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MR. TITO STRIKES BACK - Why WWE SummerSlam 2002 is the BEST SummerSlam of ALL TIME
By Mr. Tito
Aug 12, 2017 - 2:18:42 PM

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Welcome back to another column constructed by Mr. Tito exclusively here at / Let's take a break from the current WWE and step back into time, 15 years in fact. I am NOT a guy who likes to do retro columns and in fact, I frown upon them. I'm growing tired of all of the Top 10 and Old Show Review columns that I see many people try. Unless you can create a spin that makes those unique to read, if you've seen one Top 10 or Show Review column, you've seen them all... I'd rather write on CURRENT EVENTS and would like to be excited for the CURRENT PRODUCT as well. I barely watch older events on the WWE Network. Been there, done that.

HOWEVER - I want to make an exception to that and discuss in length and detail on what I feel is the BEST SummerSlam event of all time (it's not even close): SummerSlam 2002.

I don't know how anyone could debate it. SummerSlam 2002 is LOADED with great talent, great matches, AND the best results to match-ups all mixed into one. In fact, I'd argue that SummerSlam 2002 is a Top 5 WWE event, possibly Top 3. It is THAT good.

Why? Because it is the last "true" show that combines the Attitude Era and the remnants of Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) and World Championship Wreslting (WCW) into one. In addition to be a show that honors the best of the late 1990s and early 2000s wrestling, it's also a looking forward show by fully establishing Brock Lesnar as the #1 star of the promotion. And by fully establishing, we're talking the Rock passing the torch to Lesnar with a 100% clean loss to him. However, I'd also argue that SummerSlam 2002 was the best presentation of Rey Mysterio Jr. showing the world that he is back and about to have many great years ahead of him. On top of all of that, SummerSlam features the in-ring return of Shawn Michaels who hasn't been seen wrestling in a WWE ring since Wrestlemania 14 in 1998. Not only did Michaels return, he never looked better. His streetfight against Triple H won "Match of the Year" for many. All of the fears of HBK being rusty or overly protective of his back surgery were quickly erased.

SummerSlam 2002 is the last true "combined roster" show as well. Sure, there was a RAW/Smackdown brand split but both promotions fought over the SAME titles. After Brock Lesnar won the WWE "Undisputed" Title, he declared it to be exclusive to Smackdown only and would not travel to RAW. Thus, in the weeks to come, both brands began creating Titles that they didn't have. Triple H suddenly appeared with the old WCW big gold belt and was declared the "World Heavyweight Champion" of RAW and Smackdown introduced the Smackdown Tag Titles to set the stage for amazing tag team wrestling to come (Angle/Benoit, Edge/Mysterio, Haas/Benjamin, Guerreros, etc.). The brand split was solidified after this show and RAW/Smackdown became independent worlds. Between the depth of the Attitude Era roster, ECW additions, WCW additions, and the promoted Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental system wrestlers ("Class of 2002" - Cena, Batista, Haas, Benjamin, Lesnar, and Orton), the roster was full and merited that a split could occur.

One thing missing from SummerSlam 2002's "loaded" WWE roster was Stone Cold Steve Austin. That's the one big omission from this era to really stack this show. If you'll recall, Austin went home during June 2002 due to ongoing disagreements with the WWE Creative Team. Reportedly for the June 10th, 2002 edition of Monday Night RAW, Austin was booked to lose a match against Brock Lesnar. Austin argued that if that match or that match result were to ever occur, it should be built up and not just given away on a random edition of RAW without hype. This was more of a "last straw" following the issues he had with Wrestlemania 18's booking and growing suspicious of Triple H's growing influence backstage. Plus, as Austin admits, he had personal and health issues bothering him throughout 2002. The ironic thing is that for the 2 opportunities that caused Austin grief during 2002, wrestling Hulk Hogan and Brock Lesnar, it was the Rock who filled in both times and did killer business with both wrestlers. While the Rock beat Hulk Hogan, it was the Rock who put over Lesnar in a well built fashion.

