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Posted in: Requesting Flyby
REQUESTING FLYBY: The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (8: Ministry of Darkness)
By Maverick
Oct 14, 2015 - 2:06:30 PM

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The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (8: Ministry of Darkness)

For the past two installments of this series, I’ve been hinting at the darkest transformation of The Undertaker’s career to date being just around the corner as 1998 was about to bleed into 1999. Today, we’ll see how that dark character and his stable, The Ministry of Darkness, crawled out of the grave to terrorise the World Wrestling Federation, begin a heel vs heel faction war with The Corporation and make some serious noise on Monday nights as WWF began to dominate the competition. If the Attitude Era took characters and turned them up to eleven- Austin’s anti-authority redneck, The Rock’s swaggering jock, Mick Foley’s three variously unhinged personas- than The Undertaker’s version of that trope was a dark, Satanic king who dominated a court of dark disciples and answered only to a mysterious “Higher Power”. And here’s how it all went down.

With such wonderfully screwy endings to both Breakdown and Judgment Day, all eyes were focused on the 10/19/98 edition of Raw, which began with a carnivalesque celebration from Mr McMahon, who had simultaneously rid himself of Austin and given himself the opportunity to crown a new “Corporate Champion” through the means of a blockbuster single elimination tournament to take place at Survivor Series. Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and Austin finagled his way back into the title picture by holding Vince ransom in a tremendously edgy gun and crossbow segment which they’d never get away with now. Our subject, The Undertaker, along with his brother Kane, as the men who had pinned Austin simultaneously, received byes into round two of the tournament.

‘Taker and Paul Bearer came out to the ring on the 10/19 edition to state that they were forming a “Ministry of Darkness” (the first mention of the term), which most would not understand because they have no vision. The Deadman intoned gravely that Paul Bearer understood the power of darkness and would lead him to greater heights than ever, as his head was now cleared and refocused. Ominously, he said that those who did not declare would be declared. Paul Bearer got on the mic then to emphasise that he used Kane “like a pet dog on a leash”, calling him stupid and weak. Kane could never understand the darkness and Bearer had no use for him ever again. ‘Taker then admitted setting the fire that burnt Kane because Kane was weak and only the strong should survive. A casket match between the brothers grimm happened at the end of the show, but there was no finish, as the casket got smashed to bits during their brawl. Having been so conclusively betrayed, the Big Red Monster went on the rampage for the rest of the month. The Brood finally united as The Brood during a match between Edge and Gangrel when Christian and Edge attacked the masked demon, but this went wrong when he sat up mid-beatdown and the vamps were forced to flee. The next week, Kane destroyed the entire Brood, The Outlaws, The Headbangers, D’Lo and Henry, X Pac, Steve Regal and Goldust in a single episode, and the week after that, he interrupted a match between The Undertaker and X Pac by flinging a fireball (really) at his brother, which instead struck the DX member in the face.

Truthfully though, The Undertaker and Kane were no longer truly the focus, having been so central ever since Badd Blood over a year earlier, as the spotlight began to fall more and more upon Mankind and The Rock, who had the biggest stories heading into Deadly Game. Appropriately enough, therefore, their arc in the quarter and semi finals saw them burn each other out, leaving the field clear for others. A heated seven minute encounter between the Brothers of Destruction in the quarters showed just how much the Deadman was relishing being the heel once again, as well as how much value Paul Bearer always added to the action whenever he was present. There’s nothing pretty about the match, but there doesn’t need to be; it’s two towering behemoths slugging away at each other, a wrestling visual which always works. The interference finish keeps Kane strong while sending ‘Taker into a blockbuster semi-final against hot young babyface The Rock, who had himself overcome Ken Shamrock in yet another instalment of their lengthy feud. An eight minute semi-final between The Brahma Bull and The Phenom (which was fairly much an out and out smashmouth brawl around the ringside area), saw the young stud looking extremely good against the established headliner until Kane arrived to thwart his brother by chokeslamming Rocky to get ‘Taker disqualified.

As we all know, The Rock ultimately won the title in the final after presumed Corporate figurehead Mankind was betrayed by Vince and Shane. In the aftermath of the tournament, we did not see much of The Undertaker, but he soon made his presence felt again. The new Team Corporate came out to the ring before a TV main event between Austin and The Rock, with Vince stating how unhappy he was with this title shot of the Rattlesnake’s, saying it would be his last shot. During a brief but hot TV match between the two biggest stars of the Attitude Era, Mankind appeared, trying to get to Vince, but his enforcers, Shamrock and Bossman, took him out. Austin hit the Stunner on Rocky, but Shamrock pulled him out of the ring. After a mass brawl, Austin got back in the ring to finish the Corporate Champ off, but out of nowhere, The Undertaker, who we must remember had been denied the WWF Title by Austin at Judgment Day and had feuded with The Rattlesnake pretty much since June, appeared out of nowhere with a shovel (yep) and knocked Austin silly. The delighted Team Corporate escaped as Raw went off the air.

