Full of Hell: A Retrospective Look at the Undertaker vs. Mankind

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Full of Hell: A Retrospective Look at the Undertaker vs. Mankind
(image: wwe.com)

“On a warm summer’s night in the Igloo, there is a chill in the air,” roared Jim “J.R.” Ross, as the co-main event of the WWF’s June 1998 pay-per-view event, King of the Ring, began to unfold in the former home of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the famous Pittsburgh Civic Arena.

Although Ross, arguably the greatest play-by-play commentator in the history of American pro wrestling, and his comments were intended to address the arrival of the Undertaker to the ring, the announcer could have, in fact, been referring to the World Wrestling Federation on a much broader scale.

The “chill” that Ross was describing could have been used to note the sensational wave of momentum that Vince McMahon’s WWF, and the entire professional wrestling landscape, was experiencing at the time. The latter years of the 1990s, and the milestone summer of 1998 in particular, marked a pivotal moment of time for the business.

At the height of the Monday Night Wars between the WWF and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling and the impetus for the acclaimed Attitude Era, 1998 saw professional wrestling become a viable part of popular American entertainment.

Alongside trashy programming like NBC’s The Jerry Springer Show and boundary-pushing comedies such as Comedy Central’s South Park, viewers of all ages were tuning into pro-wrestling shows such as the WWF’s Monday Night RAW and WCW’s Monday Nitro in record numbers, and the plights of such performers as Stone Cold Steve Austin and Bill Goldberg were considered must-see TV.

Highlighting the importance of the decade to the professional wrestling industry, TV.com places Monday Night RAW as the 14th most-popular television show of the 1990s.

The 1998 edition of the WWF’s annual King of the Ring extravaganza took place during this time and, like many other events of the era, was instrumental in shaping the future of sports entertainment. Amongst the battles of Austin, The Rock, Kane and others, however, a match took place that was so advanced that it eventually became known as the most famous bout in the 100-plus year history of the business.

 

Blood Red Summer

By the summer months of 1998, the WWF was flourishing despite the threat of WCW, and with the company only two years removed from the landscape-altering “Austin 3:16” segment at King of the Ring 1996, super-babyface Stone Cold Steve Austin was the undeniable star of the show.

Austin, the celebrated antihero who represented the cultural shift within the American working class, was in the midst of his first run as WWF Champion, having picked up the reins from a departing Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV in March.

Incredibly over with fans worldwide, Austin convincingly took the business to new heights of prosperity—indeed, Austin’s crowning as champion drew a then-record buy-rate of 730,000 PPV orders, and the first few weeks of his title run saw the WWF finally end WCW’s 83-week streak of dominance in the TV ratings battle.

The antics of Stone Cold Steve Austin during the late '90s made WWF television must-see viewing.

Austin, however, was not alone in dragging the WWF to the forefront of US entertainment. In what has been cited as another significant reason for the company’s major success, the champion was backed by an incredible supporting cast. The WWF undercard in 1998 was stacked full of talent from top to bottom, with younger, faster athletes such as Triple H and The Rock looking to join Austin as the names in the world of pro wrestling.

Also in that emerging scene of talent attempting to cement themselves in WWF programming was Mick Foley, a performer who was taking his body to the limit under the pseudonym of the psychotic Mankind. Perhaps better known (at the time) for his Cactus Jack persona in stints with WCW and brief appearances in the WWF, Foley had joined the company two years earlier, and the Mankind gimmick made its debut as part of a high-profile feud with the Undertaker.

The series with the Undertaker aside, the Mankind character had failed to make the impact that Foley and the creative team had hoped and, by 1998, the character had lost a significant amount of its lustre.

Foley attempted to counteract this with the temporary introduction of the opinion-splitting Dude Love, but the fact remained that Mankind was losing heat at an alarming rate. Foley himself noted in his first memoir, Have a Nice Day!, that the character was simply “met with apathy.”

 

Act One, Scene One

Despite the original plan for King of the Ring calling for Mankind to meet Stone Cold for the WWF Championship in the main-event slot (a development nixed by then-writer Vince Russo), early June of 1998 saw the resurrection of the program between Foley and the Undertaker, a pairing that had the kind of reputable chemistry that would be effective in kickstarting Mankind’s headline run.

