In keeping with our inability to notice anniversaries until it’s too late, we’d like to point out that it was 15 years ago last night that Mankind and the Undertaker faced off in one of the most memorable and brutal wrestling matches of all time.
Fifteen years is a long time. For those around the right age, the card for the June 28, 1998 King of the Ring PPV will make you feel old: the Headbangers vs. Kaientai, Brian Christopher and Scott Taylor vs. Al Snow and Head, X-Pac vs. Owen Hart. The Pittsburgh Civic Arena was demolished last year. And yet the Hell in a Cell match, which wasn’t even the main event, still holds up as the ideal of what wrestling is capable of—making you actually fear for the competitors.
The match is known for its two spots, especially the one above—the Undertaker hurling Foley maybe 20 feet from the top of the cell through the Spanish announcers’ table. In a brief, gravity-sped spill, that’s Mick Foley’s legacy. One of the smartest, funniest wrestlers to ever enter the ring, was always the one dumb enough to endanger his health for entertainment’s sake. (On the night, Foley suffered a concussion, a dislocated jaw, a dislocated shoulder a bruised kidney, a gash in his lip, and had one tooth knocked out and another broken. He has said he barely remembers the match.)
It was Terry Funk’s idea. According to Foley’s autobiography, he and Funk were tossing around ideas on how to top the previous year’s Hell in the Cell, specifically a (prosaic by comparison) Shawn Michaels bump. Funk suggested he let the Undertaker throw him from the top of the cage to the ground below. Foley wrote:
Man, that was a good one, and we were having a good time thinking completely ludicrous things to do inside, outside, and on top of the cage. After a while I got serious and said quietly to Terry, “I think I can do it.”
More iconic even than Foley’s helpless, corkscrewing plunge is Jim Ross’s call. Even if you don’t know it’s from this match, you know it: “Good God almighty! Good God almighty! That killed him! As God as my witness, he is broken in half!” The call has become meme shorthand for any sort of sports brutality.
What most don’t remember is that Foley’s fall was one of the first spots of the match. He and the Undertaker had started atop the cage; by the time Foley rolled off the gurney and limped his way back to the ring, there were still 10 minutes left of action. The most replayed moment in WWE history wasn’t even a climax; it was a warmup.
The second famous spot was an accident. Foley scaled the cage again, and after some tentative brawling, prepared to be chokeslammed onto the yielding chain link. He went through the cage, landing awkwardly on his neck and back.
Because this fall was unplanned and uncontrolled, it was immensely more dangerous than the first. This time, no snappy patter from Ross. Just a yelp from Jerry Lawler, and silence until it was clear that Foley was still moving.
Foley still had nine more minutes of wrestling to do.
Do you even remember who won? (The Undertaker pinned Foley after chokeslamming him onto a pile of thumbtacks.) If you don’t, it’s because the outcome never particularly mattered. As David Shoemaker writes,
“it’s fair to say that winning or losing isn’t entirely the point at Hell in a Cell — it’s inflicting punishment on your opponent that counts. And fans, for their part, rarely cite Hell in a Cell “wins” so much as they preach about instances of spectacular violence.”
The 1998 Hell in a Cell match was the apex of the violence facet of the Attitude Era, and in some ways the beginning of the end. (The death of Owen Hart less than a year later would change everything.) The way of wrestling has always been to give bigger, better, bloodier, more, but this just wouldn’t be topped. There wasn’t anyone else willing to abuse himself quite like Foley, and even Foley thought he might have gone too far. After the match, Foley’s wife called him in tears, and he says he considered retiring. So the match remains a time capsule of a company and a wrestler at their peaks of popularity and maximum willingness to push the envelope. Somehow, they found out exactly where the limit lay.
The entire match has been uploaded to Youtube. Set some time aside.