REQUESTING FLYBY: The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (5: Suck It / That's Gotta Be Kane)
Sep 9, 2015 - 6:16:59 PM
The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania
(5: Suck It / That’s Gotta Be Kane)
With his entertaining and lengthy 1997 title run coming to an end following a misplaced chair shot from guest referee Shawn Michaels at Summerslam, The Undertaker was hell bent on taking vengeance on the man who had swung the chair. I give WWF all credit for how they handled this; it would’ve been easy to sell Michaels as an innocent bystander in the Bret vs ‘Taker match, but instead, they finally saw how much more juice HBK could have by returning to his heel ways, and pulled the trigger on an excellent turn and a classic feud between Deadman and Sexy Boy. Even more compellingly, the story of Kane, the long lost brother of The Undertaker, was constantly kept bubbling away in the background by Paul Bearer’s well placed Titantron promos. It would be an explosive couple of months, some of the best television Vince’s company have ever put on the airwaves.
Michaels started his turn by turning on the fans and defiantly stating that if The Undertaker had a problem with him, he would find HBK’s boot down his throat, before running for the hills at the familiar sound of The Undertaker’s gong. A promo by The Lord of Darkness was rudely interrupted by Paul Bearer, who called him a murderer and a hypocrite, before informing him cooly that Kane was coming, and he would be taking his revenge. Over the next couple of weeks, as the seeds of DX were sown, Bearer would continually distract The Undertaker, thwarting his attempt to get to Shawn Michaels and causing The Phenom to sit down with Jim Ross to give his own side of the funeral home fire story. On the go home show, the official creation of the Michaels/Helmsley/Chyna/Rude stable before our very eyes led to ‘Taker eating a series of heavy chair shots that left him bloodied, but unbowed, and filled with violent thoughts as Ground Zero approached.
Bizarrely, the match they had at Ground Zero was the first time Michaels and The Undertaker had ever met mano a mano in the ring; bearing in mind that this was two of the company’s top stars we’re talking about here, we should not forget just what a huge marquee bout this was. Their separate paths to the top of the wrestling business were well and truly about to collide, with classic results. This first one on one meeting gets heated before the bell has even rung, in keeping with a rivalry swiftly developing into a war; Shawn attempts to hide behind the referee who takes a massive right hand from ‘Taker so he can get to his hated enemy. I just love the psychology there; Undertaker is so anxious to get his hands on HBK that he takes out the official, allowing him several minutes to dish out heinous punishment before the bell even rings. The selling of the Michaels character change is all important here, as he flees his larger opponent in classic yellow-belly fashion only to get ordered back to the ring by Commissioner Slaughter, who HBK had made the mistake of alienating in the weeks prior to this event. This main event already feels very Attitude by this early point, and the Demon of Death Valley proceeds to gorilla press Michaels to the floor and then fling him into the house of the set that was an ever present prop at the IYH events. The heated nature of the bout and the pace of the beatdown, as well as the fact that Shawn is in super-bump mode, make the opening minutes of the bout truly fascinating.
Indeed, the in-ring tale that unfolds is all about Michaels being punished for his transgressions against his supernatural foe. He suffers huge haymakers, choke holds, turnbuckle bumps and a crotch of the top rope, all in the name of ‘Taker’s grisly brand of vengeance. In fact, we could see this match as the blueprint for the Undertaker/Edge feud that would follow a decade or so down the line. Needless to say, the live crowd are all for it, even popping for the exposure of Michaels’ backside when an escape from the ring is foiled by his opponent. It’s worth remembering that this was still very much the Phenom character who showed huge powers of recovery, so it’s not surprising that he sits right up from a Michaels neckbreaker, but for all of Shawn’s travails, the thought of an insurance policy is always on our minds, and indeed, it’s the entry of Ravishing Rick Rude that turns the tide; a ref bump allows brass knucks to be tossed to the Boy Toy who nails ‘Taker with them, finally gaining himself the advantage in the match at just about the half-way point. This is reinforced further by the interference of Chyna and Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who beat down a replacement official and then start to wail on the Deadman, double irish whipping him into the steel steps. It’s classic faction booking this- the foot soldiers helping their general get the job done and in this case in brutal fashion. The ludicrous yet entertaining amount of ref bumps continues when the zebra in the ring comes to only to be rammed straight into the turnbuckle; psychologically, it’s as if Shawn no longer wants to win; he just wants to beat on the Phenom and take him out of the game, which he proceeds to try and do with chokes and well-placed knees.
