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Posted in: Requesting Flyby
REQUESTING FLYBY: The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (7: The Highway To Hell)
By Maverick
Oct 7, 2015 - 2:33:48 PM

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The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (7: The Highway To Hell)

Last time, we started off with the idea that the previous six years of being a babyface was weighing heavily on the shoulders of The Undertaker in kayfabe terms. The inexorable rise of Steve Austin, the explosive arrival of his storyline half-brother, the refusal of Mankind to admit defeat, the machinations of his former manager Paul Bearer, and the endless manipulation of machiavellian boss Vince McMahon had all taken their toll on The Deadman, but perhaps his biggest obsession at this time was the WWF Championship, which he had last held at Summerslam 1997, exactly a year before. As I made clear in last week’s installment of this series, this was perhaps the greatest multi-layered main event storyline of all time, and Vince’s desire to remove Austin as the face of his company was a direct motive for how he treated The Deadman. The resulting frustrations would eventually push The Phenom over the edge into a full blown heel turn and his darkest character yet...but as with everything in the Attitude Era, we were made to wait for it. Isn't it funny how much the slow burn has been used for 'Taker in his career?

The build to Summerslam began with the Deadman demanding an apology from the Rattlesnake. Instead of Austin, ‘Taker was presented with Vince McMahon and his attendants. Vince booked the Phenom and his tag partner Stone Cold to defend the belts against The New Age Outlaws in the main event slot. Austin and Taker, despite their friction, retained the belts in a good, competitive match. Afterwards, the Big Red Monster appeared to beat down Austin, reigniting conspiracy theories about his relationship with his storyline brother. The brief tag reign of Austin and ‘Taker made for excellent television in late July and early August, and on the 08/03 episode of Raw they defended the belts against The Nation team of The Rock and Owen Hart in a superb TV tag match main event which ended in a schmazz after numerous run ins from Kane, Mankind and the Outlaws. During that brawl, Kane “accidentally” careened a chair off Mankind’s head, furthering the “conspiracy” angle. Undertaker, for his part, had continually denied these rumours, even telling Austin that he would, until Summerslam, be the “safest S.O.B in the WWF” because the Deadman had no interest in a tainted victory over him. Furthermore, ‘Taker was serious about being a fighting tag champion and encouraged Austin to “be a man” by being his partner in reality as well as name.

The stories on WWF television were so brilliantly intertwined at the top of the card by now that all sorts of interesting angles diverged off Stone Cold and The Undertaker. Mankind began the 08/10 Raw going crazy backstage, demanding answers, since Kane had not only hit him with a chair in the previous week’s schmazz but had also shoved him off the apron and through a table on Sunday Night Heat...except that “Kane” had turned out to once again be The Undertaker in the Kane costume. The only person, Mankind said, that ever told him the whole truth was Vince McMahon. The man himself, in brilliantly Machiavellian fashion, told Mankind that he would do him a favour and tell him that those two monsters are one and the same and not to trust either of them. This story was enhanced by the main event, a four corners match for the tag straps featuring ‘Taker/Austin, Mankind/Kane, The New Age Outlaws and Owen/Rock. During that match, Mankind kept his distance from Kane for his own safety, but the two once again became tag team champions when Kane pinned his brother following a chokeslam and a host of run ins.

Having lost the straps of course, The Deadman and The Rattlesnake no longer had to co-exist, and the feud kicked into high gear the next week as Austin drove a hearse into the arena and declared that he would put his foot up ‘Taker’s dead ass and shove him in that hearse. The man he was confronting at the end of the show turned out to be Kane in The Undertaker’s gear- they pulled that twin magic stuff pretty much for the entire programme- and at the end of the show, Kane and Undertaker left together in the hearse with Austin left cursing after them. This seemed to indicate a definite alliance between the two brothers, and this was confirmed on the go home show when the opening segment involved a smug Vincent K. McMahon saying that he was glad they had finally “come out of the hearse” as allies. He warned the brothers that they might not need his help at Summerslam, as the two of them would overmatch Stone Cold, but at some point they would need his “strategy, wisdom and friendship”. An emotional Paul Bearer begged Kane to say it wasn’t so, but the brothers savagely beat down their former manager (and storyline father in Kane’s case) and then dished out the same to Mankind when he appeared. When Austin finally surfaced, he let them know that they should grow eyes in the back of their head because he’d be taking one of them out that evening to even his odds for the summer classic. All in all, the prospective match between The Undertaker and Austin was built to superbly and it was comfortably the biggest and most hyped match to take place in a WWF ring since The Montreal Screwjob. It felt massive at the time, and still seems so today.

