WWE Survivor Series: The Unauthorized History, Part Four
If you’re just joining us on the journey throughout the Thanksgiving tradition, you can find the first three parts by clicking here, here or here. Now that we’re all caught up, it is time to resume the timeline with 1997, and arguably the biggest event in the history of wrestling.
Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Nov. 9, 1997. Just 10 years earlier, the World Wrestling Federation presented the first annual Survivor Series to the world. While the event had both ups and downs, the WWF was still banking on it to draw in a heavy revenue for the holiday season.
It was a revenue, in fact, that the World Wrestling Federation desperately needed to stay afloat. For nearly 18 months prior, Vince McMahon had been struggling to make ends meet as his new competition, WCW and Eric Bischoff, were pushing the company to the edge. Survivor Series had become a classic example of just how this process was tearing the Federation apart.
In 1995, WCW had launched World War 3 as a competing pay-per-view event for subscribers in the month of November. And each year, the strategy paid off as more fans tuned in to see the 60-man car wreck in WCW over legitimately more compelling programming from the WWF.
When it looked as if things couldn’t get any worse, there was trouble brewing between Vince McMahon and his biggest star at the time, Bret Hart.
We’ve documented Bret an awful lot at the Survivor Series through these articles, but the one thing that remains consistent is Bret’s ability and increasing drawing power for the company. As the face of the company for the better part of the past five years, Hart had fought for his top spot and was typically the saving grace whenever WCW, who was still banking on the stars of the 80’s, dominated the WWF.
But Bret had grown wary of his situation with the WWF by the time Survivor Series rolled around. He spent the better part of the year as an anti-American heel while other more controversial characters, like Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels, basked in the fan admiration. Hart was not really a heel or a face; rather, he had been cast as a shade of gray.
He opted out of a 20-year, lifetime contract McMahon had offered him and instead signed a deal with WCW that was set to begin on Dec. 5. The only problem, of course, was that Hart was the WWF Champion at the time of his signing, and the dirt sheets and Internet gossip were just starting to catch fire with this huge story.
The biggest star from the WWF was going to WCW, potentially taking the world title with him. Such a move could devastate McMahon (as he had done to WCW when he scooped up Ric Flair in 1991), so the title would need to be dropped immediately off of Hart and to the No. 1 contender, who just so happened to be Shawn Michaels.
It seemed like an easy enough transition. All Bret had to do was job to Shawn and the whole thing would be over.
But the bad blood between these two backstage would embroil them in a creative struggle to determine the finish of their Survivor Series encounter, taking place in the one of the few venues where Bret was still a hero.
After all, this was the same Bret Hart who jobbed to Michaels for his first world title at WrestleMania XII. Shawn was to return the favor one year later, but instead cited various injuries and a “lost smile” as reasons for being unable to compete.
In short, once it all blew over, Michaels was perfectly healthy and ready to perform once more, yet he never returned the favor.
Hart didn’t trust him. Hart didn’t like him. And Hart wasn’t about to drop the title to HBK at any event, much less the Survivor Series in Montreal.
So after hours of debate, the two wrestlers and Vince McMahon formulated a plan that would see a double-disqualification finish. The title would then be relinquished by Hart the next night on RAW with no ill will to any parties.
So the 1997 Survivor Series went on the air as planned. After several par-for-the-course contests, it was time for the big match: HBK vs. Bret Hart for the strap.
Fans jeered Michaels heavily, but weren’t too favorable towards Hart either. News had gotten out that the Hitman was heading to WCW, leading to several renditions of “you sold out” from the rabid audience.
In a bizarre turn, the WWF’s top executives surrounded ringside as a kayfabe way of keeping the peace with the high tensions running in and out of the ring in this U.S. vs. Canada war.
McMahon included, both Hart and Michaels brawled in and outside of the squared circle as the match reached the climax.
The finish, as explained to both men by Pat Patterson, was for Earl Hebner to go down, Michaels to apply Bret’s signature sharpshooter, have it reversed, but have the referee fail to acknowledge. A huge disqualification with supporters abundant would follow.
Just over 10 minutes in, HBK used Hebner as a shield and all three men tumbled to the canvas. Michaels then quickly went for the sharpshooter as the plan dictated.
Then, in a move very unlike the plan, Hebner stumbled to his feet and ordered the timekeeper to ring the bell. McMahon exclaimed the same order until the final bell rang and HBK was proclaimed new WWF Champion.
The whole incident, captured on live pay-per-view television and in front of 20,000 fans in the Molson Centre, left no stone unturned. There was confusion, chaos, and rejection on the part of the audience.
