(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: The Undertaker vs. Mankind – WWE King of the Ring 1998
This is without a doubt the most iconic match of the past twenty-five years. It has been watched and re-watched millions of times since it first happened. It’s widely considered the pinnacle of wrestling as entertainment in the United States. And has topped list after list related to wrestling for almost a quarter of a century.
Except for one.
Every year, the readers of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter vote on what they consider the best match of the year. And in 1998, this match came in second, which at first I found to be surprising. Then I saw which match beat it and realized, yeah, that makes sense.
But for those that focused more on American wrestling during the 1990s, this was the biggest and most talked-about match in years, possibly decades. But is it truly deserving of such high praise to this day? Or is it simply a case of fans seeing a handful of spots and equating the entire match with that same level of insanity? Read on to find out.
Today we revisit the iconic Hell in a Cell match between Mankind and The Undertaker from WWF/E King of the Ring 1998.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
There was little to nothing in terms of immediate story leading into this match. Instead, it was part of a larger, more long-term story between Mankind and Undertaker that started two years earlier. Mankind debuted in April 1996 and immediately set his sights on ‘Taker. Their first famous match together was the Boiler Room Brawl at SummerSlam that year, which saw ‘Taker’s longtime manager Paul Bearer betray him for Mankind. The feud continued at Survivor Series 1996 with Undertaker winning in a Buried Alive match. From there the two wouldn’t meet again until In Your House 14, which saw Undertaker retain his WWE title against Mankind. The build also saw Undertaker attack Paul Bearer in his home and Mankind swore revenge on ‘Taker for what he did to his ‘uncle Paul’. Earlier in June 1998, Mankind allied himself with Kane and challenged Undertaker and Stone Cold Steve Austin in a HIAC match that ended in a no contest.
All of this chaos and changing of plans happened because Vince McMahon changed his mind on what the card for KOTR 1998 was supposed to be. This HIAC match between Undertaker and Mankind was not the original plan; Mankind was supposed to challenge Austin for the WWF/E Championship but then Vince swerved everyone and re-shuffled the card. As such, there was little build to this match. Worse, Undertaker had a fractured ankle so he was very limited in what he could do. Worse still, expectations for this HIAC match were incredibly high, especially after Undertaker’s stellar work in the first-ever HIAC match. With all of those factors at play, Mankind/Foley had to come up with something special and memorable to avoid this Cell match being, in Foley’s words, “a stinker”.
And boy did they ever.
This match originally took place on June 28th, 1998. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
Foley enters first, throws a chair onto the roof of the cage and then climbs it before Undertaker’s music starts playing. And ‘Taker – who has a broken foot going into this match – chases after him right away. Mankind starts punching Undertaker while ‘Taker’s still climbing the side of the cell. Some kid screams “don’t fall on me” as ‘Taker punches Mankind back and makes it to the top of the cell. Interesting choice of words, kid. Mankind regains control with more punches and hits Undertaker with some nasty chairshots to the back. Mankind throws the chair aside for a DDT or a piledriver but the roof of the cell gives through a bit as the two wrestlers battle closer. A small harbinger of things to come.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for.
Mankind teases a DDT onto the chair but Undertaker fights back. Mankind staggers. He waves his arms to keep his balance. Undertaker approaches, grabs Foley from behind…AND THROWS HIM OFF THE ROOF OF THE GODDAMN CELL! JR: “GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! THEY’VE KILLED HIM! AS GOD IS MY WITNESS HE IS BROKEN IN HALF!” F**king chills, man.
After some replays of that epic fall, JR begs for someone from the back to check on Mankind. Terry Funk comes out first and pulls off a piece of what’s left of the Spanish announce table to reveal that Mankind is still moving. So at least he isn’t dead.
Minutes go by without any action. Undertaker remains atop the cell as Mankind/Foley is surrounded by doctors and officials. A stretcher is brought in and Mankind is taken to the back. The match is considered over for all intents and purposes as Undertaker starts climbing down one side when suddenly there’s a commotion at the entrance ramp. A now-unmasked Mankind/Mick Foley gets to his feet. And against the doctors’ recommendations, he makes his way back towards the cell. And with a sadistic smile on his face, Mankind climbs the cell again. And so too does Undertaker. The fight is back on.
Undertaker head-butts Mankind and lands a punch. He walks over and gets close enough to goozle Mankind. Chokeslam…THROUGH THE ROOF OF THE CELL! Mary Mother of God, what a fall! That wasn’t supposed to happen. Lawler: “That’s it, he’s dead”. JR: “Will somebody stop the damn match?! ENOUGH’S ENOUGH!”
