By Erik Clancy
With Roger Ebert's series entitled "Great Movies" I thought I'd do my own series of articles, entitled "Great Matches" where I'd pick a year (randomly I might add) and run through that calendar year's top bouts of the year. For my first edition I'll be honest and say that the choice of year was not completely random but, in my opinion, the greatest year in professional wrestling. Keep in mind this will include matches ONLY from American promotions, so you international fans may be disappointed. So, in no particular order, I'm going to run down the essential matches from the year 1998.
-Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker (Royal Rumble 1998, 1/18/98)
One of the best series in professional wrestling, this final match between the two was set up as both the Phenom and HBK had never wrestled each other for the WWF Title. Now in the throws of D-Generation X, Shawn Michaels had remained the WWF's kingpin and had bulldozed through the WWF's top contenders including Undertaker, Bret Hart, Vader, Owen Hart, and Ken Shamrock. Undertaker and Michaels would follow up their October 1997 Hell in a Cell match in the same way most people feel Return of the Jedi follows The Empire Strikes Back, less than the predecessor but still a hell of a ride. The match is fairly straight forward in design, with Michaels playing the cowardly heel champion and Undertaker the unstoppable machine, but the beauty in this match is the execution. They have, what I consider, to be the greatest casket match of all time by utilizing as a weapon for one of the first times ever. There is a spot where Michaels is back dropped onto the object (which herniated his back discs and forced him into a four year retirement), a elbow drop from the top rope to a prone Dead Man lying in the casket and finally a devastating tombstone in the casket. Undertaker looks more like a killer than he ever did and Michaels is infuriating as the arrogant rock star who someone gets away in the end. A carefully paced and wonderfully executed match.
-Undertaker vs. Kane (WrestleMania XIV, 3/29/98)
Arguably the best big men match of the modern era. The storyline between the two was one of the WWF's best forays into fantasy. Undertaker had burned down the funeral parlor that his parents lived in, killing them and scarring his young brother Kane. Paul Bearer, who had fathered Kane in an affair with Taker's mother, kept the young man in an asylum for years until the time was right to unleash him on the Undertaker. Kane was used as a way to keep Taker in check from ever turning on Bearer to keep Bearer as a high profile manager in the WWF, if Taker left him then Bearer would reveal Taker's dark secret. When Kane debuted, clad in head to toe with a red and black costume which obscured his skin and face from human sight, he made his presence known by ripping a steel door off its hinged and piledriving his older brother to his downfall. Undertaker swore he would never battle his own flesh and blood due to a promise he has made to his murdered parents (who's murder he now grieved) but once he was placed in a casket and set on fire at the Royal Rumble, all bets were off. The interesting features of this match include Kane being portrayed as a true monster should be portrayed: nearly invincible. The majority of the match is Taker getting laid to waste while any offense against Kane is completely ineffective, almost like punching a brick wall. Kane sold hardly any offense in this match until the very end where he began to fade and Undertaker hits him with his finisher, the Tombstone piledriver, three times to put him away. The match established Kane as an absolute force in the WWF (only to have the promotion castrate his character seemingly every month following this match) and kept Taker alive as a never say die babyface. The work in this match is incredible and it stills holds up today.
-Shawn Michaels vs. Steve Austin (WrestleMania XIV, 3/29/98)
I almost chose not to include the match seeing as how, from a technical standpoint, it's no better than a lot of matches I left off this list. However this match single handedly launched the Attitude era and officially christened Steve Austin as "the guy" of the company so I felt I had to. The first thing to appreciate about this bout is the fact that Shawn is nearly dying throughout the whole thing. That's not acting, that's really a man wrestling with a broken back. Michaels, amazingly, is still able to give the showstopping performance that he's always been known for, playing the cocky rock n' roll stud to the hilt. Austin is his polar opposite, the Joe Frazier to HBK's Muhammad Ali, zagging when Michaels zigs. A pretty standard brawl, this match is highlighted by the slowly unraveling sense of false security that Michaels surrounded himself with. From his underestimation of Austin to the removal of D-Generation X and the culmination of the match when Tyson turns on Michaels. The image of the Stone Cold Stunner being hit on Shawn with the post match celebration of Stone Cold and Iron Mike are images that will live forever in WWE history and that's why I felt compelled to include this match.
