Previously on the Best and Worst of WWF Raw Is War: The “best action-adventure series on television” followed Shawn Michaels to the unemployment line, Vince McMahon to the gym for a hate and screams-fueled Royal Rumble workout, and Dennis Knight to wherever the Acolytes are taking him in the trunk of a car.
If you haven’t seen this episode, you can watch it on WWE Network here. Check out all the episodes of classic Raw you may have missed at the Best and Worst of WWF Raw Is War and Best and Worst of WWF Monday Night Raw tag pages. Follow along with the competition here.
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And now, the Best and Worst of WWF Raw Is War for January 4, 1999.
First: Putting The Monday Night War’s Battle of Saratoga Into Context
This episode of Raw is remembered as the one where Mick Foley won the WWF Championship, accidentally capitalizing on WCW putting its foot in its mouth and “turning the tide” in the Monday Night War. You almost certainly remember this episode as Mankind winning the championship, and nothing else. To put the real, full episode into the proper context, you must first make sure to read the corresponding Best and Worst of Nitro. Then, you can come back to this column for the brutal truth: when WCW made fun of Mick Foley for winning the championship, they got fans to switch channels during the only segment from this entire episode of Raw that was better than that terrible Nitro.
It’s honestly kind of hard to believe. It was a taped Raw, as the World Wrestling Federation tried to save time and money by airing one live show, and taping a second to air the next week. Taped Raws then (and now) are almost always the laziest and least ambitious efforts WWE puts together, so WCW actually had a pretty good idea to point out that they’re never taped, and I guess that they’re active participants in their own show quality, which … all right, maybe it wasn’t a good idea from ANY angle.
But before we get to Mick and one of the most insane, loud, and magical moments in Raw history, let me show you what else happened on Raw. We’ve got …
Transphobic Threesome Angles
Yes folks, the Raw where Mankind wins the WWF Championship is also the first appearance of “Sammy,” billed as “Chyna’s girlfriend.”
Let me catch you up to speed. For several months, Mark Henry basically stalked and repeatedly tried to force himself on Chyna as a weird extension of the D-Generation X and Nation of Domination feud. When Chyna finally successfully rejected him, Henry put out a restraining order against her for harassing him. She left the show (for cosmetic surgery, officially) and when she came back, she was suddenly like, “actually Mark, I think I DO like you, and we should go on a date.” Mark’s immediately like OH SHIT IT’S ON without stopping to consider that maybe something’s not on the level, and we follow them through a date where Mark seems a little more like a three-dimensional human being, and Chyna seems to be warming to it. But Mark is Mark, so he lets his sexual confidence get the best of him, starts referring to himself as “Sexual Chocolate,” and has a full-on BDSM three-way with the Pretty Mean Sisters. You think Chyna’s going to be mad at Mark for ostensibly “cheating” on her, but she gets mad at the women instead. Mark Henry’s still like, “this is fine.”
As it turns out, it’s a long con to sexually humiliate and emasculate Mark by hooking him up with “Sammy,” a transvestite. We’ll (unfortunately) learn more about this in the coming weeks, but on this episode she shows up after Mark’s match with Goldust to say she fears she’s “not women enough” for him, and that they should have a threesome with Sammy. Mark faints, even though he JUST had a much kinkier threesome on Raw two damn weeks ago. Trust me, this gets way worse.
A Miscarriage Angle
Speaking of PMS, the show where Mankind wins the WWF Championship is also the same episode where a pregnant Terri Runnels shows up to interrupt D’Lo Brown’s match with Edge for some reason, slips on the ring steps in comical fashion, and “miscarries.”
If you aren’t familiar with how fictional wrestling pregnancies work, there are really only two payoffs*: the woman was lying all along, or she “loses the baby” in some shocking act of mild violence. For example, Terri loses her baby here because she fell like two feet off some steps and landed on her back. This one’s actually a Daily Double, as Terri uses the miscarriage to guilt D’Lo into doing whatever she said for several weeks despite, get this, having never actually been pregnant at all. Crazy how that works. It’s also very good to use a very sad thing that really happens to women as creative fodder for your D’Lo Brown vs. Edge match in the middle of Raw.
Quick side note: there’s actually a third, more rare payoff to wrestling pregnancies sometimes, but it’s harder to explain. Basically what happens is that the writers never actually had a plan to pay off the pregnancy, so when the woman’s been “pregnant” longer than they need her to be, they have her give birth to an inanimate object. The most famous example of this is of course Mae Young birthing a mannequin hand, but don’t sleep on the time Stacy Keibler was pregnant with a stack of Shawn Stasiak 8x10s.
