WWE SummerSlam 2002 Review feat. The Rock vs. Brock Lesnar

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WWE SummerSlam 2002

WWE SummerSlam 2002 is regarded as the best entry from the event’s illustrious history, and it’s easy to see why. A landmark comeback, the ascension of an exciting new star and several high-quality matches made this a classic card, and so it’s particularly worthwhile revisiting the show for a retro review.

Kurt Angle vs. Rey Mysterio

Kicking things off, we had the WWE PPV debut of Rey Mysterio, who had arrived on SmackDown the previous might and had already made a big impact. That he was opposing the well-established Angle instantly boosted his stock, and this opener was a great way to emphasise to casual fans that Mysterio, despite his diminutive size, could hang with the Olympic Hero. Rey surprised Kurt from behind at the opening bell (Rey noted that he was slightly late because he couldn’t find his mask under the ring, which could have created a memorable moment for the wrong reasons!), and from there the two men exchanged tons of crisp, quick and unpredictable exchanges much to the delight of the crowd at Nassau Coliseum. Though Rey was capturing their attention massively, the fans were still beginning to lean towards Angle and respecting him for his highly-skilled in-ring know-how, and therefore they cheered when Kurt put Rey away after an Ankle Lock. Despite the loss, Mysterio still got over huge here, and this should be remembered whenever a newcomer (especially one from a rival or previous rival promotion) loses in their first supercard match, because if their performance is strong enough, their stock will only increase regardless of the result.

Ric Flair vs. Chris Jericho

Chris Jericho had been traded to Raw a few weeks earlier, interrupting a planned major announcement from Ric Flair. Was the Nature Boy planning to retire before Y2J jumped him? We’ll never know. After further shenanigans which included Ric interrupting a Fozzy concert for the then-heel Jericho, we got this match here at SummerSlam. Flair was clearly past his best at this point, but he was still capable of having a decent bout with the right opponent, and Y2J was definitely able to put together something respectable with the Naitch. If you watch this with low expectations, you’ll likely enjoy this one. Surprisingly enough, not only did Flair defeat the much younger Jericho, but he managed to submit him with the Figure-Four Leglock, which was a rarity for Ric at this stage of his career. It was yet another PPV loss for Y2J, but he would soon rebound by winning the Intercontinental Title yet again.

Edge vs. Eddie Guerrero

In match number three, we had two of WWE’s rising mid-card stars in action. Edge was coming off successful feuds against Angle and Jericho, while Eddie had been traded over to SmackDown (the Brand Extension was undergoing weekly if not daily changes at this stage). Their bout was pretty good, but both men privately admitted that they were capable of better, which isn’t a bad thing by the way: if a feud peaks in the first match of a multi-bout series, then the quality level can only go down. When it starts off fairly good and it continues to become stronger in subsequent outings, it can only be of benefit to everybody. Anyway, this was another fun match to watch, and it allowed Edge to pick up another important win over a well-regarded performer after he hit the Edgacution DDT and a Spear. Latino Heat would win a rematch at Unforgiven, but Edge would win one final SmackDown clash which is remembered as a classic brawl to this day.

WWE World Tag Team Championship Match
Lance Storm & Christian (C) vs. Booker T & Goldust

At this time, the Un-Americans gimmick was really gathering steam; it was a scaled-down version of the Hart Foundation’s rivalry that pitted Canada against the United States, but it helped to make Christian, Storm and fellow member Test receive genuine heel heat, as well as giving them important spots on shows like this. Their opponents, Booker T and Goldust, were the surprise hit of 2002, as what appeared to be a thrown-together team got over massively due to their comedic segments, and therefore they were as popular here as almost anybody on the show. It helped that the two sides had chemistry, making this an exciting doubles bout, and one where the fans were really hoping for Booker and Goldie to win the titles. But they would be denied: Test interfered and struck his former tag partner Booker with a Big Boot, allowing Christian to sneak in and get the pin, much to the disgust of Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler on commentary. T and Goldust would finally win the belts later in the year at Armageddon.