-Rob Van Dam vs. Sabu (WreslePalooza, 5/3/98)
An epic battle between two partners for the ECW Television Title. Using classic NWA broadway styles, the two men engaged in an athletic spotfest that hadn't been seen on American pay-per-view before. RVD and Sabu's natural styles were a perfect fit for each other. This is one of the best paced matches of the decade and shows how you can not only engage fans into your work for nearly an hour but artistically put on a fantastic match without killing yourself in the process. I don't think that after seeing 50 minutes of fantastic action end in a draw that any fan was disappointed about the outcome.
-Mick Foley vs. Terry Funk (RAW, 5/5/98)
The battle for Mick Foley's soul, as Foley calls this match in his first opus. This match was an epic type of storytelling, almost regaling the style of the Norse poem. Foley, a hapless hero in the midst of the corporate war between Vince McMahon and Steve Austin has to choose between what's right, leaving McMahon's side and costing himself lucrative title matches, and what's wrong, becoming McMahon's corporate stooge and benefiting his career in the long run. With McMahon as the devil and Austin as a sort of corrupt angel (another line from Foley's book) this struggle is personified in a battle between Funk and Foley. To prove his undying support to Vince McMahon, Foley must destroy his childhood idol and come over to the dark side. Almost a Star Wars scenario, eh? Well in the end Foley, like Anakin, submits to the will of his dark master and becomes the corporate lackey Vince envisioned him.
-Chris Jericho vs. Dean Malenko (Slamboree, 5/17/98)
This match isn't nearly as cutting edge as the Foley-Funk morality play, but it certainly is a classic example of storytelling. Jericho, the glam rocker Cruiserweight Champion, laid waste to all challengers on his path to complete domination of the cruiserweight division. When defeating an opponent he would take a piece of them to symbolize their submission to him. Rey Misterio and Juventud Guerrera had their masks removed, Prince Iaukea had his traditional skirt taken away and Dean Malenko had his pride stolen. Jericho had beaten Malenko at Uncensored in March, forcing him to take a sabbatical from wrestling and reevaluate his life. Jericho continued to disgrace his legacy during the time Dean was away. From mocking his brother to insulting his late father, Jericho would not stop until the Malenko family legacy had been tarnished. Jericho seemed unstoppable until a battle royal at Slamboree was won by an unusual masked man named Ciclope. The rules of the battle royal stated that the winner would immediately gain an opportunity at Jericho after the match. Jericho stepped in to the ring, ready to add another prize to his collection of also-rans. But something strange happened; this luchadore removed his own mask to reveal the cold, hard countenance of Dean Malenko, staring into the soul of the once cocky Poison wannabe. The eruption from the crowd was enormous, especially for a guy that WCW had refused to get behind from a marketing standpoint. Jericho was beaten in about six minutes by submitting to Malenko's Texas Cloverleaf. The match itself was, technically very average, but from an emotional standpoint it was one of WCW's greatest undercard matches of all time.
-The Undertaker vs. Mankind (King of the Ring, 6/28/98)
I'm not going to type anything about this match. It would just be redundant. Everyone knows about this match but I had to list it to make the list complete.
-Goldberg vs. Hollywood Hogan (Nitro, 7/6/98)
This is one of those matches that while not technically amazing, was such an emotional watershed that it must be included. The fact that Hogan, who had never been allowed to look weak his entire career (even as a heel ironically) was steamrolled by the juggernaut known as Goldberg, made this match something else entirely. Goldberg evoked the spirit that Hogan once had in 1983, when he was a fresh commodity. The power, the menace and the legitimate charisma helped make Goldberg WCW's version of Steve Austin in 1998. Unfortunately this match remains the highlight of Da Man's career when his legs were cut out from him during his title run by backstage politics and jealous wrestlers.
