SummerSlam in one of the longest-running Pay Per Views in WWE history, and one of the original “Big Four”, along with WrestleMania, Survivor Series, and the Royal Rumble. And as you’d expect with any PPV with an extensive history, there have been more than a few incredible matches which have taken place at this event over the years, from technical masterpieces, to the most ridiculous gimmick matches ever seen. For your consideration, we’ve gathered up what we believe are the absolute best matches to take place at SummerSlam over its lifetime, and there are a lot of them. Honestly, if you’ve never seen any of the matches on this list, make sure you remedy that, and soon.
13. Brock Lesnar vs John Cena, 2014
The match that turned every single Lesnar match after it into a series of German suplexes, this has to make the list for cathartic reasons, if nothing else. If there’s one thing fans had drilled into their heads for nearly all of John Cena’s career, it’s that he can always overcome the odds and rise above hate through the power of hustle, loyalty, and respect. Or something like that, the catchphrases run together after a while. Anyway, Cena was WWE World Heavyweight Champion largely because Daniel Bryan had been forced to vacate due to the injuries that would eventually contribute to the end of his wrestling career, so you can imagine how the fans felt about that. Meanwhile, Brock had just ended The Streak at WrestleMania and wasn’t particularly beloved by the fans either. However, that was about to change, as at SummerSlam, Brock Lesnar took John Cena, the man who could probably have a competitive match with God himself, and absolutely destroyed him for roughly ten minutes, before mercifully pinning him and taking the WWE World Heavyweight Championship for himself. Technically, it wasn’t much of a match, but for fans that were literally screaming for something different than the same old Cena match, it was everything they’d ever wanted wrapped up into a single extended beating.
12. Test vs Shane McMahon, “Love Her or Leave Her” Match, 1999
We often feel bad for Test, who really got screwed the most, career-wise, by Triple H’s ascension to the main event in 1999, because there were signs at one point that he might actually amount to something. Arguably, Test’s career peaked with this shockingly incredible match, which featured Shane McMahon basically bumping like a rag doll for a guy who he was a personal friend with backstage,. Thanks to packing a ridiculous amount of action into this match, Shane put Test over as an actual star who, thanks to his on-screen relationship with Stephanie McMahon, should have been a surefire main event talent. But then Triple H stole his girlfriend and Test somehow got shuffled off to the side without ever actually getting revenge for that act. Test would get more pushes in the future, but after falling from the top of the world in 1999, he clearly saw the writing on the wall and never amounted to much ever again.
11. Rock vs Triple H, Ladder Match, 1998
This was the first great match that either man would have in their WWE careers, instantly thrusting them into the spotlight and creating two massive stars in the space of a single match. Before this ladder match, Rock and Triple H were moderately-size midcard stars, leaders of their respective stables, but far from the industry-changing behemoths they would grow to become. Triple H was still trying to escape the shadow of D-X’s former leader, Shawn Michaels, and The Rock was still rebounding from his horrific early run as a smiling babyface with terrible hair. For this match, it seemed like both men agreed to do whatever it took to get noticed on the big stage, pulling out all the stops and delivering one of the best one-on-one ladder matches in WWE history, which you would probably agree, is a pretty difficult list to get on. Obviously, their efforts were not in vain, and by the same time a year later, both had won their first WWE Championships.
10. Bret Hart vs Mr Perfect, 1991
Back in the days of peak Hulkamania, when WWE was still exclusively the “land of giants”, two wrestlers considered undersized for the time period set out to show a different side of pro wrestling, putting on a technical classic rarely seen in that company at the time. At that point, “Mr Perfect” Curt Hennig was already established as one of the top singles stars in the company, having feuded with Hulk Hogan (the closest Hennig would get to holding the WWE Title) before dropping back down the card, while Hart was just starting to establish himself as a singles wrestler after years in the Hart Foundation tag team. This was a huge milestone in Hart’s legendary career, winning his first singles title from one of the true legends of the business, in a match that is still talked about to this day. While this win did not immediately catapult Hart into the main event (it would take two years and the departure of Hulk Hogan to truly accomplish that), it did put the spotlight onto him for the first time as a singles wrestler, making him someone who WWE fans would start keeping a very close eye on for the future.
