“Roll the dice, play your cards. Break the rules, that’s who you are. Whoever said play it safe never played the game.”
Ah the Deadly Game, for old school WWF fans that grew up in the Attitude Era, those words invoke a lot of memories. Either triumph or heartbreak, the Deadly Game was a one night spectacular full of drama, twists, turns and had fans foaming at the mouth ready for the next night of Raw and beyond. Younger fans will sure to ask what the Deadly Game was, so here we go. The most famous tournament for the WWF Heavyweight Championship was held at Wrestlemania 4 with “Macho Man” Randy Savage prevailing. Then there was the second one, held at the 1998 Survivor Series for the once again vacated championship. How did we get to this point where the title would be held up and 16 (14 actually) men would vie for it? Let’s go back two months earlier.
The September 1998 pay-per-view was known as Break Down and evil owner Vince McMahon was “damn sick and tired” of Steve Austin as WWF champion. He came up with a foolproof plan to get the title off of “Stone Cold” by putting him in a triple threat match against Kane and The Undertaker, who had formed an alliance a month earlier. The odds were stacked when Vince put the provision that Kane and Taker couldn’t pin each other. The semi-main event was a triple threat cage match for the number one contender slot with The Rock against Ken Shamrock and Mick “Mankind” Foley. The Rock prevailed in the cage match and in the main event, Taker and Kane pinned Austin at the same time. Rather than declare a winner, Vince ran down to ringside, grabbed the belt and ran off with Austin in hot pursuit with Kane and Taker in the ring completely confused. Vince flipped off Austin outside of his limo and drove off to end the show.
The next night on Raw, Vince was going to crown a new champion with Kane and Taker in the ring when Austin crashed the party in a zamboni, attacking Vince. Heated, Vince told Kane and Taker to screw since they didn’t stop Austin. After the most ill-timed middle finger since Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, Kane and Taker attacked Vince and shattered his ankle with the steel steps. Now confined to a wheelchair pushed by his new bodyguard Big Bossman (back in the company after 5 years in WCW), Austin ordered the main event of the October 1998 ppv Judgement Day to be Kane vs Taker for the title with Austin as the referee. If Austin didn’t play fair, he would be fired. During the match, Kane’s father (don’t ask) Paul Bearer turned on him and reunited with The Undertaker. Austin was unimpressed, stunned both men and counted them both out to make the match a no contest. Austin told Vince to fire him and Vince said “Screw you, you’re fired.” Austin ended the show saying they haven’t seen the last of him.
The next night on Raw, Austin put a gun to Vince’s head (yes I’m serious) and handed him his new WWF contract that someone had given him under Vince’s nose. After Vince urinated himself, Austin pulled the trigger revealing it was a prop gun with the ol’ acme “BANG” flag. The following week a humiliated Vince demanded to know who re-signed Austin and none other than his son Shane stepped forward. Shane had been a referee in the late 80’s and early 90’s and most recently was a fill-in commentator on WWF Raw and Sunday Night Heat. Shane gave an epic speech saying he signed Austin to get back at Vince for not paying enough attention to him. Outraged, Vince demoted Shane back to being a referee and said they would settle the title dispute at the upcoming Survivor Series with a tournament to decide the new champion. The three main players Austin, Taker and Kane were in as well as the second tier of The Rock, Triple H, Shamrock and Mankind. Longshots included Al Snow, Jeff Jarrett, Goldust, X-Pac and Steven Regal. Vince’s henchman Big Bossman and a mystery opponent were also included to round out the bracket. Around this time Vince had formed “The Corporation” a stable that included his stooges Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco, WWF Commissioner Sgt. Slaughter, his new “chief of security” Big Bossman, hired gun Ken Shamrock and Mankind, who was being groomed as Vince’s handpicked champion.
