The buildup to SummerSlam ‘98 was one of the coolest things I can ever remember in wrestling. The commercial with Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Undertaker walking through a fiery urban hellscape toward one another while AC/DC plays in the background was on every minute.
Meanwhile, I was shocking peers and authority figures alike with my oversized DeGeneration-X shirt, the back emblazoned with a bold “S*CK IT” (and yes, it was censored like that on the shirt). Hunter Hearst Helmsley had become a favorite of mine. At WrestleMania 14 his DX partner, Shawn Michaels, had been knocked into a four-year retirement by the combined might of Austin and Mike Tyson and within twenty-four hours he’d found three new friends to point at his dick with. Maybe I admired his perseverance. I think it was mostly the “suck it” thing, though. When the day finally came, his ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship against The Rock was my personal main event. Ladder matches weren’t nearly as commonplace as they are today; this would be the fourth one the WWF had ever televised. To say the least, I couldn’t fucking wait.
Unfortunately though, I didn’t get to see it. I was eleven years old and my parents, resorting to classic heel tactics, refused to cough up the sixty dollars for me to watch it.
So I sat in my room all night and waited while what seemed like the rest of the world had the time of their lives watching SummerSlam. What stung even more was my proximity to it. I’m from the Hudson Valley area not far from New York City – I had friends from school who were in that building. That building was Madison Square Garden and while much is made of the relationship between the Garden and professional wrestling, that had no bearing on the reverence I held for it. It’s also the home of the New York Knicks, who were the only thing I cared about more than crotch-chopping in the late ’90s.
In the Summer of ‘96, the Knicks overhauled their roster with the additions of Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and Chris Childs. This marks the beginning of a four-year stretch where the Knicks feel the most “mine”. I loved my underachieving Knicks. The NBA looked a lot different in the mid-to-late ’90s; in a lot of ways it looked like the WWF. It was going through a boom period with a huge star doing record numbers on top; Michael Jordan was the world’s most popular athlete again, Space Jam was released in ‘96 and his Bulls were running through their second three-peat of NBA championships. Many argue that historically, this disguises a disparity of talent in the middle of the league. The SummerSlam ‘98 midcard boasts an Oddities vs. Kaientai handicap match, as well as another chapter in the marital feud between Sable and Marc Mero. Come the fall, I will argue the merits of Vin Baker’s low post game to other kids at recess.
Still, I waited anxiously for word on what I’d missed, just as I imagine many other lonely, sweaty pre-teens did that night. Obviously, back then there was no Twitter to refresh, and I wasn’t quite acquainted with internet wrestling nerd-dom yet. I was waiting to receive my SummerSlam news from the Home Shopping Network. That’s right – pro wrestling had so pervaded popular culture, that even QVC’s top competitor wanted a piece of the action. It didn’t even seem that strange back then. In a time before e-commerce or Netflix, it was commonplace to lose an hour or two idly watching someone aggressively try to sell you knives or baseball cards or blenders on TV. When host Brian Collard’s coverage began at 10:55 I was waiting with bated breath. When they finally recapped the Intercontinental title match, they shuffled through a series of still frames summarizing the bout and I vividly remember what follows: Triple H sitting behind a table with a headset on, the belt draped over his shoulder. At last, it was confirmed: my guy had won, and honestly, that memory still feels kind of magical in a way that stacks up to almost any moment during my pubescent Attitude-era obsession that I actually did get to witness.
Actually watching the match twenty-one years later is, well, a different experience. We begin with the standard set of clips recounting the buildup to the match, highlighted by a quick glimpse of The Rock in cargo shorts. Triple H enters to a live rendition of the DX theme performed by Chris Warren and “The DX Band”. This was the absolute coolest entrance music back then (it holds up!) and I remember thinking the live performance of it at Wrestlemania 14 for Shawn Michaels kicked unholy ass. Here, my eyes are glued to the guitar player on the left, who looks like the office accountant that invited himself over to jam. At this point in my life, I probably relate more to this guy than anyone else on screen. Certainly more than the drummer at least, who sports a full WWF branded jumpsuit. The lead guitar line roars with all the force and tonality of a mouth harp. When they destroy their instruments at the end, it feels like a mercy kill.
The most striking thing at first is the atmosphere. Maybe I’ve falsely superimposed the identical layout and presentation of every event in the modern WWE over my recollection of the product in the late ’90s, but this show doesn’t feel like anything I remember from then. There’s no Titantron and the curtain at the top of the entrance ramp doesn’t look more than fifty feet from ringside. Typical of the Attitude era, the crowd is rabid, and in my beloved Garden it seems like they’re practically on top of the wrestlers. Both men quickly tease their finishing maneuvers before slipping into a more tempered pace. The offense is based mostly around Rock working Triple H’s knee (an injury is established before the match on Sunday Night Heat), and for the first ten minutes or so, it’s riveting. How do you climb a ladder if your leg doesn’t work? Still, around the third time The Rock has to pretend he just…can’t…manage to climb that last rung, it’s apparent his acting chops aren’t quite yet befitting of Hollywood’s future top box office draw, and I’m wondering if I had any business coming back and watching this in the current day. Besides, this wasn’t even the hottest feud culminating at MSG that year.