The original story between the two was a smartly booked series that ran throughout most of 1996 and into 1997. It introduced Foley as a man that fans should be paying attention to. Following the conclusion of his solid run with the WCW-bound Kevin Nash at WrestleMania XII, Undertaker was trusted with the responsibility of elevating the incoming Mankind to a main-event level.

Stellar contests such as the wild Boiler Room Brawl at SummerSlam and the entertaining clash from King of the Ring (in which Mankind scored a credibility-enhancing KO victory) showed admirable willingness from the Deadman in order to put his opponent over in the correct way—which is what he would eventually be known for in years to come.

The original Undertaker/Mankind feud featured a number of entertaining battles. (image: wwe.com)

The program, following several exciting matches that included bit-part roles from the likes of Paul Bearer and the short-lived Executioner character, concluded with a busy WWF Championship bout at the In Your House 14 pay-per-view, and the two went on to separate angles immediately afterwards.

Whilst Undertaker went on to engage with the likes of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels and, in perhaps his most-famous feud to date, his “brother” Kane, Mankind fell down the pecking order somewhat, and Foley struggled to keep his main-event status.

One look at the most important event of the Attitude Era, WrestleMania XIV, shows that while the Undertaker occupied the semi-main-event slot with his much-anticipated showdown with Kane, Foley was placed in a mid-card gimmick match against the New Age Outlaws that, despite being entertaining viewing, did little to boost his character going forward.

Fast forward to June, and the Undertaker’s feud with the Big Red Machine had wound down while Foley, fresh from a highly average run opposite Austin as the corporate stooge Dude Love, had re-adopted the Mankind gimmick in order to attract fresh fan interest.

The June 1, 1998 broadcast of Monday Night RAW featured the re-introduction of the character following Love’s “firing” at the hands of Vince McMahon. Coupled with the Undertaker’s attack on Paul Bearer two weeks later, it became the green light for the unforgettable second act in the Undertaker/Mankind saga.

 

The Centre of the Cell

The Hell in a Cell concept, the brainchild of former Smoky Mountain Wrestling promoter and long-time on-screen personality Jim Cornette, is widely known to be the natural evolution of professional wrestling’s traditional storyline-ending gimmick, the Steel Cage Match.

A staple of modern professional wrestling, the Steel Cage was the go-to gimmick for decades, starring as the pay-off match for such classic feuds as the NWA programme between Ric Flair and Harley Race and the Bret Hart/Owen Hart series from 1994.

By 1997, however, the WWF, WCW, ECW and a number of smaller promotions were using the match so prominently that the Steel Cage had reached the point of overexposure. Fans were calling for a renovation of the format that had at one point been reserved for top-draw names such as Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior but was now weakened to using names such as Isaac Yankem and The Godwinns.

The revamp of the Steel Cage came in the form of the WWF’s Hell in a Cell idea. Not dissimilar to the concept’s roots in the famous Atlanta chicken-wire bout between Jack Bloomfield and Count Petro Rossi from 1937, the HIAC leaned more toward pure attraction as opposed to genuine wrestling athleticism.

In that respect, the HIAC was the WWF’s own take on the WarGames Match, a concept that had done big-money business for the NWA and WCW since its debut at the Great American Bash pay-per-view in July 1987.

The first instance of a roof being added to the decades-old cage format, WarGames adhered to the “keeping combatants in and everyone else out” rules, but it added extra layers of spectacle with outrageous examples of brutality.

For example, Arn Anderson, the Four Horsemen enforcer (with a little help from Dusty Rhodes) had his forehead sliced open by the ceiling within mere minutes of the WarGames debut. Sid Vicious and Brian Pillman fought in the infamous powerbomb spot that could quite literally have ended a career.

The debut of the Hell in a Cell concept featured fantastic efforts from both the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels. (image: wwe.com)

Extreme violence, an element that was once synonymous in the pro-wrestling world with WCW’s most brutal match, had an obvious influence on the Hell in a Cell. The first-ever bout of its kind, between the Undertaker and D-Generation X’s Shawn Michaels at the WWF’s Badd Blood event in October 1997, was a bold move by Vince McMahon and his creative team, but one that ultimately paid off.