Earl Hebner and Shawn Michaels fled the scene within seconds. McMahon remained at ringside, eyeballing Hart until the enraged former champion spat on the owner and began to destroy any decorations and equipment in his path.
Seen as a long-coming, vicious tantrum, Bret mangled everything around the ring before his friends and family escorted him out. He wouldn’t leave before motioning the letters “WCW” to the crowd, and thanking them for their support.
It was the most unbelievable incident in the history of the sport, and more importantly, it was all real and unfolding in front of our very eyes.
For pay-per-view, fans who had no idea of the events soon learned everything when art transcended the screen on RAW and Nitro over the coming weeks.
The WWF’s standard issue replay of Survivor Series, which was available to viewers just a few days later on pay-per-view, remains the most subscribed replay in the history of the company.
Things were changing from top to bottom, and in the World Wrestling Federation, the era known as the “Federation Years” had drawn to a close. Bret was the last face of the era that ushered in super-baby face players that beckon respect and are huge draws to kids.
After all, WCW had done cutting-edge, more adult themes with their biggest stars and saw a bigger bank because of it. In one fell swoop, the WWF evened the playing field on pay-per-view, and over the course of the next year, the Federation’s Attitude Era would reassume control of the Monday Night War.
The 1997 Survivor Series could have meant the complete and utter implosion of the World Wrestling Federation. Instead, it was the start of the most profitable era in professional wrestling since fans first uttered the words Hulk Hogan.
With just this one event, the WWF turned the corner and by the 1998 event, had created a more smash and crash style to their programming.
The 1998 Survivor Series, codenamed Deadly Game, did something that we hadn’t ever seen in Survivor Series history: no elimination matches. Yes, the tournament for the WWF Championship did have several eliminations in it, but the story of Survivor Series was straying towards shock and awe and away from tradition.
So instead of any of our typical tag team fare, we were treated to a long, predictably-booked tourney that saw yet another screw job (though this one was staged).
After spending most of the evening watching Stone Cold Steve Austin wreak havoc on his wrongdoers and the Rock overcome the odds of the Corporation, we were led to believe that Mankind was the hand-chosen champion of the future.
Then, the WWF executed an impressive, but terribly disappointing, double switch, showing that the corporation double-crossed Mick Foley in favor of the People’s Champ.
Buy rates may have been up, but the purpose of the pay-per-view was completely lost in what felt like a three-hour RAW presentation.
The WWF’s idea of a tournament pay-per-view had failed each year when it wasn’t labeled King of the Ring. Why sabotage the Survivor Series, too? To make a quick buck, of course.
So in 1999, as the millennium approached and WCW looked less like a threat (they abandoned World War 3 in favor of Mayhem this November, headlined by, you guessed it, a tournament for the title), the WWF returned to the way Survivor Series should be booked.
They gave us four elimination matches, including the first ever one-on-four encounter that occurred thanks to the Big Show annihilating his entire team just before the match. In fact, he would do the same to his opponents, making for the shortest elimination match in Survivor Series history.
And at this Survivor Series, they seemed to really get the whole tag team feel of things. With the Hardy Boyz, APA, Edge and Christian, the Dudleyz, and Too Cool all on the card in some form, it was truly tandem warfare.
So of course, the headline of the event wasn’t a Survivor Series match. In fact, it hadn’t been since 1993, when the Foreign Fanatics were busy tangling with Lex Luger. That trend continued here, as Stone Cold was slated to take on the Rock and Triple H in a triple threat for the world title. But once again, the fans already knew too much, and this time, there was no way Austin was competing in this one.
Needing major time off for injury rehab, Austin was written out of the match after he had been hit by a passing motorist in an act of attempted vehicular homicide.
All the questions about who did it and who would replace him were thrown by the wayside when angry fans who had been promised Stone Cold in the main event weren’t getting Stone Cold in the main event. And they already paid for the event, so they had no choice but to except it.
Even though you had to look forward to new opponent and the solving of the mystery of who drove the car, fans wanted Austin. And fans didn’t get Austin. The mystery opponent? It was Big Show, who won another match this evening for his first WWF Championship.
The perpetrator? After obvious signs that it was initially going to be Billy Gunn, the WWF swerved us all when one year later, it was Rikishi. By that time, the point was moot.
Tricking the fans into purchasing an event with the subtext “card subject to change” had been on pay-per-views forever, but it was never a WWF thing.
In fact, it had become a notorious WCW thing, going back to the ill-fated Chamber of Horrors at the 1990 Halloween Havoc event. Instead, the WWF’s bait-and-switch led to fans revolting, if only temporarily, on the pay-per-view industry.