Interestingly, when the bell rings for the Summerslam match, both men compete in technical wrestling; not what you’d expect from these two master brawlers, but an interesting psychological touch nonetheless. However, the punches and kicks soon come out to play, followed by the much-loved Lou Thesz Press routine of the Rattlesnake which always got a big pop, except here, The Deadman intercepts him and deposits him injured neck first on the top rope. However, the champ’s disadvantage doesn’t last long and the two manfully bash each other and attempt to injure each other for the next few minutes of the match. The story is that the two are very even and hard to separate, with the two gaining respect for each other as the contest wears on. Kane’s entrance adds some high drama and fits in with the overriding theme of conspiracy running into the pay-per-view, but The Phenom unexpectedly sends his brother to the back, emphasising his determination to win fairly. Austin goes back to the knee, taking advantage of the distraction to ‘Taker, ramming the leg into the apron, but the challenger manages to grab the Rattlesnake by the neck and chokeslam from the outside in, which is one hell of an impressive spot. Following that high spot, the fight inevitably spills out of the ring with a battle down the ramp and through the crowd, ending with Stone Cold going over the crash barrier. It was unusual for the Rattlesnake to get the worst of an exchange outside the squared circle, so the commitment to booking the challenger strongly must be applauded. Back in the ring, a Stunner is countered in impressive fashion with a backdrop over the top, and Austin takes more punishment outside the ring, with a slam onto the Spanish announce table and a legdrop off the apron that somehow doesn’t break the table. Brutal moment. This almost leads to a double count out, but that would have been a dumb way to end a heated title match, and thankfully both men are booked to make it back into the ring. Austin gets a second wind here and takes control, going through the typical Austin five (three?) moves of doom, until ‘Taker kicks out of a Stunner that the champ didn’t get all of. However, minutes later Austin’s victory comes when Old School is countered into a much more resounding Stunner for the three count. Sportingly, The Deadman hands the Rattlesnake his title match in a show of respect that JR puts over huge on commentary, but you just knew that this was going to be the beginning of a character shift for The Undertaker which had been subtly hinted at ever since Wrestlemania.

Vince opened up the 8/31 show (on a Saturday due to U.S Open tennis) by announcing that he had a Machiavellian masterplan to lead Austin to a “breakdown” on mental and physical levels. In fact, he guaranteed that after Breakdown: In Your House, Austin would no longer be champion. The chairman of the board went on to savagely criticise The Undertaker for sending away “insurance policy” Kane during the Summerslam main event, stating that the Brothers of Destruction were becoming a laughing stock backstage when they should be the single most dominant force on the roster. An incensed pair of seven foot monsters appeared on the ramp and McMahon made a quick getaway, but it turned out that this goading was all a part of Vince’s scheme as Undertaker and Kane proceeded to spend the rest of the evening interrupting various matches and angles to destroy Steve Blackman, Vader, Marc Mero, Scorpio and The Rock (that last one after the People’s Champ had actually arrived in the ring to help his stablemate D’Lo, who was the brothers’ initial target). As the two demons continued their reign of terror on Sunday Night Heat, holding Patterson and Brisco hostage, Vince announced that they would face Austin in a triple threat match at Breakdown, but that only Austin could be pinned in the match, making it essentially a two on one handicap match. As far as McMahon was concerned, the only doubt was in which monster would pin Stone Cold to become champ. By the middle of the month, the plot was thickening even further; McMahon announced to the triple threat participants in an in ring segment on the 9/14 episode that he was fed up with Austin as champ and after Breakdown he wouldn’t have to put up with it anymore. He granted ‘Taker and Kane a shot at the top strap in return for something from them as “business is business” (hmm, that sounds familiar…). Kane and Taker had now been cast as his protectors. He finished the promo by announcing that after Breakdown, people would be saying “Vince McMahon didn’t screw Stone Cold...Stone Cold screwed Stone Cold” in an echo of the infamous post-Montreal promo on Bret Hart. Even almost a year later, this was guaranteed heat.

