(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H – WWE SummerSlam 2002
Most fans consider WWE SummerSlam 2002 as the best one in the show’s history. Top to bottom, there isn’t a single outwardly bad match on the card.
It quite possibly has the best opening match in WWE history and everything above it was solid as well.
But there was one match that really stood head and shoulder above the rest: HHH vs. HBK.
It was a dream match years in the making. It has been praised many times as a truly awesome match that stole the show on an already tremendous PPV. And now, on its twentieth anniversary, let’s see how well it holds up.
Today we look back at the unsanctioned match between Triple H and Shawn Michaels from SummerSlam 2002.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Back in 2002, no one thought Shawn Michaels would ever wrestle again. He suffered a debilitating back injury that sidelined him for four years. So when he made his return, most people assumed it was either to be a regular non-wrestling character, or for only one more match. At first, Michaels’ return was seen as the beginning of a full-fledged D-X reunion. But his best friend Triple H had other plans. HHH, apparently dissatisfied with how his heroic return earlier in the year had gone, decided he was better off as a heel. And what better way to become a detestable villain than by backstabbing one’s best friend? That’s exactly what HHH did: he attacked Michaels and over the following weeks he attacked Michaels more and more. HHH claimed that Michaels was weak but Michaels fought back valiantly, even though he clearly wasn’t 100%. To make sure this feud would be settled definitively, then-RAW GM Eric Bischoff made this an unsanctioned match. in other words, anything was possible in this match and WWE wouldn’t be liable/responsible for any injuries or consequences.
And so the stage was set. Michaels was making his triumphant in-ring return, but the pomp and glamour of his entrance belied Michaels’ serious and almost unfortunate circumstance. Here he was, about to go to war with the guy he considered his best friend. He had spent four years away from the ring while HHH reached the top of the mountain more than once in his absence. And HHH had proven over the years how remorseless and calculating he can be. But could Michaels overcome all of that? Even if this was a one-time appearance, could Michaels go down in a blaze of glory and give the fans the send-off he never gave them? Or would HHH leave Michaels lying in a pool of his own blood and put him down like Old Yeller?
This match originally took place on August 17th, 2002. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and ****1/2 by TJR’s John Canton. Canton also covered it extensively in his SummerSlam 2002 review and the match meant a lot to him as a big Shawn Michaels fan. After two full decades, let’s see how well this match holds up.
Michaels enters first and gets a monster pop. HHH comes in second and has his long, drawn-out entrance. But as soon as HHH steps through the ropes, Michaels attacks him and the match is on. HHH tries dumping Michaels to the floor but Michaels takes him down again. Michaels lands more punches and sends HHH into the ropes but HHH tackles him down. Michaels answers with a leapfrog and then uses HHH’s momentum to send him to the floor. Michaels follows with a plancha to the floor but HHH cuts him off as he attempts to capitalize. HHH tries smashing Michaels into the ring steps but Michaels blocks and sends HHH face-first into the ring post. HHH tries escaping Michaels but Michaels is one step ahead and surprises him with a clothesline at ringside.
Michaels throws a trash can into the ring and goes to hit HHH with the lid but HHH cuts him off and drops him sternum-first on the barricade. HHH tries pulling Michaels over the top rope but Michaels hit his head with the trash can lid and skins the cat to re-enter the ring. Another clothesline drops HHH and then he cracks HHH’s head with the trash can itself. He follows with a top-rope diving ax handle and teases Sweet Chin Music. He goes for the kick. HHH ducks and lands a backbreaker. Michaels sells incredibly (what with his back being the cause of his retirement and all) and the ref asks him if he can continue. Michaels refuses to give up so HHH shoves the ref aside and lands a second backbreaker. Loud “HBK” chants fill the arena as HHH lands some punches and whips HBK hard into a corner to do more damage to Michaels’ back. HHH does the same corner whip again and once again Michaels sells like he’s in excruciating pain. Boos echo through the arena as HHH does the D-X crotch chop and kicks a helpless Michaels down. HHH lands three elbow drops to the small of Michaels’ back and covers but only gets a two-count. chair-shot to the back. Michaels kicks out again and then starts firing up. he and HHH trade punches and HHH goes for a suplex. Michaels lands behind him and lands a roll-up for a two-count of his own. Michaels goes for a back body drop. HHH counters with a single knee facebuster and then DDTs Michaels onto a chair for another two-count.