At the 1998 Survivor Series, held in the Kiel Center in St. Louis in front of a legit 21,000 fans, the Deadly Game began. In a tip of the hat to the Wrestlemania 4 tournament, where Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant received first round byes so they wrestled each other in the second round, Kane and The Undertaker played their roles in this one. The bracket was Kane and Taker receiving byes with Ken Shamrock taking on Goldust. The Rock would meet Triple H, Mankind would take on the mystery opponent, Jeff Jarrett would wrestle Al Snow, Steve Austin would meet Big Bossman and X-Pac would tangle with Steven Regal. The show began with Bossman, Gerald Brisco and Pat Patterson wheeling Vince out to introduce Mankind in full tuxedo and his mystery opponent. Vince said his opponent was a WWF veteran with a record win/loss record….Duane Gill! Record setting win/loss record was right as Gill was previously a jobber for the last 10 years never winning a match. Naturally Mankind pinned him in about a minute as Jim Ross on commentary called the match “a layup” for Mankind.
For the first real match, it was on to Al Snow against Jeff Jarrett. Snow had stolen Mankind’s Mr. Socko and wrapped it around Head for this evening’s festivities. The match ended with Snow whacking Jarrett with Socko Head and getting the pin. Next up was the confrontation between Austin and Bossman where Bossman attacked him on the way to the ring. The match was back and forth until Bossman grabbed his nightstick and caved in the ribs of Austin much to McMahon’s delight. Bossman was DQ’d but apparently that was part of the plan as Austin hobbled off giving the impression he wouldn’t be able to continue in the next round. Who would be his opponent in the quarterfinals? Either X-Pac or “The Man’s Man” Steven Regal (again, don’t ask). During the match it appeared Regal had injured X-Pac but the bell rang before he could finish him off. Turns out the time limit had expired and both men were eliminated. Backstage Vince realized this meant Austin had a bye to the semi-finals and sent Slaughter out to restart the match. Unfortunately for Vince, Sarge was too late as X-Pac had already left and Regal ran to the back as well. Austin would be moving straight to the semi-finals much to Vince’s chagrin. Next up would be WWF Intercontinental Champion Ken Shamrock taking on Goldust. Shamrock made Goldust submit to the ankle lock to set up the monster match of the first round, The Rock vs Triple H. Both men had a war at Fully Loaded 98 and managed to top it in a ladder match at Summerslam cementing both men as the next superstars of the future. Unfortunately Triple H hurt his knee in the match and had to forfeit the IC title (won by Shamrock in a tournament) and take most of the fall off. After The Rock was introduced, Brisco and Patterson hit ringside and said HHH couldn’t be here but they had a replacement opponent. None other than Big Bossman ran to the ring only to be rolled up and pinned by The Rock in record time, more on this later. After The Rock thwarted the Stooges, the Quarterfinals were set. Taker would meet Kane, Shamrock vs The Rock, Mankind against Al Snow and Austin would get a bye. Remember earlier how I said there were more or less 6 main players? Well all 6 were there….and Al Snow playing the dark horse role.
In the highly anticipated second round showdown, Undertaker got the duke over Kane with a tombstone and Bearer holding Kane’s leg down. Kane would not take this lying down, no siree bob. Once again the Corporation tried to screw with The Rock as Bossman ran to the ring again in Rock’s match with Shamrock. With the ref distracted, Bossman tossed his nightstick to Shamrock only for Rock to intercept it and waffle Shamrock with it, getting the 1-2-3 to advance to the semi-finals. Mankind once again came out in full tuxedo to take on Al Snow in the last match of the round. Mankind got the win and retrieved Mr. Socko in the process. Now the semi-finals were set with The Undertaker against The Rock and Mankind against Austin. After Sable defeated Jacqueline for the WWF Women’s title, it was time for Austin vs Mankind. McMahon, Patterson, Brisco and Slaughter accompanied Mankind, ditching the tux for his standard tights and business shirt/tie, and the master plan went in motion. Late in the match, Austin hit Mankind with the stunner and made the cover. Suddenly Vince jumped out of his chair and attacked the referee, showing he wasn’t injured all along. Austin was able to quel Vince and the stooges before hitting another stunner on Mankind. Shane McMahon in a referee’s shirt sprinted to the ring and counted one….two….and stopped. Shane then turned heel by flipping off Austin and refusing to finish the count. Slaughter whacked Austin with a chair allowing Mankind to make the cover, Shane completing the count to eliminate Austin and send Mankind to the finals. As Shane celebrated with Vince and the Stooges, an enraged Austin chased the stooges and Bossman completely out of the arena, but the damage was done. From a storyline standpoint, this had Russo written all over it. Even though the Shane heel turn was shocking, it made no sense. Why would Shane hire Austin back in the first place only to turn on him when he could have just left Austin on the unemployment line the previous month? Inconsistencies aside, Austin was out and the only babyface left was The Rock. As Taker prepared to finish off the Brahma Bull, Kane hit the ring and chokeslammed The Rock in front of the referee. The ref called for the bell and awarded the match to The Rock as Taker figured out Kane did it on purpose to cost him the match. Now the finals were set, Rock vs Mankind.
