Previously on the Best and Worst of WWF Raw Is War: X-Pac got burned! Plus, the stage is set for Survivor Series: Vince McMahon wants Mankind to be his easily manipulated Corporate Champion, and will do anything to keep Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Rock from winning the Deadly Game tournament. Wink wink, people’s elbow people’s elbow.
If you haven’t seen this pay-per-view somehow, 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.
Hey, you! If you want us to keep doing retro reports, share them around! And be sure to drop down into our comments section to let us know what you thought of these shows. Head back to a time long forgotten when WWE TV was fun to watch, and things happened!
Up first, let’s talk about what this show is, and why it matters to so many people.
A Quick Word About Survivor Series 1998
Before I get into the show itself, I want to properly contextualize Survivor Series ’98 as a true anomaly in sports-entertainment history. Never before and presumably never again will there by a WWE pay-per-view that remains popularly beloved for over two decades despite featuring zero good wrestling matches. It’s WWE’s platonic ideal of a show; an event where the wrestling is just a means to an end to “tell a story,” and even die-hard, workrate-obsessed wrestling fans go along for the ride. YES, TELL US THE STORY, WORLD WRESTLING ENTERTAINMENT, WE’RE HERE FOR IT.
The key, as you probably can tell if you’ve been following along with the Best and Worst of WWF Raw Is War leading up to the event is that Vince Russo and Vince McMahon, despite all their clear narrative and storytelling problems and the past 20 years to illustrate that they can’t seem to pull the rabbit out of the hat again, wrote a cohesive story featuring practically the entire WWF roster that was surprising, maintained character consistency, tied together multiple stories and character relationships, and, perhaps most importantly, had a defined beginning, middle, and end. There’s a real value in knowing how your story’s going to end when you start telling it, even if the ending changes as you do.
When you read me complaining through dense paragraphs about how much better this shit would be if they put any effort into making it make sense, this is the kind of show I’m talking about. I’m not expecting a 74-year old Vince McMahon and his life of cartoonish promotion to an audience he doesn’t respect to suddenly want to book a Starrcade ’85 gory, class-based morality play; I just want WWE to understand that recreating a “moment” is meaningless if you don’t or refuse to show that you understand what made it memorable in the first place.
And now, the Best and Worst of WWF Survivor Series: Deadly Game, originally aired on November 15, 1998.
For most of 1998, Mankind, previously an abandoned and insane loner feeling even more abandoned and even more insane after Paul Bearer ditched him to hang out with Kane, has been doing everything he can to replace his AWOL “father figure” with Vince McMahon. He even went so far as to openly and completely “sell out” to impress him. When he couldn’t do what Vince wanted the most — unseat and eliminate Stone Cold Steve Austin from the company permanently, so Vince could feel blameless at the loss of the company’s top but anarchic star and just forget about him forever — he, like Bearer, ditched him for Kane and the Undertaker. Mankind can’t take a hint, though, and even amid a growing fan popularity has always remained in McMahon’s orbit, trying to get in his good graces and, you know, offer him sugar and circus clowns when he’s feeling low.
McMahon pretty much openly hates Mankind at this point. To Vince, Mick Foley is a failed experiment that refuses to die. He knows that Foley will still do anything he says, though, so over the past few weeks leading up to Survivor Series he’d become suspiciously approving of him, giving him something to do (the Hardcore Championship) and filling his head with total bullshit (saying he’d “lost a son” in Shane McMahon, but had found one in Foley) to keep him on the line. At Survivor Series, McMahon opens the show by presenting Mankind with a round one “mystery opponent,” featuring one of the most melodramatic and misleading introductions to not come out of Michael Buffer’s mouth in wrestling history.
The important thing to remember here is that almost everyone at the time thought the mystery opponent was going to be a returning Shawn Michaels, who’d popped up on a few Raws between his “retirement” and now looking totally fine and ready to go. So as Vince starts talking, the crowd starts chanting “HBK.” Because why else would they have a mystery opponent, presumably at Vince McMahon’s corporate command, going up against a guy McMahon secretly kinda hates and clearly wants to screw over at some point?
