With the WWE World Heavyweight Championship being vacated and up for grabs in a tournament at Survivor Series, I want to look back at Survivor Series 1998, when a similar situation occurred and the 14-man “Deadly Game” tournament was held to determine a new champion.
The WWF Championship was held up after Steve Austin was simultaneously pinned by Undertaker and Kane in a Triple Threat match at Breakdown in September. In October at Judgment Day, Austin was the referee of a match between Undertaker and Kane to determine the undisputed WWF Champion. That match ended in controversy when Austin Stunned both men and counted them out. As a result, the title remained vacant and Vince McMahon fired Austin. Austin would return just two weeks later with a new contract from Shane McMahon, and was entered into the Deadly Game tournament to crown a new champion.
Here’s the bracket:
Opening package focuses on the athletes chasing the championship tonight.
JR and King welcome us to the show, and then Howard Finkel introduces Vince McMahon, who is there to introduce Mankind’s opponent.
Preliminary Round: Mankind vs. ???????
Vince does a grandiose introduction, stating that this man compiled an unprecedented win-loss record before jumping ship to WCW. People were speculating Shawn Michaels would be returning here, but it turns out to be jobber Dwayne Gill. Mankind is under Vince’s spell here, wearing a tuxedo and carrying the Hardcore Championship that he was awarded a few weeks prior. JR says that Gill has spent more time on the canvas than Rembrandt. Gill is terrified of his own pyro.
Mankind puts Gill down in 30 seconds.
Rating: Dud, nothing but a squash. Logical booking though. They needed to have a quick match or two in the first round to get through the night.
They recap a brawl between Jacqueline and Sable from Heat and then we get a brief interview with Sable backstage. She says that all Jacqueline did was piss her off and she’ll be the new Women’s Champion tonight.
Preliminary Round: Al Snow vs. Jeff Jarrett
Jarrett has Debra in his corner. Snow started off stalking Debra, but quickly turns his attention to Jarrett. Snow hits a Somersault off the ring steps. Both guys attempt a lot of pins, which makes sense with a ten minute time limit for these first round matches. There’s some good stuff here, but the match is over before it gets going. Debra distracts the referee, allowing Jarrett to grab Head and Snow to grab Jarrett’s guitar. They struggle and Snow ends up with Head and knocks Jarrett out for the pin.
Rating: ½*. Could have been a good match between these two with more time.
Preliminary Round: Steve Austin vs. Big Boss Man
Boss Man was serving as McMahon’s head of security, so he’s been put in place to soften Austin up here. They go at it out in the aisle and Austin sends Boss Man into the stairs. Crowd is on fire. Boss Man takes over and tunes up Austin. Austin fights out of a choke and makes his comeback. Boss Man cuts him off and hits a big straddle across the middle rope. Boss Man gets hold of his nightstick and beats Austin down with it. Boss Man is disqualified, but he’s done his job.
Rating: ½*. Decent little brawl for the three minutes it lasted.
Michael Cole interviews Vince McMahon backstage. Vince is pleased that Austin is injured after that beating from Boss Man.
Preliminary Round: X-Pac vs. Steven Regal
Regal had made a few appearances on Raw back in the summer, then got hurt after being sent home to get in shape. He got hooked on painkillers after breaking his leg and was also saddled with the terrible/great “Man’s Man” gimmick.
Regal might have been fucked up here (he says he doesn’t really remember any of this period of his career) but even a fucked up Regal is still pretty damn good. And X-Pac somehow acquired a reputation for sucking despite being awesome in the ring. Regal busts out a bunch of cool holds and other innovative moves. This ends up being by far the longest match so far, going over eight minutes. Crowd is dead for Regal’s offense, but they get into X-Pac’s comebacks.
The match ends in a double count out when both men refuse to return to the ring while fighting on the floor. That gives Austin a bye to the semifinals. Vince sends Sgt. Slaughter out to restart the match…but that doesn’t happen. Regal and X-Pac both head to the back. Strange finish. X-Pac might have been legitimately hurt, but I don’t remember him missing any time.
Rating: ¾*. Decent match with a dodgy finish.
Preliminary Round: Goldust vs. Ken Shamrock
No storyline here, just two guys with some credibility to fill the tournament out. Shamrock is the reigning Intercontinental Champion after winning a tournament for the vacant title on Raw. He was also the King of the Ring this year, so in theory he should be one of the favorites here. JR even brings up his UFC experience, mentioning he didn’t fight in many of the tournaments because he was the Superfight Champion.