Pat Patterson Trying To Have Sex With Kane, I Think?
Mr. McMahon decides to punish Gerald Brisco and Pat Patterson for not preventing another Shane McMahon beatdown — more on that in a bit — by booking them in a handicap match against Kane. Trying to escape a chokeslam, Patterson tries to bribe Kane with whatever’s in his pockets. When a cigarette doesn’t work, Patterson offers him a condom. In what capacity, I’m not totally sure. Either end of the spectrum is pretty alarming.
Even without that strange aside, it’s a general manager punishing two 60-year olds by booking them in a handicap match. What is this, Saudi Arabia?
A Dungeon Mystery
Last week, former simpleton pig farmer turned yokel hitman Dennis Knight was stuffed into the trunk of his own rental car by the Acolytes and driven to the dreaded second location. This week, we find him chained up in a dungeon screaming for help. Presumably the WWF camera man sending this feed back to Raw is in on the kidnapping, and that’s why he refuses to help. Later in the show, the Acolytes show up and take him down, because whoever ordered the abduction of the worst guy in a tag team of hillbillies is, “ready for him.” I hope we find out who the Exalted One is soon, the suspense is killing me.
It’s even worse when the announcers have to use a shadowy kidnapping that could end in a man’s murder to segue into how a wrestling pimp has a big wiener.
“Last week on Raw we saw Dennis Knight attacked in the parking lot by the Acolytes and thrown into the trunk of a car, and now … now he’s hanging somewhere!”
“Wow, I tell you what, speaking of hanging, here’s the Godfather!”
A Series Of Increasingly Frustrating Finishes
I cannot possibly express to you how bad the wrestling is for the first hour-forty of this episode. Just to recap it as succinctly as possible, the show features:
- Dan Severn in a neck brace showing up to distract Ken Shamrock, allowing Billy Gunn to sneak in and hit the Fame-asser to give Steve Blackman a cheap victory. Side note: Shamrock punches Severn in the face and knocks him off the apron, which Severn completely no-sells despite the fact that he’s supposed to be a stiff breeze away from paralysis.
- Mark Henry being distracted by Chyna and Sammy, which allows Goldust to … [checks notes] kick Henry in the balls in front of the referee and lose the match by disqualification. How did you get the big surprise disqualification and still lose on purpose?
- Val Venis showing up to cause a distraction during a Test vs. Godfather match (woof), not affecting it whatsoever, and then Test getting disqualified for Irish whipping Godfather into the ring post. Which, if you’re keeping score at home, is never usually a disqualification. This leads to a Test vs. Val Venis pull-apart brawl, which even a 1998 Raw crowd that treats the Road Dogg like he’s Hulk Hogan in Madison Square Garden in ’85 can’t get into
- Edge vs. D’Lo Brown, which ends in a pretend miscarriage
- Mankind losing to a sunset flip because Shane McMahon is an evil referee
- Kane vs. two old men in a match where they offer him condoms that just kind of ends with Kane being declared the victor so he won’t also try to beat up Shane McMahon
Let me put it to you this way: the best match of the night before the main event was an AL SNOW match. It’s mostly notable for the finish being Snow losing to snow. It’s at this point you look back at what’s generally considered the very worst episode from the Nitro’s prime and think, “at least they had the decency to run a Rey Mysterio tag.”
Even The Build To The Main Event Isn’t Especially Good, And Ends In Off-screen Manslaughter
Raw opens with Vince McMahon playing against type and ordering everyone in the WWE Universe to not pretend Shawn Michaels is five times better than he actually was. He also threatens anyone who puts their hands on Shane McMahon with violent humiliation, which explains Smackdown from 2016 through 2018. Shawn interrupts to reveal that he’s actually not fired, because he has an “iron-clad contract,” Big Show-style. The only way he’ll leave the job is if he resigns, which he won’t, because he’s rejoined D-Generation X and wants to make McMahon’s life miserable. This would unofficially continue until like, 2008.
Tonight, Michaels has two announcements:
- McMahon is going to be number two in the Royal Rumble instead of number 30, and
- at some point tonight he’ll leave the arena and come back with a “stone cold surprise”
McMahon makes this face.
