Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The History of WWE SummerSlam, part 4 (1997-1999)

We got a trio of good-to-awesome SummerSlams in the late 90s, and here they are now.....

SummerSlam '97 - Meadowlands Arena - 8/3/97

Now this is a fuckin' SummerSlam, part 2.  SummerSlam '97 was the climax of the awesome USA vs. Canada feud that resulted in a slew of singles matches involving the Hart Foundation vs. their American opponents.  The stakes of each match was very high, particularly the World Title match, where if Bret Hart failed to beat The Undertaker, he would never again be able to wrestle in the US.  Special referee and Bret's mortal enemy Shawn Michaels was also subject to a stipulation, whereby if he showed any favoritism toward Taker, HE would never be able to wrestle in the US. 

The match itself was a methodical but drama-filled epic, with the Bret-Shawn dynamic adding another layer to the tension.  Taker almost seemed like a third wheel as the power struggle between the other two took center stage.  After 25 minutes of action, Bret and Shawn got into an argument, where Bret provoked Shawn into swinging a chair at him, only to duck as the chair knocked out Taker.  Bret covered him for the pin and Shawn was forced to make the count.  This was absolutely genius booking, but had the unfortunate effect of making Bret the third wheel as Shawn and Taker then engaged in a landmark feud.  Odd that both the prologue and aftermath of this match saw the WWF Champion as the afterthought.  Anyway, damn good main event.

Some belated 4th of July FIREWORKS!

In the semi-main slot was the I-C Title match between Owen Hart and Steve Austin.  For sixteen minutes these two tore it up in what would easily have been the match of the night, had Owen not botched a Tombstone piledriver, temporarily paralyzing Austin.  Owen had to stall for about a full minute while Austin recovered enough to execute the worst-looking rollup in wrestling history.  It was a very unfortunate incident, both for the match itself, and for the longevity of Austin's wrestling career. 

This match was so good until Owen tried to kill Austin.

The third real standout was the opener - a Mankind-Triple H Steel Cage match.  This violent, hate-filled display of brutality arguably stole the show, and is a rare case where the blue bar cage (which I've historically hated) was used effectively as a weapon, and amazingly without either guy blading.  Mankind got to re-enact Jimmy Snuka's death-defying leap from the top of the cage, albeit by changing the move to an elbowsmash.  Really good opening contest.

Three of the undercard matches were pretty good, one stunk up the joint.  Goldust vs. Brian Pillman was a nice little match with the stipulation that if Pillman lost he'd have to wear a dress for a month.  Good psychology and decent action here.  The Legion of Doom vs. Godwinns match was a hard-hitting, satisfying brawl, and Davey Boy Smith vs. Ken Shamrock was fun while it lasted.  The DQ ending was kinda lame but that's a minor gripe.  The only stinker on this card was Los Boricuas vs. The Disciples of Apocalypse.  Just a boring 8-man tag that kicked off the rather half-assed 3-way faction war between Faarooq, Savio Vega, and Crush.

Overall SummerSlam '97 was a really strong card and the company did an excellent job building to the PPV so it felt like a huge deal.  This was the best PPV of 1997 as far as I'm concerned and it began a string of SummerSlams that largely managed to outclass WrestleMania.

Best Match: Undertaker vs. Bret Hart - I like this match just slightly better than the cage match, though it's tough to compare the two.  But for drama and significance I have to go with the main event.  Of course if Owen hadn't botched that piledriver the I-C bout would take it.
Worst Match: Los Boricuas vs. Disciples of Apocalypse
What I'd Change: I'd have told Owen to execute a proper Tombstone, for Chrissake!
Most Disappointing Match: I guess Owen vs. Austin just because of how it ended.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Just how the end of the main event was booked.  Genius in its simplicity and execution.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
Better than WrestleMania 13? - Yes

SummerSlam '98 - Madison Square Garden - 8/30/98

The 1998 edition felt like a monumental event.  At a time where the company was still rebuilding from the roster holes left by Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and others, they made the most of things and began manufacturing new exciting characters like crazy.  Led by Steve Austin and the "Attitude" formula, the WWF was riding the biggest wave of momentum in a decade.

