The Wrestling 101 – Match #2
Mankind vs. The Undertaker
June 26, 1998
Pittsburgh Civic Arena
One of the great paradoxes of pro wrestling is that it is both a soap opera and a spectacle.
On the one hand: When two wrestlers lock up at the start of the match, a hardcore fan might understand what’s happening in front of them in the context of multiple overlapping narratives. This can include the story the promotion has told about the two competitors in the build-up to the match, each character’s long-term narrative trajectory inside and outside the promotion, and the meta-narratives that fans have constructed about the two real-life performers based on industry newsletters, message board gossip, shoot interviews, and so forth. Something like CM Punk’s “Pipe Bomb” promo works as a sort of tapestry that stitches together the narratives created by the performer, his employer, the wrestling companies he used to work for, and a global community of wrestling fans going back over a decade.
On the other hand: There is nothing so unsubtle as a steel chair to the head. In his oft-cited essay “The World of Wrestling,” the philosopher Roland Barthes describes wrestling as a spectacle in which each moment of a match can be immediately understood by the audience with no further explanation and without connection to any moment that precedes or follows it. The good guys look like good guys, the bastards look like bastards, and anyone watching from the nosebleeds can tell who’s who. He writes: “A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions.”
I think about this tension between the soap opera and the spectacle a great deal, particularly when I’m going back to watch bits of old wrestling that I’m viewing from a much different standpoint than the fans who witnessed it live and would have been more familiar with its narrative context. Which performances are enhanced, or in some cases, only really intelligible, within the context of the narratives that preceded them? Which spectacular feats of athleticism would have been impressive to a fan at the Greensboro Coliseum in 1982, but not so much to someone living in 2022 with the entire recorded history of wrestling at their fingertips? And which bits of physical storytelling, athleticism, or violence stand the test of time, even without further context?
It’s because of this tension between the soap opera and the spectacle that I was so interested to see how I felt watching the famous match between Mankind and The Undertaker from the World Wrestling Federation’s King of the Ring pay-per-view in the summer of 1998. More than any other match I’m familiar with, it’s a match defined by a single moment: Mankind freefalling off the 16-foot-high Hell in a Cell cage and crashing through the announce table below.
If you’re a wrestling fan, you’ve seen this moment countless times in highlight packages, often without any additional context. It is likely the wrestling image I have seen more than any other in my life, and the accompanying call from announcer Jim Ross—”As god is my witness, he is broken in half!”—is perhaps the most oft-referenced call among fans of my generation (I’m 34 years old as of this writing in 2023). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the full match at least once before, likely years after it originally aired, but I don’t remember much else from it. What I wanted to see was this: Would watching Undertaker hurl Mankind off the cell within the context of the entire match add some new insight or additional satisfaction to the match’s signature moment? Was the whole worth anything more than its most famous part?
The answer to these questions was mostly no. The match functions as the pure spectacle Barthes describes, with four spectacular moments that do not have much narrative connective tissue between them. There’s the famous fall off the top of the cage, Undertaker chokeslamming Mankind through the top of the cage, Mankind’s bloody, toothy smile while sitting in the corner of the ring (you’ve likely seen this image a ton, too), and the Undertaker piledriving Mankind onto a bed of thumbtacks for the pinfall that concludes that match.
The brawling that happens between them is boring and largely forgettable.
I was most surprised by how early in the match the famous fall occurs. There is not much in the way of narrative tension beforehand—no teases of one wrestler throwing the other off the cage, no moments where a wrestler hovers close to the edge on shaky footing. The match starts with Mankind climbing to the top of the cage, The Undertaker climbs up to meet him there, and within about a minute or so, ‘Taker sort of casually chucks him off of it. While it was certainly an impressive stunt the first time I saw it, its impact on me has been eroded by hundreds of viewings over the years.
I felt nothing.
The reaction of the live crowd to the match indicates that they, too, were witnessing a pure spectacle—albeit with more enthusiasm than I had watching it alone in my apartment 25 years later. The match is designed to induce the audience to feel sympathy for Mankind, who valiantly fights on after his epic tumble and several other gnarly spills. After crashing through the announce table, he is nearly stretchered out of the arena, only to pull himself off the stretcher, hobble back to the ring, and climb the cage to once again meet Undertaker at the top. And yet, this attempt at pathos is largely ignored by the audience, who belt out a series of loud “Un-der-tak-er!” chants throughout the match. For them, it was mostly just cool to see a really tall zombie guy chuck a fat guy in a suit off the top of a giant cage. How else would you know what a human body looks like when it falls 16 feet through the air and crashes through an announce table?
When the camera pans back to the announce table at the end of the match, after what must have been at least the 10th replay of its signature moment, Jim Ross recaps the spectacle like this: “We’ll never forget this moment. As long as I live, I will never forget what we just witnessed right there.”
There is nothing else about this match you need to see or know—its most spectacular moment stands all on its own.
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