We’re in the middle of SummerSlam season, with this year’s big show due on August 21st. Thinking about the rich history of the SummerSlam event, what with this year’s show being the 34th edition of the Pay-Per-View, my thoughts turned to Shawn Michaels. Thanks to a stellar number of classic matches, he had earned the nickname of ‘Mr. WrestleMania,’ even having a DVD collection named after the sobriquet. But that raised a question in my mind: who is ‘Mr. SummerSlam’?
After much consideration, I reached my conclusion. The title and honor of ‘Mr. SummerSlam’ should belong to ‘The Best There Is, The Best There Was and The Best There Ever Will Be,’ Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart.
But why? Bret had his last SummerSlam match in 1997, a mere 24 years ago on the 10th anniversary of the event. Has no one in the following year’s eclipsed The Hitman’s achievements at WWE’s summertime spectacular? Why should Bret be known as ‘Mr. SummerSlam’?
Read on and I’ll tell you…
Consistent At The Classics
By virtue of the fact that those early SummerSlam events were some of the first among WWE’s near-monolithic back catalog of Pay-Per-Views, and that they span the latter part of the classic Hulkamania! period, the fondly remembered New Generation era and the run-up to Attitude, the initial run of SummerSlam events are thought of as the ‘Classic Era’ of the event’s history (the passing of time has a lot to do with this).
Out of that initial run of ten Summerslam’s, from 1988 to 1997, Bret Hart wrestled on nine of them, only missing the 1996 show due to the sabbatical he took in the wake of dropping the World Championship to Shawn Michaels (him again!) at WrestleMania XII.
The only wrestler who came close to that many SummerSlam appearances in that first ten years was Ted DiBiase with eight, and even then he didn’t actually wrestle at SummerSlam 1990, being used instead to turn Sweet Sapphire heel on Dusty Rhodes, while at SummerSlam 94 and 95, he only appeared in a managerial capacity. Bret wrestled during all nine of his appearances, which goes to show how important he was to the company during that period.
This brings us to another important point: title matches.
Bret & The Belt at SummerSlam
OK, so here’s a cool statistic. Out of those nine SummerSlam matches, six of them were title matches, with Bret as either the champion or the challenger, which means that for two-thirds of his SummerSlam appearances, Bret was a title bout-level competitor and was considered big enough and important enough to compete for the title at arguably the second or third most important show of the WWE year (it depends on how you view the Royal Rumble).
Two of those bouts were for the tag team titles, both against Demolition, with the Hart Foundation team of Bret and Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart losing at SummerSlam 1988 but finally taking the gold from Ax and new Demolition member Crush in a highly entertaining 2 out of 3 falls match at SummerSlam 1990 in a moment that reinforced the Hart Foundation’s reputation as one of the most popular tag teams in WWF/WWE history.
Of course, the following year in 1991, Bret began his push as a singles wrestler, and his match with then-Intercontinental Champion ‘Mr. Perfect’ Curt Henning not only gave us one of the greatest matches ever, in SummerSlam AND WWE history, with Curt bumping like crazy to put Bret over, but the title win confirmed Bret as a genuine singles wrestler in the eyes of the WWF audience. It is rightly regarded as one of the most important moments in WWF/WWE history.
Incredibly, Bret went one step further in the history stakes the following year, leading a…um…delicate ‘British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith through a great match that resulted in Davey winning the Intercontinental title in front of 80,355 of his own countrymen at Wembley Stadium, England. That the match was as great as it was is undeniably down to Bret, who had to call the match in the ring for a worse-for-wear Bulldog, who had enjoyed himself a little too much the night before. The match remains one of the most popular encounters in SummerSlam history.
Meanwhile, as WWF World Heavyweight Champion, Bret had an incredibly dramatic cage match with his brother Owen in what was undoubtedly one of the best feuds of 1994 and a far, far superior match to the one actually main evented that show: Undertaker vs. Undertaker (*shudder*).
Speaking of Undertaker, it was a heel Bret that challenged the ‘Dead Man’ for the gold at SummerSlam 1997 and won after guest referee Shawn Michaels accidentally cracked Taker. This gave Bret his final WWF title run and would also set the scene for the Bret-Shawn match at Survivor Series and we all know how that went down. But this final SummerSlam match was a far better send-off, with Bret back on top and taking the Taker to one of the pair’s best matches together.
Bret Hart: Shorthand For ‘Quality’
Lastly, even when not going for the gold, Bret was still putting on great SummerSlam matches, some quite expectedly, some not so much.
One you’d expect to be a great encounter was the Hart Foundation’s non-title battle with then-WWF Tag Team Champions The Brain Busters, Arn Anderson, and Tully Blanchard. This was no doubt somewhat of a dream match for those who’d seen the team of Tully and Arn dominate the NWA tag team scene and wanted to see them take on the WWF’s finest. It didn’t disappoint either, the two teams demonstrating keen chemistry together, and I do wonder why people don’t talk about this match more. It’s a wonderful picture of a moment in time as pretty soon Tully would fall from grace and Bret would become the top figure of the ‘New Generation’ era.
On a more surprising note, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Doink and Bret to have a good match, but that’s exactly what they did, this being Matt Bourne’s last PPV as the Doink character and the match itself being a part of a bigger story, the red-hot feud between Bret and Jerry Lawler. Lawler was originally scheduled to wrestle Bret here but he feigned injury, infuriating the audience with insults.
Which made it all the sweeter when, after Lawler attacked Hart with his crutch to give Bret the DQ win after a surprisingly good match with Doink, ‘The King’ was forced by on-screen president Jack Tunney to face ‘The Hitman’ right there and then. A furious Bret beat Lawler from pillar to post before refusing to release the sharpshooter in a rare example of Bret losing control as the fans went wild for it. It’s a completely underrated moment.
As is his match at SummerSlam 95 with the future Kane, Glenn Jacobs, in the guise of Dr. Issac Yankem DDS, Jerry Lawler’s dentist. While that is no doubt an awful gimmick, it’s not an awful match. While possibly the weakest of all of Bret’s nine SummerSlam matches, the match doesn’t deserve the bad reputation it has. Bret takes the lead and pulls a passable performance out of Jacobs, while Lawler at ringside winds the crowd up something rotten. On a card that had Mabel vs. Diesel as the main event, Bret vs. Issac Yankem was far from the worst thing on the card. That Bret could deliver even with the odds against him really does display why he was so important to the WWF at the time and why he deserves to be called ‘Mr. SummerSlam!’
Bret Hart really is ‘Mr. SummerSlam.’ From the number of appearances he has made at the event to the number of title matches he has taken part in, even to the quality of the matches he took part in, Bret Hart really made SummerSlam his event and put his stamp on it, in a way that he arguably didn’t quite do at WrestleMania (not to say he hasn’t had big moments there, of course. We all remember WrestleMania 13 for example). The fact that wrestling fans still talk about the likes of Bret’s classic battles at the event with Mr. Perfect and the British Bulldog and his brother Owen confirms it; Bret will forever be an integral part of the history of SummerSlam.
What do you think? Who’s your Mr (or Miss/Mrs) SummerSlam? Let me know in the comments!