At the outset of the Summerslam match itself, Stone Cold Steve Austin wastes little time in finding a way to even the odds, given the conspiracy theory theme, decking The Undertaker with a steel chair during the Phenom’s entrance. When Kane does try to get involved, he also gets a chair upside the head and the two brawl down to the ring. It’s classic Austin and the crowd are mad for it. With Kane occupied with trying to defend himself against the Rattlesnake, Undertaker finally manages to get to his feet and comes down with one hell of an irritated look on his face, steel chair in hand. After a few exchanges outside the ring, Undertaker is thrown into the steel steps at ringside, and Kane gets posted and beaten down on the apron. Austin gets the Stunner on the Big Red Monster, but the count is broken by ‘Taker, emphasising the huge problem for the Rattlesnake; despite taking on two monsters by himself, even he can’t turn that advantage into a win. This is brilliantly sold by Lawler and J.R on commentary, with McMahon’s storyline masterplan front and centre. I love a match with a good story and this one delivers that in spades. Outside the ring, The Phenom takes it to Austin, using the ringside furniture with brutal effectiveness. He rolls Stone Cold back in the ring where he keeps Austin in the corner, using chokes and strikes; I like the psychology of this since it shows how a man like the Rattlesnake needs to be worn down to prevent his explosive bursts of offense. A brief comeback flurry from the champion is cut off by a beautiful flying clothesline, a real mark out ‘Taker trademark, and he gets a long two count. Kane re-appears at this juncture to get clotheslined straight out of the ring by Austin, but The Deadman is behind him and knocks him straight to the canvas. This is great booking, keeping the Texas Rattlesnake looking like a total boss but simultaneously illustrating the mountain he has to climb in order to keep his title.

The match settles into a structure of Stone Cold getting in some offense on one brother and trying to keep the other on the outside, only for the odds to become too much; after a smooth swinging neckbreaker on The Undertaker puts the champ in charge again, he is dragged to the floor by The Big Red Monster for some more smashmouth brawling to thrill the crowd in attendance at the Copps Coliseum, and when the action spills back into the squared circle, the Rattlesnake fights for his life against both the seven foot behemoths to insane crowd noise. Inevitably, the McMahon stooges appear on the entrance ramp; you have to love how smug Brisco, Patterson and Slaughter are able to look! The brothers beat Stone Cold all the way down the aisle towards the “colleagues” of McMahon (as Lawler hilariously refers to them as), and a beaten down Austin still has the energy to flip them off! With the Texan on his hands and knees, JR on commentary suggests the match should be stopped for his safety, but this is of course the cue for him to “fight like hell” and get the audience hot again until he finally gets backdropped on the concrete by ‘Taker. Even then, he manages to get to Brisco, but Slaughter stomps him off his colleague and the brothers drag the carcass all the way back to the ring.

It’s back to the wear down tactics from here, with The Deadman cinching in an armbar and Kane choking the life out of him. Yet another Austin comeback is initiated when Kane is distracted by arguing with the referee, but it is ultimately shortlived, with the odds just too much, as a chairshot from Undertaker seemingly puts him down, but then the inevitable dissension between the brothers about who should win strikes, as Kane pulls his brother off the cover! A stare down and exchange of words ultimately becomes an exchange of blows. Austin and Kane even team up, taking it in turns to throw right hands at ‘Taker as if they’re playing tennis. The Deadman is deposited over the top rope and it’s down to the Rattlesnake and Big Red Machine, but those two also spill outside, and the brothers seem to once again come to an agreement, but a minute or so later, they’re back in each others’ faces. This tension gives the match much needed uncertainty, because the breaking of the alliance between Kane and The Undertaker is what gives Stone Cold a chance. And it’s great storytelling too; they both, quite rightly, want to be champion, and have had battles in the past, plus an entire kayfabe history that should make them enemies. They exchange rights and lefts and run the ropes, before taking each other down with a double clothesline in true Warrior/Hogan fashion. Austin well and truly takes advantage, taking it to Kane and crotching The Undertaker on the top rope. He attempts the Stunner on Kane, but the Big Red Monster’s vertical base is too strong and he is pushed straight into a Phenom big boot. This leads straight into a hellacious double choke slam and both brothers cover the Rattlesnake for the 1-2-3.