-The Rock vs. Triple H (Fully Loaded, 7/26/98)
A classic NWA style best 2 out of 3 falls match for a new generation of WWF fans. The story of the match was fairly simple: two leaders of opposing factions were battling for midcard supremacy and tried to dominate the other. Fairly simple stuff. The non-simple stuff was the way that the WWF essentially made The Rock into a 1990s version of Ric Flair with this match and HHH had become a modern day Ronnie Garvin (you know, the time when he didn't suck). Rock won the first pinfall with a Rock Bottom and some liberal help from Nation members Mark Henry and D-Lo Brown. X-Pac and Chyna helped neutralize the faction in the second fall with a DDT from the Amazon that gave HHH the next pinfall. Rock and Hunter battled back and forth and finally Triple H nailed his finisher, the Pedigree, to put Rocky down for the count. However as the referee's and was about to come down for three, the bell sounded. It seemed that the time limit had expired, allowing Rock to narrowly escape with his championship. It was a finish that old school NWA fans had seen a thousand times but to a new, younger audience watching wrestling for the first time it was fresh stuff that they had never seen before and helped define this new generation of competitors.
-Goldberg vs. Diamond Dallas Page (Halloween Havoc, 10/25/98)
Let's forget about the debacle when cable networks were uninformed about the fact that the PPV was going over the 11pm timeslot and nearly 25 percent of the viewing audience lost feed and remember the match for what it was: one of WCW's best babyface matches ever. Goldberg was approached with a guy that the fans believed, for the first time other than the Hogan match, could conceivably beat him. The common theory was that Page would hit the Diamond Cutter when Goldberg had him up for the Jackhammer. Interestingly enough this spot would occur but it wouldn't be the end for Goldberg. Page carried him to his most technically sound match of his career and despite being relatively short for a main event (clocking in at just over ten minutes) it was still decidedly long for a Goldberg match and showed that with patience and training, Goldberg could develop into a wrestler that could wrestle longer bouts. Unfortunately WCW never had the patience needed to allow Goldberg to develop into that kind of wrestler and had him lose to wrestler turned booker Kevin Nash two months down the road.
-The Rock vs. Mankind (Survivor Series, 11/15/98)
The "Deadly Game" tournament finals to crown a new WWF Champion was met between two men: The Rock and Mankind. Mankind had been deemed, due to his previous loyalties to Vince McMahon, the chosen corporate champion. The Rock, on the other hand, had been denounced as being to unpredictable and too closely associated with the audience to be McMahon's wrestler of choice. The match started up as most matches in 1998 did, with an exchange of right hands. The match eventually built up to a near fall, crowd gasping back and forth roller coaster ride that makes you love to be a fan. But even greater than the kick outs of the Rock Bottom and the counters to the Mandible Claw, was the finish of the match. With Mankind down Rock went over to him and raised an eyebrow to Vince McMahon, locking the Hardcore Legend in a sharpshooter. As soon as Rock had turned Foley over McMahon had shouted for the timekeeper to ring the bell. Foley had been screwed in a near perfect recreation of Survivor Series 1997. Nobody had seen The Rock's turn coming and were in complete shock when Rocky, Vince and Shane embraced in the center of the ring. Then suddenly the series of events leading to the Survivor Series made perfect sense. Rock's road to the number one contendership, which had it not been for McMahon's constant placement of him in high profile matches, would never had happened. His win over Mark Henry to get back into the tournament was because of carefully placed "botched" interference from McMahon's own cronies. Hell, his tournament matches had been against men that worked directly with McMahon or were won directly as a result of one of McMahon's plots (Bossman's throwing the nightstick "accidentally" to Rock and the provocation of Kane to attack Rock and give him the win via DQ). It all made sense. Keep in mind that this was before McMahon went completely overboard with his obsession with the Survivor Series in recent years. Back then this was fresh, cutting edge stuff that really showed just how on the pulse of America the WWF truly was.
Yeah, I know that the list isn't nearly complete. You want to know why the Ken Shamrock-Rock match for King of the Ring isn't on the list. Why there is only ONE ECW match on the list. Why are nearly all the matches from pay-per-view? And why didn't I list the Foley-Rock match where Foley finally wins the World Title, surely that must be considered one of the most emotional matches of all time. I know and I will get to those. I certainly don't consider this my last foray into the great matches of 1998 but I wanted to get this article off the ground and see what kind of response I got before I start making it a regular feature. Once again, thanks for your support and enjoy the matches!