Buy rates for the Armageddon event were down (thanks mostly to a horrible double main event with Big Show vs. Big Boss Man and Triple H vs. Vince McMahon), as were the buy rates for the typically profitable Royal Rumble. While things would pick back up again, the WWF was going through the motions on most of their events.
Each and every one was overbooked with storyline progression that it often took away from the nine or more matches that each card had to offer. So it should come as no surprise that the 2000 Survivor Series provided more of the same.
On an event that featured only two Survivor Series elimination matches, it would be the promise of Stone Cold actually in action and a world title match between the Undertaker and the up and coming Kurt Angle (who had debuted at the previous year’s event) that captured the audience.
The main event of the Royal Rumble is almost always the Royal Rumble match. But the Survivor Series had clearly lost that same thinking as not one, but two contests were again billed for better than the elimination contests that made the event famous. This despite another strong tag team contingency and the impending explosion of new, technical wrestlers.
At this point though, the WWF could book the same card from one month earlier and still top WCW, whose Mayhem event, headlined by Scott Steiner and Booker T, failed to attract even 4,000 people at the gate.
Kurt Angle defeated the Undertaker in a surprising twist when his brother Eric Angle substituted for the Olympic Champion towards the end of the contest. Taker inevitably pinned the wrong Angle and was upended when Kurt reappeared.
Though the finish was a common one in wrestling, it hadn’t been seen at such a level for a very long time, so it felt fresh.
But the crowd was mostly dead for the two Survivor Series elimination contests if only because there was no heat going into them.
That, and all the fans cared about was seeing Stone Cold Steve Austin get revenge on Triple H and the rest of the Corporate family. The climate came full circle, and it appeared as if the Survivor Series elimination match just couldn’t equal this showdown.
The finish? Austin and Helmsley wrestled to a no-contest when, after brawling in the parking lot, Austin dropped a car with Triple stuffed in the driver’s seat from high above the concrete ground.
Using a forklift, Austin laughed as Triple H pleaded for mercy until finally releasing the vehicle. With a mighty roar (and a “Holy Shit”) Helmsley plummeted to the ground as the crowd erupted.
Did anyone paying to see the event either live or one pay-per-view get to see a definitive conclusion? Absolutely not. No feuds were automatically ended or wrapped up. Instead, we saw a car get destroyed and the credits rolled. This was what Survivor Series had become.
Regardless of results, the 2000 Survivor Series would be the last one in which the WWF had “competition” challenging their programming. The horribly booked and run WCW bit the dust in March 2001, only to be purchased for a cool $2 million by Vinnie Mac and the Titan offices.
And after years of Survivor Series foregoing the true purpose of their elimination challenges, they finally seemed to get it thanks to this potentially blockbuster move.
But potential is only potential because it isn’t being used. So when the WCW (and later ECW) invasion of the World Wrestling Federation commenced, the creative crew improperly shifted the focus from the wrestlers to the McMahons.
This move, combined with WWF’s stingy pocketbooks on bringing in real WCW talents (the New World Order, Sting, Goldberg, and Ric Flair were all absent) and the complete destruction of the WCW stars every week lead to a poor execution for the feud.
The WWF had, however, made a somewhat intelligent maneuver by scheduling the end of the Invasion for Survivor Series. It was a simple thought that made all the difference and brought back the real Survivor Series spirit.
The top five guys from the WWF would face the top five guys from the WCW/ECW Alliance in a winner-take-all elimination match. Whoever survived literally survived and got to stay as the dominant brand in sports entertainment.
Nevermind that team Alliance was made up of two huge WWF stars and a McMahon. The purpose was to create drama and intensity for an event that didn’t have in for more than eight years. And it worked to perfection.
In an old-school donnybrook, the 10-man tag match scaled more than 44 minutes of action before the finale came down to a battle of strength between the two biggest stars in the industry, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. It was truly the biggest showdown at the Survivor Series since HBK/Bret Hart or even Undertaker/Yokozuna. In the end, the Rock defended the honor and glory of the WWF as the sole survivor of the contest.
Perhaps more positively, it ended the mismanaged Invasion angle once and for all and allowed the World Wrestling Federation (soon to be World Wrestling Entertainment) to get back to business as usual.
Most importantly, it reestablished the Survivor Series as a viable, dramatic, and entertaining program that could keep pay-per-view subscribers on the edge of their seats.
The buy rate was up, the business was at an apex, and the Survivor Series was again fun. So leave it to the brain trust to change things up once again in a desperate attempt to capture the magic just one year later. But that is a whole new story in a whole new era.
To be continued…
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