Given how heated the entire bout has been, it’s difficult to imagine it growing more so, but that it does, with bombs traded in the middle of the ring and a clothesline over the top rope which leads to ‘Taker falling once again into the clutches of Hunter and Chyna, allowing Shawn to come off the top rope to the outside with customary athleticism. Back in the ring, the band is tuned up, but the Demon of Death Valley has it scouted and catches the leg to a huge pop, creating an even bigger one when he nails first his opponent with his own brass knucks, and then the Blueblood, who makes the mistake of interfering again.The finish is glorious chaos indeed; Michaels kicks out of the knucks shot, which sends Undertaker into a rage that causes him to chokeslam the referee. A replacement official finally calls for the bell as ‘Taker battles three opponents; this post-match section is compelling, with Sweet Chin Music dished out to officials that try to stop the beat down, a fightback from ‘Taker and finally the intervention of the entire locker room that leaves the Demon of Death Valley standing tall at the end. A breathless encounter which laid the ground for the seminal Hell in a Cell match to come.
In a move that would seem strange today, the Hell in a Cell gimmick was actually explained to the audience and booked on Raw almost immediately after Ground Zero. The Undertaker’s mood was black as night as he explained his plans for Michaels inside the steel structure, but the cocky heel showed no fear, instead arrogantly interrupting the promo from the safety of the Titantron, pointing out how much of a survivor he was and how he would undoubtedly survive the Cell too, at ‘Taker’s expense. However, before the two men could once again get to grips with each other, they had business elsewhere; The Undertaker had a scheduled title rematch with Bret Hart, while Shawn had a European Title match against Davey Boy Smith. Both bouts would take place at One Night Only, a UK exclusive pay-per-view that all of us British fans of a certain vintage remember very fondly indeed. It’s a terrific show and anyone that hasn’t seen it should check it out on the Network forthwith.
The renewal of hostilities with Hart was particularly interesting on this side of the pond, chiefly because both The Undertaker and The Hitman were both hugely over with UK fans; the response those two got over here throughout the 90s is insane. Therefore, what would have been a fairly traditional rematch over in the States became far more interesting because the crowd was so split. Imagine Ambrose vs Owens...or John Cena vs almost anybody. Bret was in control for most of the match, but just couldn’t put his larger opponent away, despite virtually crippling The Deadman by working the legs throughout. The classic ‘Taker comeback win is denied him by DQ due to him going after Bret while he was caught in the ropes, setting up a massive brawl and a flurry of refs and stooges getting chokeslammed. This hard fought encounter was followed by Michaels’ controversial win over The British Bulldog in the main event (Shawn politicked to win a midcard belt he had no business carrying, after Bulldog had dedicated the match to his dying sister). As you can imagine, the heat he got from winning with a pass out from a figure four against a national hero (following a tonne of DX interference) was nuclear; rubbish quite literally filled the ring. We can certainly see how Shawn and ‘Taker’s respective hot outings in England set them up nicely for their ultimate test each other, and Badd Blood conveniently followed only two weeks later.
Shawn was billed as the “master antagonist” for this match, and you can just tell how much he was revelling in being a boundary pushing heel after his financially less than satisfying period as top babyface. The arrogance of the character shines through as he’s interviewed before the bout with DX arrayed behind him. He seems remarkably unconcerned by the prospect of being locked in an enclosed cage with a vengeful Deadman; no-one can outperform the Showstopper. It’s remarkable how much of this stuff got recycled into their Wrestlemania feuds in 2009 and 2010. The shock of the new is very much sold by the announce team as the preparations begin for the inaugural Cell match. Commissioner Slaughter checking under the ring for foreign objects with a flashlight highlights for everyone the pains being taken to ensure a fair result. It’s also one of those touches that present wrestling as a sport, which I personally always appreciate. By the time Michaels hits the ring, the crowd is amped up for some gladiatorial combat, and the Heartbreak Kid shows the first signs of feeling spooked when The Undertaker’s music hits and the legendary seven footer makes his painstaking way to the ring. The feeling out process demonstrates just the kind of confident storytelling you’d expect from two veterans, with the Deadman stalking and Michaels trying to keep his larger opponent at a distance, until he tries to rush him and gets a big boot to the face for his troubles. Meanwhile, the announce team discuss how Vince McMahon has been blamed by HBK for being forced into this match; Vince’s quip in response to Lawler “everything’s my fault these days” anticipates by several months the creation of McMahon the character. These are important, transitional times we’re inhabiting.
