It’s just about time for the 30th annual Summerslam, arguably WWE’s second most important PPV of the year. There have been countless incredible matches and storylines to take place at this event since it began in 1988, but let’s talk about the best of the best of the best. Sir.
There’s obviously going to be too many matches to pull from when you’ve got 30 years of history, so I’d like to bring up some matches that aren’t on the list. There are two in particular that I can see some people having an issue with. One of these is the 2002 match between The Rock and Brock Lesnar, crowning the latter and affirming his main event status. It’s a perfectly fine match, but I never thought that their styles meshed effectively. The biggest match that I’m leaving off is the steel cage match between Bret and Owen Hart from 1994. I’ve never understood the traditional steel cage match, and I’ve never really liked one. There’s so much focus put on locking the wrestlers inside, but then the door will be unlocked if they just ask for it? Why would anyone ever try to climb over the top if the door opens with a simple “pretty please”? It’s dumb and makes no sense, and not even the technical ability and the storytelling of the Hart brothers could get me into it.
Now, for some matches that I was bummed to leave out. Even if the story is a bit silly, Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero put on a great ladder match in 2005 (ya know, the one where the briefcase had child custody papers in it?). Randy Orton’s crowning moment against Chris Benoit (yikes, I know, but the man could wrestle) in 2004 was also a great match. I really want to give credit to Seth Rollins, who had terrific matches with Dean Ambrose in 2014 and Finn Balor in 2016. His match against John Cena in 2015 is also really good, but a bit mired by the Jon Stewart finish.
Lastly, I really wanted to include a women’s match, but most of the best women’s matches took place at other events. Regardless, I’m giving a special shoutout to Alundra Blayze and Bull Nakano from 1994 and especially to Charlotte and Sasha Banks from 2016.
Let’s do this.
10. The Rock v. Triple H: Intercontinental Ladder Match (1998)
It sure is weird to think about a time where these two men were in the midcard, huh?
The buildup between the champ’s Nation Of Domination and the challenger’s D-Generation-X was particularly strong (if you can forget about all the racist stuff DX did, oops), and the inclusion of Mark Henry and Chyna adds to the ferocity without taking too much from the men in the ring. The action is intense, the brutality is real, and both men prove that their imminent future in the main event scene is more than deserved. In the end, Triple H is the one to successfully climb the ladder and retrieve the title, giving Rock the freedom to pursue the main event just a little sooner than he would.
9. Undertaker v. Edge: Hell In A Cell (2008)
I don’t particularly care for all of the buildup involving Edge and Vickie Guerrero’s weird marriage, but it does feature some of Edge’s best heel moments, so there’s that. To get back at him, Vickie reinstates the Phenom and puts them both inside perhaps the most intimidating match in all of WWE. Unlike some of the other Hell In A Cell matches from this time period, Taker and Edge don’t rely on an obscene amount of blood to sell the viciousness of the match stipulation or even the personal rivalry. The steel steps and tables are used throughout, in addition to a Spear collapsing one of the Cell walls, and yet it still works without anyone wearing a crimson mask. Some people who prefer the Attitude Era to more modern wrestling cite the lack of blood as a reason, but I can cite matches like this as to why it isn’t always necessary.
8. Brock Lesnar v. CM Punk (2013)
I’ll be right up front with this: I’m a really big CM Punk mark. He’s one of my absolute favorites, and I think it’s hard to deny his work in the company regardless of how you feel about him outside of it. To be fair, I’m also not really a big Brock Lesnar fan (you won’t be seeing his 2014 decimation of Cena on this list), so I think that evens out.
This match features some of the best work that both men have done inside the squared circle. What Lesnar lacks on the microphone, Punk more than makes up for, not to mention you also have Paul Heyman for promo work. While Punk is great with ring psychology, Brock brings sheer brute force. The David & Goliath storytelling honestly writes itself. The big issue with Lesnar is that it’s hard to believe most opponents have a chance against him. That problem is easily cleared up when you put a steel chair into the hands of someone as crafty as the Second City Saint. The false finishes are genuinely surprising and it never stops being exciting from the first punch.
The only thing stopping “The Best Vs. The Beast” from being the best Summerslam match from 2013 is…
7. John Cena v. Daniel Bryan (2013)
…that the main event finds a way to tell an even better David & Goliath story, especially considering Cena has been the top star of the company for nearly a decade by this point and Bryan was believed to not be remotely ready for the spotlight.
No matter what the crowd thinks of him at any given point in time, it is an objective fact by now that John Cena is one of the greatest professional wrestlers to ever step foot in a WWE ring. If you don’t believe that, you have not seen this match. Cena was able to choose his own opponent for the match, and his choice of ultimate underground Bryan really says something about his view of the business; even if they don’t fit the typical look, Cena knows when someone has talent. The psychology is beautiful throughout the match, with Cena pulling off all of his moves while knowing he’s the man across from Bryan refusing to give up and constantly finding brand new counters. The finale of Bryan winning the WWE Championship clean over Cena is the beginning of the buildup to his triumph at WrestleMania 30, especially when you add in Orton’s Money In The Bank cash-in at the end of the match.
6. Edge & Christian v. The Hardy Boyz v. The Dudley Boyz: TLC Tag Team Championship Match (2000)
The. First. Ever. Tables. Ladders. And. Chairs. Match.
That sort of notoriety can be enough sometimes. Good thing this match has a whole hell of a lot more.
