In the last part of the 20th century, I returned to pro wrestling fandom after a long hiatus. While I was enjoying the full height of the Attitude era and the nWo every Monday night, one of the first things I learned was that while the two biggest wrestling promotions were airing pay-per-views every month, not all shows were created equal.

The WWF had it’s “Big Five” — I’m counting King of the Ring in with the original foursome of the Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam and Survivor Series — all of which were pretty much can’t miss events. Down south, WCW had Starrcade, and, um, not much else, though sometimes a Great American Bash or a Halloween Havoc would rise up and distinguish itself. I was fortunate enough to work at a restaurant in the late ’90s that ordered most of the PPV events and was able to watch most of them for free, but distinguishing which shows were more important than the others came in handy when I had to shell out my own hard earned cash.

Amazingly, the WWE/ECW and TNA are combining to put on even more pay-per-view shows in 2006 than we had at the turn of the century — a total of 27 by my count. The TNA lineup is less than two years old, with a few events changing months from one year to the next, so it’s probably too soon to say which ones will become that promotion’s must-see shows. A lot of effort seems to be going toward making Slammiversary the cornerstone of the schedule, but time will tell for the rest.

As for the WWE, the build-up to next month’s SummerSlam has me wondering if we aren’t down to merely a Big Two. King of the Ring has been reduced to a tournament held on Smackdown, a sad fate if there ever was one. The Royal Rumble is still a fun gimmick, but the pay-per-view as a whole has been suffering from a lack of creativity for several years and always struggles to overcome its status as the set-up man to WrestleMania’s closer.

Survivor Series hasn’t fallen as far, but the last few editions have paled in comparison to the show’s illustrious past. Not much needs to be said about Survivor Series ’97, the event that made Montreal a valid association with the word “screwjob.” [See Survivor Series screws the fans ] The WWF followed up the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) PPV of all time with a personal favorite of this columnist in 1998. That show featured the Deadly Game tournament and a heel turn by The Rock, arguably the most logical piece of writing done by the Titan creative team in the last decade [See The Rock wins Survivor Series tourney].

The ’98 show was excellent despite the absence of traditional Survivor Series elimination matches. Too often in the years since, the people in charge have contrived reasons to go back to the show’s traditional gimmick, which sometimes works (like in 2004, when Randy Orton’s winning team gained control of Raw for a month) and sometimes doesn’t (like last year, when the match served only as an appetizer for the return of The Undertaker). Fortunately, there’s still hope for Survivor Series. The WWE is bound to have something up its sleeve for the 20th anniversary show this November and for next year, when the show returns to the scene of the crime, as it were.

In the meantime, WrestleMania is still the granddaddy of them all, and we still have SummerSlam, a.k.a. the Hulk Hogan show. Whatever your feelings about the Immortal One still gracing wrestling rings in 2006, there’s no question that Hogan’s participation adds a big-time feel to the WWE’s end of the summer showcase. Last year’s card was correctly promoted as a historic meeting between two ring legends in the Hulkster and Shawn Michaels, a match made even more entertaining by HBK’s seeming dismay at having to do the job. [See Hogan-HBK steal SummerSlam]

A few weeks from now Orton will be the lucky victim… I mean, opponent. The Legend Killer seems to be able to do no wrong, as he went directly from his suspension to feuding with the most famous wrestler ever. Even if he takes the ‘L’ — which seems likely, since it is Hogan after all — he has to feel pretty lucky to be in this position. Add in some DX shenanigans and the probability that not one, not two, but three world titles will be on the line thanks to the inclusion of ECW and SummerSlam should be making a pretty good case that it once again deserves to stand with WrestleMania in the Big Two.

Now if we could just do something about those other 25 pay-per-views…

I would be remiss to end this week’s column without congratulating Triple H and Stephanie McMahon on the recent birth of their daughter. As an expectant father anxiously awaiting the birth of my first child later this year (though its gender will remain a mystery until it steps through the curtain, so to speak), I officially vow not to make the easy jokes about when we can expect to see the new McMahon on Raw. At least until the tyke gets her own entrance music. Then all bets are off.