Wrestling Review: WWF SummerSlam 1997 feat. The Undertaker vs. Bret Hart

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WWF SummerSlam 1997

In this retro review, we are looking back at WWF SummerSlam 1997, a pivotal night in what was a pivotal year for the company. Not only was the show exciting and unpredictable, but it featured several key moments that would have long-lasting effects, ultimately having a great impact on the future of the organisation.

Steel Cage Match
Mankind vs. Hunter Hearst Helmsley

Kicking things off was the latest chapter of the engaging feud between Mick Foley and the soon-to-be Triple H. This was their third PPV match in a row, following their battles at King Of The Ring and Canadian Stampede, and this time they were locked inside the blue bars. This was one of the last times we got to see the old-school version of the cage in the WWF; Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre 1999, Edge vs. Christian at Rebellion 2001 and a couple of Raw bouts would be the only remaining appearances for the iconic structure. Anyway, this was a perfect opener for a card held at this point in time, when the WWF was starting to push the envelope more and more while still offering strong in-ring action and characters with enough appeal to keep younger viewers invested. As was the norm, Mankind took more than his fair share of brutal blows here; Chyna, managing Hunter at ringside, caught Mankind with a ball shot as he tried to climb over, but that was topped by her slamming the cage door on his masked head incredibly hard, understandably leaving him in severe pain. Helmsley also hit a huge suplex from near the top of the cage. However, this would prove to be Mankind’s night; after he sling-shotted Hunter into the cage, knocking Chyna to the floor, he was about to win via escape, only to remove his mask, climb back up, rip open his shirt and hit a huge diving elbow onto Hearst a la his hero Superfly Jimmy Snuka (which was one of the topics covered in his memorable sit-down interview with Jim Ross a few months earlier). Fans reacted huge to this, and they did so again when Mankind did escape to win for real. Afterwards, his foot began tapping, and he rose to his feet not as Mankind but as Dude Love, with the funky music playing as he left the Continental Airlines Arena.

Brian Pillman vs. Goldust

The second match was something totally different, as it represented a straight singles match albeit with an increasingly personal grudge. This was the first of several bouts on the show involving a member of The Hart Foundation where one or more of the participants had made a vow in the event of a defeat or a happening, not all of whom were Hart associated. In this case, Pillman had vowed to wear a dress if he lost to the Golden One. At this point, Goldust was riding a wave of momentum, and his once-despised character had become something for fans to rally behind, partly because he had started to act more like Dustin Rhodes/Runnels, bringing his wife Terri (Marlena) and daughter Dakota onto television with increasing regularity. The Loose Cannon wasn’t interested in bonding with the family man, though, instead preferring to torment him and his family. That proved to be his downfall here, as Marlena passed Goldust a loaded purse to clock Brian with for the victory. This meant that Pillman would face the humiliation of having to wear a dress, though as things would turn out (which we’ll cover in a future retro review for Ground Zero), Brian would heap much greater problems upon his opponent.

The Legion Of Doom vs. The Godwinns

Hawk and Animal were an underrated part of the WWF landscape in 1997; demonstrating more moves, more selling and more speed than in their late 1980s/early 1990s heyday, they were able to remain relevant and popular during a major transitional phase for the WWF (things would deteriorate greatly for the duo once they became LOD 2000, but that’s another story). In contrast, The Godwinns had not long turned heel (actually due to LOD accidentally breaking Henry Godwinn’s neck, which provided the basis for this contest), and though they would win WWF Tag Team gold two months later and would remain on television for a while in various roles, it seemed like they were a negative sign of the increasingly-passé New Generation at this stage. Still, if you put two brawling-style combos in the ring together, chances are that you’ll get a slobberknocker that would make Jim Ross’ mouth water, and that’s what we got here. In the end, The Road Warriors triumphed by hitting heel Henry with a spike piledriver to a rapturous response. If you think that was a bit snide for babyfaces, remember that this was 1997 WWF, where the heroes increasingly provided traits that would be assumed for anti-heroes.

