SummerSlam is upon us, and thanks to the renewed Brand Split, the show promises to be one of the biggest in years. Already the card is taking shape and promises some exciting competition from both brands. There’s also NXT, which has added extra incentive for people to make the trip to Brooklyn to watch the big event live and in person; the now-annual “Takeover Brooklyn” is basically the yellow brand’s version of WrestleMania, where the most exciting matches and most important title changes usually take place. The WWE regularly hypes SummerSlam as their number two show of the year, only behind WrestleMania itself on the pecking order of importance. That said, in recent years fans have taken to putting the Royal Rumble PPV in that category, and the WWE has followed that trend, with this year’s Rumble being the first non-Mania stadium show in twenty years.
Ultimately it’s a purely academic question, whether or not SummerSlam is number two or number three in the pecking order, but it does speak to the show’s relevance. Is it a show that is “big” because it is big, or is it only becuase because there’s so much history behind it compared to more recent additions to the calendar like “WWE presents: Sexual Transmitted Diseases.”
Let’s look back, briefly, on the history of the show to see if it is still the all-important spectacle it was in its heyday…
THE TITAN ERA (1988-1991)
SummerSlam began for two reasons: In the long-term, Vince McMahon wanted to expand his successful PPV gamble, which had already seen multiple WrestleManias and a new Survivor Series show all do great business on the pay-per-view model. In the short-term, the WWF was in the midst of a year-long storyline that would see friends Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage become mortal enemies, doing battle at WrestleMania V. A big show featuring the duo as a tag team served to further the storyline on a big stage. The duo would show cracks in their relationship in November at Survivor Series and then again at the Royal Rumble, before finally splitting in February; it was important from a story-telling perspective to show them working together. SummerSlam accomplished that.
This being the Titan Era, the rest of the card was over-stuffed with mostly poorly-worked matches, a trend that would continue for the next several years. But in this era it was the main-event that mattered and Hogan topped the bill in three of the four shows, and each one was presented as a must-see WWF event. Survivor Series was, from the beginning, always looked at as a gimmick show, with its emphasis on elimination tag matches, and the Rumble was certainly treated as a glorified exhibition early on. SummerSlam was #2 by default.
THE NEW GENERATION ERA (1992-1997)
Bret Hart faced off against the British Bulldog for the Intercontinental Championship in the main-event of a new SummerSlam for a new era. Sure there was still a lot of the old era hanging around (look at the 1992 card and you’ll see a lot of fat to be trimmed) but it was clear that the company was moving in a new direction, where smaller “workers” would be given a bigger share of the spotlight. The business side of things may have been in a downturn, but the quality of the ringwork was improving every year. That’s important, because it gave what fans the WWF had left a reason to stick around; after all, the booking for the first half of the New Generation era was some of the worst in the company’s history.
In these years, the Royal Rumble was first given a reason for existing (granting the winner a WrestleMania title shot) and so the show naturally took on a greater level of importance. In fact it’s during these years where the three shows formed a sort of pyramid, with the Rumble kicking off the big story, Mania climaxing it, and SummerSlam dealing with the fallout. The show was still #2 but it was sharing that spot with the Rumble.
THE ATTITUDE ERA (1998-2001)
The 1998 event was given tremendous hype, with a killer theme song and tagline “Highway to Hell” and a monster card, main-evented by Steve Austin and the Undertaker. Those two were no strangers to wrestling each other, but after Austin (finally) won the big one they were kept apart as much as possible to allow the famous WWF/E hype-machine to work its magic. The show ended up netting 700,000 buys (in comparison to the 250,000 buys the 1997 event brought in, and the 750,000 buys that WrestleMania 14 had recently scored). A year later, the 1999 event was preceded by a week of promotion on MTV, as the WWF went all in on that demographic to ensure casual buyers purchased the show (they did). The 2000 edition saw the company work to put on a mini-WrestleMania with a second Hardys/Edge&Christian/Dudleys ladder match, a huge Benoit vs Jericho match 2 out of 3 falls match, an Undertaker vs Kane match that co-main-evented WrestleMania two years before, and a Rock vs Triple H vs Kurt Angle main-event for the ages. By the next year the WCW “InVasion” was in full swing and SummerSlam featured a duo of main-events that were big enough and hyped enough to carry a Mania: Kurt Angle vs Steve Austin for the WWF Title, and The Rock vs Booker T for the WCW Title.
If the New Generation Era had seen the Royal Rumble rise to challenge the relevance of SummerSlam as the second biggest show of the year, the Attitude Era was the four-year stretch where the August PPV reestablished itself, and turned the #2 show into “Summertime WrestleMania.”