SummerSlam was headlined by a huge face vs. face match for the WWF Title - Steve Austin vs. The Undertaker.  This would be Austin's biggest Title defense to date, and the result was a helluva good brawl.  An accidental head collision early in the match knocked Austin loopy for a minute but he gutted it out and managed to deliver a main event-worthy bout that included an insane legdrop-through-table spot by Taker. 

Right.  In.  The Dick.

The semi-main spot featured an Intercontinental Ladder Match between the company's two biggest rising stars, The Rock and Triple H.  These two would feud on and off for the next two years, but this is the match that really catapulted both to the next level.  While not a gasp-inducing spotfest like the two HBK-Razor matches, this one featured gritty, hard-hitting action, some outside interference, and a nuclear crowd who cheered for the heel Rock just as much as for the babyface Triple H.  In fact this match led to a brief face turn for Rocky, before he swerved everyone and joined Mr. McMahon's Corporation.

The third-most hyped match was for the Tag belts, as the New Age Outlaws attempted to regain the Titles from Kane & Mankind.  Unfortunately this didn't end up being much of a match due to the storyline falling out of the two heels.  Kane no-showed the match, leaving Mankind in a handicap situation.  The Outlaws made rather short work of him, especially after Kane showed up and bashed Mankind with a sledgehammer.

Look, a UFH!  Get it??

The rest of the card featured numerous enjoyable little matches:

In a unique "Lion's Den" gimmick match resembling a UFC fight, Ken Shamrock fought Owen Hart in the adjacent Madison Square Garden Theater.  This was a rather short but fun battle where both guys made good use of the slanted cage structure.

X-Pac defeated Jeff Jarrett in a fast-paced Hair vs. Hair match, which resulted in Jarrett finally updating his image and ring attire.

Val Venis fought D-Lo Brown for the European Title in the show's hot opener, and the match was  solid if unremarkable.

Edge made his surprise PPV debut in a mixed tag match, teaming with Sable vs. Marc Mero and Jacqueline.  The match was more or less a rerun of the Mero/Sable vs. Goldust/Luna bout from WrestleMania, but this was actually better due to Edge's participation.

The only Fail on this card was an 8-man tag pitting The Oddities (what a pointless stable) vs. Kaientai (what a bunch of wasted talent).  Unwatchably bad, as was everything involving the Oddities.

Overall, SummerSlam '98 was arguably the best edition to date, with two four-star main events and a strong collection of undercard bouts.  The WWF was on an amazing roll with the success of Steve Austin, and continued to build for the future with numerous young stars ready to rise to the occasion.

Best Match: Steve Austin vs. The Undertaker - I like this just a hair better than the Ladder Match
Worst Match: The Oddities vs. Kaientai
What I'd Change: Not a whole lot, other than removing the aforementioned 8-man suckfest.
Most Disappointing Match: Mankind vs. The Outlaws - This was a bit of a bait-and-switch and sadly didn't amount to much.
Most Pleasant Surprise: D-Lo Brown vs. Val Venis - While no masterpiece, it was much better than I expected.
Overall Rating: 9/10
Better than WrestleMania XIV? - Yes

SummerSlam '99 - Target Center - 8/22/99

SummerSlam 1999 is one of those PPVs where you know you've basically been fed a platter of garbage, but you kinda couldn't help enjoying it.  This show was essentially the climax of the Vince Russo era as he left for WCW a month later, and the booking leading up to this show was sloppy and nonsensical.  At this point Titles were changing hands on an almost weekly basis so their value took a nosedive and it was sometimes even hard to remember who was a Champion.  The Steve Austin phenomenon had become a bit stagnant and it seemed clear it was time for a new star to break out while Austin took a little break.

That new star was Triple H.  Repackaged as a ruthless, cunning superheel, Hunter made a bold move to go against the grain and not rely on catchphrases or flash.  Rather, he went old-school and just became a big sadistic bully who liked to dissect opponents.

It seemed clear Hunter would be the one to dethrone Austin at SummerSlam, but then the booking took several confusing turns, starting with Chyna winning a #1 Contender's Match on RAW.  Then the following week Hunter got his Title shot back.  Then the following week Mankind was added to make it a Triple Threat (from what I've read this was due to Austin not wanting to drop the Title to Hunter, but I don't know for sure).  Anyway, that's how it ended up, and in a stunning publicity stunt, Jesse Ventura would return to the WWF as the guest referee.