“This legend in the ranks of sports entertainment made his WWF debut in 1990. Over the course of the next six years, this charismatic Superstar boasted a won-loss record that set new standards here in the WWF. Unfortunately, seeking more opposition of his own caliber, this natural athlete jumped ship to the WCW and after suffering a massive shoulder injury, this cornerstone of the World Wrestling Federation has been sidelined for the past two years. With his career on the line, he fought back with resilience, dreaming of his triumphant return to the ring here tonight. Therefore, without further adieu, allow me to introduce to you, currently the coach of the Pasadena Chargers; the man, the myth, Dwayne Gill.”
This is brilliant when you realize how effectively it manipulates the crowd. The opening sentences keep everyone thinking it might still be Shawn Michaels, especially when you remember this is a pre-cell phones, pre-Wikipedia era where you couldn’t just check and see if Shawn had debuted in 1990. When Vince hits a dramatic pause before his signature yokel reading of, [pause] dubya-see-dubya, he’s not only getting boos for WCW, he’s timing it so the boos coincide with everyone realizing it’s not gonna be Shawn. But then he starts in about how it’s a guy who jumped ship for WCW, and in your head (again, relying on your internal knowledge of multiple wrestling companies in a pre-Internet age) you start thinking, Scott Hall maybe? Who’s it gonna be? And then boom, it’s the worst person you’ve ever seen in your entire fucking life. And Mankind, wrestling in a tuxedo, rolls him up in like 20 seconds and wins the match.
The Pasadena Chargers are an elementary school football team, by the way, which offends Jim Ross on a level you can’t even comprehend. The crowd’s against Mankind because he’s now CLEARLY the corporate choice to win the tournament and got a total can in round one, the crowd hates McMahon (on top of everything else) for advertising a mystery opponent only to deliver a jobber, and even the announce team — Ross, at least — wants someone to step up and knock McMahon on his ass.
The match to determine Foley’s round two opponent is smartly booked as well, as it (1) works as a pay-per-view “blowoff” to the Jeff Jarrett vs. Al Snow feud that’s been going on for the past several weeks, and (2) sets up Al Snow, Mankind’s kinda-sorta friend and recent tag team partner who very importantly kidnapped Mr. Socko and tied him around the Head’s head like a bandana, as Mankind’s next opposition. So you not only are tying in another previously established character relationship, you’re doing it while paying off a completely unrelated television angle and reuniting one of your tournament protagonists with his fully realized, signature finisher.
The finish is fun, too, with Debra McMichael causing a literal and figurative Broad Distraction, allowing Jarrett and Snow a chance to crawl to their weapons of choice and capitalize. Only they’re on the wrong sides of the ring, so Jarret grabs Head and Snow grabs a guitar. Snow swings for the fences, but Jarrett ducks the chair and hits Snow somewhere between the shoulder-blades with Head. The referee turns around and sees the guitar lying in the ring, so Jarrett tucks head under his arm and points out the guitar to the ref, looking to set up a second distraction. It works, but Snow kicks Head out of Jarrett’s hands and lands a clear Head-to-head shot for the win.
It’s a total Raw finish, but at least it’s creative, and gets us in and out of a Jeff Jarrett vs. Al Snow pay-per-view match in about three minutes. That’s the upside to this tournament feeling like Crash TV; the matches aren’t very good, but we’ve gotta get through fourteen of them in this two hour and 45-minute pay-per-view, so they never outstay their welcome.
McMahon’s Deadly Gameplan for Stone Cold Steve Austin is simple: put him in a first round match against the Big Boss Man, and have the Boss Man just beat Austin into the hospital with a night stick. Here’s a picture-in-picture of Vince laughing at his own successes. Nobody thinks the Boss Man’s gonna win the tourney, especially not when McMahon (in theory) has Undertaker, Kane, Mankind, and possibly Ken Shamrock under his thumb, so why not have him professionally chop block the top seed? Now Vince is comfortable knowing that either Austin’s going to be too injured to make it to his second round match, or he’s going to be so injured that his second round opponent should be able to pick him apart. Absolute worst case scenario, there’s no way Austin can just roll through everyone and win while he’s hurt. This ain’t John Cena we’re talking about over here.
X-Pac and Legitimate Man’s Man Steven Regal both get counted out, which means Austin’s suddenly got a second round bye and time to recover. McMahon tries to send Commissioner Slaughter out to add on a mandatory five-minute overtime, but Pac is too injured to compete, and without both guys being available for the restart, it’s too little too late. There’s now a cog in McMahon’s plan, and he’s gonna have to call an audible to fix it.
