World Championship Wrestling was at the top of their game in 1997. From 1996 until 1998, the WCW/NWO brand was the hottest ticket in the world of sports outside of the NBA Champion Chicago Bulls. There was no doubt that WCW was the top wrestling promotion in the business, with a solid fanbase in America and one growing worldwide.
Many critics believed that at that pace, they were going to drive the WWE out of business sooner rather than later. Nonetheless, Vince McMahon’s company had very talented performers, and a roster that included the likes of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold and the Undertaker. All of them crucial pieces and cornerstones of the company, but none more important then the Deadman himself: The Undertaker.
As we witnessed the last match of his magnificent career, it is important to understand how significant is the Undertaker in the history of the sport, and the crucial part he played in the Monday night wars and the demise of WCW.
The ‘phenom’ made his debut in 1990, during the Survivor Series PPV as Ted Dibiase’s mystery partner, and from day one, he made a tremendous impact. A year later, he defeated the most popular name in the business, Hulk Hogan to win his first WWE championship. However, he quickly lost the belt back to Hogan.
After working with Hogan, the Undertaker continued to be a top name in the company, collaborating with the main heels of the era such as the Yokozunas, the Jake Roberts, the Kamalas, and the Papa Shangos of the world. But, he was never given another shot at the WWE title, neither the opportunity to be the top ‘dog’ of the company. That would change in 1997 at Wrestlemania 13 in Chicago.
Two of my favorite performers of all time Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were given the responsibility of carrying the company alongside a bodyguard made wrestler Kevin Nash. Between the three of them, they traded the WWE world title from 1994 until 1997, all while the Undertaker was among the most popular wrestlers in both the WCW and the WWE. Although, they were outstanding performers, the company was losing in the Monday night ratings, and the money was becoming tight. Bret, HBK and Nash weren’t selling out arenas like the Hulkster, Warrior and Macho Man used to.
But that all changed in 1997. HBK vacated the belt and decided to ‘retire’. Shawn Michaels claimed that he had ‘lost his smile’. Bret Hart was still around, but now he was projecting as a heel, and Nash, well, Nash was enjoying the success of the NWO in WCW. The original plan for the main event at WM13 was the anticipated rematch between Bret and Shawn. WWE was losing badly versus WCW, and Vince was running out of ideas. Vince knew he needing to improvise, and he turned to his best performer and most loyal wrestler. It was the chance that the Undertaker was waiting for.
Wrestling critics believe the genesis of the attitude era actually happened at Wrestlemania 13. They normally point out to the Bret Hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin ‘submission match’, as the birth of Austin, the baby face, and hence as the turning point in the Monday night wars. I also think that Austin and later the Rock were the main forces that eventually saved WWE, but they weren’t certainly the first.
What critics usually forget, is that the main event of that PPV included the franchise of the company, the guy that never complained, never ‘lost his smile’. always showed up on time, and the one who according to wrestlers was the leader of the locker room: The Undertaker.
He was facing Sid, and in that match, unlike his first title win versus the Hulkster, he wasn’t the heel, he wasn’t cheating to win. He defeated Sid fair and square via the famous tombstone piledriver. He was finally the WWE champion. What people should understand about this particular title win, is that, although, taker’ had been the most popular wrestler in the WWE, he remained loyal to Vince, he always listened to his boss. Many wrestlers left, he did not. If the Undertaker would have decided to leave the company in 1997, that could have been catastrophic for the WWE. Vince honored him, and Taker delivered.
In 1997, WCW had a popular guy by the name of black and white Sting, and the WWE finally realized that all along they had the their own dark figure in the Undertaker. Vince capitalized. Although, the Undertaker lost the WWE belt versus Bret Hart in that year’s Summer Slam, he closed the year introducing the first ever ‘Hell in the Cell’ match to wrestling fans and feuding with his lost brother Kane that continued until 1998. With and without the belt, he carried the company in 1997. His performances provided WWE with the material needed to compete with WCW.
Bret Hart left for WCW in late 1997. Shawn Michaels created DX and eventually became WWE Champ again, but would retire in 1998. Stone Cold Steve Austin was becoming the most popular wrestler, and eventually became the champion at WM14. The WWE regained control of the Monday night wars, and frankly never looked back. WCW couldn’t stop the WWE tsunami and in 2001 they ended up selling the company to Vince himself.
While most people attribute the success of the Monday Night wars to wrestlers like Stone Cold and the Rock, it was actually the Undertaker who with is popularity, loyalty and performance was able to help WWE defeat WCW. Yes, Austin and the Rock cemented the victory, but it all started that night at the All State Arena when the Undertaker defeated Sid for his second WWE championship.