Howard Finkel begins to announce who the new champion is, but can’t finish his utterance as two men surely can’t be champion? McMahon struts to ringside and Brisco grabs the belt from Earl Hebner and runs off with it, pausing on the ramp to hold it high to taunt all three of the main event participants! Great heel work from the boss. Austin begins to pursue Vince, decking Brisco on the way, and then tussling with Patterson and Slaughter, which gives the chairman just enough time to exit the arena in a white limo. Austin makes it to the parking garage to see McMahon standing outside the door of the car with the belt. He flips off the former champ and announces that the belt is his. What a fantastic end to a show. This was a really fun triple threat between three performers who performed the Attitude main event style as well as anybody. The stipulation of only Stone Cold being able to be pinned might have made for an awkward match, but the way they worked it, the way that Austin was kept strong and the brothers began to get in each others’ business towards the end made it unique and very tense to watch. The finish was a classic storyline touch and Vince’s hammy Machiavelli act to close the show was a fantastic way to take the original abeyance story into the following night’s Raw. Everyone loves to bag on Vince Russo, but his writing between early 1997 and early 1999, combined with the wrestling knowhow of Patterson. Brisco, Cornette and Pritchard, led to compelling results, and the build and execution of Judgment Day and Survivor Series 1998 honestly takes some beating.

With Breakdown having ended with Kane and The Undertaker simultaneously pinning Stone Cold Steve Austin and Vince running off with the belt, the post-PPV Raw began with McMahon coming out to Austin’s music surrounded by police and his stooges. He cut a fantastic promo in which he decried the Rattlesnake for always having to do things the hard way. He told Austin that unlike last time he lost the title, this time there would be no re-match. Instead, he would crown a new champion that very evening in a glittering ceremony, and that champion would receive a “real” belt, not the Smoking Skull belt especially commissioned by Stone Cold. That strap would be placed above the fireplace in “one of” McMahon’s homes. That ceremony had Kane and The Undertaker come out for one of them to be presented with the belt, but who that would have been remained a mystery as Austin interrupted by driving a Miller Lite zamboni down to the ring and leaping off it to assault McMahon in one of the most iconic moments of the Monday Night Wars. As usual, Stone Cold got arrested, but McMahon was incensed that the Rattlesnake had managed to once again get to him. Kane and ‘Taker had promised protection in return for their twin title shot at Breakdown but three times in three weeks, he had been beaten to a pulp by Austin. Therefore, no one would be awarded the title; instead, the brothers would have to fight for it at Judgment Day with Stone Cold as the guest referee. Furthermore, to teach them a lesson, they would be facing The Rock, Mankind and Ken Shamrock in a handicap match as they both acted like they were handicapped, Kane mentally and Undertaker physically. The Deadman warned his boss not to step out of line again, but moments later, McMahon was caught flipping them off and the brothers began to savagely beat down the chairman of the board. The Phenom placed Vince in a knee bar for a lengthy period, before the steel steps were used to “shatter” the leg. McMahon was stretchered off to hospital to set up yet more classic Raw moments in the weeks to follow, foreshadowed by Mankind trying to offer Vince a soda as he was placed in the ambulance screaming in pain!

This handicap match led to singles matches the next week between Kane and Shamrock (Undertaker “inadvertently” gave an assist to Ken that allowed him to defeat the Big Red Monster) and Rock and ‘Taker (despite D’Lo and Henry abandoning The People’s Champ, Kane gave Rock a huge assist with a chair shot into a Rock Bottom, but the referee was out, and the third generation star ended up getting a Tombstone on a chair for the loss). The rest of the main event portion of the card was involved in the justifiably lauded hospital skits. With McMahon bed-ridden with his broken leg, Mankind arrived at his bed side with a female clown and, in his first appearance, Mr Socko (an innovation Foley attributes to Al Snow). It remains absolutely hilarious to this day. Later, Austin, disguised in scrubs, attacked the injured Vince with a bedpan and a defibrillator, whereupon McMahon’s brilliantly over the top selling made for an all time great moment.