With Kane and Undertaker facing each other in round two after byes of their own and Mankind being more of a means to an end than a killer, McMahon presumably has two important goals for the remainder of the round: see if he can leverage Ken Shamrock into stupidly doing his dirty work, and make sure The Rock doesn’t advance under any circumstances. At least, that’s what he wants us to think.
Ken Shamrock is literally and figuratively on the ropes against Goldust in round one, but the referee weirdly steps between them to prevent Goldie from punting Shamrock in the balls. Goldust loves hitting folks with Shattered Dreams, even if it means he’s going to get himself disqualified, but suddenly this ref is pulling a Hell in a Cell 2019 and yelling NO DUSTIN THIS ISN’T YOU, THIS ISN’T YOU, STOP IT! That clears up Shamrock to hit a terrible self-brainbustering hurricanrana off the ropes and lock in the Ankle Lock for the tap.
I’m not saying Vince McMahon had any direct influence on this match, but it’s fun to dig a little deeper and think he was in the ref’s ear screaming STOP HIM FROM INJURING MY GUY, I NEED HIM FOR THE SECOND ROUND. It sure beats “general referee incompetence” and “inconsistently enforcing the rules.”
It also makes sense when you consider that the next match involves more direct Vince McMahon influence than anything else on the card: The Rock vs. Triple H. It’s supposed to be the cap on a year-plus of the two feuding, but the D-Generation X entrance gets co-opted by Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco:
What is this, D-X at Crown Jewel?
Brisco helpfully explains that the injured Triple H was invited to the tournament but apparently no-showed, so “Mr. Mac Man” has authorized him to fine Triple H heavily and remove him from the card. There won’t be a forfeit, however, as Pat Patterson announces they’ve scoured the backstage area and found Rock a suitable replacement opponent: The Big Boss Man. Boss Man hits the ring, and Rock one-ups him with an immediate surprise roll-up, winning in a record-breaking four seconds.
Here’s the entire match in a GIF:
This is the tournament’s real stroke of genius, I think. Boss Man being the opponent so soon after he’d just gotten eliminated for attacking Stone Cold Steve Austin with a night stick and threatening to take him out of the tournament completely feels like a direct connection between Austin and Rock with Rock being an on-Austin’s-level top babyface star. Rock pinning him in four seconds after having the deck stacked against him makes him feel like a super hero. And at the same time, right under all of our noses, McMahon sent out one of his cronies to do a flash pin job to the guy he wanted moving on to the second round without incident. After booking him to face an obviously injured opponent. It’s so good.
Kane vs. Undertaker opens round two of the tournament in a very Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant at WrestleMania IV kind of way. They’ve been beefing over which brother is the rightful WWF Champion after simultaneously pinning Stone Cold Steve Austin at Breakdown, and the reintroduction of Paul Bearer as an anti-Kane but somehow pro-Undertaker figure has added some interesting context. Something fishy is still going on with these two, possibly more CAHOOTS, but the answer’s not yet clear.
Sure enough, it’s Paul Bearer that makes the difference in the match, holding Kane’s leg to prevent him from kicking out of the Undertaker’s Tombstone. Again, the heel who most easily aligns with Mr. McMahon mcmanages to advance to the next round, and whoever’s set to face The Undertaker in round three is almost certainly going to have to contend with an irate, “screwed” Kane as well. Again, literally every layer of this plan has been thought out, to the point you start to wonder if Ozymandias booked this shit 35 minutes before bell-time.
As mentioned earlier, Mankind runs into Al Snow in round two as an excuse to put him over a former tag team partner and reunite him with Mr. Socko. Snow gets a dirty mannequin bandana (bandannequin) shoved down his throat, and gets as close to the WWF Championship as he ever would.
It’s about four minutes of light comedy and light hardcore wrestling that spotlights Mick Foley’s two great gifts. Most importantly, round three’s most important match is set: an injured Stone Cold Steve Austin, thanks to his bye, will face Mr. McMahon’s apparently chosen champion, with all the ridiculous bullshit and ballyhoo that entails.
Most people will tell you that the in-ring highlight of the Deadly Game tournament is the finish to The Rock and Ken Shamrock’s second round match, as it features a spot that could’ve gone wrong in a million ways, but played perfectly in the moment.