Placing two of the company’s prized possessions of the era in an undeniably high-risk, and somewhat untested, environment could have severely dented WWF’s main event-scene had either participant suffered an injury. Happily, both men went on to mark the debut of the Hell in a Cell with one of the greatest bouts seen in a WWF ring. It was also historically significant as the highly-anticipated introduction of Kane.

Post-Badd Blood, it was generally assumed that the gimmick had already reached its peak with the masterpiece from the brilliantly ruthless Undertaker and the super-athletic Michaels. Therefore, upon the announcement that the third HIAC (following the throwaway tag team match from the June 15 Monday Night RAW taping) would feature two heavyweight opponents, both without the incredible bumping abilities of the Heartbreak Kid that made the first bout so memorable, one could be forgiven for feeling slightly underwhelmed.

 

Promises Kept

Nonetheless, this was a time when, as commentator Jim Ross was so eager to tell us each week, anything could happen in the World Wrestling Federation, and Mick Foley was willing to pull no punches.

Foley, in his ECW stint as Cactus Jack in particular, was well-known for his fiery promo work. However, under the Mankind gimmick, his impressive abilities on the microphone were often overlooked. It therefore came as somewhat of a surprise when, on the go-home edition of RAW before the King of the Ring event (a broadcast that also featured the debut of future 11-time world champion Edge), Foley delivered an exceptionally impassioned promo within the confines of the HIAC structure.

Intertwined with a typically disturbing story about the Battle of Gettysburg, the Mankind segment inside the Cell is a forgotten Foley classic. As the promo concluded, Mankind took the steps to promise the audience and the world, in a quote that was loaded with impeccable foresight, that he would have a surprise for them at the upcoming pay-per-view that they would “not soon forget."

The unforgettable came in the shape of King of the Ring on June 28, 1998, a stacked card that was notable for not only the main events, but also the mass of talent that the WWF then had at its disposal. In addition to appearances from the likes of the New Age Outlaws and X-Pac, future stars such as The Rock and, to an extent, Ken Shamrock shone brightly in the thrilling final matches of the KOTR tournament.

This show, however, was indisputably defined by its two main-event matches. In addition to the Hell in a Cell affair, the red-hot Stone Cold Steve Austin faced monster-heel Kane in a First Blood bout to determine the fate of the WWF Championship in a magnificent effort that, on another night, would have stolen the spotlight.

But, as John Powell of SLAM! Sports wrote at the time, it simply “had nothing on the classic Hell in a Cell match between The Undertaker and Mankind.”

 

A Moment of Violence

Upon his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame earlier this year, Mick Foley acknowledged that he was inside Madison Square Garden when Jimmy Snuka dazzled the world with a spectacular Superfly Splash onto Intercontinental Champion Don Muraco from the top of a Steel Cage. A move that was unprecedented to that point in late 1983, the inspiring sight had a massive impact on Foley.

Jimmy Snuka's splash onto Don Muraco in 1983 had a direct influence on the events of King of the Ring 1998. (image:wwe.com)

“I wanted to do something that made people feel the way I felt that night in October 1983 at Madison Square Garden,” noted Foley in his HoF induction speech.

For Foley, that defining moment came at King of the Ring.

In his first autobiography, Foley accredits the idea to start his Hell in a Cell bout with the Undertaker atop of the cage, as opposed to the traditional route of inside it, to his long-time friend and on-off adversary/tag partner, Terry Funk. When discussing ways to eclipse the Undertaker/Shawn Michaels classic from the year before, Foley and Funk joked about the possibility of starting the bout on top of and being thrown from the Cell.

While Funk’s comments may have been made in jest, it planted a seed in Foley’s head that, as the man himself wrote, “would help make me professionally but damn near break me physically."

Following the conclusion of the Rock/Shamrock tournament final, Mankind entered the King of the Ring, steel chair in hand, and immediately climbed to the top of the 16-foot, two-ton steel cage that surrounded the ring. The unconventional development was met with wild encouragement from the Pittsburgh fans in attendance.