The crowd is on their feet screaming and cheering wildly as Mankind is swarmed by officials. A few of them beg Undertaker to stay where he is but Undertaker doesn’t give a f**k. He climbs down through the role in the roof that he just made and jumps down to the ring (reminder: with a broken foot, which he barely sells upon landing). The officials flee the Undertaker (remember when officials actually feared the wrestlers and didn’t actually push back and remind them of ‘who was in charge’? Good times…) leaving only Funk in the ring. Sensing an opportunity to inflict even more carnage, ‘Taker punches and then chokeslams Funk, much to the crowd’s continued delight. After more replays of that second fall, Mankind has made it to his feet! Despite taking an unplanned fall that would’ve killed a normal human being, Mankind/Foley is standing. But not for long. A single punch from the Undertaker drops Mankind back down. Lawler rightfully starts calling Mankind ‘indestructible’ as Undertaker goes for Old School. But Mankind cuts him off by staggering into the ropes. Undertaker gets crotched on the top rope as the referees re-lock the cell. The camera then pans to the famous shot of Mankind sitting in the corner, smiling as blood fills his mouth and one of his teeth protrudes from his nose. If anyone’s wondering why Foley hasn’t been able to get in better shape, it’s because he spent decades being weighed down by the size and weight of his balls.
Mankind runs (yes, he has enough endurance to run) and knocks ‘Taker from the apron into the cell wall. He tries lifting the steel ringsteps but can’t lift them since one of his arms is barely working (completely believable in this case). ‘Taker takes advantage and smashes those steel steps into Mankind’s bad shoulder, which pushes Mankind into the cell. After landing more punches, Undertaker gets back in the ring. He dives through the ropes…and misses Mankind. He hits the cell wall head-first and then Mankind takes advantage by smashing ‘Taker’s head into the cell some more. Undertaker starts bleeding as Mankind lands a nasty pulling piledriver onto the steel chair. The referee counts one, two, and Undertaker kicks out. Mankind places the chair on ‘Taker’s face and lands a legdrop on it for another two-count. He follows that with a double-arm DDT and then pulls something from underneath the ring. It’s a velvet bag…filled with thumbtacks. Mankind spills them out to create a bed of tacks and goes back to punching Undertaker’s head. Mankind charges the ropes for a big move. Undertaker cuts him off with a goozle. Mankind blocks with a kneelift and charges again. Undertaker boots him and counters another charge with a Tombstone attempt. Mankind counters that into the Mandible Claw. Undertaker starts fading. His free arm goes limp. He sinks down to one knee. The referee does the arm drop check to see if Undertaker’s out cold. Undertaker’s arm sinks down once…twice…thr – no, Undertaker powers up. Here come his supernatural powers. Undertaker stands up with Mankind piggybacking on him. He walks backwards, closer and closer towards that bed. And falls backwards. Mankind falls into the thumbtacks. But Undertaker’s not finished. Chokeslam onto the bed of tacks! And the bloodthirsty crowd cheer this on! But Mankind gets up seconds later, so Undertaker signals the end. Tombstone Piledriver. One, two, and three! Lawler: “Mercifully, this is over!”
Winner after 16:00: The Undertaker
Post-match, Undertaker limps his way to the back as more officials tend to Foley. After not moving for a few minutes, Foley refuses to be stretchered out and is instead helped to the back by Funk, Sgt. Slaughter, a referee, and a few others. As he walks/limps, Foley gets a well-earned standing ovation from the crowd.
Just like with Hogan/Rock from WrestleMania X8, this match can’t be judged on its grappling. In fact, one can’t really call this a top-tier wrestling match because the wrestling was threadbare. Instead, this was a 16-minute display of Jackass-style stuntwork. Except this wasn’t played for laughs; Foley almost died for his craft. On one hand, both wrestlers’ (but especially Foley’s) toughness displayed here is nothing short of remarkable. And their willingness to go all in with the ‘high risk high reward’ should be applauded. On the other hand, this wasn’t really a cohesive match but three or four insane spots with some plodding actions mixed in between them. So as a moment it’s undeniably crazy; but as a match it’s alright at best.
The following is a list of Foley’s injuries sustained in this match:
- A concussion
- Three teeth knocked out
- A separated/dislocated shoulder
- A dislocated jaw
- Internal bleeding
- Multiple puncture wounds
He put himself through all of this so that his career would have a defining moment. He definitely got what he was asking for. The first bump made him into a star worth noticing. The second made him into a legend. And the third (the chokeslam onto the thumbtacks) removed any doubts about the second. Undertaker was basically a supporting character here; he set Foley up but the execution was all about Foley: Foley’s body being destroyed, Foley almost being killed, Foley’s indestructability.