The idea here is that Shamrock is a McMahon acolyte, but unwillingly. He’s just easily manipulated because he’s kinda sorta super stupid. He’s like a prize race horse. He’s going to win your athletic competition in a walk, but you couldn’t sit him down and ask him to read a book, you know? Jim Ross emphasizing that Shamrock is good in a “tournament environment” because of his UFC success is great nod, and the kind of rational thinking WWE should do more often. This wrestling is good at X because of an observable Y we didn’t just pull out of our asses and expect you to believe. This plays in contrast to The Rock, who needs a match like this, especially after the flash win against the Boss Man, to assure the crowd that yes, he’s the people’s champion, and yes, he’s the guy you’re supposed to be rooting for because you know Austin’s going to get fucked out of the tourney.
When Shamrock’s unable to put Rock away convincingly — or because Shamrock’s too stupid to play along and tries to win, choose your own adventure — The Big Boss Man shows up at ringside again. After Rock’s able to escape an ankle lock because he’s 6-foot-5 and can get to the ropes (shout-out again to Jim Ross, who was truly an incredible play-by-play man until he turned into a very old and disinterested man who doesn’t know anything about modern wrestlers or wrestling), Shamrock decides to solicit help from Boss Man. Boss Man distracts the ref and tries to lob the night stick to Shamrock, but The Rock steps in and intercepts it. The interception is GORGEOUS, in that Rock almost misses it and manages to snag it by the very end of the stick. Watch it:
Beautiful. It could’ve gone so wrong in so many ways. Can you imagine if Rock had missed? Shamrock didn’t have his hands up until the last second, so that stick could’ve gone flying in the crowd. The alternate angle replay shows that it’s less of a miraculous catch than it looks on the hard cam, but man, that hard cam shot is perfection. Rock once again triumphs over McMahon’s mcmachinations and advances to round three. Or, if you’re watching this 20 years later, Rock openly cheats to win in front of everybody with McMahon’s help again and we’re still not noticing.
Because you’ve got to put something between the final rounds.
Surprise! Sable, the woman for whom the WWF Women’s Championship was brought back for specifically, won the WWF Women’s Championship! You know you’re a great wrestler when you win a championship and the announcers are like, “she’s a shitty wrestler, folks, but she works hard!”
Also on the show, the New Age Outlaws defend the Tag Team Championship in a deeply awkward triple threat match against the Headbangers and whatever we’re calling the Nation of Domination now. Again, you know your match is doing great when the announcers spend the entirety of it trying to explain why it’s so bad. It’s UNORTHODOX, King! The highlight is Billy Gunn having flesh-colored Black Manta eyes on his ass (pictured) and botching a lateral press — yes, botching lying down on someone perpendicularly — in a way I didn’t think was physically possible.
Let’s get back to the tournament before Tiger Ali Singh shows up and wrestles Too Sexy Brian Cristopher, or whatever.
Round three has two major goals: get Mankind and The Rock to the finals, and prevent Stone Cold Steve Austin from ruining either of those by any means necessary.
Keeping Austin from overcoming the odds is nigh impossible, as you probably remember. The guy wrestled Dude Love at Over the Edge and still managed to win after having an entire CABAL of upper management types and violent hippies changing the rules on the fly and trying to “screw” him at every turn. They’ve set up the scenario well, though; Mankind is McMahon’s choice to win the tournament, or make it to the finals at least to be a pawn in what he really wants ot do with the championship, and Austin knows it. Austin also knows that Foley is being emotionally and professionally manipulated, having already gone through this with him once, but isn’t the forgiving type. So they do a big callback to Over the Edge here, with Austin desperately trying to win a competitive match against an already accomplished and difficult-to-defeat opponent while a pack of Boomer Goons jogs around the ring trying to stop him.
The big moment comes when Austin finally breaks through all the bullshit, beats Mankind out of his dress pants, and hits him with a Stone Cold Stunner in the middle of the ring. The ref is out, so Austin’s good friend Shane McMahon, the man who hired him back after Vince McMahon fired him and guaranteed him a spot in this tournament, slides into the ring to count the three. EVERYBODY buys Shane as a good guy here, because he’s never done anything to make us think he wouldn’t be. So with the crowd chanting along at the top of their lungs, Shane counts one, two … and then stops. The crowd, the commentary, and the camera work are spectacular here as Shane reveals his true colors:
It’s infuriating, even now. Austin chases Shane out of the ring, allowing Mankind a chance to recover and the Stooges a chance to double team Austin and plaster him in the face with a chair. Truly and officially defeated by the fates, Austin takes the three, and Mankind moves on the tournament finals cemented as the Corporate Champion.
