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Posted in: Requesting Flyby
REQUESTING FLYBY: The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (6: WILL SOMEBODY STOP THE DAMN MATCH?)
By Maverick
Sep 23, 2015 - 1:07:07 PM

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The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania

1997 had been a career year for the Undertaker in every sense; in ring terms, he was at his physical peak, with his matches with Vader, Mankind, Bret and Shawn in particular bringing the house down. More than ever, he was unconstricted by his gimmick and was working intense, brutal, movement filled matches against the premier workers of his day. Meanwhile, the slow burning Kane storyline which ran in parallel to the feuds with Hart and Michaels had allowed unprecedented character development, with the separation from Paul Bearer the year before driving a vindictive revenge narrative with Kane as the damaged patsy. However, 1998 would in many ways prove to be just as much a career year; as the Attitude Era reached its creative peak, with week to week must see television that interwove the paths of all the top stars in the company, The Undertaker would find himself being drawn ever nearer to once again embracing the dark side. By the summer of 1998, The Deadman had been a babyface for six unbroken years. A series of storyline frustrations would lead inexorably to a turn, and one of the most fascinating periods in 'Taker's career. Here, we examine the events that took place on the road to Summerslam, where the seeds were being planted for the later turn. The months we will discuss here are some of my favourite in company history.

We left off last time with The Phenom going 7-0 at Wrestlemania by defeating his "brother" Kane in an underrated big man match at one of the more underrated iterations of the Showcase of Immortals. After all of the build to the big match, you could be certain of the fact that Paul Bearer would not be finished there, and indeed, he was not, with their feud becoming more occult as the weeks went by. One hilarious- to modern eyes at least- skit saw the Big Red Monster “desecrate the graves” of their parents (Undertaker had prayed to them before the ‘Mania match) with a sledgehammer and fire, and soon after, the Phenom was chokeslammed into “the coffin of his mother”. With the grudge rematch nearing, it was booked as the first ever Inferno Match; the outside of the ring would be on fire and the only way to win would be to set your opponent ablaze. By 1998, WWF were experimenting more and more with these sorts of gimmicks, particularly those of the hardcore variety, and the Inferno Match was one of the first prominent examples. It was also significant in the sense that it was billed as a speciality match for Kane, just as casket matches and so on were unique to The Undertaker. While that match remains quite an impressive spectacle, with the outside of the ring on fire and the arena lights low, the quality of the actual bout is quite honestly rather poor. The slow, plodding nature of the action as the two big men circle each other trying to find a chink in the armour of the other makes the first half of it a difficult watch, whilst the faster paced and harder hitting second half of the match is marred by unnecessary Vader interference. Even the ending seems anti-climactic, with a chair wielding Big Red Monster kicked into the apron so that the fire glances against his arm long enough to set it on fire. It’s a contest that many remember fondly, though having watched it back twice in the past year, I honestly can’t think why. The place the storylines would go to over the next few weeks was far, far more interesting.

After Kane vanquished Vader in a mask vs mask match at Over The Edge: In Your House, The Undertaker acted as the special enforcer in the main event of the same show between the corporate version of Dude Love and Stone Cold Steve Austin, chokeslamming Brisco and Patterson through tables when they attempted to count dirty pinfalls on Austin, foiling McMahon’s plan to get the belt off the blue collar champ he despised. It was an intriguing and somewhat gutsy way to use The Phenom, given the way he could’ve drawn wrestling somewhere on that card, but it worked out perfectly. The ending of Over The Edge put Vince and ‘Taker on something of a collision course, and The Deadman appeared on the Raw the night after to deliver one hell of a fourth wall breaking promo, one of the great forgotten speeches of the whole era, in fact. Starting “from the beginning” he broke down his own kayfabe and real history with the WWF in compelling fashion. Vince McMahon, once upon a time, was the kind of person who would give anybody an opportunity. He gave ‘Taker a job when no-one else would. However, once the Deadman’s loyalty was assured, he “became the slayer of the dragons”, with all the freaks and giants placed in front of him, the type of opponents he did not want his “hand picked champions” facing. It was only when The Undertaker had made Vince’s kingdom safe that he was allowed a shot at the belt, but those tenures never lasted long, because at the end of the day, The Phenom was not McMahon’s idea of a top guy. Even when his family tragedies were pimped out for ratings, he never “lost his smile” but now he demanded the opportunity due him, a shot at Austin’s title. McMahon’s response was to ask what Undertaker had done for him lately and to set up a Number One Contender bout between the Phenom and his storyline brother Kane. During that match, Foley re-emerged as Mankind to interfere and cause Kane to win, putting him back in Paul Bearer’s stable and back in McMahon’s good books.

