REQUESTING FLYBY: The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (9: Corporate Ministry)
Oct 27, 2015 - 8:32:50 PM
The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania
(9: Corporate Ministry)
The Undertaker’s dark ascension through the spring of 1999 was intriguing on many levels, but at the time, most of the water cooler talk among wrestling fans centred on who the “Higher Power” was, or indeed, whether it was a corporeal entity at all or just a maguffin repeatedly mentioned in order to facilitate the Satanic heel turn. As it so happened, the Higher Power turned out to be perhaps the greatest reveal in company history, and one of the greatest swerves to boot. The thing is, the power of the moment is probably lost on anyone who wasn’t watching at the time; it’s been featured so often on countdown shows, listicles, memes and so on that it’s easy to forget just how powerful it was at the time. Really, what you need to do is watch the entire story unfold, from Steph’s kidnapping all the way to the moment Vince took the hood off; certainly, if you’re someone who thinks the Corporate Ministry was a stupid idea and that this was a Russo swerve too far, I suggest you go back to the TVs and give them a look. I think you’ll change your mind. What happened after the reveal is a different matter, but the construction of the revelation itself was masterful.
In the aftermath of The Ministry of Darkness targeting Stephanie, Steve Austin and Vince McMahon had become unlikely allies, with the combined might of the Ministry and the Shane led Corporation stacking the deck against them. Austin was forced to defend his title against The Undertaker, but Commissioner Michaels tried to circumvent any skulduggery by forcing Shane and Vince to be co-guest referees; however, the elder McMahon was ambushed to set up an injury angle and Shane as sole arbiter of justice. It was essentially Shane playing the Vince role and doing all he could to screw the Rattlesnake and put the title on his chosen guy, in this case The Phenom. However Pat Patterson stood in for Vince come the main event of Over The Edge, which took place in a sombre atmosphere following the heartbreaking fall (and later death) of Owen Hart. Due to that tragic incident, this installment in The Undertaker vs Austin rivalry has largely been forgotten, but if you can bear to watch that particular pay-per-view back- and I won’t sugar coat it, it’s a hard, hard watch- ‘Taker and Austin showcased their excellent chemistry as previously seen at Cold Day In Hell, Summerslam ‘98 and Rock Bottom.
Austin came out to save Patterson from a beating by Undertaker and the match got off to a hot start with Stone Cold raining down those trademark rights and lefts. Even so, Shane was the sole ref in the early going, but called it down the middle to start with. The bout descended into a fantastic- under the horrible circumstances of the night- brawl, with both men equally matched and doing all they could in kayfabe to totally incapacitate each other. Austin even tried to cerebrally take out the leg of The Phenom to ensure that the Tombstone was taken out of the equation. Very good psychology. ‘Taker used a cable to choke the Rattlesnake and also the steel steps. The Lord of Darkness had too much of the advantage during the middle stages, and the pace slowed to a crawl, but an Austin come back on the outside of the ring woke the crowd up, and Shane once again screwing Steve in Survivor Series style by refusing to count the three got a real reaction out of them. Brisco came down to try and count another three, but this time ‘Taker kicked out, before pummeling poor Jerry. Vince then limped down to try and save things, taking over the mantle of guest ref. Yet another Stunner looked like it would be the deciding factor, but Shane came around and prevented Vince’s hand from coming down a third time, causing a confrontation between father and son. When Stone Cold tried to break it up, Shane pushed the pair of them to the floor for ‘Taker to cover the Rattlesnake, and a fast count gifted The Undertaker his third WWF title.
This storyline was far from over, but it would have to be placed on hold as the wrestling world mourned Owen. WWF decided to suspend the storylines and run a special tribute episode of the flagship show entitled “RAW is Owen” where the superstars shared their memories of Owen and wrestled matches without supporting angles.The Undertaker decided to travel to see his good friend Bret Hart rather than participate in the show, and that really tells you a lot about what a loyal friend Mark Calaway is to those he respects.
By the time the storylines restarted, the merger of Shane’s Corporation and The Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness was already being referred to as The Corporate Ministry, and the new champion was quick to declare that the new faction would be sacrificing Austin to the Higher Power. Vince responded by bickering his way into a match with The Deadman with consequences; if Vinny Mac could defeat the Lord of Darkness, Austin would get a title shot in the main event, if not, The Rattlesnake would never get another title shot. After a heroic effort in which he was pasted all around the ring, McMahon got the DQ victory after ‘Taker decked the referee. Stone Cold’s subsequent rematch also ended in a disqualification after interference from The Corporate Ministry, after which he was tied up and the Higher Power came out in highly theatrical fashion dressed in a hood that hid his face...but we wouldn’t have to wait long for his identity to be revealed.