McMahon of course denied responsibility for the attack on Austin, who, it was revealed, had “collapsed” at a house show to sell the effects of the shovel to the skull. In a reverse of fortunes, Stone Cold found himself in hospital, where he was interviewed over the tron by JR. It transpired that Austin and the Deadman had been booked in a Buried Alive match, with the added stipulation that the Rattlesnake would not be allowed to enter the Royal Rumble if he lost. Austin, however, made it clear that ‘Taker wouldn’t make it to the PPV if he got ahold of him before then. In a dramatic reversal of fortunes from when he was attacking Vince in the hospital, Austin was assaulted by Undertaker and Paul Bearer in his bed, sedated, and kidnapped in a hearse. He was driven to a graveyard where there were several empty plots, but in the end the dastardly duo decided that they had an even better idea. In another bizarre piece of Attitude Era shock television, they took Stone Cold to an empty funeral home, where Paul Bearer prepared to embalm Austin alive. Undertaker, speaking in tongues (yes, really), prepared to plunge the embalming instrument into Austin, and he was only prevented by the sudden appearance of Kane, who knocked out Bearer with an uppercut and brawled off into the funeral home with his brother, allowing a groggy Austin to escape unscathed.

The next week saw the return of Austin to Monday Night Raw and he was not in a good mood. He stunned both Headbangers to open the show and got on the mic to say that ‘Taker would be wearing a shovel before the night was out in a segment that thrilled fans in attendance. The rest of the night became a game of cat and mouse, as Stone Cold looked to wreak vengeance upon the Deadman. The Rattlesnake found himself locked in a meat chiller by the diabolical duo, allowing The Phenom to head to the ring and call out Kane for an unsanctioned match, which ended in a non finish when medical orderlies in white coats arrived and tried to capture Kane. Bearer took it upon himself to help lead said healthcare professionals to the Big Red Machine later in the broadcast, whereupon it seemed that his kayfabe son was captured and taken away, but also found that Austin had escaped from his chilly prison and was back on the loose. Ultimately, it turned out that the orderlies had taken away ‘Taker dressed in Kane’s gear, and the Rattlesnake and Monster took it upon themselves to punish the preacher of the Ministry, throwing him down a manhole and replacing the cover. The Deadman would wreak a terrible revenge the next week though, taking advantage of a beaten down Austin and tying him to his symbol and “crucifying” him in the clearest piece of Satanic imagery yet associated with the embryonic Ministry of Darkness as the show went off the air. Certainly, it was the feud in which Austin had most clearly been on the back foot since his rise to stardom, but Booking 101 probably told everybody what would therefore happen at the show.

Although many people criticise Buried Alive Matches, I’ve always kind of enjoyed them, and the hot angle that led into this one actually justified the extremity of the gimmick too. I mean, Austin almost being embalmed alive? That’s cold, man. The match begins with hard hitting brawling, as we’d expect of both a match of this type and indeed, any main event of the era. They beat each other silly all the way up the ramp and back again and this is where Stone Cold really excelled throughout the time period but particularly when paired with an opponent like ‘Taker or Foley who gave as good as they got from the Texas Rattlesnake. The Deadman’s head careens with sick impact off crowd barrier and ring post, before the pitched battle spills into the ring, with a Phenom elbow and chair shot buying him valuable time, but no sooner is Austin rolled into the ring then he revives himself and clotheslines the just entering Undertaker straight back out of the squared circle to an immense pop.

One of the things I most admire about Marc Callaway though is his ability to live his gimmick at all times and use that as a means to create meaningful wrestling psychology; he is undeterred by Austin’s rally and nails a sick choke slam which allows him to drag the carcass of Austin towards the open grave. Like one of ‘Taker’s other specialities, the Casket Match, the tension and near misses of each wrestler being placed into the receptacle is key to the success of the gimmick. Here, Stone Cold goes into the grave and gets a fair few clods of dirt piled upon him until a groggy Rattlesnake staggers up and smashes his opponent with a fuel can to stop the assault. A Stone Cold Stunner sends the Deadman into the grave and Austin piles an entire wheelbarrow of soil onto him, before mysteriously exiting the arena. This allows a beaten down Undertaker to climb out of the grave, but Kane’s arrival causes a huge distraction for The Phenom, and the brothers battle on the dirt mound, until ‘Taker is poised to eliminate the Kane problem. However, Austin returns in loader vehicle, allowing the Big Red Monster to reverse the Tombstone to send his brother into the grave, at which point the dirt from the loader covered the Deadman for the Rattlesnake victory. The traditional beer toast sends the fans home happy. I suppose when people talk about the occasionally slapstick side of Attitude, this is the sort of thing they mean, but in fairness to it, the bout remains entertaining to this day, and it served a serious storyline purpose, both in terms of Kane’s continued interference in his brother’s business more than a year after his debut, and in terms of Austin winning a place in the Royal Rumble.