9. CM Punk vs Brock Lesnar, 2013
Even if his attitude bothers a lot of people, there is no doubt that when he was at the top of his game, there were few that could gainsay CM Punk for his self-proclaimed title of “Best in the World”. As a result, he ended up having a lot of classic matches that have become forgotten simply because at his peak, he was having so many classics that some get missed. This match with Lesnar, which was probably one of the best matches Lesnar has had in his second run in WWE, often falls into that category, because it was overshadowed by what happened in the main event of the same show (which we’ll get to), and because, thanks to Lesnar’s intermittent schedule (he would actually disappear until it was time for the build to WrestleMania XXX), there was no follow-up and Punk moved on to a much worse feud with Ryback immediately afterwards. This was also prior to the “Suplex City” version of Lesnar, when he still deigned to wrestle complete matches rather than throw a dozen suplexes and call it a day, and it immediately showed why everyone wonders what he could have been if he actually cared and stuck around in WWE full-time for his whole career.
8. The Undertaker vs Edge, Hell in a Cell, 2008
We’ve often noted that for one of the most decorated Champions in WWE History and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Edge’s career largely flew under the radar. This is another example of that, as Edge and The Undertaker had a fairly legendary feud than spanned the better part of a year and basically carried the Smackdown brand, but you’d probably be hard-pressed to remember any of their matches. This was the climax of their long-running rivalry, and Edge’s ultimate comeuppance for using his marriage to Smackdown GM Vicki Guerrero to repeatedly cheat the Undertaker out of the World Heavyweight Champion, eventually having him suspended indefinitely for using an “illegal chokehold” as his finisher. After Edge was revealed to have cheated on Vicki with their wedding planner, she decided the best revenge would be to bring back Undertaker and lock Edge into a Hell in a Cell match at SummerSlam. Many of the Edge-Undertaker matches from that year are pretty good, given that both men were highly-skilled veterans (and Taker was somehow becoming a better worker as he aged), and this one topped their previous engagements, creating a chaotic hardcore brawl that is rarely seen even in Hell in a Cell matches these days, and culminating with Undertaker chokeslamming Edge off a ladder and through the ring, which then exploded into fire. Hey, if you’re going to go down…
7. Brock Lesnar vs The Rock, 2002
The match that ‘made’ Brock Lesnar as a main eventer, as he had actually floundered somewhat after his impressive debut, reduced to beating up the Hardy Boyz and having Intercontinental title matches against RVD that would end in weak DQ’s because people backstage didn’t want Brock holding a “lesser” title while he was being groomed for bigger things (because it would mean that inevitably he’d have to lose it to someone, potentially weakening his aura as an unbeatable monster). Fortunately, when you need to put someone over strong, you can always turn to The Rock, and by some convenience, he was off to start his Hollywood career in earnest at this point, something wrestling fans weren’t particularly pleased about, leaving them looking for a new hero to attach themselves to. And in the biggest match of his career to that point, Brock raised his game to the level of The Rock and looked incredibly impressive while doing so, emerging victorious in a hard-fought match that had the crowd leaning towards the “Next Big Thing” like never before.
6. Steve Austin vs Kurt Angle, 2001
While most of the WCW/ECW Invasion angle was terrible, there were still some bright spots, most notably the WWE Title feud between Kurt Angle and Steve Austin. Angle was basically the greatest wrestler in the planet at this point, and Austin was still no slouch either (he was, after all, only a few months removed from tearing down the house at WrestleMania X-7), and both men brought out the best in each other in this match at SummerSlam. The story of the match featured Angle taking everything Austin could throw at him and continuing to fight back, leading to an increasingly frustrated Austin finally resorting to attacking referees in order to escape. The lack of a real finish hurt this match for a lot of people, but right up until the DQ ending, it was as good a match as you’ll see from Austin and Angle at their peaks, with Angle actually forcing Austin to reach back into his past as a technical wrestler in order to hang with the Olympic Hero.
5. Shawn Michaels vs Triple H, Unsanctioned Match, 2002
Michaels’ return to wrestling after long absence that had been thought to be permanent probably wouldn’t have been as great if Michaels hadn’t gone into it thinking it would be a one-time thing to put over his best friend Triple H as the new dominant force on Raw before slipping back into retirement. As a result, Michaels wrestled this match with reckless abandon, as a man who figured he was good for one more match and by thunder, he was going to make it the best match he possibly could. That’s not to take away from Triple H, who, perhaps recognizing that his return from a massive quad injury earlier that year hadn’t exactly set the world on fire the way he’d hoped (mostly due to a string of terrible matches), really needed to have a great match to re-establish himself as one of the best in the world. However, Michaels was just on another level for this match, pulling out every trick in the book to make everything look spectacular, and the result was an instant classic. And then, spurred on by the great match and the ensuing news that his back had miraculously healed completely, Michaels ended up resuming his wrestling career later that year, and ended up wrestling for another decade (at an incredibly high level) as a result.