Raw opened up the next week with the entire Corporate Ministry in the ring with their hooded master. Shane was absent, but he soon came out to end the tease. On the tron, Vince McMahon demanded to know who it was, and the hood came down to reveal....a grinning Vince McMahon. “It’s me Austin! It was me all along!” he cried, in one of the most iconic (and repeated) moments in WWF/E history. Now, let’s break this down: the power of the swerve lay in the way that Vince had seemingly hired The Undertaker to harass his family, physically destroy him, and take away his own company, all to ensure that Austin was relieved of the title belt. The demonic Undertaker, it turned out, had been the ideal pawn in Vince’s never ending game of chess with The Texas Rattlesnake. Though this did somewhat detract from The Lord of Darkness in terms of having his own Machiavellian intentions, the story, the moment and the swerve were all awesome.
With all the McMahon drama that followed the aftermath of Vince revealing himself (Steph and Linda backed up Stone Cold, with hilarious results) The Rock would be the one to challenge The Deadman for a title match at King of the Ring after winning the contendership by beating Triple H and ‘Taker in what was billed as a triple threat but was effectively a handicap match given that two of the partipants were Corporate Ministry members. Dissension between Trips and The Phenom hinted at further cracks in the super faction (Ken Shamrock, The Big Bossman and The Big Show had already been dismissed for various failings) and foreshadowed the fact that it would not last all that long. The Rock’s promos about The Undertaker during this brief feud are hilarious and a must see, particularly the one where he sleep talks trash to The Deadman, and he also mimicked The Lord of Darkness’ penchant for ritual by tying him to a giant Brahma Bull symbol and raising him to the ceiling on it.
The match itself was very entertaining, and gives the lie to the opinion that some have that The Undertaker and Rocky didn’t have much in the way of chemistry. As soon as the bell rings, the Deadman cheap shots the ref. It’s one of those little Attitude Era logic blind spots that somehow or other this doesn’t cause a disqualification. I suppose you’re meant to think that the ref couldn’t see who hit him, but still. ‘Taker turns around straight into a Rock Bottom, but of course there’s no referee to count the pin. A replacement official comes down at a sprint, but he gets taken out by Paul Bearer, and there’s still no DQ called, by the way...the original ref wakes up in time for The Undertaker to hit a chokeslam on Rocky, but the challenger kicks out.
Following the drama of the first few minutes, we then get the obligatory arena-wide brawl, as Rock lays the smack down right over the top rope to spark that section of the contest. Rocky gets thrown into the steel barricade, choked and suplexed onto the concrete. ‘Taker puts the Brahma Bull back into the ring and goes for Old School but gets crotched on the top rope. The Great One spits water straight into the Deadman’s face and shoves him right off the apron. There’s great energy to this section of the bout and the crowd are wild for the pace of the action. Rock follows up by clotheslining the Phenom over the barricade, prompting a second wild brawl of the match, this time all the way through the crowd, following which the Deadman goes into the steel steps and the ring bell, but strangely enough, this goes in Undertaker’s favour in the end as he uses the bell to counter a chair shot, sending the steel into the challenger’s face. As ‘Taker climbs back into the ring, Paul Bearer uses a shoe to beat on The Rock, much to JR’s chagrin.
However, Rocky cannot be held down for long, and he counters a period of Deadman dominance with a signature Samoan drop, but following that big move, a double clothesline puts both men on the mat. Rock’s right hands give him the advantage after they beat the referee’s count, but this doesn’t stop The Undertaker going for the Tombstone; sadly for him that attempt ends in the Brahma Bull countering into a DDT. Very slick work from both men there. Rocky hits the People’s Elbow, but once again, the official is down and to add to the problems facing the Great One, Paul Bearer is pouring ether on a rag! However, it is The Rock that manages to get the foreign object, and he uses it on ‘Taker, but before he can cover the Deadman, there’s a Triple H run in, and a Pedigree seems to have secured the victory for the champion, but Rock dramatically kicks out. Soon after though, a Tombstone does secure the victory for The Undertaker. That was an odd finish- I really felt that the Trips run in should have been the decisive intervention. Having Rock kick out only for him to get Tombstoned moments later seemed like a redundant piece of booking. The bout overall was entertaining as hell, but also full of logic holes and “Attitude” moments of the less complimentary kind. Wort tracking down though, for a certainty, as this might be the least remembered of The Undertaker’s runs with the gold.
