SummerSlam 2002

Unsanctioned Street Fight
Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H
After over four years of waiting, Shawn Michaels makes his long-awaited return to the ring. He hasn’t wrestled in WWE since WrestleMania XIV at the dawn of WWE’s return to international prominence with the Attitude Era. It’ a shame that his comeback came during a period where WWE had gone off the boil and was starting to struggle. Michaels is a strange one, because despite being perhaps the best wrestler of the modern era, if not ever, he managed to miss out on all of the business’s boom periods. His first run as a singles guy came in the post-Hulk Hogan WWF, when the company first started to go down the tubes. He is not to blame of course, but it is an interesting point to note. When this match was announced, many suspected that it was a one and done for Shawn, and that he was only coming back for one last match so he could go out on his terms working with his best friend. Thankfully that turned out to not be true, and he actually worked for another eight years until 2010, making this run almost as long as his first one, remarkably enough. It also wound up being the best work of his career, surpassing even his great matches from the mid-nineties when he was the best wrestler in North America.

Tangent: I will say going in that when I watched this at the time, with the knowledge of Shawn’s injured back, and the belief that it would be his only match, I felt every single bump he took. I felt like I was in the match with him, and felt emotionally invested in a match for the first time in years. It was one of the greatest matches that I ever saw. Because of that I didn’t watch it again, as I didn’t want to risk ruining my memories of how good it was the first time. So perhaps you can understand my slight trepidation going in. I hope it lives up to my expectations.

The gimmick of the match is that it is “unsanctioned” by WWE, which I would take more seriously if there wasn’t a WWE-produced video package, not to mention the fact they are allowed to do the match in a WWE ring on a WWE pay-per-view. I strongly suspect the “unsanctioned” nature of the match – meaning it doesn’t go in the quote unquote official record books – was simply a contrived way of Hunter avoiding a loss. If it was not sanctioned, it didn’t happen, and thus he wouldn’t really lose. The opening strains of Shawn’s music prompt an enormous roar from the sold out crowd. Shawn is wearing jeans, a white vest, and cowboy boots, selling the street fight nature of the match. Hunter doesn’t go in for that, and simply works in his usual attire. Shawn goes right after Hunter with punches, then immediately assuages all fears that he isn’t the same Shawn Michaels as before by hitting a slingshot crossbody to the outside. Shawn brings weapons into play early when he finds a trash can under the ring, but Hunter cuts him off before he gets chance to use it by dropping him onto the guardrail. Michaels again shows some of his old agility by skinning the cat, following up with a clothesline and a double axe handle, then sets for Sweet Chin Music early. Too early, it turns out, because Hunter ducks and hits a backbreaker. Shawn sells it beautifully. Hunter follows with another, and Shawn is writhing around in pain. He still sells better than anyone.

Hunter continues to focus on the back with hard postings, and every bump resonates with the crowd. Every time Hunter goes for that back, Michaels screams in pain, and you believe it. Hunter brings a chair into the ring and the back is again the target. Michaels’ face is contorted in pain, but he still manages to kick out. Michaels fires up, but only for a moment. JR sells the drama perfectly, reacting with relief every time he sees Shawn move his arms and legs, because he is concerned about Trips paralysing him. A DDT onto the chair busts Shawn open, increasing the tension further. Hunter gets nasty when he starts whipping Shawn across the back with the belt from his jeans, then he wraps the belt around his hand and works over the wound on Shawn’s head. Trips leaves Shawn to sell and catch his wind while he searches for weapons under the ring, where he finds his trusty sledgehammer. Michaels has managed to clamber to his feet and desperately punches at Hunter, knocking the hammer out of his hand. It’s going well until he gets cut off and sent into the buckles again. Hunter goes to an abdominal stretch and uses the ropes for leverage, which Earl Hebner disapproves of. He drags him off, and the two have their usual barney, with Earl yelling in his face that he is sick of Hunter’s behaviour. That’s nice and all, but this is a street fight, and an unsanctioned one no less, and as JR pointed out earlier, Earl’s only job is to count the three or call a submission.