THE RUTHLESS AGGRESSION ERA (2002-2007)
This was the era of the first brand split, the twilight of the Attitude Era and the dawn of the Cena years. It’s the hardest period of time to really nail down thematically, as it was a slow-transitional era, unlike the New Generation days which came about pretty abruptly as a result of the steroid scandal. The Ruthless Aggression Era were the years when the WWE was coming to grips with no longer being an it-thing and being forced to look for a new torch-bearer to define the company for the next generation. As it happened, that torch bearer would come from the B-show, Smackdown, and not Raw.
Interestingly, when you compare the Royal Rumble winners from this era with the brand that main-evented SummerSlam, the results are striking: Not counting 2002 since the Brand-split wasn’t in effect for the Rumble and both brands were sharing one world title at SummerSlam, Smackdown dominated the Rumble, with a SD wrestler winning the match every year from 2003-2007. An asterisk is applied to Chris Benoit’s win in 2004; though he competed for Raw’s World Title at WrestleMania XX, he was a Smackdown superstar when he won the Rumble. On the other hand, Raw’s brand main-evented every SummerSlam from 2003-2007. And since this was the era in which Smackdown was very much the B-show and Raw was very much the A-show, that tells you all you need to know about how important SummerSlam was.
THE PG ERA (2008-2013)
SummerSlam was StaplesCenterSlam during this era, as the PPV was hosted by the home of the LA Lakers five of these six years. John Cena was the star of the show too, as he main-evented four of the six events, albeit with a record of 1-3 (lolNexus) to show for it. The Royal Rumble made a strong case for the #2 show in this era, however, as fans were starting to grow tired of the sameness of WWE’s PPVs. SummerSlam 2008 featured a Hell in a Cell match…but it was between two wrestlers (Edge and Undertaker) who had wrestled fifty times over the past eighteen months. SummerSlam 2009 featured a TLC match…between two people (CM Punk and Jeff Hardy) who had been wrestling each other all spring and summer (SummerSlam would be their fourth PPV in a row). 2010 featured the Nexus match, which was hot and fresh and exciting until SummerSlam itself killed it; it gets a pass. 2011 was the always inevitable John Cena vs CM Punk title rematch that everyone wanted to see just not so quickly after the first one. 2012 was a fresh matchup, offering the “first ever” meeting between Brock Lesnar and Triple H, but the feud was dead in the water and fans just weren’t invested in it. 2013 was better as Daniel Bryan and John Cena locked horns.
But overall, SummerSlam just felt like a slightly-bigger PPV than what the fans had seen in July and what they’d see in September. The only show, beside WrestleMania that really felt different was the Royal Rumble. Of course, the Rumble had always been different, but now, in the face of so much sameness from April-February, the Rumble was an annual oasis for fans looking for something new to experience. It was clearly the #2 show to fans—the rumble netted more buys every year from 2008-2013—even if Vince McMahon himself didn’t see it that way.
THE NETWORK ERA (2014-present)
This era is the Brooklyn/Brock era, as “The Beast” has main-evented every show, with the past three emanating from the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. Thanks to the WWE Network and its “$9.99” subscription, it’s worthless to look at PPV buyrate figures; they’re still around because there are still some people who (A) don’t have high speed internet, and (B) love WWE enough to drop $60 on a show they can probably splice together from the past month’s worth of TV.
In this era it’s clear that WWE has resigned itself to the fact that fans love the Royal Rumble more and that we expect both it and SummerSlam to be equally remarkable. And for the most part the WWE has tried its best to make the show super-sized. The 2014 edition had, beyond its now-infamous Cena vs Lesnar main-event, a big Shield blowup match between Ambrose and Rollins, as well as Roman Reigns first one-on-one PPV match. 2015 of course had the Lesnar vs Undertaker rematch from WrestleMania 30, but also the Rollins vs Cena US Title vs WWE Title feud that was smoking hot at the time. 2016’s card was loaded from top to bottom, with three main-event worthy matches (Lesnar vs Orton, Cena vs Styles, and Balor vs Owens for the Universal Title). The brand-split era will help set the show apart from others on the calendar, but fans are likely to continue seeing the other inter-brand show (the Royal Rumble) as their preferred non-Mania event.
Looking ahead, it wouldn’t be a shock to see SummerSlam eventually transition into a stadium show on a part-time basis as the Royal Rumble teased becoming this year. Fans have shown a willingness to travel and fill up 70-100k-seat venues for WrestleMania for the past decade. Even during years where the company was clearly in a creative and ratings nosedive (2009-early 2011), WrestleMania consistently filled-up SuperBowl stadiums. The Royal Rumble has now pulled it off successfully too. SummerSlam might be next. Of course, in order for that to be a viable business plan going forward the company would have to take some steps to make SummerSlam special enough to justify 60k or so showing up. WrestleMania has that inherently, The Royal Rumble has everyone’s favorite match of the year. SummerSlam needs something.
What does it need?
(We’ll talk about that in the next article!)