A few segments later, Mankind comes to the ring and calls out McMahon to ask him for a title shot against The Rock at the Royal Rumble, and to drop jokes about how he grabbed Pat Patterson’s nutsack in a masculine way last week, and liked being able to say “suck it” without saying “please” first. 1998, y’all. McMahon answers the request by pointing out that he’s technically given Foley a TON of opportunities at the WWF Championship and he failed to capitalize on any of them — not a lie — and that he’s let his increased fan support go to his head. Plus, based on what he’s seen from him lately, he doesn’t deserve a shot at the Hardcore title, much less the important one. Instead, Mankind will get a match against Triple H for a spot in the Royal Rumble and like it.
That match, as mentioned, gets Shane McMahon as a special guest referee and ends in a sunset flip with a fast count.
After the match, Triple H explains that he let the evil authority cheat on his behalf because it’s what’s best for business, adding, “A win is a win, and when it comes to the WWF title, I’ll take it any way I can get it.” No shit. He does give Mick a solid, though, by Pedigreeing Shane.
Mankind decides to get some revenge with, “a little move that Jim McGonagall taught me back at Ward Melville,” and threatens to stretch Shane until his shoulder breaks. This brings out Vince for some great LET HIM GO DAMMIT yelling — you can hear that capslock, can’t you — and Mankind says he’ll let Shane go if he gets a no disqualification title shot not at the Royal Rumble, but right here tonight. McMahon agrees, and The Rock shows up to be the first person to go on record saying Shane McMahon made his enjoyment of WWE TV harder.
But that’s not all. Shawn Michaels makes good on his promise to leave the arena to get McMahon’s “stone cold surprise,” but accidentally takes the wrong key from Triple H — [shifty eyes] — and locks himself out of the building. That allows the Corporation to jump him in the parking lot and, during a commercial break, … murder him?
So that’s Michaels’ most recent television write-off, so he can go have another back surgery. The Corporation are the obvious villains, but it’s also implied that D-Generation X set him up as payback for all the drama he put them through as Evil Commissioner. More specifically, it’s the first on-screen example of Triple H using (kayfabe) politics to secretly ensure Shawn Michaels’ death and removal from the program. See also: every time after this for 20 years.
Butts In Seats, From The Other Side
Over on Monday Nitro, Tony Schiavone (by way of Eric Bischoff) decides take a swipe at the competition and “sabotage” the one good moment from two hours of a taped Raw with the following statement:
“If you’re even thinking about changing the channel to our competition, fans, do not. Because we understand that Mick Foley, who wrestled here at one time as Cactus Jack, is going to win their World Title. Huh! That’s gonna put some butts in the seats. Heh!”
Their intention, I guess, was to make people say, “I already know the result of their main event, so there’s no reason to watch.” What they didn’t seem to realize is that most people don’t watch wrestling shows for the on-paper results, they watch to find out how and why the result happened. It’s the result and everything around it. So what they got was hundreds of thousands of people saying, “that sounds so much better than this Konnan vs. Scott Steiner TV title match with a DQ finish, let me go see a wrestler who’s been doing cool shit for years get his big moment.” A moment that also included Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, D-Generation X, and Vince McMahon himself. WCW was basically saying, “there’s a shitty buffet on the other channel, don’t go eat there, you’ll find out it’s full of your favorite foods.”
In retrospect, they might’ve said, “fans, you’re watching the only live professional wrestling program on TV. Don’t think about switching to the other channel unless you want to see miscarriages, cross-dressing threesome angles too embarrassing for Jerry Springer, the worst wrestler you’ve ever seen chained up in a dungeon, and a bunch of bullshit match endings.” And then they could’ve countered with the things that made their show good, instead of quadrupling down on the things that didn’t.
But, you know. WCW. And I guess they couldn’t have possibly known that the fans who switched over from a garbage-lobbing Nitro crowd would see an arena full of pre-taped fans losing their goddamn minds with happiness over one of the most thrilling and unforgettable finishes in TV wrestling history.
D-Generation X and the Corporation are around the ring to watch Mankind challenge The Rock in the no disqualification match for the WWF Championship. Mankind gets the Mandible Claw on Rock, so Ken Shamrock slides into the ring with a chair and hits him in the back. That triggers a big D-X vs. Corporation brawl, playing up the Shamrock and Billy Gunn beef from earlier in the night. Everyone in the crowd gets distracted, so they aren’t expecting to hear glass shatter.
