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Posted in: Doctor's Orders
Doctor's Orders: Summerslam's 10 Most Important Matches
By The Doc
Jun 29, 2013 - 6:38:50 PM

Summerslam 2013 is on the horizon and, with it, comes another historical series to celebrate the event’s past in preparation for its near future. Over the years, I have named a “Mr. Summerslam,” counted down the top matches in Summerslam history, and ranked the events. There are only so many ways that such topics can be covered. This summer, I’m going to take a deeply analytical look at multiple Summerslam topics, including how the forthcoming card’s matches compare to others from years gone by. To kick off the 2013 Summerslam Series, we go with:

The Ten Most Important Matches in Summerslam History

10 - Diesel vs. King Mabel (Summerslam 1995): Not since Summerslam in 1995 has the WWE featured a main-event on one of their biggest PPVs that included anything less than one very competent in-ring performer and one capable of being guided to a more than respectable performance. The art of the wrestling match was never lost on Vince McMahon, but I do not believe that he began to understand that a lousy match can be bad for business until Bret Hart became his top star and the expectation of what a top act had to accomplish, critically, changed. When the WWE was becoming popular in the mainstream, the blockbuster-style match featuring very little in the aesthetics department was both commonplace and accepted. After three years of the Hitman as the off-and-on #1 guy – and the classic matches that came with him in headlining situations – the WWE fanbase could no longer stomach a match like Diesel vs. Mabel. It was too much for Vince to expect that Kevin Nash, a limited worker, could have a passable PPV closer against a behemoth like Mabel. The match bombed on all quality assessment accounts. Since then, we have seen, to quote Jim Ross, “bowling shoe ugly” matches, but they have never been put in nearly as prominent a position as the main-event of Summerslam or any other top PPV. There are too many important eyes viewing the bigger cards to follow a dilapidated formula from an era that did not place a premium on high quality matches.

9 - John Cena vs. Randy Orton (Summerslam 2007): As of 2004, it seemed as John Cena and Randy Orton were destined for a multi-year struggle for the #1 position in WWE akin to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird jockeying to be the NBA’s top star in the 1980s or The Rock vs. Stone Cold in the WWE during the Attitude era. Some bad personal decisions led to Orton’s career trajectory being altered, but there was no doubting his potential to eventually realize his destiny. Orton got his act together in 2007 and, by the summer, was picking up steam. To most of us, Cena vs. Orton was a Wrestlemania main-event waiting to happen. It was never really a matter of “if” but rather “when?” Surprisingly, the WWE pulled the trigger on the first-ever PPV feud between them for Summerslam. Unlike other big-time main-events at Summerslam that could have occupied the same position at Wrestlemania, Cena vs. Orton honestly felt (and still feels) like a match that should have, at some point, been a Wrestlemania closer. Numerous opportunities presented themselves for it to happen, but Summerslam has been the host for their top singles bouts. It is matches such as Cena vs. Orton that solidify Summerslam as the clear cut #2 PPV of the year.

8 - CM Punk vs. Jeff Hardy (Summerslam 2009): The WWE's first "Summer of Punk" was not something that one would usually place into the category of "all-time important." Critically, it was heralded. However, it has not directly attributed to any major historical happenings in the grand scheme of things. Cutting through the surface, though, I would like to point your attention to the conclusion of Summerslam '09. Punk, having just defeated Hardy to recapture World Heavyweight gold, was attacked by the Undertaker. It was not until the CM Punk documentary was released last year that I realized how important the Taker was to Punk's career. After Summerslam, Punk went on to lose the title to the Deadman, as rumors swirled of a backstage riff between the superstars. Conversely, the 2012 documentary shed new light on the subject, suggesting that the series of matches stemming from the Summerslam closing interaction actually left Undertaker acknowledging to those people whose opinions matter most in WWE that Punk had earned his respect. In the business world, having the respect of a well-thought-of peer does wonders for creating opportunities. In 2011, CM Punk was given a live microphone and the chance to air his grievances unscripted. The rest has been history. Punk is the second biggest star in the WWE, its most critically beloved, and arguably its most popular, while rising the ranks each year on the all-time list of great superstars. Stealing the show at Summerslam and starting an angle with a man whose thoughts carry a lot of weight were the catalysts.

