Like most kids born in the mid 1980’s I was a fan of Hulk Hogan and the World Wrestling Federation. Children have a natural attraction to professional wrestling but the WWF of the 1980’s took that attraction, marketed to it, packaged it up, and as a result reached levels of popularity the sport had never seen before or since. As the 80’s turned into the 1990’s the fan base began to drop off but I continued to watch until the autumn of 1993. The star power of the WWF really began to decline throughout 1993 and the flagship show of the company became Monday Night Raw which was broadcast on the USA Network. Since our household lacked cable TV we only managed to watch the dregs of WWF’s syndicated programing. WWF Superstars became a second tier show, and Wrestling Challenge was barely watchable after Raw hit the ground running. With a depleted roster and the inability to watch the best programming I moved on to other pursuits.
Quite frankly I didn’t miss much throughout those years. 1993 ended dismally and 1994 continued the downward trend. When 1995 hit the WWF was at an all time low, but I remained blissfully unaware. A friend of mine across the street actually became a fan during these dark years however and faithfully watched every week. By 1997 the WWF had begun to climb out of the deep hole it had dug for itself with a much edgier product that appealed to the fans who had watched through the 1980’s and were now filled with teenage angst. My friend would routinely check out VHS tapes of WWF PPV’s from our local library and he encouraged me to watch them after school. Slowly I began to develop an interest in pro wrestling again and as 1997 turned to 1998 I was once again a fan of pro wrestling.
In my opinion 1998 was one of the greatest years in pro wrestling history. As the summer began the WWF was in the midst of an historic feud between Stone Cold Steve Austin and World Wrestling Federation owner and previous on air announcer Vince McMahon. The WWF had garnered much mainstream attention with the inclusion of Mike Tyson at WrestleMania XIV, Shawn Michaels was out of the picture, but despite his career ending back injury D-Generation X was white hot, and the WWF as a whole was pushing the sex button hard with personalities like Sable and Val Venis. It’s easy today to give all of the credit of the explosion of the WWF to the Austin vs McMahon feud but at the time the entire show from start to finish was very gripping. Almost every personality received a large pop and I dare say that Sable garnered more attention and had a bigger following than even Stone Cold. I could go on and on about the WWF throughout 1998 and the Attitude Era but fortunately the scope of this piece is limited to the summer of 1998 so let’s get started.
June began with the build up to King of the Ring (sponsored by Super Soaker). Although fans of the product were well aware of the “Attitude” branding, sponsors hadn’t caught up yet and as such you would still see toy sponsor’s. This would eventually create a bit of controversy among parents groups but someone is always crying about something right? In year’s past the crowning of the new King was the focal point of the event but by 1998 the concept of the tournament was losing steam. King of the Ring preliminary matches were run every Monday night on Raw which I remember not being too interested in. For the record Ken Shamrock would defeat The Rock to become the 1998 King of the Ring. At the time I was pleased with that result as it appeared that Shamrock’s star was really rising in the WWF and I was really drawn to him. By the end of the year his momentum would slow drastically and he would be out of the federation before 1999 would come to a close. During the summer of 1998 though fan’s of Shamrock were delighted to see him crowned the king.
Few fans talk about the tournament when discussing this event. During the same PPV The Undertaker went head to head against Mankind in a Hell in a Cell contest that has never been eclipsed. The match has been broken down countless times since and nothing I can type would do it justice. Say what you will about Mick Foley and his style but the incredible bumps he took during this encounter left an indelible mark on everyone who saw it. Minutes into the match Undertaker hurled Mankind off of the top of the cell and through the Spanish announce table 16 feet below. This should have ended the bout but Mankind rolled off of the paramedic’s stretcher midway up the entrance ramp and made his way back to the ring. The fall through the announce table alone would have been enough to make this an historic match but Undertaker proceeded to further brutalize Mankind by chokeslaming him through the roof of the cell and to the mat below.
Completely eclipsed by the Hell in a Cell match in the main event was a World Wrestling Federation Championship match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Kane. Kane defeated Stone Cold in a first blood rules match to win the title. The ending saw the Undertaker hit Steve Austin in the head with a chair “accidentally on purpose”. It seems like this match had a foregone conclusion as I think it would have been difficult for Austin to draw blood from Kane considering he was wearing a thick full face mask. Kane’s title run would be very short lived as he would go on to lose the belt back to Austin the following night on Raw.
As the calendar turned to July not only was I excited about Fourth of July fireworks but I was also looking forward to Fully Loaded: In Your House. Now I could sit here and tell you that I couldn’t wait to see The Rock vs HHH for the Intercontinental title or the tag team match between Mankind and Steve Austin vs Kane and Undertaker but that would be a bald faced lie. My excitement for this event, and the namesake for the PPV, was the bikini contest between Sable and Jacqueline. How do you follow up the classic King of the Ring Hell in a Cell bout? By going in an entirely different direction and selling sex rather than shocking brutality. Fully Loaded came through in spades and the visual of Sable’s bikini was no less memorable than Mankind’s fall.