In a prelude to the severe bodily punishment that both men were to inflict upon each other, a small section of the cage roof caved in during a brief brawl between the combatants. Highlighting the very real danger involved in the staging of a Hell in a Cell match, the mesh gave way under the weight of the Undertaker and Mankind, and both had to steady themselves to avoid falling to the ground below.

Shortly after the one-minute mark, the Undertaker blocked a DDT attempt from Mankind and, in a sickeningly swift movement that would go on to become the most memorable moment in pro-wrestling history, threw his opponent off the cage. Akin to the collective gasp that met Jimmy Snuka’s bodysplash 15 years earlier, the Pittsburgh crowd erupted at the sight of Mankind free-falling through five metres of air before crashing into the Spanish announcers table at ringside.

“There must have been hundreds of moments at that table,” noted Carlos Cabrera, one of the Spanish announcers on duty that night, in an interview with WWE.com, “but that was the most incredible and horrific one.” Indeed, the Mankind bump immediately overshadowed anything everything that Mick Foley had achieved during his in-ring career, before or after King of the Ring.

The sight of a man being thrown recklessly to the ground was shocking enough, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Mankind fall is how quickly Foley recovered. Powered by adrenaline after a brief break on a stretcher, Foley was not only back on his feet, but back on top of the Cell a mere six minutes after the nasty bump that he would now be famous for.

But the pain and suffering would not end there.

Back up on the roof of the cage, Undertaker and a clearly (and understandably) weakened Mankind brawled once again. As the crowd rose with heightened anticipation, the Undertaker lifted Foley for a tame Chokeslam close to the centre of the roof.

Upon landing, in a moment that has been heavily debated whether it was intentional or not (Foley has claimed for years that it was not), the panel of steel collapsed under the weight, and Mankind tumbled through the roof, landing with a vicious thud in the centre of the ring.

Mankind's second fall convinced many that Mick Foley's career was over. (image: wwe.com)

Jim Ross is often applauded for his match-enhancing commentary work during the Hell in a Cell match. However, Jerry Lawler, abandoning his goofy “King” character that was a staple of WWF commentary, summarised the feeling in the arena following Mankind’s second fall with his stark, simple words: “That’s it, he’s dead."

As Foley hit the mat, the steel chair followed him, knocking him unconscious in the process. At this point, the Undertaker legitimately thought that Mankind was in serious trouble. “Time stopped,” claimed the Deadman in a 2002 interview with Michael Landsburg from Off the Record. “… I didn’t think Mick Foley would get up from that.”

Paramedics, officials, fellow performers and members of management, including Vince McMahon, swarmed the ring in order to check on Foley’s condition. Terry Funk, at ringside to help his friend, cleverly afforded Foley a small amount of recovery time through a short altercation with the Undertaker in a spot that saw Funk literally slammed out of his shoes.

Incredibly, after Foley had made it back to his feet once again, the Undertaker and Mankind managed to deliver a solid 10 minutes of in-ring action. With back-and-forth spots including middle-rope suicide dives and brutally forceful piledrivers, both men produced a respectable outing, despite Foley being effectively out on his feet.

The highlight of the action in-ring action, of course, would involve Foley taking further unimaginable punishment to his ravaged body. Up until this bout, household thumbtacks had never been used at an American pro-wrestling pay-per-view event, and the introduction of the razor-sharp drawing pins added an extra layer of awe to an already spectacle-laden affair.

Countering Mankind’s Mandible Claw hold, the Undertaker slammed his opponent onto the thousands of piercing thumbtacks and followed that up with a second Chokeslam that left Foley writhing in pain while covered from head-to-toe in tacks.

A Tombstone Piledriver signaled the end of the bout, and the Undertaker wrapped up the decisive three-count to put Mankind out of his misery.

As Foley left the ring by his own accord (in his state of bewilderment, the Hardcore Legend decided he simply could not be taken away on a stretcher twice in one night), he received raucous applause and a standing ovation from a section of the notoriously hard-to-please Pittsburgh crowd.

The promise that Mankind had sworn to deliver on the Monday Night RAW broadcast a week earlier came to fruition in the shape of a performance that WWF fans the world over would remember for a long, long time.