But everyone else was there... As What Culture alludes to in their recent video covering this event (credit them for helping to inspire this column as well), this show is loaded with former and future World Champions:

- Kurt Angle
- Rey Mysterio Jr.
- "Nature Boy" Ric Flair
- Chris Jericho
- Edge
- Eddie Guerrero
- Christian
- Booker T
- Rob Van Dam
- Chris Benoit
- Undertaker
- Shawn Michaels
- Triple H
- Brock Lesnar
- The Rock

And not just having those superstars, as other shows throughout 2002 had those specific wrestlers on their shows... But the match-ups were nearly perfect and the results were even better. This show actually made a few stars become larger and allowed them to step up into the spotlight as many of the Attitude Era wrestlers began stepping back. For example, the 2002 run was the last strong run by the Rock. Sure, he had a mini heel run during 2003 which is a personal favorite of mine, but he had a bigger eye on Hollywood opportunities by then. With the RAW/Smackdown brand split fully solidified after this show, the new Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental system call-ups could easily step into those roles and become stars. It was then that the famed "Class of 2002" could freely develop into the long-term stars that you STILL see today. Brock Lesnar was obviously "the guy" after SummerSlam while Randy Orton and Batista would soon join "Evolution" with Triple H and Ric Flair while John Cena had complete freedom to develop his new rapper gimmick on Smackdown following the Halloween 2002 episode.

In my opinion, SummerSlam 2002 was the official end of the 1995-2002 era which featured the Monday Night Wars, ECW, New World Order, and Attitude Era. A new "era" had been created, though several wrestlers from the Attitude Era would keep hanging on for years and you'd see that staleness on RAW during 2002-2005 that caused a significant loss in viewership. RAW became the Triple H show where many wrestlers came and bowed down to his greatness with the exception of the guy who BEAT Triple H at SummerSlam 2002, Shawn Michaels. Meanwhile, Smackdown became the fresh show to watch with many new stars created and head booker Paul Heyman pushing harder for a stronger in-ring product. The result became some of the best tag team wrestling ever seen in a WWE bring because the TLC efforts during years prior. The Brand Split Era was different and acted as a transitional phase until John Cena could rise up and become the #1 guy. Cena was needed to rise to the top because the guy put over on SummerSlam 2002, Brock Lesnar, walked out of the company after Wrestlemania 20 during 2004. WWE became the John Cena show after that with a few other co-stars contributing (Edge, Orton, Triple H, etc.).

Let's talk about the matches...

The HOT OPENER was Kurt Angle vs. Rey Mysterio Jr.. Angle was in his peak as a performer. While he quickly learned the business during 2000, it was his feud with Steve Austin during 2001 that I'd argue was highly influential on him. That feud taught him better pacing and psychology that would give him his best matches, in my opinion, during 2002-2005. Angle started to have his own neck problems during 2003 but it was because of his work with Austin that he could keep working a style that was more psychologically based to allow him to work around that injury. Angle paced himself better in the ring... During 2000-2001, Chris Benoit had a strong influence over him by working fast and hitting as many moves in a short amount of time. The problem with Benoit is that he didn't take a breather to sell or magnify the move that he just did... Benoit just did another move and just kept aggressively going after his opponents without the crowd fully reacting to him (the great critique by Raven). Angle worked that way until Steve Austin taught him a better way to work with pacing and psychology.

If you watch the Mysterio vs. Angle match closely, you can see Angle carefully selling Mysterio's offense and Angle sold all of the Mysterio trademark stuff. It reminds me of the Mysterio vs. Dean Malenko matches where Dean carefully sold everything Mysterio tried in order to make Rey look great. In my opinion, Mysterio's career success in WCW is attributed to Dean Malenko selling his moves correctly and carefully while Mysterio's rebirth in WWE is attributed to Kurt Angle doing the same thing. I wonder if Dean Malenko gave any advice? Angle's work selling Mysterio's stuff was so convincing that the SummerSlam 2002 crowd fully believed that Mysterio had a chance to win the match. The crowd got louder and louder... Ultimately, Angle locked in the Anklelock and Mysterio tapped, but the fans in attendance appreciated the effort. Mysterio only grew as a babyface midcard attraction from there and was a HUGE part of Smackdown's 2002-2005 success. Teaming up with Edge soon after this, Mysterio would get more shots at Kurt Angle in tag matches and they were fantastic.

Next match was Chris Jericho vs. Ric Flair, and Ric Flair looked amazing for this match. He looked like the mid-1990s Flair by being in great physical shape, tanned, and had a good haircut during this period of time. It's like time stopped for him... And like Kurt Angle before him, Jericho was 100% willing to take anything Flair threw at him. Flair MURDERED him with chops, too. Just brutal... And there is Jericho, in the ring, taking each one like a man without flinching. Mind you with Jericho, he was just WWE champion earlier in this year and only lost that title at Wrestlemania 18. At SummerSlam 2002, he actually submits to Ric Flair's Figure 4. How many other Main Event wrestlers have gave up to that move? Not many.