The Pay Per View began with Jerry the King Lawler getting a sneak preview of Sable’s bikini in her locker room. The audience could hear his reaction but he was behind a barrier so we could only wonder what surprises lay ahead for us. Throughout the show Lawler continued to hype how much skin was showing and how he couldn’t wait for the bikini contest. When the moment finally arrived Jacqueline went first and danced in a revealing “bikini” to hilarious remarks from J.R. at the commentator’s table. Then it was Sable’s turn and the crowd stood in anticipation. Sable removed her robe to reveal a rather modest looking top. She then went on a diatribe about how Vince McMahon didn’t find her original attire appropriate but that since the pay per view was live and he couldn’t stop a live feed, she was going to counter his directives. She then removed her shirt and nobody who watched will forget what they saw. Although the visual of her painted on top will be forever etched in my brain, the reveal itself was no less memorable. My friend and I had to rewind and re-watch the priceless reaction of Jerry the King Lawler as Sable removed her shirt.
Heading into August the WWF had put together a spectacular and memorable summer of 1998 thus far and they were only laying the groundwork for their biggest spectacle of the season; SummerSlam. August was always a bittersweet month as a kid. Yes we still had a month of summer vacation remaining but that meant that 2/3 of the summer was in the rearview mirror and we were now closer to the start of a new school year than we were the start of our summer vacation. Nevertheless SummerSlam still gave us something to look forward to as time inevitably marched forward.
Although the primary focal point of the summer of ’98 was still Vince McMahon doing everything possible to remove the title from Stone Cold, the three way feud between Austin, Kane, and Undertaker provided the majority of main events on Raw and would monopolize the main event position of all three Pay Per View’s that summer. In a memorable marking campaign the WWF would build up to an Undertaker vs Steve Austin main event at SummerSlam billing the lead up to it as the Highway to Hell.
Our family finally got cable TV during the late summer 0f ’98 and the promotion for this event was incredible. It seemed like every commercial break regardless of what I was watching I’d see a cable provider advertisement urging the viewer to purchase SummerSlam ’98 as the AC/DC song “Highway to Hell” played in the background. Unfortunately I didn’t have the extra $30 lying around to frivolously spend on this but I badly wanted to see it. I hadn’t seen a marketing blitz for a WWF PPV like this in a long time.
During the lead up to SummerSlam I actually had to go to school for a few days for freshman orientation as I was about to begin my freshman year of high school. Although it was a sobering experience knowing that summer was coming to a close it was fun to hear nearly every male in the freshman class talking about the WWF and the build up towards SummerSlam. People at my school hadn’t openly discussed professional wrestling for years as the dark ages of the mid 90’s WWF made it somewhat of a taboo subject. Now for the first time since the early 90’s it was actually socially acceptable to talk about pro wrestling and proclaim your fandom.
In a way, SummerSlam was actually the capstone to my summer. The event was held Sunday August 30. My first day of high school was Monday August 31, so SummerSlam was literally the last gasp of the summer of ’98. I wasn’t able to watch the event live but I do recall lying on my living room couch with the TV on, watching the clock tick later and later into the night and wondering what was happening right then and there during the main event between Austin and Undertaker. My thoughts would then dart to the following day and the beginning of yet another soul draining school year. As another promotion for SummerSlam played on my TV I couldn’t help but wonder where the time went and how things seemed to move so quickly to this point.
SummerSlam was held in the mecca of pro sports; Madison Square Garden in New York City in front of an electrified crowd. In my opinion however the build up to and promotion of the event was much more memorable than what actually happened. Maybe it’s because I wouldn’t actually see SummerSlam ’98 until years later but I actually considered the previous two PPV’s to have more endearing memorable moments. I honestly don’t recall anything about SummerSlam ’98 off of the top of my head. Still, I wouldn’t consider that to be a letdown as it’s impossible to continue to outdo the previous PPV month after month indefinitely. For those who are wondering, Steve Austin defeated the Undertaker in what can best be described as a babyface vs babyface match to retain the WWF championship. The win wouldn’t resolve their issues however as the feud between the two would continue to rage into the fall.
It is important to note that TV was only a part of WWF fandom. Although I was at the age where I was supposed to be finished with toys, my friends and I still splurged on a variety of Jakks Pacific WWF action figures and other merchandise. Although simplistic by today’s standards we all loved the “bone crunching” line of WWF figures. They all shared a handful of different torsos, legs, and arms, with only the head sculpts being unique but the variety of figures on the market was excellent, the prices were cheap, and the quantity of accessories was magnificent. In addition to toys we spent our money on posters, wrestling magazines, VHS tapes, wrestling belts, and anything else that could be marketed to wrestling fans. These items were also routinely available as prizes at summer festivals.
When the dust settled the summer of 1998 firmly cemented the WWF as the global leader in professional wrestling and one of the hottest properties on the planet. Viewership soared, the WWF became mainstream, and as the summer turned to autumn Monday Night Raw would take a small chunk out of the Monday Night Football audience. Although the Monday Night Wars were far from over, WCW would never again be a serious threat to the WWF in the ratings. Speaking of WCW, no discussion on the summer of 1998 would be complete without a breakdown of what was happening on TNT. Although the WWF would take the lead in the Monday Night Wars throughout the season, WCW was still immensely popular and like many fans of the era I watched both promotions and would flip back and forth. Therefore WCW will be the topic of our next summer of ’98 retrospective.