Wrestling Review: WWE SummerSlam 2003 feat. Triple H vs. Goldberg vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Kevin Nash vs. Chris Jericho vs. Randy Orton

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WWE SummerSlam 2003

For some reason, SummerSlam is often the place where some of the more regrettable booking decisions take place. And WWE SummerSlam 2003 was a prime example with one particularly questionable match outcome dampening the spirit of what was otherwise a fairly good show.

World Tag Team Championship Match
La Resistance (C) vs. The Dudley Boyz

Kicking us off, Bubba Ray and D-Von were representing the United States of America against the French-Canadian titleholders Rene Dupree and Sylvain Grenier, who had just added American military man-turned French sympathiser Rob Conway to their unit. The bout was only average, due to the inexperience (and some would say the lack of general talent) of the champions, though bearing in mind that Dupree was only 19 at this stage, the fact that he was able to relatively hold his own in this environment was surprising enough. The fans in Phoenix, Arizona were hoping for a feel-good title change here, but instead Conway interfered disguised as a cameraman, blasting D-Von with his, erm, instrument to allow Rene to get the pin. Spike Dudley was also assaulted afterwards by the rotten anti-American heels.

The Undertaker vs. A-Train

If you think that WWE has spent far too much time trying to make Baron Corbin a big deal, then you weren’t around for the never-ending push of A-Train. The booking suggested that WWE was literally desperate to make the former Prince Albert a star, but despite some physical skills, his general appearance and simply boring character made it impossible for fans to invest in him, even during the era where they were more tolerant of these things. Fortunately, The Undertaker was not only able to give him a good match, but his legendary status ensured that this was the most interesting match of Train’s career up to that point. Undi won with a Chokeslam, and afterwards fans were “treated” to a catfight between Sable and Stephanie McMahon.

Shane McMahon vs. Eric Bischoff

You could argue that this bout had no reason to exist since the major issue concerned Shane and Kane (more on him later), but at the same time, Bischoff had irked the recently-returned Shane O Mac, not least by entering the McMahon house and essentially forcing himself on Linda. Eric even suggested that they did all sorts together (Vince approved this dialogue, by the way), so Shane came in and attempted to beat some sense into The Bisch. And he did, until we had a surprise heel turn by Jonathan Coachman, who at this point was merely a second-string babyface announcer. Somehow, he was chosen to become Bischoff’s new heel associate, and the two men not only destroyed Shane in what Eric had now deemed as a Falls Count Anywhere match, but he had the audio for Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler cut off as well. Shane was saved, however, by Stone Cold Steve Austin, who at the time could only touch someone if they physically provoked him first. Shane shoved Coach into Austin, so cue a Stunner, and Shane then had Eric do the same so that Austin (who played along with McMahon’s obvious strategy) could Stunner him too, all while he had JR and The King’s audio resume. An announcer’s table elbow drop by Shane finished off Eric. If you take your wrestling super-seriously, you wouldn’t have liked this, but if you’re into sports entertainment shenanigans, this was a guilty pleasure.

WWE United States Championship Fatal Four Way Match
Eddie Guerrero (C) vs. Chris Benoit vs. Tajiri vs. Rhyno

This brought together some of SmackDown’s better in-ring workers into one intriguing battle, and it provided a neat contrast to the previous bout between Shane and Eric. This was well-executed and saw all four men on their game, though it wasn’t a must-see match on the level of the matches involving the “SmackDown Six” (I hate that term) in 2002. Eddie retained his US Title (which had only been reintroduced to WWE the previous month at Vengeance) with a Frog Splash on Rhyno. It’s interesting to note how everybody’s career paths changed from this stage onwards: Rhyno slowly descended into a totally irrelevant member of the roster, Tajiri returned to the Cruiserweight division for a while before he too entered obscurity (after forming a combo with Rhyno, funnily enough), Eddie would immediately turn babyface a few days later to initiate his path to the WWE Title, and Benoit would drift for a bit before suddenly having a career resurgence in early 2004, culminating in a World Title win at WrestleMania XX. Four performers with different styles, of a fairly similar height, all renowned for their in-ring skills and their work ethic, yet two would flourish and two would flounder. You can draw your own conclusions as to why, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

We were supposed to have a match between Matt Hardy and Zach Gowen, but on Heat, Hardy accepted a forfeit win due to the one-legged Gowen having been injured by Brock Lesnar on SmackDown. Let me rephrase that: Gowen was brutalised in perhaps the most uncomfortable angle I’ve ever seen in WWE, due to the fact that a) he had one leg, b) he was dismantled in a very violent manner, c) he bled to a sickening degree, d) his real-life mother was at ringside to see it happen, and e) it happened on SmackDown, which was supposed to be the PG show during this TV-14 era. That the show has a TV-MA rating on WWE Network these days (a classification picked by WWE themselves) says it all.

WWE Championship Match
Kurt Angle (C) vs. Brock Lesnar

Next up, we had a rematch from WrestleMania XIX, though with a twist as Angle was now a babyface having returned from a serious neck injury in amazingly quick time, and Lesnar was the vengeful monster heel aligned with Vince (yes, the McMahons were all over WWE television at this stage). Their previous WM match is more famous, but their SummerSlam rematch is arguably the better of the two bouts because Kurt was healthy (well, healthier) and Brock didn’t nearly break his neck off a Shooting Star Press attempt, plus the crowd weren’t drained here, unlike in Seattle where they had witnessed several unforgettable matches in a row beforehand. This had a very technical focus and the exchanges were spot-on, with some simple yet very clever wrestling manoeuvres and holds throughout. A ref bump allowed Vince to interfere with a chairshot, after which Lesnar (whose leg had been targeted by Kurt, with an Ankle Lock being his weapon of choice, as Michael Cole shouted “Break his damn ankle Kurt!”) impressively hit a hopping F5. But Kurt survived, and a second Ankle Lock surprisingly submitted The Beast. Afterwards, Kurt hit Vince with an Angle Slam onto a steel chair, on his birthday no less (by the way, a post-show segment saw most of the roster celebrate Vince’s big day in comical fashion led by Austin; it can be found on The Stone Cold Truth DVD as an extra).