Slow match with Shamrock on offense for most of it. Shamrock was still really learning to wrestle and wasn’t used to controlling matches as he had previously been a face. Goldust makes a comeback and sets up for the Shattered Dreams, but the referee stops him. That allows Shamrock to turn the table with a Hurricanrana (lands right on his head like always). Shamrock hits a Belly to Belly Suplex and gets the submission with the Ankle Lock.
Rating: ¾*. Not awful, but another match that didn’t have enough time to do much.
Michael Cole is in the back with an update on Steve Austin. Austin has refused medical attention but Cole is sure that he’ll compete in the semifinals.
Preliminary Round: The Rock vs. Big Boss Man
This was scheduled to be Triple H, but he has a knee injury and can’t compete. Boss Man is his replacement. This match literally lasts three seconds as Boss Man is immediately rolled up and pinned by Rock.
Rating: ¼*. I laughed my ass off at that.
Tournament Quarterfinal: Undertaker vs. Kane
These two were granted byes by virtue of having pinned Austin at Breakdown. Undertaker has Paul Bearer in his corner here after Bearer turned on Kane at Judgment Day.
Typical slow brawl between these two. I never found their matches enjoyable, they just didn’t have much chemistry. Both guys are methodical unstoppable monsters who do better beating up smaller wrestlers. This match only goes seven minutes but it feels like 15.
Kane Chokeslams Taker, but gets distracted by Paul Bearer. That allows Undertaker to hit a Tombstone. Bearer holds down Kane’s foot and Taker gets the pin.
Rating: ½*. Would have preferred that only go three minutes like the first round matches.
Tournament Quarterfinal: Mankind vs. Al Snow
These two were actually teaming up on Raw the previous few weeks, but then Mr. Socko went missing and was found wrapped around Head. That was a plot by Mr. McMahon to drive a wedge between Snow and Mankind, and it worked.
This is another basic match with Mankind getting the win in three minutes after the Double Arm DDT and Mandible Claw.
Rating: *. Not bad, but once again there’s not a ton you can do in three minutes.
Tournament Quarterfinal: The Rock vs. Ken Shamrock
Rematch from both Wrestlemania and the finals of the King of the Ring. Shamrock controls early but Rock is resilient. It’s a slow match early and I keep thinking about how inexperienced these guys are. Rock debuted on the main roster two years before this at Survivor Series 1996. Shamrock debuted after Wrestlemania 13. Compare that to the previous match where Mick Foley and Al Snow were both over a decade in the business.
Business picks up as Shamrock hits a Hurricanrana and locks on the Ankle Lock. Bossman has made his way down to ringside at this point. Rock fights to the ropes and Shamrock has to break. Rock makes a comeback, prompting Bossman to jump up on the apron. The referee is distracted, allowing Rock to hit a low blow and the People’s Elbow, but Shamrock kicks out. Shamrock blocks the Rock Bottom and hits a Belly to Belly Suplex.
Bossman tries to throw Shamrock his nightstick, but Rock intercepts it and knocks out Shamrock for the pin.
Rating: **. Pretty good match. They got a little more time, over eight minutes. I always thought these two had good chemistry.
Kevin Kelly interviews Paul Bearer, who promises Undertaker will destroy Rock in the semifinals.
Women’s Championship: Jacqueline (c) vs. Sable
Jacqueline became the first woman to hold the reactivated Women’s Championship when Marc Mero interfered to screw over his ex-girlfriend. Shane McMahon is the referee here, as he’s been demoted by his father all the way down to being a “lowly referee” after bringing back Steve Austin.
Sable scores with the TKO almost immediately, but Mero pulls her out of the ring. Sable kicks Mero right in the balls for a big pop. Then she Powerbombs him on the floor! Almost killed him, but he managed to rotate and not get dropped on his head. RIP Marc Mero’s career, though he was probably already past salvaging. Jacqueline takes over and works Sable over for a minute or so.
Sable comes back with the Sable Bomb for the pin and becomes the new Women’s Champion in just over three minutes.
Rating: ¾*. About as good as it could have been considering Sable didn’t really know how to wrestle.
Tournament Semifinal: Mankind vs. Steve Austin
Austin limps down the aisle, selling the beating he got from Bossman earlier. This is a straight brawl as Austin and Foley fight all around ringside. McMahon is wheeled down the aisle about a minute in and Austin goes after him. Foley protects McMahon and Backdrops Austin on the ramp. Mankind locks in a long Chin Lock. Mankind brings a chair into the ring but gets it kicked into his face by Austin. Austin misses a straddle attempt and gets hit with a Double Arm DDT on the chair. Somehow, Austin kicks out.