Edge vs. Eddie Guerrero was next and it was solid... Edge had a lot of momentum as a singles wrestler that year and was peaking. He'd really show his stronger in-ring ability once the "Smackdown 6" tag matches began. Ditto Eddie Guerrero. Eddie had just returned to the WWE following his previous exit and appeared to be clean from those demons. Match took a moment to get started but once the wrestlers clicked, it's a sure sign of great things to come from both wrestlers. Edge won and he should... Sadly, after the great tag team feuds, the WWE didn't seize upon Edge's singles momentum from 2002 and then the neck injury happened. Meanwhile, Eddie was about to have his peak years of his career from SummerSlam 2002 through Wrestlemania 20 during 2004.

I wasn't too crazy on Unamericans (Lance Storm, Christian) vs. Goldust/Booker T. I felt that there was untapped potential in Booker T & Goldust, as they were a great tag team. WWE never fully pulled the trigger on those guys. Meanwhile, the Unamerican gimmick just felt uncomfortable and seemed to subtract from how good Lance and Christian were in the ring. Booker T would soon return to the singles ranks and would challenge Triple H for the World Heavyweight Title at Wrestlemania 19 during 2003. That went well, right?

In between matches, you'd have interactions between the General Managers of both "brand" with a very beautiful professional looking Stephanie McMahon and the former WCW head Eric Bischoff looking just like he did during the NWO era (jet black hair, leather jacket). They were entertaining, actually, as both were allowed to keep the assertive parts of their characters and appear like they were actually competing. How about that, folks? I'm saying positive things about Stephanie in a wrestling column.

I enjoyed Rob Van Dam vs. Chris Benoit for the Intercontinental Title. Just a solid match to help fill a Pay Per View card. Benoit is the perfect complementary match for Rob Van Dam as Benoit's energy will keep the match going and push RVD to his limits. If you like offense, you'll like this match. This match caused the Intercontinental Title to switch brands and it would spell the end of the IC title very soon as it was merged into Triple H's big gold belt to make that "legit".

Wasn't too big on Undertaker vs. Test... Following the Stephanie marriage to Triple H angle during late 1999, the WWE just never knew what to do with Test. Here, it just feels like a placeholder match to have Undertaker on the card. Undertaker was just starting to hit his stride with the Bikertaker gimmick and had an edge to it during 2002. He ditched the Limp Bizkit theme song and incorporated a new nickname as "Big Evil". I loved his theme music during this period, too, as it was a WWE produced effort that put some toughness into his character for this era. Undertaker would soon play an important role in Brock Lesnar's new reign as WWE Champion. Test? Well, he'd soon care about his "Testicles" (nickname given to his fans - seriously).

And now, onto the greatness of the show...

If you want to know what was "Feud of the Year" during 2002, it was CLEARLY Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels. Nothing is even remotely close. Shawn Michaels was clean and began appearing on WWE shows regularly as a non-wrestler. Little did anyone know that Shawn operated a wrestling school and was getting back into wrestling shape on the side. He appeared as a member of the NWO and then on one fateful night, a Degeneration X reunion was hyped for RAW with Triple H. Both came out to the awesome theme music, cut the usual promos in the ring, and after telling everyone to "suck it", Triple H turned! It shocked everyone, particularly on how vicious Triple H appeared towards his old friend. Then, Shawn Michaels was attacked in the parking lot only for Triple H to reveal himself on security camera footage. It pissed Shawn off enough to dare to return to the ring.

Heading into this match, the psychology was GREAT. Questions arose like the following:

- Was Shawn Michael's back capable of sustaining a wrestling match?
- Would Shawn Michaels have ring rust?
- Would Shawn Michaels survive a street fight with Triple H that was "unsanctioned" by the WWE?
- Is this a one-time thing or can Shawn actually come back?

That's the kind of storytelling and magic lost these days... Back then, you as a longtime wrestling fan were legitimately concerned about Shawn Michaels surviving this match. Anytime Michaels would take a slam or when Triple H would work on his back, you'd legitimately cringe! For all we knew, Michaels had a steel rod inserted into his back with a parts of his spine being fused with bone. And I legitimately related because I had scoliosis repair as a kid (2 steel rods for me), so thus seeing Shawn out there and potentially getting hurt was an actual concern for me. After you have your surgery, doctors strongly advise against certain types of physical activity because of the slight possibility that if the steel rod slips, it could sever your spinal cord. Seriously... So how could Shawn Michaels endure a Street Fight?