WWE Intercontinental Championship Match
Chris Benoit (C) vs. Rob Van Dam

After a segment at The World involving Jamie Noble and Nidia that isn’t worthy of a recap here, we got to an intriguing styles clash between two very different performers. The back-story wasn’t much here, but it was still interesting: Benoit had defeated RVD for the IC Title on the July 29 Raw, but then he was switched to SmackDown, and he took the IC crown with him. Since the United States Championship wasn’t active at this point, it was decided that this inter-brand clash would occur to determine which show got to keep the IC belt. The action was hard-hitting as one would expect, and while they could have benefitted from more time, this event was so stacked that even a classic match would have likely gotten lost in the shuffle. In the end, Van Dam hit the Five-Star Frog Splash to reclaim his title, a belt which would be temporarily abandoned two months later anyway at No Mercy.

After the match, Eric Bischoff bragged to Stephanie McMahon about Raw triumphing over SmackDown. Stephanie simply sarcastically laughed and walked away. Clearly, the SD GM had something up her sleeve, and I will mention what that ended up being a little later on.

The Undertaker vs. Test

Ahead of the double main event, we had this minor grudge match. Undertaker was The American Bad Ass and had just turned back babyface, so with The Un-Americans running around and causing havoc, it made sense for Taker to take issue with their complaints, and it made particular sense for him to target the largest member of the group. This quietly marked Test’s biggest career match, but while he held his own for a portion of the contest, he wasn’t able to truly hang with The Dead Man. Even after interference from Christian and Lance Storm, Undertaker did enough to stay in the game for long enough that he found a way to overcome the odds, and he hit Test with a Tombstone Piledriver boasting plenty of height for the win. Taker would move on to face the WWE Champion at Unforgiven; more about that shortly.

Unsanctioned Match
Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H

Now, we come to why we’re really here. Shawn had retired for real after WrestleMania XIV due to a serious back injury suffered at Royal Rumble 1998. Since then, he had been the Commissioner, as well as making occasional appearances on Raw and at PPV events. An addiction issue contributed to him being absent from WWF television in 2001, but by early 2002, he was bouncing back, having worked on his personal problems with the help of his wife Rebecca, and having truly embraced God, he was a changed man for the better, having previously been a pain for people to deal with backstage. In June, he returned to WWE TV as a spokesperson for the nWo, and a storyline had begun concerning the new World order’s attempts to bring Triple H into the group. A serious quadriceps injury suffered by Kevin Nash on the July 8 Raw changed everything, and the nWo was no more. But that’s when Shawn had an idea.

He wanted to face Vince here at SummerSlam in a brawling-style match to get revenge, and also because he felt he may have been capable of that type of bout, having not wrestled properly since March 1998. Vince suggested that he instead face HHH. And so the plotline developed: it went from HHH potentially joining the nWo to HHH potentially joining Raw from SmackDown, and at Vengeance, with Shawn’s influence, The Game jumped to the red brand. The next night, a DX reunion was teased, but instead, HHH turned heel on Michaels, claiming that Shawn was a liability nowadays. Further to his point, a mysterious figure jumped Michaels in the parking lot to HHH’s disgust, only for Shawn to reveal that Trips had done the dastardly deed. Hence the challenge for this Unsanctioned match, and Shawn claiming that “I may not be able to wrestle, but I can still fight.” Considering the unplanned nature of things, the build-up was tremendous, and the promo video to the Jim Johnston song Fight is one of the most underrated packages ever produced by WWE. After watching that, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen, though my expectations were only at a moderate level considering that Shawn hadn’t wrestled for so long. It really was a question of how much did he have left in the tank, if anything?