Michaels has been busted open but the sight of blood only spurs HHH on to inflict more punishment. He pulls off Michaels’ belt and whips him with it and then wraps it around his fist. The metal belt buckle gets driven into Michaels’s head each time HHH lands a punch. Then HHH looks under the ring and pulls out his trusty sledgehammer. The ref begs HHH not to use it (not sure why he’s bothering since, a) HHH is remorseless and doesn’t care, and b) stipulation-wise, the ref is only there to announce the fall; he has no power to stop any of the violence) but Michaels kicks him back. Michaels lands more punches but HHH reverses a corner whip and Michaels hits it hard back-first again. HHH follows with an abdominal stretch and uses the rope for extra leverage/pressure. It’s all legal and no one can stop him. Referee Earl Hebner starts getting physical out of concern for Michaels’ well-being and even shoves HHH back. I’m not sure why HHH is even tolerating this BS; can’t he just Pedigree this ref and another one will take his place?
This long shouting match with the ref gives HBK the chance to recover enough to land punches to HHH’s gut. HHH cuts him off almost immediately and goes for a superplex. Michaels punches him down and now the crowd wakes up. Michaels teases an elbow drop but HHH shoves the ref into the ropes, causing Michaels to lose his balance. Michaels is left dangling from the top rope, his back fully exposed. HHH capitalizes with a vicious chair-shot to the back and a backbreaker onto an opened chair. HHH covers but Michaels kicks out. Not once but three times. Sidewalk slam onto the chair. Michaels kicks out three more times. HHH goes for a Pedigree onto the steel chair. Michaels blocks with a low blow. That gives Michaels some much-needed time and space to recover. HHH grabs the chair again but Michaels lands Sweet Chin Music. Michaels kicks the chair into HHH’s face.
Both wrestlers eventually get up and HHH is bleeding profusely. Michaels lands some punches and counters an Irish whip reversal with a flying forearm. Then Michaels kips up. This is the comeback to end all comebacks. The crowd’s going nuts for Michaels’ second wind. Michaels lands a back body drop and a chair-shot to HHH’s face. HHH tries countering a corner whip but Michaels has him scouted and sends him over the rope and to the floor. Michaels gets some revenge with a lid shot to HHH’s head and then whips him with his belt. Michaels starts hitting HHH with anything he can find, from the garbage can to Spanish commentator Hugo Savinovich’s shoe. Some fans chant “we want tables” but Michaels has a better idea and pulls out a ladder (after smashing HHH’s face into the ringsteps). Michaels uses the ladder as a battering ram and drives it into HHH’s face and then his gut. Michaels sets the ladder up against a ring post. HHH reverses an Irish whip into it but Michaels avoids running into it and punches HHH down. Then Michaels catapults HHH into the ladder face-first. Michaels covers him in the ring but only gets a two-count.
Michaels starts putting the ladder in the ring but HHH dropkicks it into Michaels. HHH ascends a turnbuckle but Michaels cuts him off and hits a superplex for a two-count. HHH reverses another Irish whip but Michaels lands a crucifix roll-up for another two-count. Michaels charges but runs into a jumping knee that also gets a two-count. HHH bring the steel steps into the ring but before he can swing them down Michaels drop toeholds him and sends his face into the steps. Michaels clotheslines HHH to ringside and then pulls out a table from another side of the ring. Ask and ye shall receive. Michaels hits HHH’s head with a fire extinguisher to set him up on the table. Then Michaels climbs a turnbuckle. Diving splash to the table below!
HHH rolls into the ring as Michaels brings the ladder into it. Michaels sets it up near a corner and starts climbing it like he did seven years earlier with Razor Ramon. Diving elbow drop from the top of the ladder. Michaels is all fired up. The crowd is going absolutely apes**t as Michaels starts tuning up the band. Sweet Chin Music…doesn’t connect! HHH blocks and hits a Pedig – no, Michaels counters with a jackknife cover. One, two, three! Michaels beats Triple H!
Winner after 27:50: Shawn Michaels
Post-match, HHH cuts Michaels’ celebration short with a sledgehammer shot to the back. Then HHH hits him in the back again (with the actual hammer and not with his hand covering it) and Michaels sells like he’s unconscious. HHH gloats and celebrates as he slowly makes his way to the back, his face still drenched in blood (0.45 Muta). Meanwhile, Michaels is stretchered to the back as the commentators condemn HHH for his actions.
