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SummerSlam 2002: A look back at a landscape-shifting moment in WWE history

Brock Lesnar vs. The Rock was a perfectly executed passing of the torch that capped off one of the most entertaining pay-per-view events of the past 20 years in the WWE. Courtesy of WWE

WWE pay-per-view events come and go, but great moments stand the test of time. Fifteen years ago, as WWE was looking to re-establish its identity post-Invasion, SummerSlam 2002 produced a landmark moment that came to define the decade that followed in the WWE.

That night's main event marked the changing of the guard, and it was made all the more important by everything that preceded it. From high-octane action and brilliant storytelling, to a monumental comeback and a historical conclusion, the biggest party of the summer was never as hot as it was in 2002.

On a night when highlights were the norm inside New York's Nassau Coliseum, none shined brighter than the unsanctioned street fight featuring Triple H and the returning Shawn Michaels. After Michaels spent four years on the shelf with a back injury that seemingly ended his career, this epic encounter between longtime friends kicked off the second phase of Michaels' Hall of Fame career.

His first match since the main event of WrestleMania 14 in 1998 was equally impressive because of how much steam Michaels and Triple H picked up in such a short time. Michaels returned just one month before SummerSlam, ready to pick up where he had left off as he and Triple H wore Degeneration-X shirts to the ring and celebrated their return as such on the July 22 episode of Monday Night Raw. But with one pedigree to Michaels, Triple H became the ultimate villain.

Triple H took that indignity even further the following week when he ambushed Michaels in the parking lot. That was enough provocation to seal the deal, though it took an additional turn as an "unsanctioned" contest due to Michaels' injury history -- and with that, one of the greatest SummerSlam matches of all time was set.

The bout accomplished many things, but none greater than the story it told. The true nature of Michaels' comeback was ignited with the sound of the opening bell, and it was clear in the first few minutes of the match that he hadn't lost a step. Heading into the match, it was anyone's guess whether this was a "one more match" situation for Michaels, but as the near 30-minute masterpiece ebbed and flowed, it became clear that this wouldn't be the last time we saw him in the ring.

Michaels wasn't the only one who impressed, though. Triple H solidified himself as the best heel in the business with this performance, as he targeted Michaels' previously injured back throughout the contest and continued the assault after it concluded. Though Michaels came out victorious, Triple H was the one who exited the ring with a smile on his face after he attacked Michaels with his signature sledgehammer to the back, prompting Jim Ross on commentary to shout, "How in God's name can that human being be from this planet? Does he have no conscience? Does he have no heart? Do you have no soul?"

As emotionally taxing as that co-main event was, it was only one part of the eight-match card that was SummerSlam 2002. The event was ablaze from the get-go, thanks to a meeting of two iconic WWE stars nearing the peak of their powers.

There have been some great opening matches in WWE pay-per-view history: Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart at WrestleMania 10, Daniel Bryan vs. Bray Wyatt at the 2014 Royal Rumble, Bryan vs. Triple H at WrestleMania 30, just to name a few. The Kurt Angle vs. Rey Mysterio match at SummerSlam 2002 belongs near the top of that list.

The match began at full speed and did not slow down, thanks in large part to the time limitations the competitors had to deal with. Mysterio's aerial attacks and athleticism blended perfectly with Angle's reversal and strength-based offense. The two delivered a shot of adrenaline to the Long Island crowd that lasted the whole show.

The bout, which lasted close to 10 minutes, was about five minutes short of potentially reaching an elite level -- but it's as exciting a show opener as you'll ever see.

It was the start of the theme for the evening. On top of the captivating individual efforts put forth in the matches, the show was produced remarkably well in that it managed to tie its various themes and storylines together, most notably its emphasis on American pride through multiple matches.

In July 2002, a faction called the Un-Americans had blossomed from nothing, initially consisting of Canadians Lance Storm and Christian. They were later joined by fellow countryman Test. All three were in action at SummerSlam. After cutting a scathing anti-American promo, Storm and Christian, then the tag-team champions, took on the popular duo of Booker T and Goldust in what was a very entertaining championship match. Test interfered on behalf of his cohorts, allowing Storm and Christian to pick up the victory.

Advantage, Un-Americans.

America was down but not out as the American Badass himself, The Undertaker, looked for retribution in a match with Test -- and that's exactly what he got. Despite the efforts of Storm and Christian, who looked to make it a clean sweep for the Un-Americans, America prevailed in the form of a tombstone piledriver by The Undertaker, followed by his ascension up the turnbuckle while waving the American flag.

Before history was made in the night's main event, there was another title change as Rob Van Dam snagged his third Intercontinental championship from Chris Benoit in a grueling affair full of outstanding psychological tactics.

Match psychology was the key element in Eddie Guerrero's approach against Edge as well. The expertly worked match saw Guerrero target Edge's shoulder as a way to eliminate Edge's use of his patented spear. Though the game plan was carried out, this particular story ended with Edge surmounting the odds and nailing his spear through the pain for the victory.

The most controversial match of the night saw Ric Flair tap out to Chris Jericho while Jericho applied Flair's own figure-four leg lock, only for the result to get waved off as Flair grabbed the bottom rope before submitting. The arrogant Jericho was under the impression he'd won the match, only to be locked into Flair's figure four, which ultimately forced a submission in the other direction.

And then there was the main event. This extraordinary pay-per-view's headliner saw dominant 25-year-old upstart Brock Lesnar challenge The Rock for the WWE championship. Lesnar, who earned the opportunity when he became the 2002 King of the Ring, was looking to become the youngest WWE champion in history -- and the crowd was wholeheartedly behind him.

The Rock, one of the most popular WWE attractions of all time, started to see a dip in fan support following his victory over Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 18 earlier in 2002. That dip turned into a plunge in fan support by the time SummerSlam rolled around, as The Rock might as well have been the heel in this match. His career was headed to Hollywood, and the fans knew it.

Through "Rocky sucks" chants, The Rock and Lesnar, along with Paul Heyman, thrilled the hyped-up crowd with believable near falls. The Rock even hit the Rock Bottom on Heyman through the announcer's table. At the end of the day, though, it was all about Rock's enthusiastic passing of the torch to Lesnar, whom he believed to be the future of the company.

Lesnar would be the future, if only for the next year and a half, and this moment crystallized just how strong he could be at the peak of his powers.

A fitting end to one of the most memorable WWE events of the past 20 years.