How The Rock's Win at Survivor Series Deadly Game Set the Bar for StorytellingNovember 23, 2018
On November 15, 1998, The Rock captured his first WWE Championship in the finals of the Deadly Game tournament, and his journey to the top prize in the industry was the culmination of one of the most engrossing stories told on WWE television and, arguably, the greatest tournament in company history.
In September 1998, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was the WWE champion and enjoying one of the great runs of his Hall of Fame career. The sworn enemy of company owner Vince McMahon, he found himself in the unenviable task of defending his title against Undertaker and Kane in the main event of BreakDown: In Your House.
When The Brothers of Destruction pinned him at the same time, the title was held up. A month later at Judgment Day, Austin counted both men down, again leaving the company without a champion.
As it had done 10 years earlier at WrestleMania IV, the company announced a tournament to crown a new champion.
While the vendetta between the chief executive and The Texas Rattlesnake was going on, The Rock was growing in popularity, with his natural charisma and entertaining catchphrases capturing the attention of the WWE fanbase.
A rebel in his own right, he caught the attention of McMahon and was forced to endure tremendous tribulations to earn a spot in the tournament, including beating former Nation of Domination teammate Mark Henry.
He did, and when he dropped a People's Elbow on the boss just prior to the Survivor Series pay-per-view, his journey to the title looked destined to be cut off by the vindictive billionaire.
Mankind, the deranged mask-wearing Superstar, was McMahon's hired gun. Looking for love and acceptance, he allowed himself to be manipulated by The Chairman of the Board, who promised him his first WWE Championship but would have more sinister plans in store come Survivor Series.
Perhaps the most interesting moving piece in the long and winding story ahead of Survivor Series was the emergence of Shane McMahon as a key figure. The commentator for Sunday Night Heat, he took exception to Austin being fired after Judgement Day and reinstated Stone Cold, much to the dismay of his father.
His brazen act earned him a demotion to a lowly referee and set the stage for his involvement at the pay-per-view extravaganza.
It's a Deadly Game
The 1998 Survivor Series was built around the tournament to crown the new WWE champion. Dubbed a "Deadly Game," it would feature 16 Superstars competing for the top prize in the industry. More importantly, it would be home to writer Vince Russo's masterpiece.
Mankind entered the show with the authority behind. When he was booked against returning enhancement star Duane Gill, it became obvious McMahon would do everything in his power to pave the way for the disheveled star to become champion.
The same could not be said for Austin, who would endure a brutal beating from Big Boss Man in the first round of competition, leaving him prone for defeat in the ensuing rounds.
The Rock's scheduled opponent, Triple H, was unable to compete, so he squared off with the aforementioned Big Boss Man. Unfortunately for the bodyguard of the Chairman, he rushed the ring and was immediately rolled up by The Great One, who earned his first victory of the tournament in three seconds.
Mankind would survive a battle with Al Snow in the quarterfinals, Austin received a bye and Rock benefited from botched interference by, you guessed it, Boss Man in order to scoot by Ken Shamrock, setting up an interesting semifinal round.
In the most significant match on the entire show, Austin battled Mankind.
A physical war and the best match on the show to that point, The Texas Rattlesnake overcame chicanery and was in a position to cash his ticket to the finals when he dropped Mankind with a Stone Cold Stunner and covered.
With the official down, Shane hit the ring and smacked the mat twice. He pulled up before the three and flipped Austin the bird, revealing the first step in a master plan to screw over the company's top star.
A steel chair shot from Gerald Brisco would deliver Mankind the win and eliminate Austin from the competition.
The night's other semifinal match would see Rock battle Undertaker.
Boss Man again attempted to cost Rock the match but ate a nasty right hand from The Deadman, who was none-too-pleased with the corporate bodyguard's involvement in his match. Undertaker would see his dreams of winning the title disintegrate before his very eyes as his brother, and nemesis, Kane interfered and attacked Rock, drawing a disqualification.
The finals were set: Rock, the charismatic and silver-tongued Superstar, would battle McMahon's hand-selected competitor, Mankind.