 

The Elephant Won’t Forget What It's Like Inside His Cage

It is difficult to accurately determine the true impact that the Hell in a Cell match from King of the Ring had, as so much has been written and documented about the entire era in the 15 years since.

To this day, Mick Foley remains refreshingly candid about the whole affair. “People say this is the greatest match of all time,” noted Foley as part of the special commentary section from his latest DVD profile For All Mankind. “To me, that is obviously not the case—I liken it to a cruise ship. Calling this the greatest match of all time would be [like calling] the Titanic the greatest cruise of all time. It’s not so much the quality of the cruise as it was the courage of the survivors…”

The fact that Mankind could work a short but solid match after the two devastating falls was nothing short of phenomenal. (image: wwe.com)

Interestingly, an argument has arisen that, despite the match’s worth in terms of highlighting pro wrestling as sheer spectacle, it may have been detrimental to the business going forward. In truth, there may be a credible case for this.

One could argue that this match, and the slew of garbage-gimmick matches that followed, have set the standard too high, with the actions of Foley et al leaving such strong impressions that anything else will ultimately disappoint.

Similar to the way in which the Hardys, Dudleys and Edge & Christian completely transformed the Ladder match in the early 2000s and made it almost impossible to top their efforts, fans today are left feeling deflated if they see a Hell in a Cell match that does not reach the levels of risk that the Undertaker and Mankind did.

Combined with the excessive violence or, as David Shoemaker of Grantland puts it, the “espresso shot of brutality” that was featured in the HIAC, there is an argument for the match going too far.    

Mick Foley built his career around the extreme violence that he was willing to have inflicted upon him in order to enhance a match or feud, but the King of the Ring match and the pressures of re-igniting his headline status saw him take that approach to new heights (literally). As a result, he may have pushed himself too hard.

Upon re-watching the HIAC for his Attitude Era Podcast, contributor Kevin Mahon raised the legitimate question about Foley: “At what point does pro wrestling stop being fake, and at what point are you watching a man literally killing himself?”

As enthralling as the match was, no one wants to see a performer injure themselves so severely in order to entertain.

In respect of the match, what cannot be overlooked is the positive effect that night in June 1998 had on the business. The two opponents were magnificently compelling in projecting the Hell in a Cell, and the WWF on a wider spectrum, as the best in the world when it comes to pure sporting spectacle.

With WCW breathing down its neck through the likes of Hollywood Hogan and the emerging Goldberg, this was a time in which Vince McMahon needed an event to swing the pendulum in their his favour indefinitely.

What cannot be argued is that the bumps Mankind took from the top of the cage, as frightening as they were, were effective in placing the focus of the pro-wrestling world firmly onto the World Wrestling Federation for the long term.

Today, the HIAC concept is a completely different beast from the one in 1998. Largely diluted due to the ban on blading and the overexposure of the Hell in a Cell gimmick pay-per-view, the match has lost a considerable amount of its meaning.

For example, the past few years have featured underwhelming attempts such as the Randy Orton vs. Sheamus bout from 2010, while this Sunday night’s event will include another clash in the sub-par Ryback/CM Punk feud taking place inside the Cell.

Without a red-hot feud or the intentions of boosting a performer to the stars, as these matches and the despondency in which they are met attest, the stipulation means little in 2013.

However, that is somewhat irrelevant when considering the fond memories of King of the Ring. The legacy of the Hell in a Cell will forever be preserved by the efforts of the Undertaker and Mankind. Jim Ross, the man who was sitting directly below Mick Foley when he began his 16-foot descent to the floor, encapsulated the essence of the HIAC bout, in a way that only he can, in an interview with WWE.com:

It was a spectacle, it was an attraction, it was a trainwreck, it was career-threatening, it was unpredictable. It was something I’d never seen before…

Although the summer months of 1998 will go down in WWE history as the Summer of Austin, the period, in truth, will always belong to the Undertaker, Mankind and the Hell in a Cell.

 

Thank you for reading!

Comments welcome below and on Twitter: @matthewtsquires

Matt Squires is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and covers other sports for websites such as This Is Futbol. For more on Matt, please visit his personal website Matthew T Squires.

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