Mankind sets up for a Piledriver on the chair but Austin Backdrops out. Stunner by Austin! McMahon breaks up the pin and levels the referee with a right hand. Mankind locks on the Mandible Claw, but Austin counters with the Stunner! Shane McMahon runs in to make the count, but pulls up at two. He flips Austin off and runs out of the ring.
Screwjob! Brisco and Slaughter hit Austin with a weak chair shot (I’ve heard Austin tell a funny story about his on his podcast, apparently Brisco had never hit anyone with a chair before) and Shane makes a quick three count. Mankind advances.
Rating: **. So many shenanigans there, but I liked it.
The McMahons flee as Austin pursues.
Tournament Semifinals: Undertaker vs. The Rock
Typical Attitude Era brawl here as they fight at ringside and into the crowd. This style really gets repetitive when you see it so many times in one night. After eight minutes Kane shows up and Chokeslams Rock right in front of the referee for the disqualification. Taker and Kane brawl off through the crowd as Rock has advanced to the finals.
Rating: ¾*. Not a whole lot going on there.
Michael Cole interviews Mankind, who for the first time steals one of Rock’s catchphrases by asking if you “smell what the sock is cooking.”
World Tag Team Championship: The New Age Outlaws vs. The Headbangers vs. D’Lo Brown and Mark Henry
Oy, bathroom match. Nothing particularly interesting happens here, they’re just filling time to let Rock and Mankind rest before the main event. Billy Gunn gets the pin on Mosh after a FameAsser and Piledriver in ten minutes.
Rating: ¾*. Let’s get to the main event now, please?
Tournament Final for WWF Championship: The Rock vs. Mankind
Pretty dull for the first few minutes. Vince and Shane McMahon make a late entrance to root on their favorite, Mankind. They go out to the floor and Rock hits a Suplex. Rock sloppily Suplexes Mankind over the railing and into the crowd. They go back to the ring for a long Chin Lock from Rock. They tumble to the floor, where Mankind gets a chair and hits Rock. Mankind gets the steps, but Rock hits them with a chair and then follows with several chair shots to the steps. Brutal chair shot to Mankind’s head. Back in the ring, Mankind hits a low blow. They go back outside, where Mankind hits the Cactus Jack Elbow Drop off the apron. Leg Drop on the announce table by Mankind.
Back in the ring, Rock kicks out at two. Rock charges Mankind and gets Back Dropped to the floor. Back in, Rock scores with a DDT. Rock charges Mankind and gets thrown over the top. Mankind comes off the second rope, but misses Rock and crashes through the announce table! That was a pretty sick bump. Back in the ring, Rock hits the People’s Elbow. Mankind just barely kicks out. Mankind comes back with a Double Arm DDT. He gets out Mr. Socko and locks on the Mandible Claw. Rock counters with the Rock Bottom! Rock gets up and…puts Mankind in the Sharpshooter. McMahon tells the timekeeper to ring the bell, and we have the Screwjob redux.
Rating: *1/4. Well, that pretty much sucked. Really slow. A few nice spots, but mostly just generic brawling. Admittedly, it was the third match of the night for both guys.
McMahon gets on the mic and declares that “The people screwed the people.” Shane and Vince celebrate, then kick it over to Rock, who tells the people to kiss his ass. Mankind is confused about what happened. Rock blasts him from behind with the title belt, then hits the Rock Bottom. Steve Austin shows up to hit Rock with the Stone Cold Stunner. Then he Stuns Mankind for good measure.
Hard to think of a show in history that was so much greater than the sum of its parts. Like, there really aren’t any good matches on this show. But stories all come together perfectly. It’s the peak of Good Attitude Era booking. Super complicated, but everyone could follow it. A huge twist ending that actually made perfect sense in retrospect. Rock had never become a good guy, the fans just started cheering him. He hates the fans, so an alliance with McMahon makes sense. And Vince paved the way for him perfectly in retrospect: injured Triple H was replaced by Bossman who took a dive, Bossman helped him beat Shamrock, Kane interfered to cost Undertaker, and then Vince and Shane took care of business themselves in the finals.
This set up a lot of hot feuds too: Austin vs. Rock for Wrestlemania, Mankind chasing Rock in the meantime, Undertaker vs. Kane for another round (okay, that wasn’t really that hot). Plus interesting issues like Shamrock having been screwed by Vince and Bossman. Nobody who watched this show wasn’t tuning into Raw the next night to find out what would happen next.