Well, he fooled us all... They fooled us all.

For almost 30 minutes, we were treated to an amazing match which many gave 5 stars as well as "Match of the Year" honors (the 2/3 Falls Smackdown match between Mysterio/Edge and Benoit/Angle won mine, however). It was a battle! Better yet, it presented us with the modern looking Shawn Michaels that we'd enough for the rest of the decade. Gone was more the high flying style that Michaels had during the 1990s and present was a more psychological style that helped preserve and protect Michaels as a worker and from injury. Additionally, the personal demons of substance abuse were 100% gone and he was fully focused on creating a great in-ring product. This was the beginning of the second chapter in Shawn's career and I'd argue that it's the better part of his career. The latter part of his career, in my opinion, elevated him up the ladder on all-time greats and places him as the best in-ring worker of all time. Just look at his Wrestlemanias following 2002, alone, and you'll easily see that.

Triple H deserves credit for this SummerSlam 2002 effort, too... Though many believe that he was motivated to outshine the Rock vs. Brock match that was going to follow it, but I also believed that he genuinely wanted to make Shawn Michaels appear great again in the ring again. It is easily HHH's best match since his early 2002 return that year and it's due to the vulnerability that he showed against Michaels in this match. By about the midway point of this match, HHH was selling that he was scared of his old friend and knew that HBK was back. It was awesome... And BLOODY, too! Many newer fans will probably watch this match and be shocked at how violent it was. However, the level of trust in each other displayed in this match makes it work. That, and the characters... You believed that Triple H was pure evil just as you believed that Shawn Michaels was a changed man. Psychology was amazing for this match and it holds up incredibly well. Michaels won the match with a roll-up pin, but Triple H poured on more violence by attacking Michaels viciously after the match. This would set up many more great matches for years to come between 2002-2004. The SummerSlam 2002 match, however, gave Michaels the confidence that he could "do it again" and following his excellent match with Chris Jericho at Wrestlemania 19 during 2003, he'd return to full-time. RAW was blessed to have him as most everyone else was sold as a non-equal to Triple H.

And they could have ended the show on that note... The show was already an "A" show. But 1 match remained and it firmly turned this show in an "A+". To me, I'm more pleased with this show than any other in WWE's history. Many praise how "stacked" Wrestlemania 17 was but to me, SummerSlam 2002 is better and is possibly the BEST OF ALL TIME because of the booking. What hurts Wrestlemania 17 is the bad finish with Steve Austin turning heel and joining Vince McMahon. SummerSlam 2002, however, creates a brand new Main Eventer before your very eyes because of the 100% clean and convincing win by Brock Lesnar over the Rock.

During 2002, many cite the Rock's match against Hulk Hogan as his most brilliant work of that year. Rock's selling made Hogan look legitimate again despite the bad physical shame (coming off a hip surgery) that Hogan was in during the match. However, I'd greatly argue that Rock's match against Brock Lesnar is the Rock's masterpiece and I'd argue that for his entire career.

Rock vs. Brock Lesnar from SummerSlam 2002 is the textbook example of how to (a) pass the torch and (b) elevate another wrestler to the Main Event. I'd say between Rock/Brock and the Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin masterpiece from Wrestlemania 13, those are the 2 matches that any wrestling school need to show to their student wrestlers. In both cases, Bret Hart and the Rock showed vulnerability to their opponents and actually adjusted that on the fly based on how the crowd was reacting. It's one thing to wrestle a big name but it's an entirely different thing to have that same big name make the other wrestler look convincing and legit. The bigger name star has to show fear that the up & coming talent is becoming better than them and is a real threat to take their spot. Bret Hart did that with Steve Austin during Wrestlemania 13 and the Rock transferred his spot to Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam 2002. That loss was definitive and made no mistake who was the superior wrestler... Or at least the Rock sold it that way.

