From 1998 to 2001 the WWE, then WWF, went through the most commercially and creatively successful period in its history. The ‘Attitude’ era, as it was dubbed in WWF marketing, actually started in earnest about mid-way through 1997, with three pivotal moments; the rise of Steve Austin, the formation of D-Generation X and the creation of the Mr. McMahon character. These three things represent the key ways in which WWF had changed – Stone Cold tore up the rule book on baby-faces, with his swearing, finger gesturing, reckless and irresponsible behaviour and total lack of respect for authority; D-X pushed the envelope in terms of taste with their frat-boy humour, and kick started a run of controversial characters and stories; Vince McMahon, portraying a version of himself apparently not too far from reality, gave us the most memorable villain of the time, and made the on-screen authority figure a seemingly eternal staple of wrestling ever since.
These three only started the revolution though, and it was with the help many others such as The Rock, Mick Foley, Y2J, Kurt Angle and more who fleshed out the period with classic feuds, matches, angles and promos that captivated the audience in a way not seen before or since. For a while, it seemed that like literally anything WWF did went over huge with the fans, with the company’s popularity just rising and rising. And whilst much of what was produced during this time was brilliantly watchable, some of the stuff, in retrospect, was pretty rubbish.
The purpose of this on-going occasional article is to look back and celebrate some of that rubbish – because during the Attitude Era, even when WWF was being nonsensical or absurd, tack-less or even out-and-out offensive, it was somehow always eminently watchable and (mostly) enjoyable, if sometimes for the wrong reasons. Every now on then, I’ll take a gander at some element of this amazing era that didn’t quite live up to it’s expectation, or simply never could have done, but was entertaining or memorable nonetheless.
The Undertaker Vs Kane Feud (1998 onwards)
I’ve stated on many occasions that The Undertaker is my favourite pro-wrestler of all time, but the man has undeniably been involved in some utterly, stinkingly awful feuds over the years. A fair proportion of these happened pre-1998, when the Deadman was still doing the no-sell routine with freak-show acts like Kamala and Giant Gonzalez (possibly the worst pro-wrestler ever). From 1996, and the debut of Mankind, ‘Taker’s quality of opponents approved greatly; he went on to have impressive feuds with Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart during the Attitude years. His long battle with his story-line brother Kane though was an exception though; it was so absurd and out there, it made suspension of disbelief impossible.
It all started Summer ’97 when Undertaker was reigning as WWF Champion, following his forgettable victory over Psycho Sid at Wrestlemania 13. Former manager Paul Bearer was trying to blackmail ‘Taker into taking him back by threatening to reveal the Deadman’s biggest secret – when ‘Taker failed to acquiesce, Bearer decreed that Undi’ murdered his parents by burning down their funeral home, and knew this because ‘Takers brother Kane had told him. When Undertaker said this was impossible as Kane had perished, Bearer explained that he had survived, albeit horribly burned, and was out for revenge.
Outlandish as that seems, fans interest was high in the soon-to-debut Kane, and he finally made his first appearance in the closing moments of the legendary Hell in a Cell match between the Undertaker and HBK. Ripping the door off the Cell and then Tombstoning his brother, Kane’s actions allowed Michaels to take the win and made a big impression on the crowd. Taker initially refused to fight his flesh and blood, and Bearer promised Kane would destroy every superstar on the roster until Taker would face him. This was a clever tactic by WWF to help portray Kane as a monster heel and build interest in their eventual meeting at Wrestlemania; Kane played his part pretty well too, having tough, hard-hitting matches with Manking on RAW and against Vader at No Way Out.
Things started to take a turn for the stupid though at the Royal Rumble when Kane interfered in Takers casket match with HBK, which he cost The Phenom by battering him and chokeslamming him into said casket. This in itself wasn’t stupid, in fact it made sense storyline wise, as Kane cemented his position in being out for Takers blood. What was ridiculous was the post match angle, in which Kane wheeled the coffin (with Undi’ supposedly still inside) onto the entrance ramp and proceeded to set it on fire. How on earth this was meant to garner interest on their forthcoming bout I’ll never know – surely if Taker had just been barbequed alive, then there wasn’t going to be a match?
As it turned out though, Undertaker was still alive (who’d a thought it?) and returned on RAW a few weeks before ‘Mania. The angle which he returned in was equally as barmy mind you; in segments which would be thoroughly ridiculed by any-one who saw them, Undi’ and Kane went toe-to-toe to prove who had the more powerful ‘supernatural powers’. They did this by shooting bolts of lightning at various things, including the announce table, lighting ring and in one (unintentionally) hilarious moment, a member of the ring crew, who strangely burst into flame when struck. Mad as that sounds, it really is worth stopping for just a moment to think about it – in 1998, WWE was actually trying to sell to the audience that Kane and Undertaker could both magically shoot bolts of lightning. Seriously.
Anyway, all this nonsense led to a match a Wrestlemania XIV, which in defence of both guys, was fairly decent and well received by the crowd. However, the feud nor the craziness ended there. WWE decided to extend the rivalry to another match at the next months Unforgiven: In Your House PPV, and in doing booked somehow even more ludicrous segments, which for the first time in this series, ventured into the realms of bad taste. The first of these involved Kane and Paul Bearer visiting the graveyard where Kane and Undi’ parents were purported to be buried. Once there, Kane found their gravestones and proceeded to smash them up with a sledgehammer and set them on fire. And although many would consider graveyard vandalism dodgy ground, WWE in their infinite wisdom, went one further – the next week it was revealed that Kane had stolen their parent’s coffins from their crypt, to the (understandable) outrage of the Undertaker. To goad Undi’ more, Kane then set one of them on fire, and when Taker tried to stop him, Kane choke-slammed him through the other. If you have never seen this, or are having trouble imagining it, then take a look here:
With setting things on fire now being the general theme of this bat-shit crazy feud, WWE came up with idea of them settling the score in an Inferno Match. If, after having read the above, you cant work out what this might entail, or can but don’t want to believe what you’ve imagined, then let me clarify – the ring would be surrounded by flame, and the winner would be the first to, you guessed it, set the other man on fire. *Sighs*
To this day, I can’t believe WWE went with this gimmick; they, and fans, knew from the off that WWE couldn’t deliver what was being advertised, for obvious health and safety (and sanity) reasons. When the match took place, it of course turned out to be an unimpressive anti-climax – although the flames made for a memorable visual, both men moved extremely tentatively and whole thing was largely devoid of drama. It eventually ended when Kane’s forearm caught alight and he ran off screaming (I’m not being facetious here, he really was screaming).
Although their initial rivalry ended afterwards, Kane and Undertaker have never been that far removed from each other in the story-lines; they have frequently teamed up or fallen out, but rarely have the angles and promos been so out there, and sadly their bouts never got any better. For all I’ve said, I do genuinely love this rivalry, mostly because of the sheer conviction both men put into their performances in spite of the barmy script, but also because it helped Kane become one of few (maybe only?) made-for-Undertaker characters that ever got over, which is an impressive enough feat in itself.