Daniel Bryan clocking John Cena in the kisser with a flying knee to close out a barnburner. Brock Lesnar ascending the WWE throne by overpowering The Rock. The British Bulldog rolling up Bret Hart at Wembley Stadium to win the Intercontinental Championship.
If these matches/moments are where your mind goes when you think back on SummerSlam’s history, you’re not alone. These are some of the event’s best bouts ever. They are key parts of SummerSlam’s lore at this point, the clashes you see in just about every highlight reel for the pay-per-view.
But WWE’s annual summer blockbuster has also given us some thrillers that are far less talked about.
Should you go back into the SummerSlam vault to the 1995 edition, you’ll find two innovative, eye-catching athletes putting on a buzzing opener. If you go back 17 years, there is a clash for the United States Championship well worth taking in.
In the spirit of celebrating bouts like those, four Wrestle Joy writers each picked one of their favorite underrated SummerSlam matches. We all rewatched (or watched for the first time) these hits and typed out our thoughts. What elements wowed us? What memories got stirred up?
Grab some popcorn and find a comfy seat as we explore this quartet of SummerSlam (semi) hidden gems. But first, let’s meet our panel:
Caro (@Miss_Mix_) : Caro has been a wrestling fan for over 15 years, spreading her passion and love for the industry to everyone she meets – online and in real life! Outside of the ropes, she loves playing video games and perfecting her kazoo skills. She also channels her energy from bubble tea!
Ciarán Hayward (@CiaranRH): Ciarán is a passionate NJPW fan based in London, UK. If he isn’t watching wrestling, he’s likely at the cinema or playing a video game.
Ryan Dilbert (@ryandilbert): Author of Mat Burns, a chapbook collection of wrestling fiction. Wrestle Joy and Voices of Wrestling columnist. Fourth-grade teacher. Slow walker.
Jesse Velasquez (@dajvshow24): Wrestling Twitter’s Bracketologist. A contributor for DailyDDT.com and wrestlejoy.com. 33-year wrestling fan and historian. Fitness and nutrition business owner. 3-time United States Masters National Olympic weightlifter.
And here are the four bouts each of us offered up to examine and enjoy:
Dilbert: 1-2-3 Kid vs. Hakushi (SummerSlam 1995)
Jesse: Rey Mysterio vs Kurt Angle (2002)
Ciarán: Eddie Guerrero vs. Rhyno vs. Taiji vs. Chris Benoit (2003)
Caro: Randy Orton vs. Christian (2011)
1-2-3 Kid vs. Hakushi (SummerSlam 1995)
Caro: This match is a very fitting start for our roundtable discussion, and I mean this in the best way possible! Two underrated talents who have the heart for professional wrestling, demonstrated through their grit and ability throughout the match.
Though my knowledge on New Generation WWF is scarcer than the eras that would follow it, I still get a kick out of seeing these two wrestle and how they contributed to the company during this time period! 1-2-3 Kid and Hakushi perfectly complemented each other with their strategic move sets; everything in this match flowed so well together and there was never a dull moment between the two.
Ciarán: Hakushi dominates the majority of this match, clearly the stronger of the two and also able to compete with 1-2-3 Kid’s athletic ability, apparent with an impressive Sasuke Special.
When the tables turn and 1-2-3 Kid gets to strut his stuff, the match gains a new spark, a noticeable change in pace to Hakushi’s methodical attacks. The impact ending to this match makes me believe that both men could do more with the appropriate time.
Dilbert: 1-2-3 Kid (aka Sean Waltman aka X-Pac) was killing it at the time with blow-you-away, innovative offense. Pairing him with Hakushi, whose run was an injection of wow, was a shrewd move.
I love how they put their foot on the gas for bursts and then slowed it down before speeding things up again. The pacing makes all the big moments feel bigger.
Waltman rocks it as the weary-but-fiery underdog here. And Hakushi’s aura is something else. This two collided on Raw a few times in the years to follow, but this should really have been a feud WWE leaned into far more.
Jesse: Opening matches of major pay-per-views are known to set a precedent for the entire show. This match proved to be a fun one and was ahead of its time. A quick pace for 30 seconds, then a methodical approach for the other half a minute. Hakushi was given a nice push upon his arrival and his talent was on display in this match.
I was most impressed with the arm drags and innovative offense from The 1-2-3 Kid. Sean Waltman was an amazing aerialist before injuries broke his body down. Hakushi’s “Sasuke Special” was a delightful move at the midway point. To see a transition from a frog splash by The Kid to a modified sidewalk slam by Hakushi end the match was shocking. This could have easily gone five more minutes. A very fun match to watch.
Rey Mysterio vs Kurt Angle (2002)
Dilbert: Lord, I love that opening sprint. Angle and Mysterio just hit their highest gear from the jump, and it’s a sight to behold. They manage to pack so much story and action into a sub-10-minute match.
The spot where Rey rolls himself off ref Jimmy Korderas’ back out onto Angle on the floor is an eye-popper.
Mysterio’s creativity and acrobatic work is a blast to watch here. The same goes for Angle snatching him out of the air and countering everything with an elite crispness. Angle and Mysterio’s best bouts against each other, in my mind, were the tag team ones, but this is a must-watch.
Ciarán: I couldn’t tell you a WWE match that starts quicker than this one. Pure magic.
Neither man puts even a foot out of place in this sprint; it’s such a sublime matchup.