Vince was out of hospital by the go home show, and assisted by his stooges and an electronic wheelchair, he made his way to the backstage area to watch Raw unfold. Sadly for him, Stone Cold drove a cement truck into the arena and poured cement into McMahon’s prized Corvette, stating that Vince had “cemented his own downfall” (full marks for the pun there Steve). The chairman’s revenge was to remind Austin that if he didn’t count the three at the pay-per-view, he would be fired, and furthermore, he and The Rock would have to face the Brothers of Destruction that evening, a match that advanced two feuds for the price of one; Rock’s match with Mark Henry was cemented by he and D’Lo dragging him out of the ring for a beating, and Austin was knocked out by the knightstick of the returning Big Boss Man, who would take a place as McMahon’s head of security. Undertaker placed the knee bar on the Rattlesnake as the main event programme went off air. Also present was Paul Bearer and a mysterious briefcase, adding further intrigue to the match between the Brothers of Destruction.

That bout gets underway in entertaining fashion with Austin delivering a foul mouthed version of the referee’s customary instructions and then flipping the bird to the two wrestlers fighting over the vacant gold. The Undertaker shows his veteran smarts early, blindsiding Kane and delivering shots to the kidney area of his kayfabe younger brother and managing to bottle him up in the corner for more strikes. Old school swiftly follows and the elder of the two Brothers of Destruction is very much in control until he mistimes a corner charge and an inscensed Kane comes back with an elbow and powerslam. It’s very much generic big man fare, but the crowd are hot for it and Austin’s snarling presence as guest referee certainly adds to proceedings, with the Rattlesnake first refusing to count for ‘Taker and then trying to administer a fast count when Kane has his brother in a lateral press. The idea is that Stone Cold is going out of his way to get a rise out of McMahon and the storytelling concept largely works well.

As this is the Attitude Era, the battle soon spills out to the ringside area, where Kane is introduced to the steel steps and the Deadman narrowly misses with a heinous chair shot, after which he takes his younger “brother” back in the ring to punish the leg, to, in Jim Ross’ words, take down the vertical base. This is sound psychology but does perhaps cause this portion of the contest to drag somewhat, filled as it is with wear down holds and elbow drops to the knee. Indeed, aside from a brief Kane comeback flurry, The Phenom dominates the middle portion of the bout, applying more leg locks and tree of woe strikes with Austin acknowledging in the background that the Big Red Monster does not want to quit. The inevitable comeback, with Kane playing a de facto face, oddly enough, comes with a bear hug into a spinebuster, and following further offense on The Undertaker, the Big Red Machine targets the special guest referee, recognising that he will not count a three for either competitor; it’s therefore no surprise when The Phenom joins in. With Austin down, Kane hits the chokeslam on ‘Taker, at which point Paul Bearer arrives with a steel chair, but after making to strike the Deadman, he instead careens it off the back of Kane, who no sells in awesome fashion. Unfortunately for the Big Red Monster, his “brother” has a stronger arm and a head shot takes the demon down.

By now, the Rattlesnake is back on his feet and once again refuses to count, prompting an enraged Undertaker to confront him, but Stone Cold is ready and hits a Stunner and chair shot to send the heel to the canvas. With both contenders down, Austin counts three and rings the bell for the end of the match. He then gets on the mic, announces himself the winner, and thrillingly calls McMahon out to fire him. With no response from the chairman, Stone Cold goes to find him so he can keep his promise from the go home Raw, but Vince is nowhere to be seen, so Austin ends up back at ringside. McMahon then appears from behind the Titantron in his wheelchair and delivers, after a dramatic pause, the first of many “you’re fired” lines. Stone Cold has the last word though, telling Vince in no uncertain terms that he hasn’t seen the last of him.

The genius of The Undertaker's run as McMahon’s chosen instrument to deprive Austin of the world title was that it gave him a fully defined role within one of the company's greatest storylines. With Stone Cold being the star the company was being rebuilt around, 'Taker's role was to be a convincing antagonist and a big name to make the champ look good while under threat. He performed it brilliantly. But better was still to come; the biggest character change Marc Callaway had undergone since his debut. Join me next time and we'll discuss it.