The match itself was your typical 1999-era WWF brawl.  Wild action, little real wrestling, some shenanigans between Ventura and Shane McMahon (it was fun to see Ventura back in a WWF ring).  The match was ok but not great.  Mankind won the Title and then lost it to Triple H the next night, begging the question "Why not just have Hunter beat Austin," which lends credence to the above rumor.  Triple H attacked Austin after the match as a way to write him off the show for a couple months.


The semi-main slot went to a rather underwhelming bout - The Rock vs. Billy Gunn.  Gunn was another guy the company desperately wanted to be a main eventer.  He had split from the Outlaws and adopted the Mr. Ass gimmick (What does that mean exactly?  Did he love his own ass?  Women's asses?  Men's asses?  It made no sense.).  The match was RAW-quality and certainly not worthy of its spot here.  The stipulation required that the loser would have to kiss the bum of this overweight, middle-aged woman Gunn brought to ringside.  More of that classy Russo comedy.

Prior to this debacle there were a pair of good-to-excellent undercard bouts.

The Tag Titles were decided as Kane & X-Pac, an unlikely but awesome pairing, defended against The Unholy Alliance of Undertaker & Big Show.  The match was a really strong twelve-minute piece of storytelling, with X-Pac playing the usual underdog and Taker & Show teasing master vs. apprentice tension.

In a crazy show-stealing Greenwich Street Fight, Test fought Shane McMahon for the right to date Stephanie.  This was the first time Shane really demonstrated his uncanny showmanship in the ring, and he and Test tore the place down for twelve minutes.  Test picked up the win after something of a star performance, seemingly kicking off a big push.  Alas the company did nothing with him for months after this, and Stephanie ended up with Hunter instead (they didn't even do a proper Test vs. Hunter feud for Chrissake).

It's the Test Elbow!  Only hurts half as much as a Real Elbow!

The rest of the show had a bunch of okay matches and one stinker (Ivory vs. Tori).  In basically a duplicate of the previous year's Lion's Den match, Ken Shamrock fought Steve Blackman.  To change it up they added weapons to the cage, but the rules were confusing.  According to the announcers the object was to knock the other guy out, but according to the referee the object was to escape the cage.  Anyway, Shamrock won again, and this was nowhere near as good as its predecessor.

There was also a fun Tag Team Turmoil match involving a gauntlet of six teams.  Edge & Christian had a brief but blistering segment with The Hardy Boyz, and then went on to defeat three other teams before losing to the Acolytes.  The crowd's interest in the bout ended here, and the Acolytes beat Bob & Crash Holly to win the whole thing.

Other than that you had Jeff Jarrett vs. D-Lo Brown for the Intercontinental/European Titles and Al Snow vs. Big Bossman for the Hardcore Title, which spilled into the bar next door and was saved by Road Dogg's hilarious running commentary (seriously, at one point after a punch was thrown, Dogg went, "That was fake.").

SummerSlam '99 was far from a great show, but there wasn't anything really bad on it either, other than the Women's match.  However the overall direction of the company made little sense due to Russo's short attention span, and it was clear some shakeups were needed.  Still this show is light years better than WrestleMania XV.

Best Match: Test vs. Shane McMahon
Worst Match: Ivory vs. Tori
What I'd Change: Make the main event a singles match, and have Hunter beat Austin for the Title directly.  Add Mankind to the Rock-Ass match and make it a #1 Contender's Triple Threat.  Skip the Lion's Den match and have Shamrock fight Chris Jericho.  Finally, if you're going to have Edge & Christian almost run the gauntlet but fall just short, have them lose to the last team, not the second-to-last.  Way to make the final segment of the Turmoil bout totally anticlimactic!
Most Disappointing Match: Probably the main event.  Adding a third guy to this match made it feel very watered down, considering it was Hunter's first PPV main event and really should've been his big moment.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Test vs Shane - I couldn't believe how good this was.  It's something of a forgotten gem.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
Better than WrestleMania XV? - By a country mile.

Part 3                                                                                                                            
              Part 5

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