Retro Recap – King of the Ring 1998

We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of King of the Ring 98, so I thought I’d take a look at it. It’s important in the annals of history almost entirely because of the bumps Mick Foley (performing on this show as Mankind) took during the Hell in a Cell match he had against the Undertaker. It also featured a guy that the company was grooming as for the future in The Rock, all the members of Degeneration X not named Triple H, and two guys from MMA that they were trying to milk crossover appeal from (Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn). The main event was a First Blood match for the WWF Title between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Kane. In today’s world we’d be questioning why Kane got a title shot after losing twice in a row to Taker then beating a washed up Vader, but that’s neither here nor there. If you need an explanation it’s pretty simple: they needed somebody who looked credible as an opponent (Kane had beaten every else other than his brother at that point) because they no one else left outside of Taker who they had to save for Summerslam.

What’s also important here is that this was at the most competitive stretch of the Monday Night Wars. Before 1998 WCW and Nitro were dominating RAW in the ratings but with Austin’s rise to the top they’d caught up and now were going back and forth. Which meant both companies had to pull crazy stuff out of their ass every week to get attention away from the competition. The WWF, feeling the need to inject something so the Austin-McMahon feud wouldn’t get too stale too quick (how many times could Austin stun Vince and otherwise thwart his efforts to get the title off of him before we figured he’d always prevail and get bored?) threw Kane at him with the stipulation of it being a First Blood Match to add some needed drama to it all. Without needing a pin to get the title you could employ all kinds of shenanigans for a title change having Austin do a proper job. And while that makes sense it means the match was going to have a finish that was overbooked as all get out.

But anyway, how was the show as a whole? Let’s take a look.

Taka Mikinochu & The Headbangers vs Kaientai

This was one of two “bonus matches” added to the show – i.e. matches they didn’t feel the need to promote before the actual show started. Taka was essentially the WWF’s attempted answer to Rey Mysterio, Jr., who was tearing it up in WCW at the time with his high flying repertoire, except that he was nowhere as successful here and would be gone within a year. Kaientai were a trio from Japan who were brought in to be foils for Taka and would stick around long enough to become a comedy trio (one of them, Sho Funaki, would become a WWF/E mainstay for several years after this). The match itself was pretty good, and a good choice to open the show. The only problem is that you had six guys the WWF audience didn’t really care much about so they didn’t care much about this match, either.

King of the Ring Semifinal: Ken Shamrock vs Jeff Jarrett

Shamrock was a year into his WWF tenure and had settled in a pretty good midcard guy (that is until a microphone was put in his face; man, he was awful at promos). Jarrett was about seven months into his return from WCW and had already ditched what was supposed to be his new persona to go back to the Double J character he’d been here before. This looked like it would be a good match on paper, but alas it was short. Way short, like just over five minutes. What in the hell? This wasn’t a RAW match, for crying out loud! Major disappointment here. Which leads us to…..

King of the Ring Semifinal: The Rock vs Dan Severn

Severn was a former MMA guy like Shamrock who’d found his way into pro wrestling. Unlike Shamrock he had zero personality whatsoever. Even though he couldn’t talk worth a damn Shamrock conveyed a silent intensity that, while it wasn’t enough to substitute for mic skills, was able to get some connection with the crowd. Severn was a total zero in that department. Severn and Shamrock were intentionally put on opposite sides of the tournament brackets so as to tease a final between the two. That wouldn’t happen here as the Rock would get the win thanks to assistance from his Nation of Domination teammate D-Lo Brown. This match was even shorter than the previous one.
OK, let me pause here to say what in the hell? The tournament is supposed to be about showcasing guys that may be a big deal soon and they give us two semifinals that go five minutes or less? You do want to save the winners for the finals, but they couldn’t go another minute or two each? The Rock was still working really short matches at that point, so maybe it was asking too much for him here, but Jarrett could have gotten a seven or minute match out of Shamrock for sure. And as bad as this is, it only gets worse as we see the rest of the show….