The Rock was WWE Champion heading into SummerSlam 2002 and still in his prime. He was "the man" but he was also eyeballing more Hollywood opportunities. Meanwhile, Brock Lesnar was pushed as a Main Eventer from day one, one of the few exceptions to my usual role on how wrestlers get over. Lesnar appeared one day on RAW with Paul Heyman as his "agent" and just destroyed the likes of Al Snow, Maven, and especially Spike Dudley on March 18th, 2002. For the next 5 months, the WWE kept building Lesnar as an unstoppable force and because of his size, look, amazing looking power moves, the F5 finisher, Paul Heyman's work as a manager, and Brock's legitimate in-ring talent, he learned fast. By August 2002, fans accepted him as a top guy and the Rock knew it. Reportedly, there was some hesitation to put Lesnar over clean but the Rock insisted on putting him over 100% clean. The results speak for themselves.

If you watch Lesnar vs. the Rock, you'll see the Rock's brilliance as a performer that can make anybody look great before 2004. He comes out and he hears a mixed reaction by the SummerSlam 2002 attendance. Then as the match happens, he hears the crowd beginning to get further behind Brock Lesnar. Hearing that, the Rock adjusts his selling on-the-fly to make him appear more vulnerable to Brock and begins to sell that he's scared of Lesnar. The Rock made it look convincing that Brock Lesnar was superior to him even though Lesnar, that that point, was still a little green as a performer. It didn't matter... Rock knew what he was doing and sold extra for Lesnar because of the fan reaction. Rock knew that he took his character, particularly as a babyface, as far as he possibly could and that wrestling fans were probably wearing thin on that character. It was time and the Rock knew it. Rocky sold like a champion and not only just lost the match, he made Brock Lesnar look convincing as a top guy in the process. Rock's acting during and then after the match made it appear that if the Rock was ever granted a rematch, he'd lose. Brock had exceeded him, or at least that's how the master, the Rock, had presented it to fans.

These days, everyone is hung up on a World Champion dropping their title as a "put over" for another wrestler. No, that's not how pro wrestling works. It's about the psychology. Is the title win by the other wrestler convincing? Does the former champion show fear but also respect to the new champion? Do they sell it to fans that if a rematch does occur, chances are slim that they'd regain the World Title? Lastly, is the match good enough that it causes fans to talk about it for weeks, if not months? Everybody was talking up Brock vs. Rock and in awe that Brock had convincingly beat the Rock. For the rest of 2002, all of 2003, and then early 2004, Brock was the #1 wrestler in the company alongside Triple H. However, Smackdown out-rated RAW regularly during 2002-2004 and thus Brock can be argued as the top star during that timeframe. It all started with the transfer of power from the Rock at SummerSlam 2002.

The Rock was an incredible salesman at SummerSlam 2002 and made the wrestling world buy Brock Lesnar as a Main Eventer and World Champion. That's amazing considering Lesnar was only on the WWE Main Roster for just 5 months.

This was the beginning of Brock Lesnar becoming a major household name in the world. Being the top guy in the WWE from 2002-2004 and then he transferred that star power to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) promotion as a MMA fighter. Thankfully, he had legitimate success there to expand upon that star for a WWE return during 2002 once the MMA career was over. In my opinion, he's the guy that is truly selling the WWE Network by keeping his matches 100% exclusive there. He is very much worth the $3-5 Million that the WWE pays him annually in base salary.

Would he be as big of a star without this 100% clean and convincing victory over the Rock at SummerSlam 2002? I don't know...

SummerSlam 2002 deserves an "A+" grade which I also gave it August 26th, 2002. I watched the show recently on the WWE Network and it held up incredibly well. It is not just the best SummerSlam of all time, but one of the best WWE shows of all time. It delivers mostly from top to bottom while making new stars in the process. Furthermore, it's the true end of the 1997-2002 period of the business as the WWE took an entirely different direction after this show. With the existing direction having peaked, it was time for WWE to try something new and create brand new stars. John Cena, Batista, and Randy Orton would follow the big door that Brock Lesnar succeeding (which the Rock helped) opened.

We smelled what the Rock was cooking and he cooked up the next big Main Eventer for the next year and a half. Like the Rock, Brock Lesnar by 2004 wanted to see what "life after the WWE" was all about.

I STRONGLY RECOMMEND that you see WWE SummerSlam 2002 on the WWE Network, even if you've seen it before. One of the best WWE shows ever. Period. It is especially relevant now with Brock Lesnar about to defend his WWE Universal Title 15 years at SummerSlam 2017. Wow.

For the best MOMENT of SummerSlam, it's Miss Elizabeth from SummerSlam 1988... Ohhhhhhh yeah!


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