WWF European Championship Match
The British Bulldog (C) vs. Ken Shamrock

After an attempted million dollar giveaway (years before Vince McMahon launched McMahon’s Million Dollar Mania) to celebrate WWF wrestling returning to New Jersey (there’s a much bigger story to this, though I don’t have the space to cover it here) that also marked Todd Pettingill’s last appearance on WWF programming (damn, are we ever going to get to the next match?), we had Davey Boy Smith facing what seemed to be a natural opponent in terms of style and intensity in The World’s Most Dangerous Man, who at that point was still a fresh-faced newcomer. Here, the story was that Bulldog would have to eat a can of dog food if he lost his title, and it seemed a likely outcome that we would have a new champion here. But it wasn’t to be, though there’s more to the story than that: Shamrock snapped, as he often did, assaulting Bulldog and the referee to cause a disqualification win for Davey Boy, but he wasn’t through, as he submitted Bulldog to the point where he passed out and then suplexed a bunch of other refs and officials as he screamed at the top of his lungs, much to the appreciation of an audience that were well into the WWF product. Incidentally, if any Hart Foundation member lost, Jim Neidhart had vowed to shave off his beard, but he didn’t appear on TV again for two months, and when he did – ta da! – his beard had grown up (wink, wink).

Eight-Man Tag Team Match
The Disciples Of Apocalypse vs. Los Boricuas

One of the longer-running mid-card storylines during this time concerned a gang war between The Nation Of Domination (led by Faarooq), The Disciples Of Apocalypse (led by former Nation member Crush) and Los Boricuas (led by another Nation alumni in Savio Vega). On this night, it was the bikers and the Puerto Ricans that would clash, but bear in mind that only Savio and Crush had been known to the WWF audience under their current names as recently as early June 1997, and that depending on your point of view, either one or neither of those were deemed to be a great performer in the ring. The upshot was that nobody really cared about this match, as it felt like a real filler attraction. Interest peaked when the Nation (which included Ahmed Johnson, who had recovered from one of his many injuries) walked through the crowd to ringside, turning the eight-man match into a twelve-man brawl. Somehow, this didn’t lead to a no-contest decision, and instead, Chainz was pinned after a Pearl River Plunge on the floor by Ahmed; afterwards, the scrap continued backstage, and the rivalry would go on for a good while longer. Amidst all the chaos, the Nation would gain a new member eight days later by the name of Rocky Maivia, whose catapult into mega-stardom began with him joining the NOD. Who said that this gang warfare storyline sucked?

Intercontinental Championship Match
Owen Hart (C) vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin

One of the night’s two major matches occurred here, and in the case of this contest, nobody could have foreseen what was to come. It had perhaps the most ridiculous forfeit stipulation of the evening, in that Austin would have to kiss Owen’s ass if he failed to win; however, it matched his anti-establishment character at the time, making him someone unlike anything the WWF audience had ever witnessed. And true to form, he was over like rover here, not to the level that he would be in late 1997/early 1998, but he was clearly the next big superstar in the making for the company at this time. Owen was a great opponent for Austin, being that he was arguably the second top heel in the Federation, and someone whose in-ring skills were of a high level, meaning that he and Steve were capable of putting on a show-stealing battle. That was looking to be the case, with around 15 minutes of high-intensity action, but then disaster struck. Owen hit Austin with a Tombstone Piledriver (itself an unusual decision, given that using finishers belonging to other wrestlers didn’t happen in 1997), and the plan was for Austin to kick out valiantly, before (either immediately or a few minutes later) hitting a Stone Cold Stunner for the win. But because Owen hit the move sit-out style instead of going to his knees in the manner that The Undertaker or Kane would, Austin was dropped right on his head, essentially crushing his vertebrae. Unable to move at all initially, Austin told referee Earl Hebner to inform Owen of this, allowing Hart to buy some time by taunting, though there was a real fear that Austin wouldn’t get up at all, like, ever. Thankfully, Austin did regain movement in his arms and legs just enough that he was able to call an audible, thus allowing him to roll up Owen for the win. It may not have looked pretty at all, but what else could they do? And fans popped big-time for the victory, though Austin was helped out by officials as Vince on commentary noted that “Austin is hurt, and hurt badly.”

This would prove to be a milestone in an already-eventful year on several fronts. The injury meant that Austin was physically never the same again; though he managed to recover in time to wrestle again at Survivor Series (albeit by greatly modifying his style in the wake of medical advice telling him to never compete in the ring), his neck would be like a black cloud hanging over him, thus leading to major surgery in late 1999. Once he returned, he was as close to his old self as he could be, but after an incredible year or so following his return, his neck began flaring up once more, around the same that creative dissatisfaction led him to walk out. He would ultimately return for two basic bouts before one final proper match against The Rock, and his career was over. Who knows how long Austin would have wrestled had this incident not occurred; someone as proud and self-critical of his own work as Steve would not have carried on if he didn’t feel that his skills were up to scratch anyway, nor would he have wrestled into his mid-40s and beyond just for the paycheck. But needless to say that his career was greatly shortened (and came close to immediately ending) as a result of what happened here. Owen was devastated, and according to Bret Hart he was ravaged with guilt, but Austin has stated that Owen had never really apologised to the degree that he felt was appropriate, which makes it sadder that less than two years later, Owen himself died in a tragic accident at Over The Edge 1999.