As it was a brawl, Shawn wrestled in jeans and a white shirt, while HHH – now universally reviled again – showed up in his usual attire. Michaels held his own with strikes and weapon shots early on, and he even poised The Game for some Sweet Chin Music, but HHH turned the tide with a backbreaker. Normally, that would be a basic and smart counter, but here it was genius due to Shawn’s injury, and Michaels sold it as only he can; namely, with great anguish. That alone had fans worried, but worse was to come for HBK after HHH used the leather belt off Shawn’s jeans to whip him in the back, and after Trips brought in a steel chair, Shawn not only took a chairshot to the spine, but even a backbreaker onto said chair in a gnarly spot, especially under the circumstances. As Jim Ross begged for mercy on commentary, Michaels was busted open with a more traditional chairshot, and it seemed like Michaels would go down not in a blaze of glory, but in a manner befitting a worn-out candle. H positioned for the Pedigree, only to take a mighty low blow (Shawn punched him hard in the balls), followed by Shawn superkicking a chair into H’s face; a subsequent chairshot busted The Game open, and now Shawn was back on the offence.

Indeed, though H had some brief flurries, Michaels controlled the rest of the match for the most part. But not only was he dominating, but he perfectly answered fan questions about his condition, such as him skinning the cat on the ropes, and later executing a picture-perfect nip-up as Jerry Lawler yelped “He’s okay!” He also pounded HHH in the ring and around the ringside area, which included him clocking HHH with a boot as Michael Cole, the little coward, ducked! This had already been very entertaining, but it became a truly incredible spectacle when Shawn demonstrated that he “still had it” by introducing a table and a ladder into the contest, which saw him hit a big splash off the top rope onto HHH and through a ringside table, as well as him hitting an elbow drop off the ladder onto H in the ring. Considering that Shawn hadn’t wrestled for so long and with his back being under such scrutiny, this was nothing short of amazing. Michaels loaded up for one more slice of Sweet Chin Music, but HHH cut him off and went for the Pedigree to create great drama, only for Shawn to scoop him up and pin him for the unexpected win in a terrific battle.

Immediately afterwards, though, HHH whacked Shawn not once but twice in the back with his trusty sledgehammer, forcing him to be stretchered out; HHH left slowly and covered in blood, but with a sadistic smile. To quote what he would tell The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXVII, HHH may have lost the match, but in his mind, he had won the war. Ultimately, this wasn’t Shawn’s last stand (it had been promoted as a one-off), and he stuck around right up until WrestleMania XXVI in 2010. His rivalry with HHH was only just beginning, too, and they would meet again at Survivor Series 2002 inside the Elimination Chamber, though their quarrel wouldn’t officially end until Bad Blood 2004, nearly two years later.

More importantly, though, this proved that Shawn Michaels was back and better than ever. It was a while before he began wrestling regularly again, but this undoubtedly stole the show, and it was the best WWE match of 2002 bar none. Even a respectable performance from Shawn would have sufficed, but for him to deliver so much, having not wrestled for so long, was unbelievable. When you talk about the legacy of this show, you have to talk about this match, and while HHH played the villain perfectly, this was Shawn’s night. It’s impossible to imagine how the landscape of WWE might have looked if Shawn hadn’t returned here, or even if he had simply faced Vince as he had initially suggested (as an aside, supposedly at one point there were plans for Vince to face Hollywood Hulk Hogan here; that match would be saved for WrestleMania XIX).

Before the last match, fans needed picking up a bit after their returning hero had been stretchered out with a potentially broken back. So, of course, we got a short segment where Trish Stratus and Lilian Garcia out-smarted Howard Finkel, who was heelishly demanding the Raw ring announcer’s position at this point. It’s totally unmemorable, but in hindsight, this mini-storyline did mark the end of The Fink announcing shows on a weekly basis for WWE, only popping up for major events like WrestleMania from that point onwards.