Before the Finals began, the New Age Outlaws successfully defended their tag belts against The Headbangers. For the previous two months, The Rock had been public enemy number 2 to Vince saying he’d rather be the people’s ass than to ever kiss Vince’s. After Rock won his match at Break Down, Vince had him beat down at Judgement Day by former stablemates D-Lo Brown and Mark Henry. Regardless of the outcome of the final match, someone was going to win the WWF title for the first time. The Rock was so smooth in the ring in his training days in 1996 that everyone from Jim Cornette to Vince himself said Rock was their world champion in 5 years. In a sharp contrast, nobody ever saw Mick “Mankind” Foley as world championship material. Not the territorial promoters, not his trainer Dominic DeNucci, not Ric Flair, not Eric Bischoff and certainly not Vince himself when Mick first signed. Vince wanted him to be Mason The Mutilator before a quick thinking, horrified Mick suggested Mankind so he could speak in the third person. For the previous two years Mankind, Dude Love or Cactus Jack was a solid mid-card wrestler but barely ever sniffed the main event scene. Now either The Rock was going to fulfill a prophecy or Mick was going to shock the world. In another swerve no one saw coming, with Shane and Vince at ringside, The Rock locked Mankind in the sharpshooter and Vince rang the bell to screw Mankind shades of Bret Hart in Montreal a year earlier. Shane and Vince got in the ring and hugged The Rock in a shocking heel turn as The Rock was crowned new WWF Champion. Mankind playing “Mickey The Dunce” asked what’s going on and Vince spoke to him like a five year old saying he was just a pawn and The Rock was the prize all along since he looked and acted the part of being champion. The McMahon’s and Rock all beat down the confused Mankind only for the enraged Steve Austin run in to chase off the McMahons and beat down The Rock. With the heels scurrying, Austin hit Mankind with the stunner with Jim Ross on commentary saying “Good, maybe it’ll knock some sense into his head.” So after all of that, The Rock turned heel and was the new WWF Champion thus ending the Deadly Game.
Say what you will about the swerves, but everything was done with a purpose. The Rock going in as the people’s champion and leaving the corporate champion got people talking. Mankind began his main event push culminating in one of the loudest pops in recorded history when he finally won the gold a month and change later. This also began Steve Austin’s 4-month chase for the title that he never really technically lost to begin with. The Rock was supposed to be the world champion 5 years after his debut and he did it in less than 3 plus it was well deserved. The WWF had blown past WCW at this point and they were red hot. The fact they were going to keep the belt off their top star from late September of 1998 to late March of 1999 spoke volumes of the main event depth they had developed in The Rock, Taker, Mankind, etc. Also in the fall-out of Deadly Game was Triple H and DX feuding with the Corporation for the rest of the year and most of the first half of 1999. The women’s division got a jump start with Sable winning the women’s strap. The Corporation would keep growing, eventually adding a rookie named Test along with blackmailing Kane to get him to aid them. As the calendar turned to 1999 the WWF was about to leave WCW in the dust and their new world champion would help lead the charge. Not surprising the two biggest stars in the WWF, The Rock and Austin, would main event Wrestlemania 15. It all goes back to Deadly Game and how successful it was.
“Cause it’s a deadly game that we play as we live our lives. When we say what is on our minds. Play it now before the game is over.”