clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How ‘SummerSlam’ Became WWE’s Party of the Summer

Since 1988, WWE has christened ‘SummerSlam’ as its second-biggest event of the year, right behind ‘WrestleMania.’ How the hell did that happen?

WWE/Ringer illustration

I don’t know exactly how to describe or explain how SummerSlam makes me feel (although I’m sure there’s a German word for it). In the same way a photographer can’t stop finding sight lines wherever they look, the How Wrestling Explains–Kayfabemetrics crossover universe that exists in my head has made it so I simply cannot stop trying to figure out the ways in which any number of individual bits of wrestling ephemera interweave with cultural artifacts and concepts to create the fabric of society.

Not “this Hogan guy is sure copying a lot of Bruce Banner’s gimmick” stuff, either. Real broken-brain nonsense. “Arn Anderson :: Stop Making Sense as Sensational Sherri :: A Fish Called Wanda” levels of warped.

But SummerSlam? I got nothing. Not even something obvious, like blockbuster movies or the Olympics. When I think of SummerSlam, I don’t really think of … anything? This seems like a problem, especially when you consider the importance that SummerSlam has in our system (and wrestling fandom at large, if you insist on making it all about you).

To continue the example of an at-bat we’ve used before, if the importance of a win at WrestleMania is a grand slam, then a win at SummerSlam is a three-run homer. Depending on the outcomes of Saturday’s matches, we could see more movement on the Power Board in one week than we see in any other outside of ’Mania. A title match, such as the one that the Street Profits find themselves in this weekend against the Usos, could catapult a performer to the top half of our board in one night, while even winning a bog-standard tag match like the one booked between the Mysterios and the Judgement Day would have the same impact as the Mysterios winning a championship on Raw or SmackDown.

And this isn’t just an arbitrary distinction we came upon on our own. By nearly every statistical measure, SummerSlam is the second-biggest show of the year and the promotional push every year for the show supports this. How exactly, though, did we (and WWE) arrive at the idea that the significance of “the Biggest Party of the Summer” was second only to “The Showcase of the Immortals”?

It’s definitely not its place in the story of how WWE was built: WrestleMania was created to be the centerpiece of WWE’s year and act as a counterbalance to the NWA/Jim Crockett Promotions’ Starrcade. Survivor Series was created to (further) destroy Starrcade by threatening pay-per-view providers with missing out on WrestleMania if they carried the latter. The Royal Rumble was (and you may be sensing a theme) so thoroughly an act of sabotage against JCP that Vince ran the show on USA Network to make sure that no one would buy the Bunkhouse Stampede PPV the same night.

SummerSlam seems like it happened because someone in finance told Linda and Vince McMahon that running a PPV in August would save money on taxes.

The show existed almost entirely as an extension of what happened at WrestleMania, with three of the first four SummerSlams centered around molten-hot ’Mania main event matchups molded into tag-team-shaped disappointments for promotional purposes. The first main event featured the Mega Bucks (Ted DiBiase and Andre the Giant) vs. the Mega Powers (Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage) with a match that managed to roll the WrestleManias III and IV main events together into a sadness burrito. The next was a Randy Savage-Zeus (Last Name Withheld) vs. Hulk-The Guy Who Carries Hogan’s Bags tag team match to promote the No Holds Barred movie in the aftermath of the Mega Powers’ explosion at WrestleMania V.

And it went, I should say, extremely well (at least at the box office). I mean, like, “laugh yourself all the way to the bank” well. The first SummerSlam outsold that year’s WrestleMania (IV), and in 1991 it happened again while blessing us with the classic Ultimate Warrior-Hogan vs. Stereotypical Foreign Menaces and Their Traitor Friend match in 1991. (This marked a brief, final return for the show’s “thrown-together-for-tonight” tag team format after its one-year sabbatical for a decidedly mid cage match between Warrior and Rude.)

But even a cursory look at the cards makes it very clear that WWE didn’t really care about SummerSlam, but they didn’t need to. It was a nice show, where you got to see the main event WrestleMania feuds hit their cash-grab sequel stages. It wasn’t until 1993 when the focus of the show, along with the entire rest of the company, shifted away from the “Hulk Hogan plays his hits” style of booking and, at least initially, not toward anything better. They went from a tried and true, if tired brand of storytelling into, well, a real clusterfuck. Very little mattered and nothing was worth caring about.