No Holds Barred Match
Kane vs. Rob Van Dam

This came at a time when Kane had recently unmasked, thus making him more maniacal than ever. Like many at the time, I was sceptical when they suddenly decided that Kane was losing the mask (which was basically his whole mystique and identity), but after he lost his head-gear (which revealed that his hair had been attached to the mask, making him initially half-cut and then bald), Kane truly lost his mind, going on a rampage in perhaps the best phase of his entire career, from lighting JR on fire to Tombstoning Linda McMahon. A showdown with Shane was on the cards but, before then, he had unfinished business with RVD. Unfortunately, this anything-goes match wasn’t particularly good, as Kane had a few slippery moments whilst Van Dam seemed to have lost his passion by this point due to some booking decisions that he felt were unjust. Kane inevitably won with a Tombstone to keep his heat (no pun intended) ahead of the forthcoming battles with Shane O Mac, but for RVD, this was not a happy time to say the least.

World Heavyweight Championship Elimination Chamber Match
Triple H (C) vs. Goldberg vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Kevin Nash vs. Chris Jericho vs. Randy Orton

Originally, the main event was announced as being HHH defending the WHC against Goldberg, but due to a torn groin for The Game, it was decided that the Elimination Chamber (which had debuted the previous November at Survivor Series) would return, but with Goldberg still getting his title opportunity (that he slipped during his entrance was not a good sign, though at least he laughed it off). Orton being in the bout was a surprise since he was very inexperienced on a major stage (he had spent months out with two separate injuries and only returned in June, still looking to justify his huge push as a member of Evolution), and the potential for him to stab HHH in the back here in order to win a World Title at the age of 23 wasn’t really explored. Meanwhile, HBK and Y2J would continue their feud here, and the latter had recently beaten Nash in a Hair vs. Hair match, giving him a trim ahead of Big Kev’s role in The Punisher.

This was a match of two halves, with the first half preceding Goldberg’s involvement, and the second half being all about Da Man. Michaels and Jericho started things off, with Orton and Nash coming in next. Nash dominated when he arrived, busting Y2J open along the way, but a sudden superkick by his presumed ally Shawn allowed Chris to roll him up and eliminate him. A furious Nash responded with Jackknife Powerbombs to Randy, Shawn and Chris, before walking off in a huff in what would be his last WWE appearance until Royal Rumble 2011. In between, though, HHH was drawn as #5 (and was wearing cycling shorts here in a strange visual, even if it was due to his injury which was clearly the case) but was immediately superkicked by Michaels to leave him laying in his own pod.

This set the stage for Goldberg to come in last, and for a few minutes, he put on the best performance of his first WWE tenure. He absolutely destroyed all in sight, with a Spear to send Orton on his way, a cool-as-hell Spear to Y2J through a Chamber pod (as JR went crazy on commentary to sell this as a huge spot, which was his forte), a Spear and Jackhammer to eliminate Michaels, and the same combo to beat Y2J, leaving Goldberg alone with HHH, who was still down in his own pod. Ric Flair on the outside managed to shut tight HHH’s zone, allowing The Game to stall and give Goldberg the bird. Da Man responded by literally booting in the glass frame and pummelling HHH with punches, as well as whipping him into the chain wall to bust him open. In the ring, Goldberg poised himself for a Spear, but Flair slipped in a sledgehammer which allowed HHH to intercept him with a blow to the skull, earning himself the cheap pinfall win. Afterwards, Evolution ganged up on Goldberg to destroy him with a sledgehammer, busting him open badly to end the show.

The idea was to give fans further reason to back Goldberg’s cause, saving his big moment of dethroning HHH (who had been World Champion since Armageddon the previous December) for Unforgiven the next month, by which time Tripper would be ready for that big singles showdown. And if it had been any other challenger, perhaps this would have worked. But because it was Goldberg, whose aura relied on his invincibility, having him lose to a single sledgehammer shot (even with it not being a clean ending by any means) took a lot of the wind out of his sails. If Goldberg had already been a champion in the company, perhaps it would have been greeted more warmly, but since he had yet to lift a top title in WWE, this really did set him back so far that he would not be the same again in WWE, at least during this run. Sure, he won the gold a few weeks later and held onto it for a few months, but any chance of Goldberg being WWE’s true number one babyface was severely harmed by this booking decision. That the beneficiary was HHH, who by this point fans legitimately loathed because his alleged backstage clout and desire to beat everybody no matter how popular they were, only enraged people even more. So, while the booking was understandable, the players and their circumstances meant that rather than causing heel heat for HHH, it only served to genuinely anger those who were fed up of him. It isn’t quite WM XIX against Booker T on the scale of HHH victories that were just flat-out wrong, but it’s damn close.

This ending overshadowed what had been an exciting Chamber match, and what was a fairly enjoyable PPV. It couldn’t compare to the classic SummerSlam card from the year before, but Angle vs. Lesnar was very good, the four-way had its moments, Shane vs. Eric was a spectacle of sorts, and the main event was thrilling until the final few seconds. Its reputation is hindered by how it ended, but WWE SummerSlam 2003 is still a card that is worth checking out from a memorable period in the company’s history (and it also had a banger of a theme tune in the form of St. Anger by Metallica).