WrestleManias may be more iconic. Royal Rumbles may be more action packed. Even SummerSlams may be more high-profile. But in the late 1990s, there was no event more pivotal than Survivor Series. Each instalment contained events of huge historical importance in wrestling. Not only that, but they acted as pivot points between key eras in WWE.
All this week Paul Benson, one of the co-hosts of Hooked On Wrestling’s 90s podcast HOW Mania, has been publishing mini-essays about the Survivor Series events from 1995-1999.
The first three columns an be found here (1995), here (1996) and here (1997). This column, part four, covers ‘Deadly Game, the 1998 edition that was held at The Enterprise Center in St Louis, Missouri on November 15th.
The theme of this look back through Survivor Series events across the years has been ‘change’.
It has been to show how each Survivor Series event WWE produced in the back half of the 1990s changed wrestling in such a profound way that their legacies far outshone the actual events themselves.
The truth is, 1998 is the black sheep of that theme. Whilst unquestionably being a turning point in storylines and for certain characters, it truly represent seismic change in the same way the other four did.
Sure, this was the start of The Rock’s first world title run. Important yes, but it didn’t come about as a result of this show. The Great One was a generational talent. He was getting that spot no matter what. This event just happened to be the chosen moment.
Or what of ‘Stone Cole’ Steve Austin? The Austin era that began at this event two years earlier started to hit its downward spiral around this time. From here on in, Austin was very rarely THE man. It was far from the end of Austin’s run on top but we were inching past the peak.
So if this event didn’t change an era, what did it do?
It defined it.
Survivor Series 1998 played host to The Deadly game tournament. A 14 man bracket to determine the new WWF Champion in the wake of Austin being stripped of the belt weeks prior.
Going in, the story saw Vince McMahon befriend and manipulate a gullible Mankind in order that he win the tournament and the title, thwarting McMahon’s mortal enemy Steve Austin and his new adversary, The Rock in the process.
What followed was quite simply booking perfection. As close to genuine art as wrestling writing gets.
For those unfamiliar, Mankind was given favourable treatment all night in his quest to make the final, including being given perennial jobber Duane Gill as a first round opponent on the way to facing The Rock in the final.
The Rock and Austin by contrast had barrier after barrier placed in their way to try to stop them. Austin eventually succumbed in the semi-finals. Much to McMahon’s chagrin, Rock made the final.
At the conclusion of that 17 minute match, all became clear. The Rock locked in the infamous Sharpshooter submission hold and in an echo of the previous year’s ’Montreal Screwjob’, McMahon called for the bell, giving the belt to Rocky and screwing Mankind.
Mankind, as it turns out was the patsy. The smoke screens to distract from the real Chosen One. And really, why would it not have been? Rock was everything McMahon always said he wanted in a champion.
Fans went from ‘Die Rocky, Die’ to ‘Why Rocky? Why?’
I’ll tell you why. Because we deserved it. For the way the fans treated him, turning his back on us wasn’t enough. Death threats? That deserves something worse. The People’s Champion lulled us into adoring him and only then did he stamp on our hearts to make the betrayal hurt that much more.
We fans could have zero complaints. We DID deserve it. And like every great heel, the crusade he was on, to cause fans maximum pain, was a righteous one in his own mind.
Put simply, the booking of the whole tournament was a triumph. A total masterpiece.
The end product of the evening was two red hot new main event stars, elevated from ‘kinda’ guys, solidly into the upper echelon. Rock and Mankind as a sell out heel and ultra sympathetic babyface.
What made it perfection though was the lay out. If anyone told you they saw the twist coming, they’re a liar but the reality is, we all should have. The clues were there all night that Mankind was a patsy.
From The Rock scoring the ‘surprise’ roll up on Big Boss Man in the first round without getting physical though to him ‘intercepting’ the nightstick the same opponent threw to Ken Shamrock in the second round, what we thought was Rock overcoming adversity was actually a carefully planned smoke screen by the heels.
The attention to detail was on the money and nothing felt like a plot hole. More or less every strand of the tournament had a set up, a pay off and a reason for existing.
Even having Shane McMahon referee the women’s title match was done to normalise him in that position so we didn’t immediacy see an angle coming when he reffed Austin vs Mankind.
Credit where credit is due, this was Vince Russo’s crowning glory. A tournament that told an incredible story but also featured the era’s biggest stars all working exactly to their characters’ real motivations.
1998 really was the year of incredibly short matches, with story and drama taking to the stage with the in ring action merely playing a role to service the story.
Unquestionably that was the case here but that balance was fully earned. If story is to take the spotlight from the wrestling, and it is as intricate and developed as this, then nobody is going to take exception.
Think of today’s piece as a love letter to the best booked individual event in WWE history. Forgive me my wandering from the main theme of this column series and please admire my attempts to shoehorn said theme in anyway and join me in harking back to a night that WWE aligned the stars.
Talking of aligning the stars, in the next and final column of this series we will take a look at the most star studded triple threat match of the 1990s…That didn’t actually happen.
If you want to read more of this column series, you can find the rest at the following links: