best friends become hated enemies.

    Michaels threw punches, soared through the air with his trademark diving elbow and rocked The Cerebral Assassin with Sweet Chin Music without missing a beat. It was as if he had never retired but, instead, took a lengthy vacation.

    Fueled by the fans in Long Island, Michaels turned in a magical performance as he fought from underneath. His back enflamed, pain coursing through it, he stole the win with an alert jackknife rollup.

    The feud between Michaels and his former best friend would continue for the next two years, with many matches wrestled between them. None, though, packed the emotional punch of that SummerSlam showdown, mostly because of Michaels' miraculous comeback.

Worst: John Cena Buries Nexus (2010)

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    Nexus should have been the greatest faction in WWE. Led by Wade Barrett, it consisted of young stars disenfranchised by their treatment on the inaugural season of NXT and hellbent on avenging it.

    Their crusade carried little weight, though, when their first shot at defeating John Cena in a major pay-per-view setting ended with the franchise star steamrolling them instead.

    Yes, in Nexus' first official pay-per-view match, the group lost to a squad captained by Cena in a seven-on-seven tag team elimination match. Cena overcame tremendous odds to dispatch Barrett and score the win for his team. Not because there were any grand plans for a Nexus redemption storyline or anything of the sort. Instead, it was another Cena victory for the sake of one.

    The result? The dismissal of the group as a credible threat to Cena and other top stars in the company. WWE Creative would continue to run with the group, but the bloom was off that rose.

    Nexus crumbled, becoming a shell of former self by January and a nonexistent part of the WWE Universe by the following March. As for those involved in the angle? Barrett would win a bunch of Intercontinental Championships and Heath Slater would have a good, long run with the company.

    Everyone else involved in the losing side of that SummerSlam atrocity are footnotes when most probably should have been stars.

Best: "Suplex City, B---h!" (2014)

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    On the heels of his historic, shocking victory over The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXX, in which he shattered the Deadman's undefeated streak, Brock Lesnar entered SummerSlam with one goal: smash John Cena and become WWE champion.

    He did just that.

    Lesnar decimated the franchise star in the most one-sided main event in WWE history to that point. He obliterated The Champ, introducing him to Suplex City before putting him away with an F-5 to claim the title.

    Fans had never seen such a dismantling take place in the marquee match of a pay-per-view before, and while the company attempted to replicate it years later at WrestleMania, it was simply impossible. After all, Cena was WWE's Superman, a modern-day superhero who overcame odds and conquered even his most imposing foes.

    On that night, though, Lesnar squashed him in unprecedented fashion and ensured the audience would know it was a new era in WWE under The Beast Incarnate.

Worst: Ring of Fire Match (2013)

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    In hindsight, Bray Wyatt never stood a chance.

    Released by WWE on Saturday, Wyatt's first match in WWE came at the 2013 SummerSlam, where he battled Kane in a Ring of Fire match. A fancy way of rebranding the Inferno Match that was a product of the Attitude Era, the contest handcuffed the third-generation star right out of the gate.

    As would be commonplace with Wyatt and his characters over the years, WWE overthought things, and the result was a lackluster in-ring introduction and a terrible opening match.

    Wyatt was lucky to recover, doing so on the strength of his performance in promos and vignettes. But from the get-go, WWE made it almost impossible for fans to invest in what Wyatt could do between the ropes thanks to an unwavering desire to produce as many convoluted spectacles as possible.

Best: Becky Lynch Turns on Charlotte Flair (2018)

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    There is only so much frustration a person can take before they lash out, unloading months of anger and rage, sometimes on the people closest to them. For Becky Lynch, that moment came at the 2018 event as she and Charlotte Flair challenged Carmella for the SmackDown Women's Championship.

    With Carmella trapped in the Disarmher, it appeared as though Lynch was about to become champion. But the resourceful and alert Flair delivered Natural Selection from out of nowhere, pinning the Lass Kicker and scoring the victory.

    Pissed off by her supposed friend's willingness to stab her in the back and take a title she had been working so hard for, Lynch lashed out, obliterating Flair to a thunderous ovation from the fans. They cheered her beatdown of The Queen and rained down adulation as she stood in the center of the ring, motioning toward the title that once again had eluded her.

    The overwhelmingly positive reaction prompted WWE to alter course with Lynch, and shortly thereafter, The Man was born.

Worst: Brock Lesnar Defeats Randy Orton by TKO (2016)

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    The match between Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar in the main event of the 2016 SummerSlam wasn't actively bad. It was fairly good considering the relatively tempered expectations. By the moment Orton delivered the RKO that drove The Beast down into the announce table, fans had bought into the story the performers were telling.

    Then came the finish.

    Lesnar brutally laid into The Viper with a barrage of forearms, opening up a nasty cut above his eye and forcing the referee to call for the bell. Lesnar was declared the winner of the match by TKO, leaving fans dismayed by the non-finish to one of the biggest main events of the year.

    WWE had attempted to execute an MMA-inspired finish, but fans of wrestling, who had always prided their fandom on the fact that they got a finish more times than not, were not receptive.

    Take the negativity surrounding the finish and the fact that Lesnar got into a scuffle with Chris Jericho afterward because of the perceived sloppiness of the elbow shots, and you have wholly negative reception to something that was done with relatively good intentions.

Best: The Authority Screws Daniel Bryan (2013)

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    The best moment at SummerSlam in recent memory came at the conclusion of the 2013 event.

    Daniel Bryan had just launched himself across the ring with a running knee to John Cena's face before pinning his opponent and capturing his first WWE Championship. What should have been an epochal moment and the unforgettable culmination of years of hard work and dedication for Bryan became a nightmare in short order.

    Randy Orton, holder of the Money in the Bank briefcase, made his presence felt before special guest referee Triple H delivered a boot to Bryan's midsection and dropped the new champion with a Pedigree. Orton entered, handed over the briefcase and pinned Bryan to become a seven-time champ.

    The moment infuriated fans, who had waited for Bryan to win the WWE title for so long. But in the process, it ignited a storyline that would culminate in the bearded wonder's unforgettable WrestleMania moment several months later in New Orleans.

    It also put an exclamation point on one of the greatest SummerSlam events to date and left fans giddy about the storyline possibilities in the wake of the moment.

    Was what followed perfect? No.

    Was the moment itself great and wholly unexpected? Hell yeah.