Having been buried alive, we had a couple of weeks break from the early days of the Ministry of Darkness, but when it returned it was more Hammer Horror than ever; first The Acolytes, who had come together in September under the tutelage of The Jackal but had been directionless and managerless since his departure, joined up with ‘Taker and Paul Bearer. Then, they kidnapped Dennis Knight of Southern Justice and “transformed” him into “Mideon”, an infernal subject of The Undertaker, in a backstage dark ritual. More conversions were promised in the weeks to come, and although ‘Taker himself was not wrestling due to a legitimate hip replacement, that actually made the storyline more compelling, as the Satanic cult leader developed the new character further. During the Rumble itself on January 24th 1999, The Acolytes and Mideon would “steal” Mabel, fighting him into a vehicle under Paul Bearer and The Deadman’s direction. The Ministry storyline asserting itself on the match was certainly an interesting development, and intrigue grew as the stable swelled in numbers.

As the build to Wrestlemania XV intensified, The Ministry of Darkness aimed themselves at the group that ran the place, The Corporation. The feud took a lot of twists that were sometimes a little ill advised, and the heel vs. heel dynamic meant that the crowd wasn’t always sure how to react, but it was nevertheless very interesting television most of the time. The Ministry came out on the 02/15 show with Paul Bearer calling upon Vince to listen to the “Lord of Darkness” who stated that the WWF would soon belong to him. The Deadman boasted of his army, a force amassed to destroy The Corporation so that the “Greater Power” the Ministry work for can control the WWF. Bossman then came out and asked for a six man tag (he’d been kidnapped by The Ministry following the February PPV, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre). The Acolytes and Mideon vs. Bossman, Shamrock and Test was a decent match, and Taker came out to reveal that the rest of the Ministry had Shane McMahon. After flirting with sacrifice imagery, Shane was given a piece of paper by The Ministry to pass on to Vince. The next week, Vince McMahon tried to get revenge by booking Kane against ‘Taker in an Inferno Match, but the Phenom declared darkly that he had a surprise for Vince. That surprise was delivered to the Chairman of the Board at ringside when he joined the announce team. Paul Bearer brought a box to ringside, which contained a teddy bear which immediately sent Vince into a depression. When Undertaker managed to defeat Kane by setting his boot ablaze, the Deadman also burned the teddy, much to McMahon’s distress, as Raw went off the air.

The next week, McMahon discussed his moment of weakness. He stated that no-one in the arena but him knew what that bear represented. As turnabout was fair play, McMahon stated that he had a surprise for Undertaker to be delivered later. Mankind arrived wanting to referee (this was the storyline that led to Mankind being the enforcer for the main event of Wrestlemania XV) Vince said he could referee as long as he defeated The Undertaker in a match, as no one in the company held the victories over Taker that he did and Raw that week took place that week in the very arena in which Mankind had won the Boiler Room Brawl. In the event Mankind vs. ‘Taker was a hot but short match which ended in a no contest. Vince almost got chokeslammed but Bossman made the save with the knightstick. The Hell in a Cell match between the Corporation Enforcer and the Ministry Leader was made official on Heat that week. With that contest booked, The Undertaker and The Ministry spent all of the 03/08 episode looking for Bossman, beating up jobbers in the locker room and in the ring in order to flush him out. When they eventually found the former law enforcement officer, he was hoisted onto the symbol as Austin had been in December, but the Corporate henchman was able to escape from his predicament during a mass brawl between the two factions.

The next week, The Undertaker returned to his habit of frequenting the homes of his opponents, with a camera crew showing various members of the Ministry creeping about Vince McMahon’s mansion. Bossman beat Mideon in a “hard time” match but at its conclusion, the Deadman was shown on the tron where he promised to be there to greet “her” (this, along with the teddy, would turn out to be the build to the debut of Stephanie). The camera panned to a flaming symbol on the McMahon lawn, and Vince was shown frantically calling the Connecticut Police Department, who searched the area and found nothing (dumb cops!). The go home show featured a six man tag between the two factions which resulted in the two Wrestlemania opponents, Bossman and ‘Taker, fighting into the crowd. A lot of this was long term storytelling and not really about selling the ‘Mania match, which was an interesting approach and not one the company would dare take these days. The least said about the Wrestlemania XV Hell in a Cell match the better really, particularly the bizarre “hanging” of Bossman from the steel structure afterwards. Still, the MInistry were becoming more and more central to the television product, and more was to come in the post-’Mania landscape.

