It’s Survivor Series time! The predictions are in, the bets are made, and the build is mercifully over. The card looks pretty good. A little long to be sure, but we’re all used to that by now. This year’s show even has two traditional Survivor Series matches, which is fewer than last year but more than the year before (if you don’t count the kickoff show).
It seems like a lot of people, both fans and WWE backstage types, don’t care much for Survivor Series’ elimination matches. There are never titles involved, and the number of participants (whether it’s four-on-four or five-on-five) often makes them feel separate from ongoing feuds and storylines. I’ve never really agreed with this view. Sure, plenty of Survivor Series matches have been pointless and bad, but in wrestling as in music (and movies, and life), plenty of everything is pointless and bad, and it’s the gems that make it all worthwhile.
When the first Survivor Series happened in 1987, big group matches weren’t as common as they are in today’s world of seven hours of televised weekly wrestling. So at the time, it was exciting and new to see, for example Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, and Macho Man Randy Savage all being friends and working together to take down Dangerous Danny Davis, Harley Race, Hercules, the Honky Tonk Man, and Outlaw Ron Bass, a team you knew was truly insidious because they were co-managed by Jimmy Hart and Bobby “the Brain” Heenan. With all these snakes, barbers, dragons, and brains running around on super-teams together, 1980s WWF had never felt more like a cartoon, and that was clearly part of the appeal.
But the match that really won me over to the Survivor Series format was one that you’ve almost certainly watched: the 1990 match where the Undertaker debuted. By 1990 the teams had decreased from five members a side to four, and each team had a name, usually based on the captain.
Some teams seemed to exist just for the sake of the name, like the Warriors, which consisted of the Ultimate Warrior, the Road Warriors, and the Modern Day Warrior Kerry Von Erich. Even in 1990 you had to be a bit of a smark to get that joke, since in WWF the Ultimate Warrior’s teammates were introduced as the Legion of Doom and the Texas Tornado. Also worth noting is that the Warriors faced the Perfect Team, which consisted of Mr. Perfect and all three members of Demolition, whose masks really made you think that Mr. Perfect was going to lead them to the ring on leashes and then have them lick his boots.
But I’m getting distracted. The match I really wanted to talk about was the Dream Team versus the Million Dollar Team. The Dream Team was led by Dusty Rhodes, late in his WWF run when he’d stopped wearing the polka dotted top and trunks, and was no longer involved with Sapphire. Alongside the American Dream were the Hart Foundation and Koko B. Ware. Koko was basically just a guy with bird (which is no slight towards him; few black wrestlers were given space to be much more at the time), but the team of Bret “The Hitman” Hart and Jim “The Anvil” Niedhart was an impressive combination even then, before Bret rose to the top of the company. And of course Dusty Rhodes was already one of the greatest wrestlers in history, even if the WWF was unwilling to acknowledge that at the time.
Dusty had an ongoing feud with the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase, which makes sense when you consider that DiBiase was basically the more cartoonish WWF version of Ric Flair. To fill out the Million Dollar Team, DiBiase had recruited Rhythm and Blues — a tag team consisting of former Intercontinental Champion the Honky Tonk Man and Greg “the guy who was always around” Valentine. DiBiase had promised a surprise fourth member of the team, but nobody could imagine what was coming.
See, that’s what makes the Undertaker’s debut so perfect. He could have made his first appearance in a singles match, squashing some jobber (perhaps Koko B. Ware). But it never would have made the kind of impression that his debut here did. The idea is that Ted DiBiase spread money all around the wrestling world, looking for the biggest, scariest guy he could find, and this is what he unearthed. So you get not one, but four babyfaces staring in disbelief at this redheaded monster. You get Taker easily eliminating Koko, as the latter’s three very talented teammates struggle to figure out what to do about him.
Then the Undertaker not only eliminates the American Dream, he chases Dusty out into the crowd to beat him up further. On one hand, this establishes Taker as a nasty monster, determined to bring down the pain on everybody’s favorite happy dancing wrestle-daddy. And on the other hand, it also gets him counted out so that he’s eliminated without being pinned or submitted, keeping him monster-strong. Count-out eliminations for monsters have become a staple of Survivor Series, all the way up to Braun Strowman last year (and maybe Braun Strowman again this year; we’ll see).
After such an impressive debut, it was no surprise that the Undertaker’s rise was so meteoric that at the very next Survivor Series a year later, he won the WWE Championship from Hulk Hogan (Hogan won it back a few days later, because he’s Hogan, but that’s not the point). And that debut wouldn’t have worked anywhere other than in a Survivor Series match.
That’s only one example of what Survivor Series can do. The sole reason Dolph Ziggler still has any fans at all, for example, is because the main event of Survivor Series 2014 made him look so good that the moment still shines brighter than any of the less exciting things he’s done since then.
Pro wrestling, at its best, is about telling stories, and every gimmick match is a tool to help make those stories as interesting as can be. The Survivor Series match is only one tool among money, but it remains a powerful one that shouldn’t be overlooked.