Attitude Era had a simple formula when it came to keeping viewers hooked; end each show on a cliffhanger. The conclusion of the ladder match at King of the Ring, where Shane and Vince won back full control of the company from “CEO” Stone Cold Steve Austin, made the 06/28 Raw a must see, and inevitably, it started out with the Corporate Ministry coming out to gloat about their victory. Shane gleefully announced the firing of Austin as CEO and Vince followed up by announcing that the Rattlesnake would be going all the way back down to the bottom of the ladder, working dark matches and disassembling the ring at the end of the night. Revelling in having his power back, McMahon Sr. booked Triple H vs The Undertaker for the WWF Title in an all Corporate Ministry affair, but these plans were soon disrupted by Stone Cold, who detailed the insurance plan he put in place before the King of the Ring pay-per-view. It turns out that while still CEO, Austin gave himself a new contract with more zeros on the bottom line. He also removed the clause from the previous October saying that he couldn’t physically harm McMahon without provocation. Furthermore, the Rattlesnake has “booked a little title match” for that very episode of Raw between himself and ‘Taker where any outside interference would result in Austin being handed the belt by forfeit. In the event, Austin won with a Stone Cold Stunner in a hot TV match, but got busted open and beaten down after the match by the Corporate Ministry.
The fact of the Redneck bleeding led to the Deadman challenging him to a First Blood match at Fully Loaded on the 07/04 episode of Sunday Night Heat, which was accepted with alacrity by Austin. On the 07/05 edition of Raw, the new champion gloated that he had shoved the master plan right up Vince’s ass, also telling ‘Taker that Payback is a bitch, referencing the First Blood contest between Austin and Kane from King of the Ring ‘98 when The Undertaker had cost his fellow Texan the match with a vicious chair shot. Vince came out, but couldn’t actually speak because the asshole chants were so loud! Vince said that the WWF wasn’t big enough for the both of them and challenged Austin to accept a new stip: if the Rattlesnake was to win, Vince would leave the WWF and never bother him again; if the Deadman were to win, Austin would never be able to challenge for the belt again. Vince explained that he was prepared to gamble in this way not only because of his faith in The Undertaker but also because the sight of Austin with the title made him want to vomit. Strong words! By the next week, Austin had consulted his lawyers and had the contract for the match drawn up, and he was adamant that after Fully Loaded we wouldn’t be seeing Vince again. As with the recent contract signings we’ve seen, all sorts of shenanigans resulted from the segment. McMahon came out in a wheelchair after a legitimate 4th of July weekend motorcycle accident and refused to sign the contract until Stone Cold did. Austin, for his part, would not sign until the Smoking Skull belt was returned to him. Kane’s music then came on, but there was no Kane there; it was all a ruse to distract Austin so Undertaker could ambush Austin from behind with the very Smoking Skull belt he wanted back. The champ was busted open yet again, with McMahon directing traffic. Taker filled a fountain pen with Austin’s blood and gave it to Vince, who signed in Austin’s blood.
On the go home, the Corporate Ministry came out to the ring and McMahon told the crowd to take plenty of photos as it would be the last time they would see Austin as the champion. Vince said that it was important for everyone to realise that he had placed not just his own career on the line, but ‘Taker’s career too! An angered Phenom told Vince in no uncertain terms that no one threatened him, that Vince made the deal so it was his problem; he would be opening up Austin for himself and for the belt. Now it was the chairman’s turn to get angry, as he told his crony to think about who it was that signed his cheques. He sensationally claimed in a fourth wall pushing moment to be the one made the Deadman! The Lord of Darkness responded by saying that no one owned him and no one told him what to do. Triple H then stepped in and ‘Taker threatened to “split his melon” just like Austin’s. The Game, furthering the tension in the ruling faction, told Vince that he shouldn’t trust the Phenom, it’s Trips who was the team player, as shown by King of the Ring, he knew that it was Vince that made him, he even stated that without Vincent K. McMahon he would be nothing (AH FORESHADOWING!). Predictably, he wanted Vince to substitute him for The Undertaker in the title match. As a result of the request, Hunter v Taker was booked, with the winner facing the Rattlesnake and the loser facing Rock in the strap match already booked between The Game and The People’s Champ. Austin’s music then hit and he added yet another giant vehicle to his collection, driving a bloodmobile into the arena! He flipped off The Corporate Ministry and did the beer toast from the top of the blood van. In the event, The Undertaker and Triple H wrestled yet another hot match on TV (less quality in the Attitude Era my ass) until Austin and Rock run ins made it a no contest. ‘Taker ended up locked in the bloodmobile by the Rattlesnake until Paul Bearer snuck into the arena to let him out, while Austin got to an unguarded McMahon, split him open, and signed the contract for Fully Loaded in the boss’ blood to show that turnabout was fair play.