I mean, nothing. At least not at SummerSlam.

Without the drawing power of Hulk Hogan (who, even when fans started to grow tired of his schtick, had a noticeable effect on PPV buys) SummerSlam was dead in the water. Unlike WrestleMania, which could get by on the charm of being WrestleMania, SummerSlam’s whole marketing hook was that, at one point, it was a date set aside on the calendar for WWE to put on what they insisted was a big show.

While the end result was never quite what they made it out to be, this marketing scheme worked when genuine stars were booked to end the show. But, and not to get too inside baseball, if Lex Luger knocking out Yokozuna with his metal forearm (while dressed as the lamest possible Captain America) headlines your show, it’s no longer a big show (and you might no longer be a big company). And although Taker vs. Taker from 1994 is at least campy fun (and because God loves wrestling fans, the show itself includes a running storyline with Leslie Nielsen trying to find the Undertaker before the main event), 1995’s King Mabel vs. Diesel match is a garbage fire. And the numbers reflect this. I mean, not literally with the garbage fire thing. Unless ...

The lack of quality matches or booking, coupled with the beginning of the In Your House era in 1995—which tripled the number of PPV buys a year—saw SummerSlam become just another show. Along with the rest of the company, it hit rock bottom in 1996.

Then, well ...

It’s difficult to overstate what Stone Cold Steve Austin did for WWE in the late ’90s. Beginning in September of 1996, almost everything he touched became a classic piece of wrestling history. The Rattlesnake’s resume includes two SummerSlam main events—which may seem like shockingly few until you realize Austin’s ride at the top is devastatingly short—but it was his nearly tragic match with Owen Hart at SummerSlam 1997 that helped change the role of SummerSlam forever.

Before this, SummerSlam was only really able to establish an identity viewed through the prism of other shows and stories. When, as discussed, SummerSlam’s connection to WrestleMania was severed—first by Hogan’s disinterest/desire to have the summer off, then by King of the Ring, and eventually the In Your Houses—WWE’s ability to generate any promotional momentum (or, as it is commonly known in the industry, “heat”) became almost non-existent as the show was stuck in a no man’s land of booking.

We couldn’t be easily made to care about what was going to happen and, because of the laws of wrestling thermodynamics, it became difficult to care about anything that happened after. If “heat” in wrestling were the equivalent of actual hot water flowing through a house—here’s hoping in the name of all things Trethewey that I’m explaining this correctly, but basically your faucet mechanically tells your water heating device that you want hot water and then it makes hot water happen and sends it back to you—SummerSlam was a constantly-running, oil-burning hot water heater like the one most of us had growing up. (I told you all my brain was broken, and now you’ve entered the This Old House part of the nexus.)

SummerSlam stood there, taking up a considerable amount of space in the basement of the WWE calendar post-WrestleMania and using up a disproportionate amount of promotional energy to keep things just warm enough for it to be useful when it was called upon. When WWE had to burn up nearly all of its momentum coming out of whatever show happened to be put before SummerSlam on the calendar (after those shows used up most of the residual energy from the shows that came before them), it meant that A) there was nothing left to built momentum after the show, and B) because the show had been hyped up so much, it provided the same kind compounding disappointment that a lukewarm shower is known for.

Much like its HVAC-equivalent, the only reason the system ever existed as such is because it was the best way to handle a need at the time it first arose. And the reason the booking philosophy was still in place is that it was too much of an investment to make a change after the idea had already been established for the purpose. But, like the rising cost of heating oil, Steve Austin’s injury forced the WWE to make a significant change to their post-SummerSlam plans for the year and, in doing so, shifted the course of wrestling history.

Because of Austin’s popularity and now-legendary toughness, that year’s SummerSlam and its related misfortunes became one of two key focal points of storytelling (along with Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart) over the next few months, making SummerSlam matter by itself for the first time ever. In doing so, SummerSlam went “tankless”—I swear, the extended hot water heater analogy stops here—as the company began to recognize that the show’s platform (carried again by a transcendent talent) actually afforded it the opportunity to, almost on demand, create heat out of its own storylines.