Earl’s intervention buys Michaels some time, but Hunter prevents his big elbow by shoving Hebner into the ropes and crotching Shawn. Hunter uses the chair to the back again, then sets it up in the middle and puts Shawn through it, back-first. The spot is helped by the visual of the chair breaking from the impact, though Shawn keeps kicking out. He just won’t give it up. The crowd are desperate for him to stay in this match and they start chanting his name. Triple H decides to finish him off with a Pedigree onto the chair, which Michaels is able to prevent with a low blow. Both men struggle to their feet, when Hunter grabs the chair and goes to smash Michaels in the face, only to get drilled with a superkick. That busts Hunter open, big time, which is pleasing because Shawn’s cut has completely dried up. Shawn nips up and sends the crowd into a frenzy, then starts unloading on Hunter, taking him out with a chair shot to the face. They end up on the floor, where Shawn gets retribution for the belt shots earlier by lashing Hunter across the back. The crowd want tables, but Shawn has a more creative weapon in mind: Hugo Savinovich’s shoe! He follows with a bulldog onto the steps, then finds a ladder under the ring. The crowd react with a mixture of concern and excitement, to which Shawn gives a wry smile. He uses the ladder as a weapon a couple of times, then slingshots Triple H into it. Back in the ring, that only gets a two count, so Shawn goes to bring the ladder into the ring. Hunter spots him and connects with a baseball slide to the ladder to stop him. Hunter is too fatigued to follow up, and gets hit with a superplex. Shawn, ever the master psychologist, turns mid air to avoid landing on his back.

They trade control for a few minutes, then Shawn gives the crowd what they want by bringing a table out from under the ring, which he sets up on the outside. After hitting Hunter with a fire extinguisher to send him onto the table, Shawn goes up top and hits a splash through it, which is a ridiculous thing for a man with a broken back to be doing. However, it makes sense, because it is so fitting for the Shawn Michaels character to do something like that. He is the showstopper after all. Shawn brings the ladder into the ring and begins to climb, stops off to tell the crowd he loves them, then hits his flying elbow off it. Shawn survives and tunes up the band, Hunter catches it and goes for the Pedigree, but Shawn double legs him and floats over into a pin for the victory. Everyone goes bonkers for that. Immediately, Hunter gets his heat back by smashing Michaels in the back with a sledgehammer, before groggily walking out.

So the big question, how does the match hold up years later? The story was wonderful, the execution of it was practically flawless, and the feel-good factor of Shawn winning was genuinely emotional. It’s a shame that moment was taken away almost immediately by Hunter getting the last word in. Shawn might as well have not won. He wasn’t able to celebrate living the dream and pulling off the impossible for more than ten seconds. That aside though, this is an outstanding match, one of the best of the era, no question. Does it lose some of its lustre when watched back with the benefit of hindsight? Sure it does, but that goes for nearly any match. Wrestling is ultimately designed to be watched and enjoyed in the moment, and if viewed through those eyes it is an all-time classic. Is it perfect? Not quite, but it is pretty damn close.

Final Rating: *****

 

Before we get to the main event, Howard Finkel wants to get something off his chest. He says he is pleased to be announcing in the Nassau Coliseum for the first time on pay-per-view since WrestleMania 2, pointing out that he is committed to the WWE. He gets interrupted by Trish Stratus, who he has been inexplicably feuding with for the past few weeks. She apologises for her actions (slapping him, pushing him over into some mud) and offers him a surprise. “It’s a dog eat dog world, isn’t it? Especially when you’ve got your puppies and I’ve got my wiener.” Which shit-eating idiot is writing this crap? It’s pathetic. Trish hugs Fink to lure him into a trap, then brings out her real surprise, the Sgt. Slaughter/Praying Mantis hybrid that is Lillian Garcia. She slaps Fink and kicks him in his wiener, then leaves. What in the hell was that all about?

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