They throw their all into everything they do; Angle crashes over the top rope when Mysterio pulls it down. It’s red hot from the first minute to the last, a fond reminder and testament to the gifted ability both Mysterio and Angle possess.
Jesse: The springboard headscissors and frantic pace to start the match was sensational. Mysterio looked like a more seasoned version of his acrobatic self in WCW. Angle was the consummate professional in this one. Bumping around the ring like crazy yet throwing some incredible suplexes in the process.
The sudden near falls from both men were so fluid, just an incredible sprint of a match in 2002. I feel every opening bout of a pay per view should start like this one did. Red hot, non-stop action that leaves the crowd wanting more from the event. Kudos to two of the best wrestlers in the last 20 years for putting on a barnburner that lasted less than 10 minutes.
Caro: This is one of the best SummerSlam openers I’ve ever seen. It gets chaotic from the get-go, and the action never stops, constantly maintaining a high burst of energy that sets the tone for the rest of the show. The ankle lock and the 619 are both used within the first three minutes of this match, which is incredible! Angle’s imposing athletic figure serves as the antithesis to Mysterio’s quick but flexible move set. This match maintains the intense rivalry that these two have held against each other in the lead-up to this event.
Also, that ref spot was amazing. You know which one I’m talking about. And yes, I totally used this match as an excuse to rewatch one of my favorite PPVs of all-time. It still holds up 🙂
Eddie Guerrero vs. Rhyno vs. Tajiri vs. Chris Benoit (2003)
Jesse: Four former ECW main event caliber talents squaring off in a WWE ring. In a Fatal 4- Way no less, you knew this one would be electric. The match was a physical affair that never broke stride.
The dual submission spot was brilliant, and each man was able to get in a solid amount of offense in a short period of time. The Tajiri reversal of a German suplex into one of his own on Benoit for a near three-count had me out of my seat. In typical Eddie Guerrero fashion, he snuck out with the W in this gem of a SummerSlam encounter.
Ciarán: This is Eddie at his beloved charming and cheeky best as he attempts to overcome the odds.
Culminating in under 11 minutes, it’s a constant sprint that doesn’t stop for air. Even constrained to a short match, all four men are able to showcase themselves and their stylistic differences. On paper, it’s an odd group to have in a match, but in the ring it’s simply fun.
The look on Eddie’s face during the dual submission moment is wonderful, his storytelling second to none.
Dilbert: Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar and the Elimination Chamber match get most of the love/attention when discussions of SummerSlam 2003 pop up, but the United States title four-way is a blast.
Things start with a high-octane pace. The action often feels chaotic, but it’s a flowing, mesmerizing sort of chaos.
The most compelling moment is Benoit and Guerrero duel submission attempts on Rhyno and Tajiri. Each wrestler cranks their painful hold in a race to break a man’s will.
Urgency and ferocity, plenty of spills to the outside and Guerrero’s trademark magnetism all make for an entertaining midcard matchup. This is well worth putting on your watchlist if you haven’t seen it.
Caro: WOW. Every single wrestler in this match produced a main-event caliber showcase. They demonstrated technical spots and many thrilling moments. When discussing WWE wrestlers who made significant contributions to the Ruthless Aggression era, I’m surprised that Tajiri isn’t brought into that conversation as much as he should; he was a definitive highlight of this Fatal 4-Way match and it was such a blast seeing him here. I remembered why I was fond of him years ago!
And as always, Eddie Guerrero makes the most of this match for me. He’s always been one of my favorites, and I’m happy to see him elevate so much of the talent here, albeit deviously.
Randy Orton vs. Christian (2011)
Ciarán: Orton and Christian play to their strengths in this match. Both have incredible wrestling smarts, and it’s prevalent with the story they tell. The weapons are used with purpose to further the story; they’re not used just because the option is available, a superplex onto a flattened table being a standout.
This match is a prime example of knowing your opponent. It’s a parade of counters that pulls from their feud’s past. The ending is explosive and sudden yet comes at the perfect moment.
Jesse: This match shows two things. How underrated Christian was and how exceptional Orton is when he’s fully engaged. These two had phenomenal chemistry and it showed in this classic. I was shocked by the sheer physicality of this bout.
The backstory warranted all of the weapons and recklessness that took place in the match. I could hear and feel each chair shot, kendo stick crack and trash can spot. Pure magic in this match which overshadowed a much-anticipated heavy main event between John Cena and CM Punk.
Caro: Randy Orton vs Christian is a violent match filled with bad blood, gripping storytelling, and harsh moments (in the best way).They are both able to bring out the best in each other, represented by Christian’s cowardly attitude and Orton’s mindset focused on destroying his opponent in any way he can.
The brawl was brutal and ended with Orton getting the win, much to the audience’s delight. It’s unusual to see Christian as the villain in this feud, let alone in 2011, but he sells his bad attitude so well that it works! Overall, a great match with strong storytelling. It’s always nice to see Christian take his shot at the main event card, as I think his title reign was one of the most underappreciated in modern WWE history.
Dilbert: The Summer of Punk reignited my interest in WWE, but it was the Orton-Christian rivalry that hooked me once I started watching again.
Man, what great chemistry did those two have. This match is filled with mousse-smooth counters and a palpable intensity. It’s a strong, engaging match even before all the table spots and kendo-stick wielding happen.
That final image of Orton, blood streaked across his face as he collapses onto Christian for the pin, is exquisite. Now I want to go back and rewatch the rest of the rivalry.