7 - Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog (Summerslam 1992): There are multiple ways to view any given situation. Bret Hart is often docked on his resume for having been the leader of the New Generation. Business did drop during that period. The other way to look at it, though, was that Bret was the face of a changing industry. The WWE needed to adapt. Nationally, they had created a massive legion of casual fans with Hulkamania and their general style of product, but having grown up in NWA territory, I never got the impression that there was as much loyalty to WWE amongst its huge fanbase as there was by the smaller group that enjoyed the more critically acclaimed NWA. Personally, my loyalty to the WWE product began with Bret Hart’s push to the main-event scene. When he started repeatedly having matches on par with the famous Steamboat-Savage match from Mania III, he changed the way that the more performance-inclined fan viewed the WWE. Eventually, Hart’s rise as WWE Champion shifted the WWE perception forever, putting the onus on the promotion to take quality into account at the highest level. Hart’s rise does not happen without his match with Bulldog at the Summerslam from Wembley. Vince McMahon was on commentary that night, getting the best seat in the house to watch Bret work his magic and listen to the 80,000 person crowd’s reaction to it. A month later, Bret was WWE Champion and the WWE’s focus on classic matches was redefined.

6 - The Ultimate Warrior vs. “Ravishing” Rick Rude (Summerslam 1989): The psychology of wrestling extends far beyond the confines of the men grappling within the squared circle and into the minds of the promoters who control their fates. When a wrestler has been on top for years, there comes a time when the promoter begins to quietly seek his replacement. As a smart businessman, you can never help but plot for the next big thing that will sustain or grow your company. In 1989, Hulk Hogan had been the top star in the WWE for five years already and had just concluded another hugely successful Wrestlemania plot. As the Mania V main-event storyline was sputtering along at Summerslam ’89, the co-headlining rematch from the same show was opening eyes. The Ultimate Warrior was coming on strong with the fans, but had struggled at Mania in the ring. At Summerslam, it was a different story. In one of the Summer Classic’s most underrated matches, Rude guided Warrior to a tremendous performance. The psychology of the promoter…fascinating, is it not? Warrior got the green light to Hogan’s title in 1990 and, though he never took Hulk’s spot, Wrestlemania VI was an exercise in exploring post-Hulkamania options. Subsequently, Hogan’s psyche was challenged. Seeing the writing on the wall, he began exploring his other options, too. Neither promoter nor top star was as invested as before – a dangerous place to be, financially. A less than graceful WWE exit, a steroid trial, and a WCW signing later….we had a famous thing happen called the Monday Night War. It all began, psychologically, with a Warrior proving he could get it done at Summerslam.

5 - The Rock vs. Brock Lesnar (Summerslam 2002): Brock Lesnar has become one of the biggest draws in sports over the course of the last decade. UFC and MMA’s popularity has exploded in no small part thanks to Lesnar’s efforts, which have direct ties to the former WWE Champion’s two year run in professional wrestling from 2002-2004. Rewinding the clock, there would never have been a Brock Lesnar capable of drawing major money in MMA if it were not for one of wrestling’s all-time greats, The Rock, putting him over so strongly at Summerslam 2002. In the summer of ’02, Lesnar was merely a package of incredible strength, speed, and agility who had made a name for himself as the NCAA Heavyweight wrestling champion. He required a top star to properly “make” him in order to become the “Next Big Thing” in sports entertainment and, ultimately, THE big thing in MMA. The Rock stepped up to the plate, lending his name value and all the attention that came with it to Lesnar in a 1-2-3, center of the ring loss that left no doubt as to the better man. Much credit goes to the Undertaker and Kurt Angle for following Rock’s lead, but Lesnar’s victories over the Deadman and the Olympic Gold Medalist did not carry the mainstream weight as did his win over The Rock.