4. Daniel Bryan vs John Cena, 2013
If only we had known what this match would set into motion. Riding a wave of popularity thanks to his incredible work in a tag team with Kane, Bryan was tapped as a new opponent for Cena headed into SummerSlam. And in the only PPV singles match these two would ever have, they left it all in the ring in an incredible display of wrestling at its highest level. And in an incredible feel-good moment for the fans, Bryan cleanly defeated Cena in the center of the ring, winning the WWE Championship to a thunderous ovation and seemingly cementing himself, against all odds, as a main event star. Of course, that joy was short-lived, as Randy Orton would cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase immediately afterwards and, after a betrayal by special referee Triple H, steal away the title only seconds later. As it turned out, Bryan was never intended to be a long-term champion, but a way to make Orton into an even bigger heel by having him unfairly beat a huge fan favorite, a scenario which would play out for the rest of the year, before WWE attempted to quietly shuffle Bryan back out of the title picture. Upon discovering this, the WWE fanbase literally revolted, resulting in the events which led up to WrestleMania XXX, and Bryan’s crowning moment in WWE.
3. Bret Hart vs Owen Hart, Steel Cage Match, 1994
You know, it’s actually really hard to have a good steel cage match in WWE, because of their stupid “escape the cage” stipulation which they only added so their cage matches would be different from everyone else’s (presumably, that’s also why all WWE cage matches in the late 80’s and 90’s were fought inside a giant blue monstrosity), which traditionally only had “pin or submission” rules. In fact, there’s only a handful of times where a cage match has effectively used the “escape” stipulation to make a good match, and this would be one of them. Unsurprisingly, it involves Bret and Owen Hart, two of the best ring technicians of all time, who had the benefit of family-related chemistry and a storyline that made the ridiculous idea of winning a match by running away from your opponent make sense. Owen’s character’s willingness to do whatever it took to get one over on his older brother meant that he was always looking for the opportunity to take the easy victory, forcing Bret to play defense the entire match, while also knowing that Owen had already beaten him at WrestleMania X by outwrestling him, putting the champ at a distinct disadvantage. While this match may have not been as good as the WrestleMania X opener, it told a story all its own, wrapped in some excellent technical wrestling, and it probably one of the best cage matches in WWE history.
2. Shawn Michaels vs Razor Ramon, Ladder Match, 1995
If you wanted a reason to watch the 1995 edition of SummerSlam, this would be it (and frankly, it’s the only reason to watch an otherwise horrible show). This match seems like an obvious one in retrospect, doing a rematch of one of the greatest matches in WrestleMania history to see if they can recapture the magic, but in truth, it was thrown together at almost the last second when someone took a look at the card and said “my, there certainly aren’t any good matches on there”, then decided to remedy that situation. In fact, that’s literally the explanation they used on TV, as Razor and Shawn didn’t really have an issue at the time, and were both actually faces, making this a rarity for the era. While the match itself wasn’t able to top the original, if only because that was nearly an impossible task, it was still a fantastic match in its own right, as one stipulation added was that the wrestlers couldn’t use the ladder as a weapon, forcing them to find creative ways to use the ladder all over again. Plus, in stark contrast to modern ladder matches that surround the ring with multiple ladders of varying sizes, this one was seen as innovative for introducing a second ladder into the match!
1. Tables, Ladders, and Chairs, 2000
When your competition is one of the greatest ladder matches of all time, the only way to top it is to go bigger. So that’s what WWE did, throwing three tag teams into the fray, then adding tables and chairs to the mix, creating a template for one of the most chaotic match types ever seen. We don’t want to call this another “forgotten classic”, but the original TLC match does tend to get short shrift when compared to other matches between the Hardys, Dudleys, and Edge & Christian over their storied rivalry. Certainly, more people remember the WrestleMania matches, but for our money, the first TLC match at Summerslam is the one that set the bar for all others, forcing future matches to elevate the intensity even further. Honestly, if you only watch one TLC match (although why would you, they’re frequently awesome), this is the one to pick, as it featured three of WWE’s most legendary tag teams at the absolute top of their game, innovating spots that would become commonplace in future years, and doing things that no one had thought possible until that point.