That’s what makes the moment so good. It’s not just that the moment is exciting, or that people are happy to see Stone Cold Steve Austin … it’s that they’ve been manipulated into thinking the “stone cold surprise” was ruined by the attack on Michaels, and are lulled into a state of mild anticipation with the cautious pessimism that happens when you’ve watched too many wrestling shows and have seen too many show-ending brawls. It’s probably going to end with the Corporation cheating Mankind out of the match, and maybe they’ll build something for the Royal Rumble. Everyone in the crowd, even the ones who are just reacting without putting it all together in their heads, are politely cheering.
And then the glass breaks.
Go to the 0:26 mark in the above video and watch what the crowd does. The glass breaks and shakes everyone in the building out of anything and everything they were thinking. It’s MASSIVE stimulus response. It’s brilliantly Pavlovian. It’s so much communicated in a single sound: Stone Cold Steve Austin IS here, holy shit, we didn’t think he would be, and he’s gonna come to the ring and kick the shit out of the Corporation and oh my God is Mankind going to win the championship? MANKIND’S GOING TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP. OH MY GOD STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN-
It’s the most riotous pop I can remember seeing from a wrestling crowd. It’s JOY, in the shared gesture of thousands of people throwing their hands up and screaming at the same time. It’s a buzzer beater. It’s a home run in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series. It’s the complete loss of self and happy assimilation into a soaring, uncontrollable moment of fun. It is, in a noise, what pro wrestling’s about. And that’s the bottom line.
Austin clobbers the Rock with a chair to set up their WrestleMania match and give a thundering “fuck you” to Vince McMahon by pulling Mankind into the pin for the win and the championship. Austin kinda hates Mankind too, because he kinda hates everybody, but he knows what’s right. In the end, even a belligerent redneck psychopath knows when the evil assholes in charge need to be taken down a peg and give the power back to the people. The Corporation is too busy brawling with D-X to make the save, McMahon’s in a stage of rage shock, and Mrs. Foley’s baby boy wins the WWF Championship.
All I can say is that it felt good. We all needed it. Raw had been good for a while, but the past year had been nothing but Montreal Screwjob riffs and Stone Cold getting “screwed” or “fired” or nearly embalmed or whatever. Over on Nitro, the nWo was still going strong and Hulk Hogan had just come back to win the championship by gently poking the booker in the boob with his index finger. Wrestling was, and frankly is, a nightmare most of the time. It’s emotional torture porn. It’s hoping for the best and getting the dirt worst roughly 90% of the time. And that’s what makes the good moments so good. It’s catharsis. A shared experience. It’s rooting for the underdog and seeing them win after years of being there for the losses. It’s sound, and spectacle, and an energy that rises up from somewhere weird inside of you and comes out through your throat to join a thousand others.
This odd looking sad-sack of a pro wrestler who walked the tightrope between goofy teddy bear and deranged death-match maniac rose to the top of the biggest wrestling promotion in the world to win their most celebrated championship after years of being told he was a good, awkward hand at best. He was a spot monkey. He just fell off shit. He just fell onto thumbtacks and got hit with chairs. He was good for a joke or an explosion, but nobody wants to see him in commercials. Nobody wants to see him with the title belt. And in his heart, this guy who started off backyard wrestling trying to be a beloved and sexy heartthrob spent his career slowly accepting that he could never be it, only to take the long way around and be something better. He didn’t become a hero because he played a part. He became a hero because of who he is, and how easy it is to see in him.
It just felt good.
20 years later, that crowd reaction gives me goosebumps. It makes my eyes water. Not because I’m especially happy or sad or anything, but because it helps me feel the thing I want to feel when I watch professional wrestling without having to explain or understand it. It’s just right. Nothing I can type can feel it for you, but if you do feel it, you’ll feel it forever.
Mick Foley’s unlikely career and unexpected win at the end of a pre-taped Raw changed the entire business. It made hundreds of thousands of people suddenly more interested in Raw than Nitro. It helped redefine who could be “on top” in pro wrestling, and for what reason. It inspired the unconventional, the sensitive, and the dangerous to believe they could be part of the thing they love that so often reminds them they aren’t welcome. It proved that if you work hard and stay true to yourself, even if you ended up battling Leatherface with a board with a nail in it in some tournament of death, you could be remembered alongside Bruno Sammartino and Stone Cold Steve Austin and everybody else. Wrestling is yours, God dammit. It’s yours. Triumphs and tragedies and bad decisions and all.
That’s gonna put some butts in the seats.