As the match is essentially a revenge tragedy, the revenger, ‘Taker, has the advantage in the early going, dishing out one of the most hellacious beat downs you’ll ever witness. From a huge backdrop that sends the Sexy Boy about nine feet in the air to contemptuous fling into the chain link of the cage, the Deadman is dominant and Michaels is in super sell mode. It’s compelling to watch, seeing Shawn try to escape time and time again only to be ripped down from the cage and pummeled. It’s literally a physical dissection, a match booked as physical torture. The cell structure is used over and over again in numerous ways, and Shawn looks utterly destroyed, which is a testament both to his selling and to the hard bumps he takes. Of course, that would take on a more sinister dimension at the Rumble, but we won’t go into that quite yet.
By the time Michaels finally manages to reverse his opponent’s dominance, he’s out on his feet and has to roll in the ring for a breather as Taker lies prone outside the ring, sound psychology from a master of that game. With the momentum with HBK, the possibilities of the caged environment are fully explored with some sensational high flying; a flying elbow off the chain link, a springboard flying clothesline show trademark high impact athleticism, which is followed up by several shots with the ring steps, again showing how much more violent the WWE main event style was becoming. These strikes with the steel are sold very effectively on commentary, with Lawler calling them a “leveller” and Ross claiming they weigh “150 pounds”. This theme is taken further, as HBK goes for a brutal piledriver on the steps. In the light of what had happened to Austin at Summerslam, it’s somewhat surprising that the spot was allowed, but then, Michaels was always a law unto himself, so he may well have contravened company directives anyway. By the time the steel chair comes out, a weapon which has spanned the entire feud, the Deadman has taken a beating every bit as severe as the one he himself dished out to Shawn at the beginning of the bout.
With ‘Taker tied up in the ropes, one is reminded of Wrestlemania IV and the Hogan/Andre re-match. Michaels runs right into a boot and is then backdropped right into a hapless cameraman, who Shawn precedes to beat on in order to garner extra heat as Vince and JR express their disgust on commentary. Back in the ring, the Showstopper maintains his advantage and is showing off the ultra-athletic style that made him a star. The set up to Sweet Chin Music is picture perfect, with the traditional flying forearm, kip up, flying elbow sequence preceding the tune up and the superkick. However, this is The Undertaker we’re dealing with and he sits up in an ultra dramatic moment that sells the seven footer’s supernatural gimmick to perfection. I’d be tempted to say that it feels outdated except that it works so damned well.
Crucially, in plot terms, Commissioner Slaughter has the cell opened so that the cameraman can be helped to the back...cue the two competitors spilling out of the cell to the outside. This is the comeback of the legendary Phenom, and it’s perfectly pitched to emphasise the revenge angle, as Michaels, busted open and panicked, elects to climb the cell to escape his implacable foe, but like Frankenstein’s monster, ‘Taker follows slowly, steadily, with a sense of the inevitability of HBK’s downfall gradually growing into the audience. Atop the cage, with anticipation at fever pitch, Michaels takes a backdrop onto the roof and is then military pressed for good measure. It’s eye watering stuff and a tribute to how far these two are willing to go in order to get over this brand new gimmick match and the epic nature of their feud. On the way down, and this is perhaps forgotten due to the way Mick Foley trumped it a few months later, Shawn takes an insane fall off the cage through a table at ringside. People would be raving about it still if it weren’t for Mick being even madder! The Sexy Boy’s face is a crimson mask, the visual is utterly compelling, and it seems that he must lose very soon as the action flows back into the cell and into the ring, with Slaughter re-chaining the door. A chokeslam off the top, a truly vile chair shot to the head...but then the arena goes black and an eerie organ sounds over the PA…
