WWE was so good in the first half of 2004. With the rise of Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero as main event players, and the future of the company – John Cena, Batista, Randy Orton, Edge and others – waiting in the wings, there were very few missteps happen on WWE television. This show, coming from the site of SUMMERSLAM 2019 in Toronto, Canada, was a great culmination of everything that had been happening in the company going back to 2003.

The Dudley Boyz vs. Rey Mysterio, Billy Kidman and Paul London – Little Spike Dudley is now bossing his bigger brothers Bubba Ray and D-Von around, and the current cruiserweight champion is using the tag team legends to take out some of his cruiser competition. There’s a lot of great talent in this match, doing their level best to get the crowd invested and excited in what was happening. It had some great moments, with the size of the Dudleys overpowering the smaller opponents, hitting Kidman with a 3-D and allowing Spike to cover for the win.

‘Til Death Do Us Part Match: Matt Hardy vs. Kane – This story is, I think, one of those few missteps on WWE television. It’s weird how they almost always involve Kane, as writers kept trying to outdo themselves with stupid stories for Undertaker’s kayfabe brother. The winner of this match gets to marry Lita. Hardy is the man she loves, Kane is the father of the baby Lita is carrying. I can’t be bothered to recall HOW Kane impregnated Lita, or even WHY, but we’re not far away from the ridiculousness that happened with Edge, in a situation where life kind of imitated art… 15 years later, there’s no way WWE could get away with this. Hardy threw everything he could at Kane, including a vicious shot with the ring bell, to no avail. One big move the other way, though – a super chokeslam from the ropes – takes Hardy out, meaning Lita has to marry the Big Red Machine.

A backstage interview with Todd Grisham and Randy Orton has a run-in from John Cena, previewing a rivalry that would carry the company for a long time.

Booker T vs. John Cena – Booker is the U.S. Champion, and this is the first match in a best-of-5 series between the two to determine who the undisputed champion is after Cena was stripped of the title. This is an homage to a TV Title series from WCW between Booker and Chris Benoit, and it’s being used to elevate Cena onto the level where he would need to be come Royal Rumble time. Booker gets Cena through and into a fun match, though it feels like it’s pretty quick, much like the FU that Cena hits to get the win to kick off the Best-of-5 series.

Intercontinental Championship Triple Threat Match: Edge (c) vs. Batista vs. Chris Jericho – Sometimes, I’m just happy to sit back and watch a match without worrying about discussing the ins and outs. This is one of those matches. All three of these guys are just about to hit their stride in WWE (or, in the case of Jericho, continue on their stride), but it’s clear all three of these guys were going to be important to the company for a while to come. Edge wins with a spear on Jericho, and I’m left a little disappointed that the match didn’t go longer. Half the card is finished in the first hour!

Eddie Guerrero vs. Kurt Angle – A rematch from their amazing WRESTLEMANIA XX match, where Eddie untied his boot to counter Angle’s use of the ankle lock. I didn’t appreciate Guerrero nearly enough as I should have while he was still active (and alive), but man, Guerrero is one of my favorite wrestlers now. And he works so well with Kurt Angle, who’s no slouch in his own right. The SummerSlam match is a callback to the WrestleMania match, with Angle pulling Eddie’s boot off himself to work over Guerrero’s ankle. It leads to the match ending, with Guerrero forced to tap out to the Ankle Lock. Two great athletes putting on a fun match is always worth a watch.

Triple H vs. Eugene – The character of Eugene really did have a lot of potential, and it could have been a very positive opportunity for WWE to promote a positive story of a less capable athlete overcoming the odds and doing very well for himself. But then, they put him in a program with Triple H, still licking his wounds from losing the World Heavyweight Championship to Chris Benoit at WRESTLEMANIA XX. As soon as Eugene had anything to do with Evolution, you knew this wasn’t going to end well for him. Much like the WRESTLEMANIA XIX battle with Booker T, where Triple H made veiled comments that came off as completely racist, Triple H spent the month or so before the Summer Slam using Eugene and setting him up for a very hard fall. Triple H needed to lose here. Not only would it have completely redeemed this story, but it would have been a feather in Eugene’s cap he could have shown off for years to come. Instead, the bully Triple H, egged on by Eugene’s evil uncle Eric Bischoff mocks, threatens and beats up the differently-abled Eugene all to set up… Triple H hitting Eugene with the pedigree and pinning him clean in the middle of the ring.

Yes, Eugene got some good offense in during the closing minutes of the match, using his savant-like wrestling skills to put the former world champion on the ropes. And there was even a little built-in gaga, with Ric Flair coming out to help Triple H and William Regal hitting him with brass knuckles, leading to Eugene being distracted enough for the “Cerebral Assassin” to take Eugene out. But I can only assume the interference was thrown in as an excuse to say, “See? It wasn’t completely a squash!” That defense, though, is a load of crap. WWE put Triple H in an angle where he made fun of and beat up a developmentally challenged person. Even the Toronto crowd, which Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler were referring to as “Bizarro Land” all night because of how willing they were to root for the bad guys, were hesitant to root for the guy beating up Eugene. And while Triple H didn’t achieve him goal of “putting Eugene out of wrestling forever,” he still didn’t get any come-uppance at the end. And this is why people have such problems with Triple H’s run from 2002 through 2005. 

From that waste of time, we move to another: the Diva Dodgeball Challenge, where the main roster women’s wrestlers take on the women from the Diva Search Challenge. The wrestlers lose pretty embarrassingly, and this segment is just an excuse to put the Diva Search women (many of whom went on to have successful wrestling careers) in skimpy outfits.

WWE Championship Match: John Bradshaw Layfield vs. The Undertaker – It’s JBL’s first real big challenge as WWE Champion, after beating Eddie Guerrero for the title in June. Making sure your champ can go toe-to-toe with the Deadman is a great way to establish a guy who hasn’t been in the main event all that long. And The Undertaker was just starting to get into a period where he could be relied upon for some great matches. He’s not there yet, but he had a fun brawl with the big Texan, which resulted in a disqualification win for champion Layfield. The only real memorable part of the match was ‘Taker chokeslamming JBL through his limousine roof after the match.

World Heavyweight Championship Match: Chris Benoit (c) vs. Randy Orton – The period of time between WrestleMania XX and SummerSlam 2004, where Benoit was the World Heavyweight Champion, seems like a fever dream all these years later. Despite holding the top title on Monday Night Raw, he was never really the focus of the show, and his reign ended somewhat unceremoniously with an RKO – outta nowhere! – to the young upstart Orton. Normally, losing the title means a rematch or two on pay-per-view and you stay in the main event for a while after. But the focus shifted immediately from Benoit to Orton getting booted from Evolution and Triple H challenging for the title. After losing the title here, Benoit came back into the ring and yelled at the new champion, “BE A MAN!” before shaking his hand. With the benefit of hindsight, it was like Benoit knew he wouldn’t be getting that strap back ever again. It’s probably for the best, sure, but it was a bit disappointing for a guy who had been a big Benoit fan for close to a decade.

Final Thoughts – There’s a lot to like here, outside of the Triple H hate crime. But this show feels like a turning point in 2004, where a promising year just kind of petered out as the main focus shifts completely to Triple H and Evolution.