While 1997 may not have been a banner year for WWE in financial terms, and they were still lagging behind WCW in the ratings war between Raw and Nitro. However, from a creative perspective WWE were on one of the hottest streaks in company history. Stone Cold Steve Austin was in the middle of his full ascension to the top of the company, The Heart Foundation and Bret "The Hitman" Hart in particular were at the height of their powers as the main antagonist, The Undertaker was embroiled in a soap opera-esque storyline with former manager Paul bearer which was clearly building to the unveiling of his storyline brother Kane, The Nation of Domination were pushing the racial envelope left and right, while the "gang war" was raging. WWE was slowly becoming a more realistic, adult orientated product after beginning the process of eschewing the old cartoon-style presentation of the 1980s and mid-1990s. It was a year of transition, but more importantly it was a year of great in-ring matches and the 1997 edition of Summerslam might be the zenith for 1997 in terms of match quality.
The Canadian Stampede PPV the month before this gets much of the attention when it comes to 1997, and rightly so, but Summerslam is a very decent show. The opener between Mankind and Triple H is a great, and actually fairly brutal cage match. IT has a really satisfying conclusion and sets up a new direction for both Foley and Triple H, which would set them both up for the year to come. Goldust vs Brian Pillman was about as good as you could expect that match to be given the physical state of Pillman (he would be dead within three months), The Legion of Doom vs The Godwinns was fine for what was and had an enjoyable ending that made sense for the story being told about Henry Godwinn’s neck. The British bulldog vs Ken Shamrock was better than it had any right to be, and while the post-match with the dog food is utterly ridiculous, it is also unintentionally hilarious. Shamrock probably gained more form this than actually wining the belt and having such strong character work helped cover for the fact he was still developing as a worker. Finally on the undercard, we had Los Boricuas vs the DOA in probably the lone low point on this card. It was a dull brawl that was more of a buffer than anything.
In addition to the matches on the undercard, there were also two bizarre segments that rarely get a mention but that epitomise the transition period that this show took place in. There was the attempted giveaway of a million dollars, with Todd Pettengill trying and failing to pick numbers out to open a casket with the cash in it. Given the company was in dire financial straits, I'm not sure what would have happened if someone actually won. It felt like a real desperate attempt to fish in viewers, and reeked of the sort of stunt they would pull in the mid-90s (see the first In Your House PPV where they gave away a house). You would never have caught the company doing this in the years that followed. Equally, the segment where the local Governor was paraded out in front of the crowd and given a replica belt for sorting some sort of tax situation that meant WWE came back to running shows in the area. Basically, it was pretty convoluted and had no place on a PPV. Much like the giveaway, it was a remnant of a time before, and by the end of the year it’s exactly the sort of thing they would shy away from.
In terms of the top two matches, they were both memorable and historically significant. Owen hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin for the Intercontinental Championship was a great match until Owen hit Austin with the infamous piledriver breaking Austin's neck. It was clearly reckless by Hart, but it's one of those things that just happens sometimes. I do think that the visual of Austin getting up after the match with a broken neck, and having pinned Owen in the circumstances added a lot to his character and popularity, and even though this shortened his career significantly the adapted brawling style Austin had to take on after this injury contributed massively to his star rising over the following six months. Owen, piledriver aside was great here and it does make you think watching this just how talented he was and how sad it is that he would be dead within three years of this show.
The main event of Summerslam 1997 was not only the best match of the night for me, but also the most historically significant. Undertaker and Bret hart were always an underrated pairing and this was Bret hart at the height of his powers as the anti-American heel. The return of Shawn Michaels to referee this bout also added an extra layer of intrigue and suspense, with him having to count the pin for Hart or be forcibly denied the opportunity to wrestle in America in the future (with Bret taking the same promise). Now, in theory that should have telegraphed a Bret win, but such was the level of animosity between the two that you could in no way see Shawn calling it fairly for Bret, even if he won cleanly. The finish is ridiculously well executed, but it also marks a pivotal change in the company. By making HBK a heel, despite being so reluctantly it took much of Hart's heel heat away and his final reign as Champion which begun here was eclipsed by the Michaels/Undertaker feud going forward and Hart was slowly phased out and then screwed out of the title at Montreal. Arguably this is his final moment of glory of his first WWE run, and the final high of a career in the company of over a decade. A white-hot main event, and a really intriguing finish to a cracking PPV.
All in all Summerslam 1997 is a great card, and one that carries so much historical significance. This is very much a snapshot of the year that was the building block for the Attitude era, for the boom in wrestling in the late 90s and everything that followed. A very entertaining show that absolutely holds up 20 years later.