On November 15th, 1998, The Rock became WWF Champion for the first time as Vince Russo delivered his magnum opus. But as the WWF soared to new heights with Survivor Series, the task facing WCW couldn’t have been more daunting.
The 1998 Survivor Series has become the stuff of legend. The show saw The Rock become World Champion just two years after making his debut, and the show-long Deadly Game tournament and storyline are still held up to this day. Despite this, the show has some spectacular flaws, with the in-ring action falling well short of other classic Survivor Series.
However, Survivor Series 1998 represents the sea change that was taking place in the wrestling industry, and showed just why WCW would never triumph in the ‘Monday Night Wars.’
The WCW Dream Begins To Unravel
On Monday, October 26th, 1998, Monday Nitro beat WWF Raw in ratings. Although its run of 83 consecutive wins had come to an end in April, the sight of a WCW victory didn’t seem unthinkable. But little did everyone know, it would never happen again.
While it’s often said that the fall of WCW began in earnest in 1999, the cracks in the foundations were beginning to show in the previous 12 months.
The launch of Thunder in January put greater strain on all involved and arrived as an unwanted present from TBS in the lap of WCW boss Eric Bischoff. The WWE Hall of Famer has gone on record numerous times in more recent years stating that he never asked for, or wanted a second weekly show.
On television, WCW also saw the biggest creative shift since Hulk Hogan joined with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash in the summer of 1996 to form the nWo. Wary of the storyline around the all-dominant faction becoming stale, it was split up and the Wolfpac led by Kevin Nash was created.
The Wolfpac initially proved popular with fans, and the storyline involved the company’s biggest stars, but repeated non-finishes to big matches on TV began to burn out the audience.
Although there was a reliance on older stars such as Hulk Hogan through much of 1998, homegrown WCW powerhouse Goldberg was still going strong. The former NFL star captured the WCW World Championship in July, defeating Hogan in front of 40,000 fans inside the Georgia Dome, yet, there was trouble ahead.
By the end of the year, his undefeated streak and World Championship were gone, and it was becoming clearer that any long-term planning WCW had previously put in place had well and truly gone out of the window. Shorn of his legendary undefeated run Goldberg appeared rudderless, joining Bret Hart in meandering through an nWo-dominated landscape, with new booker Kevin Nash and the creative team seemingly at a loss with how to get the best out of them.
By contrast, the WWF had realised that the only way for them to beat WCW was by looking to the future. Although Vince Russo’s car crash, shock-jock style writing was sometimes bizarre in the extreme, the fact was the company was getting younger. It was appealing to a younger fanbase, and featuring younger stars.
That’s not to say everything in the WWF made sense, or that its Head Writer was a bastion of joined-up thinking. But the difference was — as will soon become apparent — is that it didn’t actually matter.
The WWF’s run into Survivor Series featured a tug-of-war over the World Championship, off the back of a monster SummerSlam at Madison Square Garden which scored a stunning 700,000 pay-per-view buys. Crucially it featured Steve Austin in the main event against The Undertaker, and The Rock and Triple H attempting to steal the show in a Ladder Match earlier in the night.
Although Breakdown in September and Judgment Day in October didn’t get close to those highs, the sheer star power of the roster was established enough that it carried the company’s momentum through.
By contrast, WCW’s final offering before Survivor Series — Halloween Havoc — featured a legendarily bad clash between Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, and the PPV feed was cut off before the main event between Goldberg and Diamond Dallas Page made it to the ring. Due to the show running three and a half hours instead of three, the feed ended, and despite the match being shown the following night on Nitro, refunds needed to be dished out to angry customers.
On the surface, the incident might not seem like the end of the world, but it was further evidence that the company was losing its grip on a war it was destined to lose.
The Rock’s Corporate Triumph
Following Breakdown: In Your House, the WWF Championship was declared vacant, after Kane and The Undertaker pinned champion Austin simultaneously. This led to ‘Taker and Kane being forced to fight for the gold at Judgment Day, with Austin as the special guest referee. Unsurprisingly, Austin didn’t take Vince McMahon’s plans well and attacked both rivals, counting them down and declaring himself the winner.