This match was and is pure spectacle and shock value, nothing more. It was never about putting on the most thrilling or competitive match; it was about showing what lengths to which Undertaker and Mankind were willing to go to destroy each other. It was about ‘creating a moment’, which, unsurprisingly, has since become WWE’s modus operandi. Foley was so successful in that endeavor that he changed a billion-dollar company’s entire approach to booking and programming. Having great matches on their own was no longer first priority; their goal was to create memorable moments that would last forever. They had done so before with some success, but nothing could possibly top what took place in this match. Not a single moment in WWE’s extensive history tops this one. It’s iconic. It’s shocking. It sends chills down one’s spine. It’s exciting. It’s brutal. It’s spellbinding.
But what gets ignored all too often is everything else within the match aside from the three biggest spots. Foley survived inhuman punishment and still went on to brawl and move around like little had happened to him. He pushed his body to the extreme to try and beat Undertaker. Foley did very little on offense compared to Undertaker, but his effort was impressive nonetheless. He tried doing some classic hardcore stuff to weaken ‘Taker but it was no use. The match was basically a foregone conclusion from the moment Foley first fell off the cell. And yet, there was an uncanny almost morbid curiosity about what was going on. This was one of the rare times in which the sense of competition didn’t actually matter. It was a foregone conclusion that Foley/Mankind was going to lose, but there was still one question still unanswered: how much more could he take? If Foley could take two insane falls like that and still survive, what did Undertaker have to do to keep him down? The two wrestlers spent the rest of that match answering that question. Foley took nasty shot after nasty shot and put his battered body through even more punishment. He got a few chance hits in on ‘Taker here and there but not enough to turn the match in his favor. In the end, Undertaker had to further use Foley’s own sadism against him by chokeslamming him onto the thumbtacks Foley himself brought in before dropping him with a Tombstone to end the match.
Final Rating: ****
This match’s relatively bland wrestling and structure is counterbalanced by two of the most iconic and mythical stunts in wrestling history. But let’s be clear: this match is memorable, famous, and spectacular, but not top-tier in terms of actual quality. A match doesn’t have to be the best of the best to be remembered. This match showed that shock value and ‘creating a moment’ can have much more of a lasting impact than a well-structured competitive technical grappling match.
This match will continue to have a dual legacy. It was, and still is, the most shocking and memorable moment in WWE history by far. Nothing comes close, certainly not anything from the past ten years. This is usually the part where I’d recommend watching something or not but in this case that’s redundant since every wrestling fan alive has seen this match’s most iconic moments at least once before.
On the other hand, this was the peak of WWE’s upward growth from an excitement and unpredictability perspective. Nothing could ever top this as a fresh, shocking and creatively-justifiable moment. From this point on, rival companies WCW and ECW could not compete with WWE. This match tipped the scales in WWE’s favor and from here there was no going back.
And in a strange way, Foley actually doomed future wrestlers from ever being trusted fully. Years later, he admitted that he lied to Vince about what was going to happen in this match. So when Foley fell from the Cell, Vince broke kayfabe, something he was very much reluctant to do at the time. He came out with referees and agents and expressed genuine concern for Foley’s safety. Frankly, it’s no small miracle that Foley didn’t die from that second bump. It was basically an Act of God that Foley’s position, Undertaker’s last-second adjustments, and the angle at which Foley fell, all aligned in a way that enabled Foley to survive such a horrific botch.
By now, most of us have heard or read stories about Vince McMahon being a control freak or a micro-manager, that he controls everything from each match’s layout to pushing for word-for-word scripted promos. At first I, like many of you, thought this was the result of an old man being stuck in his ways and simply being too paranoid to trust anyone. But after learning that Foley flat-out lied to Vince to allow these crazy bumps to happen, Vince’s need for greater control seems more justifiable. Foley got away with lying because this match was a boon to WWE’s business and helped them win the Monday Night Wars. But once WWE became ‘safe again’ and gained a monopoly on the American wrestling market, it shouldn’t be surprising that he tightened his grip on recalcitrant wrestlers.
So if any of you out there wonder why everything in WWE these days seems so sanitized, controlled, and repetitive, it’s because the people at the top don’t want wrestlers going behind their backs and doing crazy things like what Foley did here.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.