Is there any better debut in the history of wrestling than that of Kane? As the Big Red Monster makes his way to the ring accompanied by Paul Bearer, the announce team go crazy (Vince’s famous “That’s gotta...that’s gotta be Kane!” remains iconic for good reason). The stare down between the two seven foot behemoths is electric, but the fatigued Undertaker blinks first and gets a massive tombstone for his troubles. A destroyed Shawn Michaels is able to barely cover the prone Deadman for the win. But he doesn’t look much like a winner. What a match! Almost seventeen years later, it stands up as the very greatest cell match and a jewel in the crowns of both participants. If Attitude had been gradually creeping in through the first half of 1997, it came running through the door with this one. Magnificently, exquisitely violent. In the aftermath of this carnage, Kane would randomly attack other superstars, most significantly Dude Love, triggering the reversion back to Mankind in the process. The Undertaker refused to fight his own flesh and blood and sold his guilt at what had happened all those years ago, but he would have to fight the returning Jeff Jarrett at D-Generation X: In Your House, which was manufactured to keep the Kane/’Taker feud bubbling without giving away a match between them on the Road To Wrestlemania. The bout with Jarrett is honestly pretty poor, with a weird clash of styles and gimmicks, but Kane’s entrance to ringside during it is once again magnificently intimidating. Double J attempted to get The Big Red Monster to go after his brother in the same way as he had in the Cell, but instead, Kane chokeslammed Jarrett, giving him the DQ victory, before slapping his kayfabe brother across the face in a show of disrespect. ‘Taker, however, refused to bite back. It really was excellent, patient storytelling.
The Royal Rumble pay-per-view actually ended up being headlined by Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker for the third time in five pay-per-views. The way that their feud managed to be maintained over that period of time is actually something I miss in present day WWE; they managed to have ‘Taker face Bret and Shawn face Bulldog, Bret and Shamrock all while keeping the HBK/Deadman beef going at the same time. Nowadays, it’s all “PPV match, PPV match, PPV rubber match” but back in the 90s, the booking managed to be more cerebral. Kane’s arrival had put the Phenom out of commission at Badd Blood, but ‘Taker had come back to prominence at the December show and could then focus his attention on Shawn and DX. The return bout, this time for Michaels’ WWF title, would be under the Deadman’s signature Casket Match stipulation, and a lot of the work on Monday Night Raw to build the contest was based around ‘Taker’s success at that particularly match type. HBK, meanwhile, was in full on DX goofball mode and made countless jokes about the Phenom’s supernatural gimmick to show he wasn’t scared...until the man himself came roaring out of a casket to drag Shawn to hell. The build climaxed with DX attempting to woo Kane to their cause, but when the degenerates attacked Undertaker, his younger “brother” came to his rescue, setting up an intriguing title bout. Would Kane be there to even the odds against DX, or would Undertaker have to fight alone?
We already knew by this point just how much chemistry these two men had with each other after their epic battles at Ground Zero and Badd Blood, and after a build which contrasted D-Generation X’s sophomoric pranks and Undertaker’s supernatural power perfectly, the stage was set for another classic. From the opening bell, the familiar story of Michaels’ quickness against Undertaker’s strength and power is evident, and HBK’s attempts to stick and move are foiled by the Deadman catching him off the top turnbuckle, but the speed of the man from San Antonio sees him wriggle free and come off the ropes, but he gets caught with a huge back bodydrop...and that’s where one of the most fateful bumps in wrestling history occurs. When you watch it now, knowing what it means to Michaels’ future life and career, it’s nothing short of eerie, just like the Screwjob we looked at a fortnight ago. Shawn’s lower back collides with the casket and he crumples in a heap on the floor. It’s clearly a botch, and a painful one at that, but it doesn’t appear career ending, indeed, The Heartbreak Kid gets to his feet with a grimace and is soon being press slammed on the floor by ‘Taker. Who knows how much more damage Shawn did to his back by continuing to take those bumps through the match? He must have been getting through it on sheer adrenaline. He walks gingerly through the next passage of play, but is soon back to his usual mobility, foiling an Old School attempt and hanging him on the top rope, before getting caught on a crossbody attempt and dumped in the casket.