This was the start of a multi-month WWF Title storyline which would see the company all the way through to Wrestlemania XV and comprehensively defeat WCW in the ratings. And it was quite simply some of the best wrestling television ever put together. The next week, The Undertaker spent the entire episode kicking ass and taking names in a bid to get McMahon’s attention. Vader, Commissioner Slaughter, Mark Henry, nobody was safe from an amped up wrestler with a point to prove. The boss’ response was to call in a large division of cops to keep the Deadman away from his “Humanitarian of the Year” award presentation. In the event, Stone Cold ruined the ceremony, but was then ambushed by both Kane and Mankind, who sprang from a casket to drag Austin to hell. The talk in the kayfabe was that it was all a conspiracy by Vince, so the 06/15 edition began with Sable, McMahon’s newly hired corporate assistant, coming down to ringside to read a statement from the Chairman denying involvement in any plot against Stone Cold, blaming The Undertaker for Mankind and Kane’s assault on him. Austin came down to the ring to threaten McMahon, and ‘Taker himself came out to refute the accusation and was in the process of doing some threatening of his own when Paul Bearer brought his twisted proteges out to support Vince’s story and challenge the two babyfaces to a tag match...in the Hell in a Cell. The way that the top names in the company were involved with each other in such a fruitful cross pollination of feuds was really quite remarkable, and waiting for the next installment in the story each week was torture, purely because the saga was so addictive. The actual cell match never took place, since Bearer locked himself inside the cell as Mankind and Kane attacked Austin outside the ring. However, Undertaker appeared through the ring, as he often did around this time and set about bloodying his former manager. Kane attempted to find a way into the cage, but was unsuccessful, and ended up brawling with Austin on top of the cage. The cross pollination of the feuds was perfect, with the big four main event talents of the time period (Trips and Rocky were still midcarders at this stage) all over each others’ business. It meant, of course, that 1997’s trend of The Undertaker being relevant and unencumbered by monsters continued. And thank goodness for that.

The go home show featured Kane’s first ever “promo” though it is perhaps fruitless to call it that, since he only spoke a single line through a voice box. McMahon announced that Kane was challenging Austin to a “First Blood” match at King of the Ring, and the monster then told the crowd and viewers at home that he would set himself on fire if he did not get the job done. Paul Bearer, nursing his injuries, was shown watching this unfold at his home, but this backfired later in the episode when he was assaulted by Undertaker, which led to Kane going made backstage, with Mankind unable to calm him down. Speaking of Mankind, his constant interference in ‘Taker’s business led to them being booked to battle inside Hell in a Cell. This was appropriate in so many ways, as their feud in 1996 was the first to really show the Deadman’s range in the ring. To this day, Foley is The Phenom’s best opponent, in my view. Nobody at the time had the kind of win/loss record against ‘Taker that Mankind had. The final act of this intertwined foursome involved Austin being covered in fake blood in the middle of the ring, with Kane telling him disturbingly that it would be real come the pay-per-view. I’m sure that I hardly need remind you what was coming next at King of the Ring 1998, but let’s take a trip down memory lane anyway…