Vince, after the first week of the build to Backlash, was entirely occupied with the Ministry, effectively turning him into the de facto face in the scenario, something nobody could possibly have seen coming back in January. Stephanie was revealed to be the object of Undertaker’s stalking on the Heat before ‘Mania, and a sit down interview detailed the envelope full of photos that had been given to Vince and the fact that the burnt teddy had been Steph’s. On that first Raw, ‘Taker led the Ministry out to the ring to get Sable. The Deadman grabbed her by the throat and told McMahon to come out to the ring before he snapped his “meal ticket’s” neck. While the chairman was distracted with this, Steph was kidnapped. This entire episode’s plot was expertly constructed. The search for Steph was led by Ken Shamrock, who made a heartfelt promise to find her. The World’s Most Dangerous Man kept his promise by torturing Christian with the ankle lock and despite suffering a Blood Bath, Shamrock, covered in blood like Patrick Bateman after a heavy night with the axe, got the information out of the Brood member and went to the boiler room, where he found Stephanie tied up with The Undertaker’s symbol painted on her forehead.

This alarming turn of events led Vince to give Shane the responsibility of running the show while he looked after his daughter, surrounded by police officers. Undertaker responded by announcing that a young woman would be sacrificed. McMahon assumed that would be Steph, but that someone turned out to be Ryan Shamrock, who was left vulnerable after Ken was beaten down by the entire Ministry interrupting a match between he and Viscera. The former MMA man ended up in the back of a truck while his storyline sister ended up hoisted up on the Phenom’s symbol. As you might imagine, this turn of events was deeply upsetting for Ken, who confronted Shane the next week to tell him that he’d been promised a family but no-one had helped him or his sister. McMahon Jr. responded by bringing out Vince and Steph and berating his dad for getting his priorities wrong. He followed that up with a fourth wall shot across the bows of JR, who had returned to commentary duties by then, and by sacking Patterson and Brisco for being “too old”. Shane asked Vince where the famous grapefruits had gone and slapped his old man! The chairman’s warning was that true power and respect had to be earnt. Shamrock left with Vince as a sign of his loyalty to the man who had been a father figure to him since December. The World’s Most Dangerous Man cleared the ring of the Ministry later in the same show with a baseball bat, earning Undertaker’s displeasure, and the next week the mixed martial artist vowed to break the cult leader’s ankle in the match booked for Backlash. Due to Christian’s transgression in telling Ken where Steph was tethered, Undertaker had the rest of his minions beat him, also instructing The Brood to make Christian take on Paul Wight by himself in a total squash. When Shamrock ended up being sacrificed, Christian was supposed to meet the same fate, but he was saved by Gangrel and Edge, who attacked The Acolytes, putting the two tag teams on a collision course for the pay-per-view and cutting the numbers in ‘Taker’s stable down somewhat.

At the post-Mania pay-per-view, the inaugural Backlash, The Undertaker made his first foray into working a more ground and submission based MMA style in order to match up well with Ken Shamrock, who, of course, came from that world. Later in his career, Calaway’s fondness for mixed martial arts became far more overt a part of his ring style, so the match with Shamrock is an interesting historical curio in this regard. The storytelling and psychology of the match was strong, and The Lord of Darkness was ultimately victorious after Bradshaw interference and a reversed Tombstone. Worth checking out, for sure. With The Acolytes and Mideon triumphing over The Brood in the curtain jerker, it was a successful night for The Ministry, perhaps their high water mark, but this was Russo’s peak as a swerve surfing wrestling writer, and things were about to get a whole lot crazier.

The Ministry of Darkness is a fascinating part of The Attitude Era because not only was it was the first time that The Undertaker had ever led a stable, his cult leader gimmick was also the biggest update to his character since his debut way back in the autumn of 1990. As with so many Undertaker storylines, it was predicated on slow burn and slow character development, and was all the stronger for it. Watching it as a series of highlights or well remembered moments really doesn’t do it justice; you really need to watch all the Raws and PPVs in sequence from Breakdown in September 1998 to Backlash in April 1999 to get the full effect. Join me next time as one of the most famous “reveal magnificos” in wrestling history gave the Ministry stable a corporate reboot.