Too Much (Brian Christopher and Scott Taylor) vs Al Snow and Head

Oh boy…… Brian Christopher is Jerry lawler’s son and there was a badly running gimmick where Lawler was helping Too Much win matches while not fessing up to being Brian’s dad. Yeah, outside of Lawler’s creepy old man shtick nobody cared. And then we have Al Snow and Head. Head was a mannequin head…..yeah, you read that right. Snow and Head were a prime example of a gimmick that worked great on a smaller scale (in ECW) but looked dumb on a bigger stage. To add to the fun Lawler got himself named special referee…..ugh. This was downright awful, especially once Snow made the hot tag to Head and starting hitting both members of Too Much with it. And then Lawler pulls out a Head & Shoulders bottle which Taylor screws Head onto so he can pin it. Put the head and SHOULDERS bottle on Head so that you can pin the shoulders for a three count….get it? Yeah it’s as bad as it’s sounds. And to boot it was almost as long as both tournament matches combined (8:26 vs 9:54).

X-Pac (w/Chyna) vs Owen Hart

Best match on the show even though it only went roughly the same amount of time as the previous match. Owen was great and X-Pac could still go so of course the result was good. Degeneration X was in a kinda weird position as they were being cheered like faces while still acting like heels, mainly Chyna interfering in their matches. Owen had gone heel and joined the Nation of Domination, which was a weird fit to say the least.

WWF World Title Match: The New Age Outlaws vs The Wack Midnight Express

No, the Wack Midnight Express wasn’t their real name, just an accurate description of them. They were managed by Jim Cornette like all the good versions of the team but that’s the only resemblance. The highlight of the match was Billy Gunn of the Outlaws facing off with his kayfabe brother Bart Gunn of the Express. Other than that, not much to see here. Chyna helps the Outlaws win here just like she helped X-Pac earlier. Yawn.

King of the Ring Final: The Rock vs Ken Shamrock

The guys got to work a bit longer here, 14 minutes and change. I guess that made up for the short semifinal matches. OK match. Rock was still learning how to do better matches here as he had progressed as character beyond what he was as a wrestler. The finish came kind of abruptly as Shamrock took advantage of him arguing with the ref to cinch in the Ankle Lock for the win. The Rock tapping out clean is something that we’d never see again after this match.

Hell in a Cell: Undertaker vs Mankind

This is of course one of the most well remembered matches of the Attitude Era. If you’re not counting as far back as 1997 and including the first ever Hell in a Cell match between Taker and Shawn Michaels then this is the first match of the Attitude Era that most people can recall without having to be reminded of it. So that means I’m going to trash it, right? Not totally. I’m not going to go all serious wrestling pundit on you and decry the lack of workrate and what not. I have no issue with a straight up brawl devoid of any real technical wrestling. My issue is with the big spot, the table bump off the roof of the cage that Mankind took about a minute in. Now the camera crew deserves kudos for catching every angle of the fall and I’ll give Foley props for selling the real and imagined pain that he was feeling after taking it. Terry Funk and the ringside crew that came in to check on Foley both in story and real life also deserve props for selling the whole thing while making sure Mick wasn’t dead.

But beyond that I can’t help but express my disdain for what happened here. This is a prime example of doing way too much to get a rise out of the crowd. They could have done the second spot where Taker sent Foley through the roof of the cage to the floor and I guess the thumbtack spot (not big on those either, though) without going overboard like they did with the first one. To me this was the beginning of the mainstreaming of ECW style spot work, which to me was not a good thing. It’s one thing to do well planned table spots within the confines of, say, a TLC match, but these flying table bumps are too dangerous to pull off in my opinion. And there are still guys doing this stuff in indie matches with even fewer safeguards in place, which to me is disheartening. Even if you were ok with the spot it’s not like it was a show saver, or an elevator of the match in total.