This was a tale of two matches. The first half was sound but boring thanks to HHH being slow as molasses. Meanwhile, the second half was exciting and just filled to the brim with emotion (what else do you expect from Shawn Michaels?). Michaels’ emotional comeback did come at the expense of logic (he spent the first half unable to get up by himself and now he was fine enough to jump around like a kid in a candy store? Come on), but it wasn’t the most egregious case I’ve ever seen. And yet, this match fit the storyline and the circumstances perfectly. It wouldn’t have made sense for Michaels to have a ‘pure’ wrestling match with HHH so a gimmick-heavy bloodbath was the right choice. It could’ve been a bit better overall, but it was still a great match that holds up well two decades later.
Michaels silenced any doubters with his performance here. He spent the first half selling very well as he took a savage beating. His selling was always on the more emotional/exaggerated side in my opinion but here he seemed to blend a hint of realism and seriousness into it as HHH beat him bloody. Michaels was a tremendous face-in-peril that survived so much agony early on, only to begin his comeback thanks to a well-timed though ham-fisted referee distraction.
That moment just didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t make sense for HHH to entertain Hebner overstepping his authority since in this case he didn’t even have any. JR tried selling the idea that Hebner was sickened by what HHH was doing and couldn’t take it anymore but that was a hard sell. If the match was unsanctioned then all bets were off for how violent the match could get. HHH was known for his ruthlessness so Hebner knew what he signed up for. And as I said earlier, why did HHH waste so much time getting into a pointless shouting and shoving match with Hebner when he could’ve just knocked him out and gotten another referee to enforce the decision? I’m emphasizing this point in the match because it was the turning point that Michaels needed. That argument dragged on for so long that Michaels got enough time to prepare the perfect counter to begin his comeback. And really, once that low blow connected, HHH’s victory began slipping away.
Speaking of HHH, this match would’ve been better if he wasn’t so f**king slow. I get it, he likes being methodical. But he takes so much time doing everything, even going from hitting a move to covering. His strategy was sound and fit both his character and the match’s story perfectly. But by God, did he have to move like he was underwater? And why did he just stand around so many times just wasting time? He seemed to lack urgency and spent too much time spacing things out between key spots. There’s jamming too much into a match and then there’s stretching each sequence out more than necessary. Triple H on offense was a prime example of the latter. If he moved even slightly faster, he could’ve done all the same moves, told the exact same story and gotten the exact same reactions while also shaving a good five minutes off this match’s runtime.
Still though, the last ten minutes or so were pretty damn great. Michaels took fans on an emotional rollercoaster like only he could. Sure he hammed things up but he still played to the crowd and gave them what they wanted. He got his revenge and slaked the fans’ thirst for blood and carnage at the same time. He landed some brutal weapons shots and showed glimpses of the same athleticism that he had before his 1998 injury. If this was meant to be a one-time match (people were still uncertain if he was coming back for more after this) then it was one hell of a send-off match. Michaels shined throughout the match and HHH did very well as the story’s diabolical villain. There wasn’t a more apt pairing at the time.
Finally, a special mention should go to the awesome commentary from JR and Lawler. They explained how difficult it was for Michaels to be wrestling with a broken back. They emphasized HHH’s remorselessness and called the match as if sickened by what he was doing. They weren’t just emotionless drones “calling the action”; they gave the match an emotional depth that’s rarely seen/heard nowadays. They called the match like they cared and did whatever they could to draw attention to certain details or to make the average viewer understand the severity of what was going on. But they did so without over-explaining or insulting the audience. Sometimes the commentary can make or break a match’s immersion and in this case the match was amplified by the JR’s and Lawler’s words and emotions.
Final Rating: ****
Twenty years have passed and this match has aged pretty well. It’s one of the most rugged, violent, and serious matches in SummerSlam history. While some people might be thankful WWE has gotten ‘safer’ in more recent years, it has also gotten more sterile. Special matches like this haven’t been seen in years or even decades. Though this wasn’t the cleanest or most airtight of matches, it had more emotion and was more entertaining than many SummerSlam matches to come in its wake.
This match was exactly what the rivalry between Shawn Michaels and Triple H needed at the time. And now that Triple H is in control of WWE’s creative direction, then maybe, just maybe, something like this might be seen again in the future.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.