A brutal, chaotic brawl, the finals set the stage for every match those two wrestlers would have with each other in the ensuing months. Late in the bout, Rock grounded Mankind, looked over at the McMahons and raised his eyebrow.
Then, in an ode to the 1997 Survivor Series main event finish, he trapped Mankind in the Sharpshooter.
Vince called for the bell, and the fans in St. Louis sat in stunned silence, realizing Mankind never tapped out and worse, they had all been played for fools.
Rock, Vince and Shane embraced in the center of the ring and celebrated the fact they had pulled the proverbial wool over the eyes of WWE fans and Superstars alike.
Vince Russo's Masterwork
There are few writers more maligned than Russo, and not unjustly so.
He is responsible for some of the most ridiculous Crash TV-style angles in wrestling history and his work for WCW and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling is the butt of many a joke.
The Survivor Series, though, remains his greatest work.
For weeks leading into the show, both he and co-writer Ed Ferrara dropped hints, subtleties and happy coincidences that eluded to the fact Rock and the McMahons were fooling the entire WWE Universe. Many of those hints can be found only in re-watching the classic episodes of Raw that preceded the pay-per-view, all of which are available on WWE Network.
Over the course of one night, Russo brought all of the moving pieces together in his magnum opus. He managed to blend Rock, Austin, Mankind, Boss Man and the McMahons in one blockbuster that altered the course of WWE history and set the stage for the next six months of WWE television in the process.
Russo has long been a punching bag for online fans who blame him for the downfall of a WCW already in the toilet when he took over in 1999 and a TNA in shambles when he arrived. He certainly deserves blame for the lackluster creative product he was responsible for, but events like Survivor Series represent what he was capable of when he focused and knew what he wanted to do with the characters at his disposal.
Yes, it is fun to beat up on Russo for the likes of Beaver Cleavage and The Oddities, the notorious "Choppy Choppy Pee-Pee" angle and most of the Sexual Chocolate nonsense, but in doing so, he should be commended for what he was able to accomplish on that November night in a historic wrestling city like St. Louis.
WWE has yet to deliver a tournament that is as intricately booked, revolving around so many red-hot Superstars and engaging storylines, since that fateful night.
From tournaments to crown kings of the ring to those used to determine new champions, they have failed to live up to the potential set by Survivor Series 1998. They have not utilized it to its fullest, ignoring storytelling in favor of matches for matches' sake.
Look no further than the recent Crown Jewel event and the World Cup tournament to determine the "best in the world."
That tournament was a mangled mess of matches with no story whatsoever and a finish that was dumbfounding in its stupidity.
Not before and not since has the company utilized a tournament to tell so many stories and set up long-term storylines the way Russo, Ferrara and filter Vince McMahon did in November of 1998.
That night also ignited a main event push for The Rock that he never looked back from. The Great One soared to new heights, first as The Corporation's hand-selected champion, then as the People's Champion and top babyface in pro wrestling.
At just 26 years of age, he was given the ball and asked to run with it. He did not just run, he sprinted. He enjoyed one of the greatest runs in company history and used that momentum to transition to a monumental Hollywood film career.
Mankind became the beloved underdog, the Superstar screwed over by "the man," who fans wanted so desperately to see win the championship. They got their wish on an unforgettable January 4, 1999, episode of Raw, when he defeated The Rock to win the title, thanks in large part to well-timed interference from Stone Cold.
Which brings us to Austin.
The Texas Rattlesnake continued to be the most popular Superstar in WWE and channeled his energy into another run at the title. At WrestleMania XV in Philadelphia, he captured the WWE Championship and added to his already sparkling resume.
For those three Superstars, the 1998 Survivor Series and its Deadly Game tournament represented turning points in their careers. It spawned two new headliners, enhanced Austin's star, introduced Shane McMahon as a new piece around whom years of television would be booked and, most importantly, set a lofty bar for storytelling in a tournament setting, the likes of which may never be eclipsed.