That night in June 1998, the second ever Hell in a Cell match took place, and despite its inferior wrestling quality compared to the original between The Undertaker and Michaels, it immediately eclipsed it due to the insane action that unfolded over seventeen crazed minutes. A few days before the event, Foley confided in Terry Funk that he felt that he could take a bump off the roof of the structure itself after Funk had suggested it as a joke. It turned out to be anything but, as Mankind began the match atop the cell and The Undertaker made the climb to join him. Moments later, after a brief exchange of blows, The Phenom flung his opponent from the top of the structure to the announce table below. The distance from the cell to the table, including the angle of the fall, was a whopping 22 feet. Even for a professional bump taker like Mick, it was an insane risk. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Hell, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anything like it to this day, apart from the second bump, that is. After miraculously climbing off the stretcher wheeling him to the back and staggering towards the ring, Foley scaled the cage again and began to fight the Deadman atop it. In the HBK match, ‘Taker had backdropped his opponent on the chain link roof. With Mankind, a choke slam was employed...and the cell gave way. This was not supposed to happen, unlike the first bump. The roof caved in and Foley’s 290 pounds flew with shocking velocity back first onto the mat; no soft landing there. He was legitimately knocked out; Terry Funk was first on the scene and has said since that he thought at first that Mick was dead. The first bump had dislocated his shoulder, the second shattered his jaw. He had a tooth tear through his nose. Remarkably, the match not only continued, but was wrestled in a competitive fashion, with Foley taking a couple more brutal bumps on thumb tacks for good measure. The entire thing just had such a surreal air of authenticity, since the injuries to Foley were very much real. JR and Lawler’s commentary was never better than that night, simply because of the sheer intensity of the moments they were witnessing on our behalf “GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! THAT KILLED HIM! AS GOD IS MY WITNESS HE IS BROKEN IN HALF!” and “WILL SOMEBODY STOP THE DAMN MATCH?!” are absolutely legendary calls for good reason, and they enhance the drama tenfold. Finally, a chokeslam on the tacks and a Tombstone ended matters. Needless to say, after that spectacle, The Undertaker looked incredible in kayfabe terms; Mick Foley had the happy knack of doing that for his opponents. But the fateful kayfabe events of King of the Ring 1998 were not finished yet. There was a main event still to come.

Incredibly, during the First Blood main event between Austin and Kane, Foley was able to make his scheduled cameo despite his injuries (indeed, Mick has since joked about it being the slowest run in ever) which also brought out The Undertaker, ostensibly to help Austin fight off his brother and Mankind, but the sick chair shot swung by The Phenom instead busts The Rattlesnake wide open, gifting Kane the WWF Championship. The consequences of such an action would be huge. Kane’s shocking victory in the title match led to him being paraded as corporate material by McMahon, Brisco and Slaughter, but the happy scene was interrupted by Austin, who challenged the Big Red Monster to a rematch that very night. Much to McMahon’s chagrin, Kane accepted. The Undertaker, meanwhile, was still obsessing over getting a title shot himself, going with a kind of tweener vibe for the whole month, explaining that he did what he had to; cause Kane to win so he didn’t burn himself alive. McMahon however, came out to tell the Deadman that the real reason why he smashed Austin with the chair was because he thought that Kane would be an easier opponent in a title match. In the event, Kane and Austin’s rematch was in many ways better than that on the pay-per-view, and Stone Cold got the clean win with the Stunner, taking out Undertaker afterwards for good measure. A double sit up by the brothers as Austin made his way to the back was an excellent visual to end the show on.

The next week, The Undertaker demanded a title shot yet again, and Austin was willing to give it to him, but Vince, ever the antagonist, came out to tell them that he would never “let the lunatics run the asylum” and that the main event of Fully Loaded would in fact be a tag team match between the team of Kane and Mankind and the team of Austin and Undertaker, thus combining the two top feuds from the previous PPV. Vince then informed them the next title match would take place at Summerslam and that the number one contender would be crowned that evening in a triple threat match. In the event, the Deadman seemed to no show the match, so it appeared that the tag partners were going to have to go at it. Mankind cut a promo saying he wouldn’t hurt his friend under any circumstances, and was pummelled for a quick victory. However, as soon as the pin was counted, the mask came off and “Kane” turned out to be Undertaker in disguise. Although it was kind of cheesy, and they’d go back to well on the “disguise” thing a few more times over the next couple of years, it was at least creative and entertaining writing. The story over the final two weeks of the build became about whether Kane and The Undertaker were in fact secretly in league with each other. McMahon constantly planted the seed in Austin’s mind and the announcers sold the possibility in a big way. This earned the Chairman of the Board and his lackeys a chokeslam each. During a handicap match between Austin and the new tag champions (Kane and Mankind defeated The New Age Outlaws on the 7/13/98 show for the straps and then survived a rematch when it degenerated into an inter-stable brawl), ‘Taker came out and hit Kane with a chair, but there was doubt over whether he in fact tried to strike Austin. The Rattlesnake took no chances and took out all three of his fellow main eventers to stand tall going into the pay-per-view, where Austin and ‘Taker would face Kane and Mankind for the tag straps.

