The mass marketing machine that is WWE has convinced us for years that WrestleMania is an annual showcase of everything that makes the sports-entertainment juggernaut special. It is grandeur and spectacle, glitz and glamour. What it is not is an annual showcase of the company’s best in-ring offerings.
That title belongs to SummerSlam, an event introduced in 1988 that has routinely featured some of the best in-ring content in the sport as a whole, let alone WWE.
The reputation of The Biggest Party of the Summer can be traced back to a web of masterpieces woven by Bret “Hitman” Hart early in the 1990s. In the historic Madison Square Garden, The Hitman defeated Mr. Perfect in a star-making match to win the intercontinental title.
A year later, he defended that same time in a five-star, all-time classic against real life brother-in-law “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith.
It kept raining stars in 1994 when Hart defeated brother Owen in a highly dramatic steel cage match that set aside blood and guts for timing and teased escapes.
With the bar raised, SummerSlam became an event that was associated with classic encounters as any other on the WWE schedule. Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon tore the house down in a ladder match for the intercontinental title in 1995. Triple H and The Rock broke out with a brilliant ladder match of their own three years later.
The Hardy Boyz, Edge and Christian and The Dudley Boyz upped the ante with a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match at the turn of the century. Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho brought their brand of Canadian violence to that same show in a Best 2-Out-of-3 Falls match.
And those are just a few of the memorable encounters the show has spawned. Throw in these matches and you have an event synonymous with in-ring excellence:
- Kurt Angle vs. Steve Austin (2001)
- Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H (2002)
- Jeff Hardy vs. CM Punk (2009)
- Randy Orton vs. Christian (2011)
- CM Punk vs. Brock Lesnar (2013)
- John Cena vs. AJ Styles (2016)
- Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman vs. Samoa Joe vs. Brock Lesnar (2017)
But when, exactly, did SummerSlam eclipse WrestleMania from an in-ring standpoint? The answer is somewhere around 2015, when the company became more concerned with elaborate entrances and musical performances at its annual Showcase of the Immortals and less with in-ring competition.
WWE management sacrificed matches for moments, mat classics for sizzle reels. It became obsessed with using WrestleMania to create over-polished video packages devoted to its production values and forgot that the appeal of the event had as much to do with the classics forged by the likes of Randy Savage, Ricky Steamboat, Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker, Steve Austin, The Rock and The Ultimate Warrior as it did the grandeur and spectacle of it all.
The pressure to deliver matches the quality of those classics has done the show no favors, often leaving talent to overthink in an attempt to create their legacies (or whatever trendy language the company is spewing this week). That has not been the case at SummerSlam, where Superstars work their matches without the tendency to force stories or spots while chasing immortality.
With an exception or two over the years, SummerSlam has been allowed to retain its status as one of the most significant pay-per-view extravaganzas of the year without sacrificing its in-ring content.
It is a show that encourages in-ring greatness, as seen just a year ago, when three matches were given 20+ minutes to develop. Whether the stars make the most of that time remains to be seen.
The 2019 edition of the broadcast appears poised to continue the tradition of wrestling-heavy SummerSlams that produce some of the best matches of the year.
Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar may have underwhelmed with their lightning-quick match at WrestleMania but The Beast Incarnate typically brings his work boots to the August event and Rollins will be hell bent on proving his worth as the face of WWE’s flagship show.
Kofi Kingston and Randy Orton have a wealth of history to play off of, not to mention the current WWE champion’s need for a definitive match not involving Daniel Bryant to really elevate the quality of his title run.
Throw in Becky Lynch vs. Natalya in a match for the Raw women’s title that may very well steal the show, Bayley vs. Ember Moon and an unannounced showdown between Ricochet and AJ Styles over the United States Championship and you have the potential for the best pay-per-view of the year and a clear improvement over the extraordinarily long, at time tedious WrestleMania from this past spring.