And what happens in The Rock’s round three match against the Undertaker, you might ask? Well, Kane shows up again, of course, and chokeslams Rocky to get Undertaker disqualified. The only questions remaining are, “did Paul Bearer and Undertaker cheat Kane out of that second round match knowing he’d show up and get involved in round three, giving them an out to ‘lose’ without actually taking a loss,” and, “does Kane have any idea how hard he’s being manipulated, or is he just a taller, quieter Mankind?”
The only man left who can stop Vince McMahon’s corporately mandated choice for champion is the champion of the people. This shit’s giving me goosebumps again and I’ve been aware of it for 20 years.
To recap, the entire tournament has been building to this. The best part? It’s been building to it from multiple perspectives. From one, you’ve got Mankind as this easily manipulated cog in Vince McMahon’s machine, getting an easy first round match against history’s biggest jobber, getting a round two match against Al Snow (who might as well be Dwayne Gill), and having all the help in the world to get him through round three. He’s got a history of being under the thumb of McMahon, and will do anything to please and impress him, even though he’s ostensibly a really nice guy people wanna cheer. Then you have The Rock, who is picking up the slack of a continually beaten, battered, and abused Stone Cold Steve Austin battling his way through round one corporate manipulation, a round two match against a mixed-marital arts tournament master and MORE attempted corporate interference, and a round three match against a seven-foot tall undead wizard with dangerous interference from a fire demon.
From the other perspective, well …
Mankind and The Rock starts like you’d expect given everything that happened, with The Rock as the crowd favorite and Mankind as the jerk who got here because someone decided he should. The McMahons are at ringside. If you’re a WWF fan in November 1998, literally all you want is for The Rock to win this thing, turn the WWF Championship sideways, and stick it straight up Mr. McMahon’s candy ass.
And then The Rock puts Mankind in the Sharpshooter, and your brain starts going … wait, what
And then …
As it turns out, that first perspective was all wrong. What actually happened is that Vince McMahon realized he couldn’t just “fire” Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin was too popular with the fans. He need to make his own Stone Cold Steve Austin; someone the fans loved and supported and bought t-shirts and brought signs for, but who would ultimately just toe the company line and do what he’s told. The Rock started off as a fun-loving babyface, and people hated him so much they chanted about how he should die in real life. That turned him into a complete egomaniac, which lowered his inhibitions and defenses enough for people to realize how talented he was, and how much they should like him. So they did, and he played along, knowing all along that the only people who ever really gave a shit about him were the World Wrestling Federation brass; the people who gave his father a paycheck when times were tough. They gave The Rock something to do when football didn’t work out and kept him on the shows and getting opportunities, whether the fans “liked” it or not.
So Vince McMahon, struggling with the failures of Mankind, Kane, and the Undertaker, booked an entire tournament around injuring and/or humiliating Stone Cold Steve Austin and replacing him with the newer, preferable model. And to make sure Rock would win the finals, he needed to put someone there he knew would ALSO do what he’s told, and lose. Enter: Mankind. So now Rock is a completely bullshit corporate champion, Mankind is a fool for believing he’s worth of love (something he’s not going to resolve until he realizes it’s the fans that love him, no matter what), Austin’s been wrangled enough to keep him busy and out of the finale, and ultimately and very much most importantly, Mr. Vincent Kennedy McMahon and his dirtbag family of shitty sons and aging Yes Men have proved that nobody is bigger and nothing matters more than the will of Vince McMahon. Only one man knew how to play the deadly game, and he won it.
The scene ends with Rock being awarded the championship, Mankind getting beaten down, and Stone Cold hitting the ring to Stone Cold everybody, send the crowd home happy, and let us know we’re definitely getting Rock vs. Austin at the next WrestleMania.
The World Wrestling Federation, having pulled off a miracle of pro wrestling storytelling over almost three hours pay-per-view that paid off an entire 1998 of character development and storytelling, spend the next 20 years trying to recreate it without actually doing an entire 1998 before it. WCW would pretty much change the entire directon of their company trying to do the same thing.
The unfortunate truth? There’s never going to be another Survivor Series 1998. It was lightning.