People have differing reasons for their preferences. It’s become cache to speak of WWE’s SummerSlam August pay per view (PPV) event in reverential terms, because in recent years, it’s often been the best event of that respective 12 month span. In my own case, however, SummerSlam has always been my favorite show, or it has been since I was ten years old. In WCW it was always Halloween Havoc. In WWF(E), it’s been the summer tradition. The reasons why could fill a volume, but one specific concept has emerged in many of my favorite SummerSlam memories, and it could again play a role tonight in Brooklyn.
This is the story of five openers. Regardless of the rest of the card, which has varied on this show from excellent to pedestrian, these opening matches, which are just a few examples of many potential instances, have set the tone for a night I’ve always found a way to appreciate as a wrestling fan.
1989 was my first SummerSlam as a fan, although when I was nine (88) I did follow the main event angles. "Feel the Heat" in the Meadowlands was the first non-WrestleMania my parents allowed me to order. It was a Monday night and I invited all my friends over for a party and we watched the show. Tony Schiavone was on the call with Jesse Ventura, and I was absolutely engrossed in Rick Rude vs. the Ultimate Warrior, still seething after Warrior was cheated by that jerk, Bobby Heenan, at WrestleMania V. Roddy Piper’s "bottoms up" moment was big, but the night started with one of my all-time favorite wrestling matches.
BRAINBUSTERS VS. HART FOUNDATION (1989)
I grew up in the south, have never lived higher than Virginia on the map, and thus I spent my formative years watching Jim Crockett Promotions first, Vince McMahon second, and Bill Watts, the Von Erich’s, or Gagne’s crew third. When Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard appeared in the WWF, I couldn’t believe my eyes. No, at ten years old, I wasn’t a subscriber to the Observer yet and still believed gosh darn it. This was a non-title match, which would draw all sorts of ire today, because the Champions still won the match, but I didn’t give a damn. This was a masterpiece of psychology. Tully did his corner whip shoulder into the buckle sell. Hart did his sternum sell and the challengers dominated much of the match, which ignited the crowd. The moment that stands out most though, was Arn Anderson and his trademark, patented double down spot. He fires someone off, spins and gets confused where they are, and the opponent crashes into his back, the heads smack off one another, and both go down. Arn takes a face bump, hard, bending at the knee and just looking like he’s finished. Such a great spot, every single time he did it.
We had blind tags and chicanery and yes, the Busters went over as the referee’s back was turned. I still get warm fuzzies every single time I turn this match on, which is quite often. The crowd would get their baby win back in the next match as Dusty pinned Honky after HTM took the guitar shot himself and momentarily told Sean Mooney "these people are here…here to hear me sing" and believed he was Elvis Presley. God I love pro wrestling.
POWER & GLORY VS. THE ROCKERS (1990)
I can’t describe how much I adore this match. It was a complete beat down by the heels, but the story it told that explained the "why" of the proceedings was masterful. P&G are underrated, even though it was a short lived gimmick. Sometimes, it isn’t about the match, it’s about the fine print of the tale. In this case, with Roddy Piper on commentary along with Vince McMahon, we all witnessed a true work of art. The heels made their entrance and awaited the Rockers. As Shawn and Marty approached ringside, they attacked Michaels. It was two on one basically from start to finish, which put Marty over more than the loss could ever hurt him. Every hope spot meant twice as much because he was so outgunned. Every time Michaels tried to get up, they’d take him down, always attacking the knee. At one point, he was basically tied to the ring post.
Sure, later we’d find out HBK was injured and this was done to give him time off, but again, I was 11 and this was brilliant. I was pleading for Shawn to help or for the stupid referee to help or for Marty to somehow take down either of the huge men in front of him. The commentary was strong and emotional and the match worked. I loved the match and loved the show. The Harts worked Demolition in a two out of three falls match, Perfect jobbed to Kerry Von Erich in a fast showcase, and the show seemed to be moving at an incredible pace. My favorite small moment: Vince McMahon talking about the Warlord after he broke a count by reaching the ropes. "My goodness, how long are that man’s legs?"
HAKUSHI VS. 1-2-3 KID (1995)
SummerSlam 1995 wasn’t regarded as a great show overall, despite featuring a world-beater ladder match between Scott Hall and Shawn Michaels. That said Hakushi and Kid put on a heck of a show in the opener. High spots galore, but a sensible flow to the proceedings, and with the exception of the IC Title match, it’s the one thing I remember from that show. Kid was coming into his own as a singles performer and Hakushi, who faded away from WWE rather quickly, showed up in a big way. I don’t have as much to write about this one, but again, it set the stage for a solid crowd response all night long. SummerSlam openers seem to mean more, at least to me as a fan, than anything else. Perhaps it’s because of that night in 1989. That’s for a therapist to decipher before prescribing me Zoloft.
In reality, SummerSlam 1995 was a brutal show. Outside of the opener, the ladder match, and…well, the ladder match, there was nothing happening. Hey, Sunny was in her prime and she was a smokeshow, so there’s something.
TRIPLE H VS. MANKIND (1997)
I remember fondly being at a friend’s house as a group of us settled in for SummerSlam in 1997. At the time, though I had seen plenty of Cactus in WCW and some in ECW, I wasn’t someone who cared much either way. I understood the charismatic talent, but outside of the HBK match at Mind Games in 96, I was somewhat ambivalent. I was a Helmsley fan but it wasn’t a monumental situation at that point. I liked the guy, but that was about it.