Even though it was obviously not intentional, Austin’s momentum was such that he literally built out the next two years of storylines between himself and Vince McMahon with a broken freakin’ neck. Instead of ending whatever WrestleMania started, or serving as a neon-lit alleyway between In Your Houses, SummerSlam began to take whichever performers and storylines were flowing through it and heat them up purely because enough people were watching that they immediately became stories that a considerable chunk of weekly WWE viewers cared about because humans like stories with conclusions.

Existing almost entirely on the other end of the expectation spectrum, the lack of pressure to create “WrestleMania moments” meant the creative team was able to experiment with the audience and try to gauge their reaction before pushing someone towards the top of the company at the following year’s WrestleMania.

Which is how you get Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton starting their first world title reigns to end the 2002 and 2004 SummerSlam shows, respectively. Big swings like these weren’t really feasible at WrestleMania (which was, at this point, essentially always trying to sell out stadiums), and helped to bolster the brand as a place where fun stuff happened.

By the time it was required to, the brand itself became strong enough to hold the weight of a Triple H-Great Khali WWE Championship match in 2008 without collapsing into the sea. (Okay, sure, that wasn’t the main event, but it needs to be addressed.) Over the decade and a half following Austin’s last SummerSlam main event, SummerSlam evolved into the nerd wrestling fan’s answer to WrestleMania’s more mainstream orientation.

This reached its apotheosis in 2013, when fan reaction to Daniel Bryan led to his main-eventing against—and defeating—John Cena for the world title, only to have Triple H (the match’s special guest referee) turn on him as part of an Orton cash-in. This made the transformation complete, as the key development coming out of SummerSlam became the central storyline for the entire company in the lead-up to WrestleMania XXX.

It was everything hardcore wrestling fans could ever ask for: long matches with workrate darlings working against (and overcoming) the best sports entertainers WWE had to offer.

And then a storm came and blew that all away.

After becoming a lapsed fan for a few years, coming back into the fold at a time before the WWE Network—or, if we’re being honest with how old we are, streaming as a general concept—Brock Lesnar existed as a myth. Doomsday personified, Lesnar looked less like a professional wrestler than a movie monster in trunks and was sold as such.

He returned to WWE in 2012 as a force of nature, but the second part of his career with the company didn’t begin truthfully until 2014’s one-two punch of ending The Undertaker’s WrestleMania win streak, and then just totally and completely ending John Cena (at least as The Guy Who Wins) at SummerSlam. Brock Lesnar’s 2014 WWE World Heavyweight Championship win marked yet another era in the show’s evolution and finally gave SummerSlam not just a signature match, but a signature performer.

But SummerSlam still exists, largely, without an identity of any kind. Nearly every other premium live event WWE regularly produces has, for lack of a better term, branding that is easily understandable to even the most “casual” of fans (i.e., people with lives who don’t read dirt sheets) through WWE’s propaganda marketing department and, more often than not, the name of the show itself. Elimination Chamber, Money in the Bank, Extreme Rules, and even the Royal Rumble and Survivor Series all, essentially, do what they say on the tin.

Even something like WrestleMania Backlash has the decency to now make clear for what and to whom Backlash will be enacted, while WrestleMania has become iconic as its own form of American Exceptionalism. But SummerSlam? The name/brand still doesn’t mean anything in particular, beyond a vague time and general idea of what activity will be taking place.

Though perhaps ultimately that’s what the show’s identity actually is: a time for the WWE to have fun with its fans while ignoring the day-to-day pressures of achieving wrestling-based world domination. Where the things that happen don’t have to matter in six months, but when we allow them to, can make memories that last a lifetime.

For some outside of the WWE Universe, that might remind them of seeing blockbuster movies in air-conditioned theaters on a hot day or watching the Olympics at home with your family, getting into trouble on a sunny day at the beach, or enjoying the company of friends and family at a BBQ.

For me, that feeling of nostalgia and comfort is something I get from watching SummerSlam. Or was it Grease? I told you my brain was broken.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.