The match itself was ok. The funny thing is that with the time that was spent making sure Foley was ok to keep going they could have just have done some more grounded but sufficiently intense stuff without resorting to a flying table bump on a June Pay Per View that wasn’t even as important as some episodes of RAW in the grand scheme of things. Foley was a great brawler and could have done a very good match with Taker without including that one bump.

WWF World Title Match (First Blood Rules): Stone Cold Steve Austin (c) vs Kane

Once Kane announced that he would set himself on fire if he lost you knew which way this going. The only real questions for me at the time were how they would get there and whether or not Austin would bleed hardway ahead of the planned finish given that he’d been in some bloody matches earlier in his career and was an easy bleeder. Also agreeing to a First Blood match against a guy in a red full bodysuit and a mask that covered his whole face wasn’t the best logic for our hero, either. The match itself wasn’t bad but not particularly memorable. Austin, due to so many injuries in the last year, was a punch and kick brawler who needed storyline drama and no holds barred stipulations to have a good match with anyone who wasn’t a master like Michaels. The finish was as convoluted and overbooked as I’d expected. Foley comes in, even after all he’d suffered just minutes earlier, and gets involved which would bring Taker back out as well. Some wild chairshots would ensue and we get our bleeding Austin. Kane is your new champion!!

Other Stuff

The top storyline of Austin vs McMahon was driving everything here, by necessity. The best in ring worker they had left in Michaels was out indefinitely (at this point it looked permanent) and they only had one big name challenger in the Undertaker who they had to save for Summerslam. Mick Foley was still very much a midcarder cosplaying as a main eventer. Rock was being set up to take over one day but wasn’t ready in the ring and Hunter hadn’t yet achieved that stature to be taken seriously on top yet – he was the least over member of DX around this time and had yet to show he could generate legit heat on his own. And Austin was a bad bump away from being crippled. What helped them as much as anything here was the incompetence of the opposition in WCW. While the dam hadn’t started cracking there yet you could see the stagnation setting in that would lead to some real blunders later.

Overall Verdict

Not very good. One memorable match (the cell match – and only for the big bumps), an overbooked main event that only served to pop a rating the next night (and that would be overturned that next night) and a whole lot of skippable stuff otherwise. This was pretty indicative of WWF pay per views that year; storyline drama and a few memorable spots/moments to paper over some general mediocrity throughout. Shawn being injured on top of running Bret out of town was really hurting the overall quality. There was some light for the future with the Rock, but he was still not close to being ready in the ring for the top spot. (He really wouldn’t be for another year to be honest) But Austin’s character had connected so well and Vince was proving to be a sufficient foil to drive interest in the matches that it was working. You can absolutely live without ever watching this show in it’s entirety.

It is important to look back at shows like this 20 years later to get a proper perspective when people get on the internet and say they want the Attitude Era back. I dare say that match for match the Backlash pay per view that got panned a few weeks ago was better than this show which so many people rave about because of one bump in one match. Hell, even Battleground last year with that goofy Punjabi Prison match was a better show in the ring than this. And if we’re going to really keep it 100 I can’t think of a Pay Per View that I’ve watched since I came back in 2012 that was as lackluster in the ring as this show. There are random episodes of RAW and Smackdown that are better start to finish in the ring than this was. That it’s remember so fondly is a testament to the idea that people go to wrestling shows for the actual wrestling second and the other stuff first. Austin was the number one guy in the company and there isn’t a single match of his from this year or the next that anyone can actually recall. Ask people what they remember best from 1998 – 99 with Austin and it’s all promos, backstage vignettes, and in ring segments with Vince. On the flip side today we get better matches on RAW three weeks before a Pay Per View show than anything we got here, and yet there’s a contingent that can’t stop complaining every week.

So by all means skip this one. To be honest you can skip most of 1998 WWF Pay Per View as this show was more the rule than he exception.

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