The frenemies theme is definitely played to throughout in the tag match that took place at the pay-per-view, with the Rattlesnake flipping off The Undertaker just after the bell has rung, and the audience are mad for Austin’s brand of devil may care rebellion. The man from Victoria was always at his best when he considered everybody an enemy, even those who were supposedly on his side, and that’s exactly the tension we have at play here, since ‘Taker is the number one contender for the next pay-per-view and would therefore have a vested interest in damaging Austin’s confidence and health. The Rattlesnake takes it to Mankind in the early going, dominating his disturbed opponent with strikes and power moves, until the heel team’s superior co-operation leaves the WWF champion exposed in the opposition corner. However, Austin breaks out of these bonds and once more goes on the offensive, this time on Kane.

Undertaker is finally tagged in at the five minute mark and his face to face battle with the Big Red Monster needs to be contextualised by saying that the entire point of this four man angle was that the two brothers may have been working together. Therefore, the Phenom’s side Russian leg sweep is perhaps the proof the audience are looking for that Undertaker is in this match to win it. Indeed, the Deadman flips off Austin before going to work on Mankind, who has just tagged in, showing that there’s a spirit of oneupmanship between partners that want to win, much as with Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit a few years later. Undertaker’s Old School (probably “middle aged school” at that point I guess) fails to deter Mankind, who comes back with strikes and turnbuckle shots, before a blind tag to Kane leads to the Deadman eating a chokeslam. It is, however, comparatively early in the match and the Big Red Monster does not go for the cover. As ‘Taker plays face in peril, the crowd calls for Austin. It’s classic tag psychology, and the four main eventers do it as well as any pair of seasoned tag teams. Austin is forced to break up the count after a double arm DDT from Mankind, but outside the ring, Kane gets in some cheap shots on the Deadman.

With Foley in the ring, you’re always guaranteed a high spot or two, and indeed his Mankind guise takes a table bump after being shoved right off the apron by Stone Cold. However, further beatings for Undertaker outside the ring are allowed to take place without the Rattlesnake bestirring himself, emphasising how Austin is prepared to let his Summerslam opponent take damage in advance of that event. An eventual hot tag sees the champ come in and wail on Mankind, and when Kane is tagged in, he gets the treatment too, including a vicious chair shot for a close two count. However, Kane turns things round with a hard Irish whip into the turnbuckle and begins to pound on Austin. Inevitably, the action spills outside, and Kane sets about wearing down the Rattlesnake. Again, it’s nothing ground breaking, but it’s good, old fashioned tag wrestling with an Attitude tinge and it’s a lot of fun. Austin is very much the face in peril at this point, and the announcers speculate that ‘Taker is enjoying watching the Rattlesnake get dominated by the monsters tagging in and out of the ring, the idea being that Team Bearer is the more accomplished team, the team that are on the same page, unlike the dysfunctional thrown together babyfaces. Stone Cold proves unable to make the hot tag to the Deadman, who makes no effort to save his partner from Kane, and in fact, he only steps in the ring when Austin is trapped in the opposite corner, actively taking the referee’s attention away from Kane and Mankind’s illegal activities.

There’s a definite tweener vibe to all of the Phenom’s behaviour in the contest at hand. Stone Cold gets a massive chokeslam but is somehow able to escape the subsequent Tombstone and hit the Stunner on Kane. You know those accusations about John Cena in the present day? It might not be a popular opinion, but you can pin that type of thing on Steve Austin more than a few times during the Attitude Era. Mankind gets the Stunner also when he runs in and all three men are down as ‘Taker looks on from the apron. Austin manages to crawl almost to his corner, but the Deadman does not look the least bit interested in the tag, and Kane has hold of the Rattlesnake’s leg. Then, just as you doubt the honesty of The Undertaker, he stretches his hand out for the tag and opens up on the heels, chokeslamming them both before Tombstoning Kane for the 1-2-3. This match was nothing out of the ordinary, just a very good tag bout in the main event slot featuring four men who would all be hanging around the gold as the summer months would wear on. Good booking, good match, and a creative way to use the talent involved. Now all eyes would be on the Summerslam singles match between The Rattlesnake and The Deadman.

Through all of the kayfabe shenanigans that took place from April to July 1998, The Undertaker had kept his sanity and perspective intact, but the character’s obsession with the title and Vince’s constant aggravation of him was taking its toll. We could read the destruction of Mankind as a catharsis, as a kind of expression of the frustration and barely contained wrath of a demonic entity just waiting to possess its bodily host. And the second half of 1998 would see that villainous side re-emerge fully formed into the darkness, with compelling results.