4 - Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Owen Hart (Summerslam 1997): I am quite fond of the saying that "everything happens for a reason." I also believe that there is an equivalent benefit in every so-called defeat that we face. In 1997, Steve Austin was white hot and gaining traction as the star with the most potential to pull the WWE out of its multi-year financial rut and overtake WCW in the Monday Night War. At Summerslam, Owen Hart dropped him straight down onto his head in a piledriver spot gone wrong, injuring him in a way that had less to do with obvious short-term effects and much more to do with substantial long-term damage. The Attitude era came about as it was meant to be and is a period known for the emergence of many all-time great talents such as The Rock, Triple H, and Mick Foley. Austin, without the injury, likely would have followed the pattern of the WWE's top guys and created a logjam in the main-event that would have stunted the career heights achieved by his peers. As terrible as Summerslam '97 has been viewed in the context of Austin's run, it was a substantial enhancement for others, just as HBK's four year retirement was an addition by subtraction for the Stone Cold era.

3 - The Mega Powers vs. The Mega Bucks (Summerslam '88): In order to sell people on a new concept in sports or entertainment, you need to come out of the gates with a bang. The original slam dunk contest in the American Basketball Association gave Dr. J a forum, spawning one of the basketball calendar's most revered events. Star Wars took the sci-fi genre to blockbuster levels, subsequently aiding in the skyrocketing of the movie industry to ridiculous levels maintained to this day. The WWE decided in 1985 to introduce wrestling's version of the Super Bowl, needing several celebrity tie-ins to pull it off. By 1988, when they made the choice to add a third yearly PPV, they were able to rely on their own stars. Coming off two Wrestlemanias and the introduction of Survivor Series spearheaded by the Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant feud, the WWE thought it wise to get one more round out of it for the debut of Summerslam. Little did the WWE know that Summerslam would become their second biggest event of the year, but it could not have done so without the success of the first edition. On the coattails of Macho Man and Hogan vs. The Million Dollar Man and Andre, the inaugural Summerslam drew nearly 5% of the potential PPV buyers.

2 - Hulk Hogan vs. Shawn Michaels (Summerslam 2005): In the history of Summerslam, the WWE’s attention paid to creating major matches unrivaled by anything but Wrestlemania has waxed and waned. It was not until the late 1990s that the WWE seemed to fully embrace what they had in Summerslam – a middle of the year event similarly styled as Mania (no attachment to gimmick matches). Summerslam gave them an opportunity to build to something substantial during a time of the year where business had a tendency to otherwise decrease. Of all the examples of main-events that felt “Wrestlemania” worthy, Shawn Michaels vs. Hulk Hogan ranks at the top. It was a rare example of a dream match taking place at someplace besides the “Granddaddy of ‘em all.” There was only one other Summerslam main-event that you could take off the Summer Classic and put it in the same spot at the “Show of Shows” and it honestly be expected to maintain or exceed the numbers drawn by what it replaced. Mr. Wrestlemania vs. the man who led Hulkamania and built Wrestlemania. Whether you love the match, hate it, or fall somewhere in between, it is difficult to deny that HBK vs. Hulk elicited a response from people to the tune of one of the strongest buy numbers in non-Mania lore. Summerslam history strongly benefits from having had that match as one of its main-events.

1 - Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Undertaker (Summerslam 1998) – Summerslam as we know it today, the second biggest PPV of the WWE calendar, began in 1998. Prior to, the event was unquestionably significant. However, the Royal Rumble’s ties to Wrestlemania had quietly made it emerge as the #2 PPV to many in the wrestling media. Comparisons between Summerslam and the Rumble often found the latter’s main-events stronger and more historically notable. For instance, as great as the ’92 Summerslam’s closing match happened to be, it paled in star power comparison to the loaded ’92 Royal Rumble match with the WWE Championship on the line; the ’95 Rumble featured Diesel vs. top 10 all-time WWE great, Bret Hart, easily trumping Diesel vs. Mabel in the same year at Summerslam. In 1998, Summerslam surged to its modern standard, featuring a Wrestlemania main-event caliber match at the top of the card in Steve Austin vs. Undertaker. That year, Summerslam felt like a Wrestlemania. When two major stars of an era clash at a significant PPV, the rest of the event positively feels the effect. The trickle down raises the stakes from the other headlining matches down to the mid-card and the opener (as we often see with Wrestlemania). Austin vs. Undertaker was the first of its Summerslam kind, offering up a main-event that arguably had no rival for “biggest match of the year” – a title typically reserved for the main-event of its March/April kin. It may have been billed as “The Highway to Hell,” but it was actually the highway to Summerslam taking its important next step, historically.

Question of the day: The above are, in my opinion, Summerslam’s most important matches. What are yours?

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