One thing I always appreciate about the Attitude Era is the fact that they really committed to the gimmick matches they booked, so it was that the First Blood stip was a story of the month long build and through the night also, with both men carrying head wounds into the match. In addition, with Vince McMahon’s WWF tenure on the line in kayfabe, he is at the announce desk to reprise his role from the 80s and 90s. Even better, Vince sells it straight by putting over Austin’s resilience and chutzpah, despite his kayfabe antipathy for the Rattlesnake. The big fight feel is really strong with this one and the crowd are nuclear as the glass breaks and Stone Cold appears. As was common at the time, the heel tries to get the jump on the face by attacking on the ramp, and the two immediately begin a hot, tradmarked brawl with an interesting psychological dimension by dint of the fact that the majority of shots are head shots, playing on the fact that the winner of the bout will be the one who can bust his opponent open first. In fact, the Deadman rips and tears at the forehead of Austin, trying to get to his stitches and open him up that way.
The brawl spills all the way into the crowd, at which point Stone Cold rallies, but makes the mistake of turning his back on the Phenom to grab the steel steps, causing ‘Taker to reclaim the advantage. By the time they finally enter the ring, the cult leader is fully in control and choking the Rattlesnake out with his boot, the idea being that an incapacitated Rattlesnake can be busted open at will. When The Undertaker finally returns to measuring his opponent for punishing head shots, Vince roars his approval from the announce desk. However, we know that the storyline qualities of Austin’s character are a never say die attitude and an ability to both take and give a good ass whuppin’, and the Rattlesnake proves that turnabout is fair play by first using piston like rights and then ripping at the Deadman’s staples, which were a consequence of the backstage assault earlier in the evening. There’s then some excellent psychology as Austin decides to chop ‘Taker down to size by working over the leg. There’s chop blocks, stomps to the quad and a knee wrapped several times around the ring post. It just shows you how much more there was to Stone Cold than brawling, even post-injury. However, the Rattlesnake gets a bit too close and gets shoved with the boot all the way over the barrier, prompting another brawl through the crowd.
The tactics of both men remain predicated on head trauma, and both go into furniture of various sorts, Austin into the announce table and the Phenom into the steel steps. The desperation of both men to finish the contest is clearly carried through to the audience by the intensity of the action, shown by Stone Cold using a microphone cable to strangle ‘Taker before trying to cut him with the blades of a desk fan. Back in the ring, the Deadman avoids a Stunner but backs straight into Hebner, tripping into the ropes and getting tied up. Realising his opportunity, Austin goes for a chair, but has to take out Shane McMahon, who makes a swift run in, and the Phenom manages to escape his predicament. The match seems to increase in pace and intensity from here, coming to a fever pitch at just the right time. The Ministry leader unties a turnbuckle pad, but gets hit with a low blow and a Stunner. Vince hobbles in with his crutch in hand, but the Rattlesnake decks him. Turning around with a chair, Austin finds himself beaten to the punch, and ‘Taker whacks him with the chair for good measure. However, this is the WWF in 1999 we’re talking about, and X Pac, who had been in The Undertaker’s firing line during the build, suddenly appears to spin kick a chair back into the Deadman’s face. Austin follows that up with a shot with a TV camera, which finally busts the challenger open. Hebner is down and Austin has to deal with Shane, but when ‘Taker tries to get the champ up for the Tombstone, the ref sees the blood and calls for the bell.
With McMahon losing and being banished from his own company, and with Austin finally back in possession of the belt, the glue binding The Corporate Ministry came unstuck and it ceased to be. The major beneficiary of this was Triple H, who was to receive his first concerted main event push as a result of the break up. For The Undertaker, the effect was quite different. Having been a huge focus of the main event and title scene ever since Wrestlemania XIII, he was, I suppose, overdue for some time in the midcard, and that would take shape in the build to Summerslam as he hand selected The Big Show to form a tag team with. The “highlight” of this “Unholy Alliance” partnership was the two enacting some kind of ‘Easy Rider’ gimmick where ‘Taker cut a bizarre promo about riding Harley Davidsons into the desert and doing whatever they needed to survive, including wearing each other’s skins as a cloak (seriously). After defeating X Pac and Kane at Summerslam, the partnership came to an abrupt end as he tore his groin in a house show match. WWF’s out was to have ‘Taker order Show around and fight his battles for him. When McMahon demanded that The Deadman wrestle or lose his spot in the Six Pack Challenge at Unforgiven, The Phenom stated that he didn’t care and walked out on the company. Truthfully, he would begin a rehab process that would take a good nine months, and during which the first “The Undertaker is done” rumours began to circulate on the early internet dirt sheets.
What the end of the Corporate Ministry angle demonstrated was that The Undertaker was overdue another character overhaul, because The Unholy Alliance, in most respects, was a creative failure. However, the one aspect of it which stuck upon The Phenom’s return, the use of the Harley, would be a game changer. We would have a long wait to see Mark Calaway again, but when we did see him he had undergone his most radical change yet...no longer would he be the classic mortician character. He would be the American Badass.