You can’t talk about the late 90’s New York Knicks without mentioning their bitter rivalry with the Miami Heat. It’s an almost pro wrestling-esque story: Knicks coach Pat Riley parts with the team on bad terms to build a new contender in Miami; Riley assistant Jeff Van Gundy continues New York tradition of intense physicality on the court introduced by his mentor; student and teacher meet in heated playoff battle. Jordan looms in the background, waiting for the next contender to step up.
They’d meet in the playoffs for four consecutive years, but the first in ‘97 is most notorious. In 2017, The Ringer compiled a fantastic oral history of that series, where Heat beat writer Ira Winderman is quoted as saying, “It was Monday Night Raw for the first four games.” Of course, it’s in the following fifth game that Heat forward P.J. Brown practically bodyslams Knicks point guard (and former Heisman winner) Charlie Ward into the first row photographers, leading to a bench-clearing brawl.
Of everything I’ve referenced, this is the only one that holds up against the memory of it – in fact, it exceeds it. I remember Brown barely getting Ward off the ground, something akin to the way Uncle Phil would toss Jazzy Jeff out of his home. Watching it today, P.J. Brown almost lands a goddamn tilt-a-whirl slam.
I can picture where I was and what I was doing during each of the remaining games in that series, and for a bunch of the others in the years that would follow – Van Gundy wrapped around Alonzo Mourning’s leg in ‘98, or Allan Houston’s series-clinching game-winner in ‘99 comes to mind. I thought I was watching some of the most important basketball of all time, my very own Bulls-Pistons, or even Lakers-Celtics. After the Brown-Ward brawl, I remember John Starks heroically carrying the team on his back amidst the suspensions of Houston and franchise cornerstone Patrick Ewing. In reality, Starks only scored 16 points on 6-of-16 shooting, and turned the ball over seven times. In reality, the Knicks-Heat rivalry is often cited as evidence of a decline in quality play in the era.
I remember being surprised the first time I read Bill Simmons’ (the founder and CEO of The Ringer) Book of Basketball. In a footnote from the chapter on Patrick Ewing he writes: “Notice how I avoided any mention of the excruciating Knicks-Heat playoff battles? I always wanted a Bizarro ESPN Classic channel that featured programming like NBA’s Greatest Games: Miami 65, New York 56”. In the aforementioned Ringer piece, regular ESPN contributor J.A. Adande says, “If you think about those meetings, [the fights] really stand out. The only basketball play that stands out is the Allan Houston shot and even that wasn’t pretty…it wasn’t beautiful basketball.” Welp, ends up these games were all total shit. But I’ve never gone back and watched them, so they’re still preserved in my memory as all-timers. The rivalry would pretty much end in September of 2000, when the Knicks traded Patrick Ewing – the longstanding face of the team – to Seattle. About six months later, The Rock would leave to shoot The Scorpion King, effectively ending his run as a full-time member of the WWF roster.
No matter how you feel about the Attitude era, or wrestling back then in general, you have to feel something when Rock bodyslams Helmsley on the ladder and begins to set up the People’s Elbow. Flashbulbs explode, time freezes. Jim Ross, in the days where he was still master salesman, doesn’t hold back on the call: “That was just heinous,” Ross cries out. “I don’t think any human being would be able to rebound after that.” It’s an elbow drop with a funny little dance. It wasn’t as clear then, especially in a landscape that included Stone Cold, but The Rock was always bigger than all of this. I don’t know if we can ever have anything like him again. In this match, you can hear the crowd just beginning to lose their ability to boo him. It was difficult for me too.
And I don’t mean to undermine Triple H. To this day, when he shows up with a microphone it’s evident he’s got a leg up (even the quadricep) on so many of the stars that have come since, and again, he was my favorite wrestler. He’d get better at the bloated epic than he is here, but he’s still Triple H. He’s finding the guy he’ll become free of Shawn Michaels’ shadow, though he won’t quite escape it on this night. Today, you can’t help but sandwich this match between the HBK/Razor Ramon classics that preceded it, and the complete fucking mayhem of the ladder matches we see today. In either case, it pales.
Slow, dramatic climbs toward the belt cease diminishing returns until finally the Pedigree and Rock Bottom show up and signal the closing stretch. The Rock is bloodied. Helmsley is blinded by a handful of powder to the face from Mark Henry at ringside, who appears to be wearing some sort of fleece vest. I groan a little when a low blow from Chyna decides the victor. I understand that this was a redemptive arc for her as well (Rock’s faction, the Nation of Domination, had ambushed her in a very uncomfortable segment on Raw) but it still feels like a total fart of a way to end the war I just watched for half an hour.
People seem to really like this match. Meltzer went ****1/4 and the popular internet rating aggregates all about equal that. But to me, nothing in the actual match tops the moment I first saw Triple H with the belt on the Home Shopping Network, and that’ll likely still be how I remember it in time.
Like I said before, the biggest contributor that evening was a completely unhinged fanbase. Technically speaking, I was a part of that, and now I’m twenty years past my prime. Maybe I was best served leaving this in 1998, where it could live on happily alongside my intrepid New York Knicks, the unmatched eroticism of MTV’s Undressed, and Mark Henry’s fleece vest.