WWE Undisputed Championship Match
The Rock (C) vs. Brock Lesnar

If this event had taken place in 2020, or even in 2005, Shawn vs. HHH would have likely gone on last. But because the importance of WWE’s biggest prize was still paramount at this point, The Rock and fresh face Brock Lesnar closed the show. Lesnar had arrived on the March 18 Raw and quickly taken the place by storm, before winning King Of The Ring to guarantee a title shot here. In the meantime, Rock had returned from one of his Hollywood-related absences and became WWE Undisputed Champion at Vengeance, thus setting up this match. The intention beforehand was to promote this as something akin to a major boxing match, with both men being shown going through their training regimes, building this up as a sporting occasion of high magnitude. Lesnar was still very new to the scene, but with Rock about to go back to Hollywood once again, a title change was expected. What wasn’t expected were the crowd reactions.

With Michael Cole and Tazz calling their first PPV main event (Lesnar’s on-screen agent but the real-life SmackDown head writer Paul Heyman was credited for this), Rock and Brock brought the fight to each other immediately, with Rock leaving the title belt in the aisleway before charging at The Next Big Thing. This was Lesnar’s biggest test to date and he definitely passed it; though he was still learning on the job, he was able to hang with Rock all the way through, dominating with power moves and explosive bursts of sudden offence. Rock, for his part, made Lesnar look as devastating as possible, but he also made sure to lay the smack down in order to satisfy his fans. Problem was, not many were in Uniondale, New York: despite a good pop as he arrived, the fans quickly began to back Lesnar, and most notably, they heavily booed Rock, which visibly angered him. When something similar happened at WrestleMania X8, it was deemed to be a wave of nostalgia for Hollywood Hulk Hogan, but here, it seemed to be the clearest sign yet that fans were becoming very upset at Rock slowly abandoning wrestling for Hollywood.

Nevertheless, this match was very good, and the two combatants worked well together, at one point executing simultaneous nip-ups in a spot that I’ve never seen since. Rock became fed up with Paul Heyman and hit him with a Rock Bottom through an announcer’s table, which did draw a big cheer; back in the ring, though, Lesnar hit Rock with his own finisher for a near-fall. Brock also kicked out of the Rock Bottom and avoided a People’s Elbow with a big clothesline, before twisting a Rock Bottom attempt into the match- and title-winning F5. Fans in Nassau Coliseum were ecstatic, and as Cole noted on commentary, Lesnar had officially arrived. All of his subsequent success in WWE and UFC can be traced to this moment where he became the new face of the company, and he would be near the main event level for the rest of his first WWE tenure, and almost all of his current, second WWE stint. As for Rock, after the show went off the air, he cut short a babyface farewell speech due to the hostility, and by the time he returned for No Way Out 2003, he had turned heel, becoming arguably the most entertaining villain in WWE history, which we’ll cover at a later date.

Going back to Lesnar, though: the next night on Raw, Undertaker and HHH battled to determine Lesnar’s next opponent, with HHH winning. But as the show went off the air, Stephanie revealed her devious plan, as she had signed Lesnar (and Heyman presumably) to exclusive SmackDown contracts, meaning Raw no longer had a World Champion. Undertaker also jumped brands and earned a title match against Brock at Unforgiven. To solve their dilemma, Bischoff brought back the WCW belt and renamed it the World Heavyweight Championship, which he awarded to HHH, supposedly because he was the #1 contender for Lesnar before he switched shows. The smarks weren’t happy with that at all, but they would become far more unhappy with HHH in later months, as I will cover when detailing other WWE events from 2002 and 2003.

As for WWE SummerSlam 2002, though, it’s clear to see why it’s so highly-regarded. It has two truly exceptional matches (Angle vs. Rey and Shawn vs. HHH), and the other six range from decent to very good, leaning more towards the latter in most cases. Add to that the fact that this was the second biggest event of the year, plus Shawn making a historic return and Lesnar marking his arrival on the main event stage, and the end result is the greatest SummerSlam of all-time. Watch it if you get a chance, but if you only have the time to relive one match, make it Shawn vs. HHH, as the night when Michaels once again proved to be The Showstopper.