Capitalizing on their Triangle Ladder Match at WrestleMania 2000, the three most iconic teams of the Attitude Era were brawling again. Edge & Christian were the champions and they loved blasting their opponents with chairs. Bubba Ray and D-Von Dudley were famous for their use of tables, while brothers Matt and Jeff Hardy always seemed to be jumping from the top of ladders. The unholy combination was a match made in heaven. The spots are both unbelievable and unforgettable, and the interference of Lita keeps things interesting. Arguably, the biggest downside to this to this match is that these six men would go on to outdo it just a bit later at WrestleMania X-7, but that’s a list for another time.
5. John Cena v. AJ Styles (2016)
Are you starting to smell a trend? Perhaps one where John Cena seeks out the best wrestler in the company and puts on a phenomenal (get it?) show with them at the second-biggest event of the year?
There might be some criticism for having such a recent match rank so high, but I knew exactly what I was watching as it happened. Their series had come to a tie; Styles won the first match via interference, and Cena’s side won the subsequent 3v3 match with Enzo & Cass against Gallows & Anderson. But now it was time to put these two wrestling icons in the ring together with no distractions and no gimmicks, just every move in their arsenal from bell to bell. This wasn’t only the best showcase of The Phenomenal One (after a great series with Roman Reigns), but it pushed the face of the company to stretch his “Five Moves Of Doom” to find maneuvers he had never used before. When the Styles Clash doesn’t end the match, one starts to get worried. Luckily, Styles kicks out of an Attitude Adjustment or two as well, just to make things appropriate.
To the confusion of most “smart” fans on the internet (ugh), Cena takes a clean 1-2-3 right in the center of the ring to the man who used to dominate TNA and ROH. It was the best main roster match of all 2016, and it still gets the pulse going a year later.
4. Shawn Michaels v. Razor Ramon: Intercontinental Ladder Match (1995)
I’ll gladly admit this is much more of a personal list than me trying to make an objective one, but the best wrestling matches are ALWAYS about telling an emotional story. You’ve probably noticed that I love a good ladder match, and I’m especially fond of the Intercontinental Championship. Go Figure.
WrestleMania X features the first major ladder match, and it also features Shawn and Razor for the IC title. While I would argue that the earlier match is the better one overall, this Summerslam sequel benefits from the extra story and a better finish. Having been able to tune up the pacing of the new gimmick, Michaels and Ramon give even more than they did earlier in the year, giving good reason for the midcard championship meaning more than the top title which was being fought over by Diesel and Mabel. The risks involved with the ladders are even steeper, and both men put their bodies on the line for the pure physical storytelling.
I’ve always said that it will always be more interesting to see someone win a championship than to see someone retain, but there is something just a little extra special when that defending champion happens to be the Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels.
3. Shawn Michaels v. Triple H: Unsanctioned Street Fight (2002)
I’m not entirely sure what you want me to say here. Shawn Michaels is one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time. For all the fierceness that could be felt in the Michaels/Ramon rivalry, things are exponentially more brutal with his on-again-off-again best friend and worst enemy, Triple H.
Finding out that the man who attacked him from behind and took him out of commission was his best friend was exactly the spark that Shawn Michaels needed to reinvigorate his career upon returning, and this no disqualification match was the perfect setup to the rebirth of HBK. The fight is absolutely brutal. This period of wrestling is known for it’s use of blood, and I’ll even admit that I think they go too far sometimes, but this is one of the few feuds that borderline demands this level of violence, and it pays off in full. When the match ends with Shawn’s beautiful triumph only for him to be blindsided after the bell, it’s such an efficient way of keeping the audience high and hungry for the feud to continue on down the road, but the in-ring action is strong enough to work even without a greater story.
2. CM Punk v. John Cena (2011)
I’ve already mentioned Cena’s trend of putting over iconic indie wrestlers once they hit the main event of WWE, and I’ve also mentioned how Punk was correct when he said he was the best in the world, so I really hope you weren’t surprised by this.
After the Money In The Bank match these two had, Punk left the company with the WWE Championship, meaning Vince McMahon had to improvise. Cena and Rey Mysterio fought to become the new champ with the former claiming the prize, only for Punk to return with the original title belt that he left with. We can’t just have two WWE Champions, so a match to decide the Undisputed Champion was put into place. Special guest referee Triple H called it right down the middle, considering he had his issues with both men, but the chemistry between the wrestlers was unexpectedly brilliant. No one expected Punk to go over Cena twice, and the finish got the entire crowd on their feet.
Just as the previously mentioned match that featured Cena as champion and Triple H as guest referee, Money In The Bank is cashed in on the new champ, but this time it’s Alberto Del Rio, which leaves a poor taste in my mouth.
1. Bret Hart v. British Bulldog (1992)
I didn’t see most of these matches live as I took a pretty big break from wrestling growing up that I only returned to in late 2013, but this is the only match on the list that happened before I was born. Oops, outed myself as a young person. You like me less than you already did, I’m sure, and I’ve already learned to accept that.
Even still, there is absolutely no denying the sheer crowd energy of that Wembley Stadium throughout this match. The best rivalries begin as friendships, but Bret and Davey Boy Smith were family, which makes it even stronger when they fight. Bulldog may not have been the best technical wrestler in the world, but he happened to have great chemistry with his opponent, who may have been the best. This is another match that doesn’t need the blood that Shawn and Hunter would spill at Summerslam 10 years later; all of the aggression is more than apparent in their physicality and facial reactions.
The ovation when Davey Boy Smith wins the Intercontinental Championship in London is astounding. As I said, good wrestling is all about emotion, and you can feel the emotions of an entire country as they embrace their son and his newfound glory.
So how did I do? What matches would you put on your own personal list? Are there any matches on this year’s Summerslam card that you think could make the list next time? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter where I do plenty of live tweeting about wrestling things!