For those that have known only the PG-era of wrestling, the following may come as a shock. Even considering the rather questionable subject material that the WWE/F has pulled off over the past two decades, exactly 19 years ago today, on Dec. 7, 1998, they took an unprecedented step in the close out of Monday Night Raw during the feud between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Undertaker.
There’s TV-14, and then there’s straight up crucifying a man on a cross. The WWF chose to go with the latter that night, as on the go-home show before the Rock Bottom: In Your House PPV event, the rivalry between the Texas Rattlesnake and the Deadman hit a boiling point. The two were set for a Buried Alive Match that Sunday, although just before they got there, the controversial step was taken to have The Undertaker beat Austin down and then have his druids tie him to the Deadman’s symbol and string him up, crucifixion-style.
Yiiiiikes. You don’t even have to care much for any kind of religion to recognize that wasn’t the best look. Yet, in typical 1998 fashion, this not only got pitched as an idea, but was agreed upon by the writing staff, and then enacted on the show.
It terms of getting the audience to react, they sure did, and in droves. Imagine the reaction in modern-day times? There would be videos/tweets/posts making their rounds on the social media circuit, there would be politicians chiming in to deride the segment, and who knows what other kinds of reactions from all swaths and crevices of the internet. The fact that we’re still talking about it 19 years later indicates the magnitude of the moment.
There have been reports that this segment has been one of the highest-rated in the history of wrestling, which makes sense given how much it deviates from the norm of anything seen previously on the product, and that is saying a whole ton considering how rowdy Raw was during the Attitude Era. It’s also not surprising that there was a significant amount of backlash stemming from the incident, considering a man was just intimated to have been crucified on national television.
The crucifixion idea had been done before, believe it or not. The incident took place as a part of ECW in 1996, oddly enough during a show in which Kurt Angle attended as the company attempted to bring him aboard to their promotion. Angle was reportedly mortified following the incident, leading to him bolting from ECW, which may have changed the course of wrestling for a few years.
Still, the WWE’s insistence to pull this off seems short-sighted. Of course, this is 19 years after the fact, but doesn’t a moment of this magnitude seem like a great way to begin a feud? By saving it for the final show before Rock Bottom: In Your House, there no doubt would be the spike in buys they anticipated, but doing it weeks earlier would have likely achieved a similar spike, along with increased weekly TV viewership. Not to mention, the men were entering a Buried Alive Match; can it really get more intense and gruesome than a match where the other man is intimated to be trapped beneath the dirt? There’s pushing the envelope and then there’s this.
Come that Sunday, Austin buried Undertaker alive. He needed some assistance from Kane to do so, but after having been strung up on the Deadman’s cross, Stone Cold got his revenge, dumping a combination of dirt and beer on his body to be declared the winner. By virtue of his victory, he earned his way into the 1999 Royal Rumble, just to be the final man eliminated by…Mr. McMahon.
So, there you have it: late 1998-early 1999 in a circular nutshell. The ideas that were birthed were mind-boggling, yet effective when put into practicality. Those who lived through it will point to Stone Cold’s crucifixion as the nature of the beast when dealing with peak-Attitude Era entertainment. No matter how it made you feel, there’s no denying that it worked in accomplishing its goal of getting the company talked about.