This one took place in a cage, which upped the stakes and allowed both men to use the showcase to highlight their strengths. Foley was Foley, willing to put his body through anything, and Helmsley was the storyteller, who methodically and systematically worked to destroy Mick. While H and Rock are often mentioned in the same sentence, the in-ring marriage that was most instrumental in his career was with Mick Foley. The Rumble street fight in 2000, the Hell in a Cell match that same year, but the first one that really counted was the cage match in 1997 that shocked me and opened my eyes to the level of performer both men were and what they were willing to do to entertain. Here again, though the main event and even the semi-main (minus the injury) were very good, other than Austin’s injury, it’s the opener I think of most.
KURT ANGLE VS. REY MYSTERIO JR. (2002)
You want to see a nearly perfect, fast-paced, wonderful wrestling match between two of the all-time best? Go no further than SummerSlam 2002, which as a whole was an exceptional show, featuring Brock Lesnar winning over the New York crowd and irritating a seemingly surprised Rock in the main event. But folks, this opener was so damn good. Angle came out first and this was when Kurt may have been the top performer in America. Rey came in, and as the bell rang, he attacked from behind and it was ON. Kurt knew how to sell for Rey to keep it believable, and when it was time for cut-off spots, they were extremely basic but flawless in their effectiveness. It was a vicious clothesline or a catch into a hard slam or something well-timed that stopped Rey in his tracks. The fans were split in the building, but by the end, they were cheering everything. It didn’t even go ten minutes. It was one of the best openers in all the little things that I’ve ever seen. These two guys worked a perfect story. The crowd was into it from the opening spot until the finish, which although it was obvious, didn’t at all bother anyone. Just as with all of the mentioned openers, everybody associated with these bouts got over. There were no losers.
I could easily talk glowingly about Lance Storm and Edge in 2001, Rey and Dolph in 2009, or even a D-Lo Brown-Val Venis match I enjoyed in 1998, but truthfully, these openers bring me to a point that could benefit tonight’s card to an immense degree. I attended SummerSlam in 2000 and I even loved that opener with Right to Censor, though the first TLC remains the best match I’ve ever witnessed in person.
Openers matter, as WCW showed with the Cruiserweight revolution in 1996 and 1997, and as SummerSlam has often proven. Although a show can recover from a bad opener, see Kane-Bray Wyatt from 2013, when it starts off right at THIS show, I tend to remember it. It’s a personal feeling. There’s evidence to refute those matches being a part of big overall shows respective to success, but for me, these all remain among the first things I think about whenever the word "SummerSlam" is mentioned, and it’s the only annual show I’ve been able to say that about in WWE. You may not share that opinion, but here’s what should happen tonight. If I were to write this same article a year from today, I would hope to be able to include the following:
KEVIN OWENS VS. CESARO (2015)
These two tore the house down. It was longer than most openers, but that was a smart decision to make with the four-hour running time and the fact that these two were going to take part in a special piece of business together. It went just shy of 18 minutes, with Cesaro going over, but who cared? These two were on a main event level, not constrained. It was the very epitome of "beat that" and although the show would feature some stellar stuff later, KO and Cesaro is the one we’ll be talking about first in 2025. Nothing was on the line, but WWE had two players that were hungry, could go, and wanted to steal the show. That’s exactly what they did, without harming the rest of the card. Brooklyn was no doubt going to be a big KO audience, but they were also going to be a big time "Cesaro Section" kind of crowd.
So, you’re starting a huge show with a match everybody wants to see, with a crowd that loves both guys and just wants to watch a brilliant exhibition. Cesaro went over, as it was the right time to begin an elevation towards the top of the card. He was crazy over and even WWE couldn’t deny he had all the tools in the ring. They allowed him to speak a bit in the lead-up, which helped him with more of the casual marks, and the hardcore crowd has been with him since he was Claudio, long before Antonio, and eons before he was a one-named superstar. The finish was awesome, as KO looked to have it won several times but Cesaro just couldn’t be stopped. Owens came off the top, at first appearing to go for the senton, but couldn’t turn over all the way and ate a Cesaro uppercut as the Swiss Superman got under the somersault with Owens high in the air. 1-2-3. The fans went nuts and gave the match a standing ovation, cheering for both as they left ringside. Oh, and Kevin Owens sold the back and the sternum from his ridiculous ladder match the night before.
Could WWE put the IC match first? Sure, but why? Could they go with Orton and Sheamus? Possibly, but they did it last month and it’s not going to excite anybody, even if it’s great. You don’t open with Reigns in Brooklyn, the tag match should be somewhere in the middle, not off the top, even though it’s likely to have plenty of high spots and reasons for excitement. That’s just not the one I’d open with on this card. You can’t open with the celebrity match. Maybe you open with Jon Stewart, but for the first match, it’s simple. On a four hour show, you space out the highest expectations. The main event is the main event. Cena and Rollins comes midway, Reigns comes towards the end, and in what could go down as one of the great openers IN HISTORY, Kevin Owens and Cesaro take the stage right off the top and nearly break Twitter in half with a terrific classic of a wrestling match.
Mainly though, I just effing love SummerSlam. That first memory from 1989 is one of my fondest to this day. I hope every one of you enjoys this show tonight. We spend so much time complaining about this business and I’m as big a culprit, if not bigger, than just about anybody you might encounter. When SummerSlam is good, I’m good. WrestleMania was good, just like it was last year, and SummerSlam last year was a strong show. Tonight, I want one of those "Holy Shit" kinds of shows. I don’t ask for much. NXT Takeover Brooklyn was tremendous. I enjoyed the entire show, top to bottom. I fought back a few tears during the Horsewomen Curtain Call and my word what an outstanding wrestling match Sasha Banks and Bayley had. I’m not sure the full SummerSlam card will permit the "holy shit," but if you open with KO and Cesaro, you’re off to a hell of a start. At this time, in Brooklyn, with these guys, it’s the only call.
I’d like to offer a toast. To Professional Wrestling… (This is when you say: To professional wrestling!)