Following up on an earlier threat, McMahon fired Austin. Despite this, Austin appeared on Raw, taking McMahon hostage and ‘shooting’ him with a fake gun, leading him to soil himself in the ring. In the midst of the chaos, Austin handed McMahon a piece of paper which was later revealed to be confirmation of a new contract and the promise of a World Title shot put together by Shane McMahon.
The theme of Deadly Game was simple. 14 Superstars would compete to become World Champion, with Vince McMahon doing everything he could to make sure that man wouldn’t be Austin.
The show itself was stacked with 18 matches (including those on Heat) with little of the in-ring action given time to breathe. The first-round and main card kicked off with Mankind getting the better of Duane Gill who was given the big build-up by McMahon who was still favouring Mick Foley at this early stage.
Despite the mythology around the tournament, the wrestling itself was forgettable. Stars such as Al Snow and Steven Regal shouldn’t have been anywhere near a World Title tournament, but they got an appearance. In fact, the match between Regal and X-Pac went to a draw before restarting, only for an injured X-Pac to walk off backstage followed by Regal.
The end result served the story and got Austin a bye to the next round, but made little sense to the live crowd. Meanwhile, the finish to the semi-final between Austin and Mankind descended into chaos. Big Boss Man was meant to attack Austin leaving the way clear for Mankind to grab the win, but for reasons known only to himself, (he claimed he was going over his involvement in the other semi-final with The Undertaker) he never made it to ringside.
This left all involved scrambling, and Gerald Brisco stepped up to hit Austin with one of the weakest chair shots this side of Hulk Hogan. The match did, however, give fans the now iconic image of Shane McMahon turning on Stone Cold and flipping him off after refusing to count a pin.
The final between The Rock and Mankind started slowly with Foley later claiming his mind went blank as soon as they locked up. The match featured all the Attitude Era staples, including an unpredictable finish with outside interference.
The Rock seemed to be on the verge of victory after hitting a Rock Bottom but to the surprise of the crowd, he then locked in a Sharpshooter. In a call back to the famous Montreal Scewjob — not the last on McMahon’s watch — Vince McMahon called for the bell despite Mankind never tapping out. With Rock declared the winner, Mr McMahon and Shane climbed into the ring, with the former declaring that he’d screwed Mankind, Austin, and “the people.”
When Mankind asked why McMahon had betrayed him, he was hit by a Rock Bottom. As the trio celebrated, Austin ran in, throwing Rock out of the ring and hitting a Stunner on Mankind to close the show.
The journey might have been convoluted, the wrestling messy, and the finish McMahon patting himself on the back, but none of that mattered. The WWF had coronated its next major star via a plot twist that proved anything really could happen in the WWF.
Survivor Series – A Deadly Fall Out
Survivor Series 1998 wasn’t the best wrestling show in the world by any stretch, but its importance comes from what it represents. Despite its flaws, the show featured the fast-paced, ‘anything can happen’ style television that powered the WWF to the wrestling promised land, launching the company headlong into popular culture.
Its Superstars shone so bright, and the product was so in tune with teenage America, that it almost didn’t matter how good the action was in the ring – fans were turning in regardless.
The night after Survivor Series, Monday Night Raw peaked at over 5.7 million viewers, while WCW peaked at 4.5 million, a figure that would fall during the show to 4.1 million.
A main event meeting between The Rock and Steve Austin had proven to be box-office, and the WWF had found a rivalry that would span three WrestleManias — even if the road to them was paved with creative missteps.
The WWF’s next ‘big four’ offering was the often-forgotten 1999 Royal Rumble, which despite not being fondly remembered did 650,000 buys — and that was after flat offerings Capital Carnage and Rock Bottom: In Your House in December ’98.
WCW followed Survivor Series with World War 3, a show that didn’t even see its World Champion and hottest star Goldberg wrestle. To hammer home the issues, Goldberg lost the title at Starrcade in December via a cattle prod, and the finger poke of doom nudged its way into wrestling infamy on January 4th.
It’s been well documented that in 1999 the wheels well and truly fell off the WCW wagon, and 11th months after his WWF peak, Vince Russo headed to Atlanta. While management in WCW thought Russo and writing partner Ed Ferrara could turn the battle in their favour, it was a gamble doomed to fail.
WCW hoped to unleash a Deady Game, but all they got was a Brawl For All.