Now, people often rag on casket matches as being dumb, and I suppose there’s a certain truth to that in the sense that it’s one of several gimmicks that only make sense when either Undertaker or Kane is involved, but actually, I enjoy the psychology and cat and mouse action that accompanies the stipulation, particularly when you have a worker as adept at selling and moving as Shawn Michaels. The cunning of the champion is shown when he finds ashes in the coffin and flings them full in the face of The Phenom, and yet the seven footer’s resilience is shown yet again and he tosses HBK right off the apron. However, Sexy Boy is just as hardy as his larger opponent, and continually tries to turn the match into one of movement and manoeuvre, showcasing the sensational athleticism which would be so missed in the years to come. The Heartbreak Kid finally manages to get the advantage by Irish whipping The Deadman into the ring steps, and then shows how far he is willing to go by using those same steps to pummel his foe and then to assist his brutal piledriver (it’s funny to think how often that move was used in the months following Austin’s broken neck; I’d often retrospectively imagined it being perma-banned by Vince much earlier than it actually was). As soon as the advantage is traded, Hunter appears on his crutches, which had often been used as foreign objects over the TVs preceding the event, and are here too. As ever with casket matches, the rolling into the receptacle is premature, and the Phenom is able to uppercut the hell out of DX, who bump heroically for the comeback. I’ve often seen people diss this contest, but in truth it’s hot all the way through and has aged rather well. It seems to be the forgotten great of the Michaels/’Taker oeuvre.
From here, there is just so much fantastic action; the HBK five moves of doom routine, including an absolute beauty of a Sweet Chin Music which Undertaker sells like an absolute champ. The Deadman is put into the coffin once again, but the celebratory crotch chop from Shawn is beautifully premature and Michaels is thrown back into the squared circle, but the exhaustion of the Phenom leads to him falling back into the casket, at which point the Showstopper goes to the top and hits a thrilling elbow drop into the coffin itself! As the lid closes, the audience gasp, not knowing what on earth is going on until eventually Shawn is punched all the way out of the casket. The psychology of this is incredibly impressive, with the arrogance of HBK constantly causing him to butcher chances to win. On this occasion, the chokeslam followed by the signature throat slash taunt, and the Tombstone into the casket itself seem to have finally put paid to Michaels’ heel championship run, but a terrific piece of interference from Chyna, who low blows the ref, allows hired goons in the form of the New Age Outlaws and Los Boriucas to attack The Deadman. With chaos reigning, the lights suddenly go red, the organ sounds and Kane appears, just as the pre-match hype had promised he would. The crowd are absolutely nuts for this development but then the Big Red Monster decks his storyline brother and chokeslams him into the casket, whereupon he and Paul Bearer padlock it closed as DX make their escape with the title. What happens next is indicative of both the Attitude Era as a whole and of the Russo influence on booking. Kane, with his character’s affinity for fire, breaks open the coffin and pours gasoline into it, before setting the entire thing alike. It’s a shocking, horror movie turn of events that would do a great deal towards building to the Wrestlemania feud to come. Although it looks rather excessive now, even a little silly, it did a hell of a lot to get the Kane gimmick over and set up a money supernatural style rivalry between the two. It also elegantly steered Michaels away from ‘Taker’s clutches and towards his pre-destined date with the Rumble winner, who we knew by now to be Stone Cold.
Of course, it would soon become apparent that Kane had not permanently poetically rid himself of the older brother who burned him as ‘Taker was able to get out before the casket was burnt (like all the best magicians, The Deadman did not reveal HOW he actually did this. Definitely a case of everybody at home needing to suspend disbelief). The Deadman’s bell tolling interrupted Kane and Paul Bearer several times on television, with the manager denying that it truly was The Undertaker. Eventually, a sarcophagus appeared which ‘Taker sat up in to officially set up the match for Wrestlemania. In the event, one of the better big man matches in ‘Mania history to that point occurred, with The Deadman needing three Tombstones to put his brother away. The feud did not finish there though, by any means, as we will find out next time when we talk inferno match, title eliminators and the in ring relationship both men had with a certain Stone Cold Steve Austin as 1998 burned bright. The parallel feuds The Undertaker had with Shawn Michaels and Kane remain seminal for good reason; the first is one of the best three match series you could hope to see, whilst the second is perhaps the best slow burning story in company history. The growth ‘Taker had shown as an in ring performer and storyteller through 1996 and early 1997 allowed him to cement himself as one of the very best through the second half of 1997 and the start of 1998, and the fun was really only just getting started.