Dark Match: A Look at the WWE's Most Outrageous "Attitude Era" Moments
by Alexander Jones | published Oct. 6th, 2015
For a moment on June 28, 1998, it seemed likely that Mick Foley had died.
Wrestling under his "Mankind" moniker, a grotesque, barrel-chested hybrid of Quiet Riot's "Metal Health" album artwork and Angus Young on four dozen whippits, the multi-faced professional wrestler was facing off against "The Undertaker" at the WWE's (then still the WWF, or World Wrestling Federation) King of the Ring 1998 Hell in a Cell match. While Hell in a Cell matches carry little weight in the intimidation department these days, the iteration featured at King of the Ring 1998 occurred at a time when Hell in a Cell matches held the potential to be genuinely disturbing. For those who have wisely opted to shy away from the all-consuming hell-mouth of professional wrestling, a Hell in a Cell match is like a normal pro-wrestling match save for the fact that it occurs in a giant roofed steel cage and the only way to win is through pinfall or submission. The WWE is nothing if not fond of pageantry.
Only two minutes into this particular match, Foley and the "Undertaker" are grappling atop the roof of the cage, puncturing sizable dents and holes into it as they move toward the edge. The "Undertaker" unleashes a handful of blows and then, in a flurry of motion and palpable confusion on the part of both the packed Pittsburgh crowd and the announcers, Foley is tossed down 20 or more feet straight through the announcer's table. Longtime WWE commentator Jim Ross begins to have a veritable heart attack live on air. "Good God almighty!" Ross howls amid the panicked screams and cries of confusion echoing from the Civic Center Audience. "Good God almighty! He killed him! As God as my witness, he's broken in half!"
Foley, as is his confounding nature, was "fine" (by some tremendous stretch of the word.) Minutes later he wrestles himself from the stretcher he was being carried out on and ascends the cage all over again, only to be choke-slammed through the roof and onto the thin canvas over a dozen feet below. The remainder of the match, while lighter on the mind-boggling displays of corporeal brutality (save for Foley being choke-slammed once again onto a pile of thumbtacks), is arguably even more difficult to watch. Foley stumbles limply around the ring, barely able to "sell" the Undertaker's punches before finally, much to just about everyone's relief, losing by pinfall. He's helped out of the ring by a team of EMTs and referees, refusing the aid of another stretcher, and receives a standing ovation has he exits the arena.
"This has been the most ungodly match that I think we will perhaps ever see," Jim Ross bemoaned as the "Undertaker" limps from the ring. He was almost right.
To date, this match serves as a shining example of a bygone era in WWE's history. The "Attitude Era," as it's referred to, began at some indeterminate point in the mid '90s and ended in the early to mid-2000s. While still containing the understandable ebb and flow of quality content that such a long-running series is certain to have, the Attitude Era is defined in hindsight by matches like these; an authentic sense of danger and spontaneity carried by the truly larger-than-life figures who battled it out night after night in the ring. Wrestlers like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, the Undertaker, Mick Foley's various personas, the Rock, Triple H and Kane brought a feral unpredictability to the WWE that hasn't been seen since.
While one of the most famous matches of the Attitude Era, Foley and the "Undertaker's" battle of mortal supremacy is far from the only standout in-ring moment of the Attitude Era. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the goateed cheap-beer guzzler who became the WWE's answer to a working class hero, was one of the first professional wrestlers to openly chastise and speak out against the bureaucracy and money-grubbing tendencies of the industry he begrudgingly worked for. The WWE, eternally looking to turn a profit, transformed Austin's rebellion into a series of increasingly violent in-ring skits, establishing a running feud between Austin and Vince McMahon. Austin did everything to McMahon from filling his car with cement, drenching him in beer and beating the living shit out of him numerous times. During one match, Austin and McMahon took their in-and-out of the ring discrepancies to their logical extreme: Austin duct taped McMahon to a wheelchair, dragged him out into the center of the ring, berated him mercilessly, brought him to his knees and pointed a gun at his head (which, naturally, produced a flag that read "BANG 3:16").
It was a win-win dynamic for everyone involved; McMahon and the WWE raked in millions of off Steve Austin merchandise and ticket sales, Austin became an international sensation both in and outside of the wrestling world and the fans got to see their bald-headed people's champion sticking it to the boss man every Monday night. That's not to say that McMahon's position as the undisputed overlord of the WWE didn't come without it's lion's share of mishaps during the Attitude Era. McMahon's advantageous position as the WWE's CEO also led him to make some awful decisions, and the "Montreal Screwjob" stands out as one of his all-time worst.
Then WWE World Champion Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, both wrestlers in the midst of their prime, were facing off in Montreal. Prior to the match, as a result of growing tensions between himself and WWE management, Hart had signed a deal to wrestle with rival promotional company World Championship Wrestling (WCW) after the match in Montreal. Enraged, and unwilling to let Hart leave the company while still holding the championship title, Michaels arranged offscreen to have Hart lose the match. During the match, Michaels gets Hart in his signature "sharpshooter" submission hold and the referee promptly orders for the bell to be rung, ending the match and costing Hart his title. Hart did not submit while in Michaels' hold, despite the referee's frantic response. Stripped of his title and disgraced in his home country of Canada, Hart tears apart the set, spits in McMahon's face and later knocks him out backstage. It was one of the most egregious and notorious moments of the Attitude Era, and stands as a testament to the time-period's penchant for reality-blurring exploitation in just about every facet imaginable.
While these three instances are some of the Attitude Era's most well-known and oft-discussed moments, we're admittedly just beginning to scratch the surface here. There's almost a whole decade's worth of era-defining in-ring moments and off-screen transgressions worth diving into. There's also the significantly more disturbing underbelly of the Attitude Era, which was wrought with sexual-aggression as well as the belittlement and abuse faced by female and minority wrestlers alike. The Attitude Era was nothing if not a confusing and highly nuanced time for professional wrestling, and highlighted the WWE's undeniable strengths as an entertainment industry while simultaneously pointing out all the ways it could still stand to improve. The toll it took on those caught in the eye of its storm, however, is something the wrestlers of the Attitude Era will never forget.
“I think my book is a lot about just how ridiculous the lifestyle is," Foley said, referring to his autobiography "Have a Nice Day." "For example, you win the King of the Death match, you’re on a cloud, and you’ve got press all around you and then the press leaves, and you realize there’s no ambulance for you, the bus has left, and you walk to the hospital with your bag.”