In terms of Austin’s character, however, the near-paralysis actually aided his popularity. Because he was prevented from competing, yet was still able to appear on the weekly shows in line with fans being desperate to see him, Austin used this to channel his rage as a personality, thus leading him to start hitting Stunners on non-wrestlers like JR, Commissioner Sgt Slaughter, Jerry Lawler and, yes, Vince McMahon to drop the first major hint of the greatest rivalry in wrestling history. By the time he was cleared to compete, Austin had gone from a future World Champion to the potential next icon of the industry, and further shenanigans in the months that followed would propel him to even greater stardom. So, while the botched piledriver shortened his career and left his neck in a mess physically, it actually ultimately helped him to become a much bigger fan favourite, and in a roundabout way, it actually helped him. Nevertheless, if Austin had his way, this near-calamity would never have taken place, and it would have been a straight-forward victory for Stone Cold.

WWF Championship Match – Shawn Michaels is Special Guest Referee
The Undertaker (C) vs. Bret Hart

At times, The Undertaker felt like a champion without a challenger, given the second-rate feel of his opponents’ chases for the gold, as well as the ongoing build to what would be the arrival of Kane. In the meantime, though, the real story was the America vs. Canada feud, with Canadian hero/anti-American villain Bret Hart right at the epicentre. So, their paths colliding here made for a big-time main event, enhanced by the special referee being Bret’s detested rival Shawn Michaels, at a point where their real-life rivalry had led to an actual dressing room fight. The story here was that Bret would never wrestle in America again if he lost, while HBK had agreed that he couldn’t wrestle in America either if he favoured Taker in any way. This was a superbly-worked old-school contest, with strong psychology and logical moves and attacks combining with modern intensity and increased realism. Shawn, who had been a babyface since April 1995, ejected both Paul Bearer and the duo of Owen and Pillman from ringside before they could cause problems, though it led him to be off the mark for more than one pinfall attempt. In the end, Bret brought a steel chair into the ring which Michaels tried to remove from his person; Hart responded with a clear-as-day (mouthed, anyway) “F–K YOU!” and a spit to the face, which saw Shaw retaliate by swinging the chair, only to clock Taker instead (and he caught him hard too). As Shawn mouthed “S–T!”, Bret covered a fallen Undi’, and Shawn had no choice but to count the three. Bret was crowned as the new WWF Champion (and only the second man to win five such prizes), as fans pelted the ring with garbage while Bret and his teammates celebrated; in the meantime, Shawn had legged it out of the arena, followed by a very angry Taker.

The fall-out of this was almost as big as that of the Owen-Austin bout, if not more so. Michaels would go on to turn heel and feud with Undertaker, which not only led to the formation of D-Generation X but the first ever Hell In A Cell match, as well as being the basis for the debut of Kane. Shawn’s ties with the Harts would continue, and this included the notorious One Night Only controversy involving Shawn and The British Bulldog, which remains a chord-striker with fans to this day. But perhaps the crucial element concerned Bret becoming WWF Champion, not so much because he held the title, but because he was in possession of the title when, less than two months later, Vince informed Bret that he could no longer afford his contract and advised him to start speaking to WCW again about possibly switching sides. One thing led to another, and before you know it, the Montreal Screwjob had occurred at Survivor Series. All of this happened in little more than three months, and all as a result of the outcome to this highly-enjoyable main event match.

Although die-hards prefer Canadian Stampede, I prefer SummerSlam when it comes to a strong, all-action WWF PPV from 1997 that truly reflected the changing times for the Federation. The New Generation was being phased out, and the seeds were being sown in increasing numbers for the Attitude Era, a process which would be sped up even more in the weeks that followed this card. Three of the matches are well worth watching, with only one real dud amongst the other four bouts, and the last two matches would prove to be massively important in terms of shaping the future of the company. If you have never seen it before, I strongly recommend that you watch SummerSlam 1997, and in particular the Mankind-Hunter, Owen-Austin and Undertaker-Bret matches.