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WWE: Survivor Series

A history of one of wrestling's strange, moneymaking spectacles

When wrestling fans of a certain age think about Survivor Series, they’re mostly thinking about the first four Series. Those WWF mega-cards — their “Thanksgiving tradition” — that ran in 1987, ’88, ’89, and ’90. Those first four were the pure Survivor Series. Back then, the grandeur of the event was enough to thrill us on its own, before competing pay-per-view shows, increased TV time, and reality’s eventual forays into wrestling narratives overwhelmed our youthful awe. The 1990 show was in some sense the culmination of what had come before, but in a bigger sense it was the end of everything. The first three Survivor Series, though, those were pristine.

Let’s get this out of the way now: Survivor Series wasn’t conceived to be pristine. It was always all about money. I mean, everything is, especially in the WWF, but Survivor Series was especially so. It was one part Vince McMahon salivating over the money to be made by parlaying the Hulk Hogan-Andre the Giant feud into a new, second pay-per-view1 and one part Vince McMahon callously steamrolling the competition. The National Wrestling Alliance, the closest thing the WWF had to a national competitor in those days, had planned to air a PPV of their own, called Starrcade, on that same night. McMahon famously told cable providers not only that they had to choose between the Survivor Series and Starrcade, but moreover that he wouldn’t let them broadcast WrestleMania IV the next year if they didn’t choose Survivor Series.2

And — let’s be fair — the show was always more about spectacle than substance. The spectacle, to a kid like me (a kid who, it must be said, was the target demographic), was the rare accumulation of superstar talent. The Survivor Series conceit was that two five-man teams (later changed to four-man teams) would compete in elimination-rules matches, one man eliminated (via pin, submission, disqualification, or count-out) at a time until all the members of one team were eliminated. The team with a remaining wrestler (or wrestlers) would claim the victory, though special accolades were of course allocated to the “sole survivor(s).”

These days, we’re spoiled with twice-weekly WWE shows, and it’s not terribly novel to see your favorite heroes teaming up to take on oddball bad guy mash-ups. With all the shows they run, they have to keep matches fresh while saving the one-on-one showdowns for the big-money PPVs. Back in the late ’80s, however, the very idea of seeing these epic lineups (Hogan and Randy Savage and Hillbilly Jim and Koko B. Ware?!?) was breathtaking. And the built-in tease was brilliant: Almost every guy in the match had a distinct feud going with somebody on the opposing team, but only a perfectly timed tag would put them in the ring together. For most of the match, fans were left sitting in giddy anticipation of those moments — Andre’s in the ring, tag in Hogan for god’s sake! — though we were just as often tided over by pairings of wrestlers we weren’t accustomed to seeing together. It was as if the actual wrestling hardly mattered, as long as the novelty and spectacle were present.3

And oftentimes it showed in the ring. Your average Survivor Series match in those years was an awkward crush of unfulfilling angst or, to be more precise, misdirection bordering on fraud, at least to my righteous, preteen self. Rather than have guys lose cleanly to other guys — those moments had to be saved for future one-on-one matchups — there were a preponderance of disqualifications and count-outs. In just the first three Survivor Series, there were 11 eliminations via DQ: Smash of Demolition, both of the Rockers, both of the Brain Busters,4 “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Andre the Giant, Akeem the African Dream, Zeus,5 and both of the Powers of Pain. Count-out eliminations were even more popular: Duggan twice (in ’87 and ’89), Harley Race, Hulk Hogan, Bad News Brown twice (in ’88 and ’89), Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, the Honky Tonk Man, Smash, the Big Boss Man, “Ravishing” Rick Rude, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and Andre all fell victim to the referee’s 10-count. Without running any sabermetrics-style analysis, I think it’s fair to call that a shockingly high rate. And that’s to say nothing of the odd rash of no-shows. Be it because of a premodern contract system or because of some sort of injury curse,6 every year there seemed to be replacement wrestlers in the matches. Consider the unplanned absences in those first three years of “Superstar” Billy Graham, “The Rock” Don Muraco, Junkyard Dog, B. Brian Blair, The Widowmaker (a.k.a. Barry Windham), and Tully Blanchard.

Even when a guy was defeated cleanly, it was with such borderline disregard — pins always came out of nowhere, and often were as a result of a lesser move in the victor’s arsenal — that the wins were meaningless. It was as if the behind-the-scenes story of the Hogan-Andre feud came to define the entire proceedings: Andre was in no physical shape to be working full matches, or to be working at all, but to reunite him in the ring with Hogan was too big an opportunity for Vince to ignore, so they came up with the team elimination format.7 From that came an epic annual event whose signature was the big-stage bait-and-switch, the pay-per-view that ropes us in but can never fulfill us.

It was the fourth Survivor Series, in 1990, that sits most prominently in the minds of many wrestling fans. It was the first year that the “survivors” of the night’s elimination matches met again in a show-closing mega-match. (Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and Tito Santana each escaped their announced bouts to take on the baddie contingent of “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, Rick Martel, The Warlord, and the tag team Power and Glory, made up of Hercules and Paul Roma.)8 Imagine the anticipation here compared to previous years — now we had the potential of seeing any lineup of heroes teamed up against any number of baddies. It was also an acknowledgement that the format was growing slightly stale. Hogan and Warrior were both left standing at curtain call; it was the ne plus ultra of wrestling PPV endings, and so it’s perhaps apt that it was also the end of Survivor Series as we knew it.

I would of course be negligent if I didn’t mention the two other things from that night that are embedded in our collective memory: the respective debuts of the Gobbledy Gooker and The Undertaker. For weeks leading up to the Series, the announcers had been touting a giant egg that sat atop a pedestal in the audience, and which they claimed would hatch live at Survivor Series. This was supposed to create a good deal of suspense, one assumes, and to look back even-handedly at the WWF of the 1980s, it wasn’t a totally ridiculous assumption — lots of silly storylines succeeded in those days. But by the night of the Series, even host “Mean” Gene was lowering expectations. “Everybody has speculated as to what might be in the egg,” he said, just before it started to hatch. “Is it a dinosaur? Is it a rabbit? Balloons? … Is it the Playmate of the Month?”9 What emerged was none other than the Gobbledy Gooker, a man in a full turkey costume who dragged Okerlund into the ring so that they could square-dance, more or less, to “Turkey in the Straw.” The crowd’s boos were dampened only by the turkey noises that were projecting out over the PA system to approximate the Gooker’s “speech.”10 It’s from this noise that Okerlund famously gave us the new guy’s name, too: “What is with the gobbledy? The gobbledy gook? PAH! — don’t tell me you’re the Gobbledy Gooker?!”

Inside the suit was a wrestler named Hector Guerrero, a successful wrestler from the territories (and brother of future WWE champ Eddie). It’s unclear how far they intended to take the character, but the fact that they cast Guerrero (who had previously worked an inane costumed gimmick in the NWA as the futuristic Lazer-Tron) makes it hard to discount as a harmless joke. (It didn’t take long for the joke to set in, though; just a year later, before a Survivor Series match, Piper cruelly called opponent Ric Flair a “Gobbledy Gooker-lookin’, feather-wearin’ freak.”) The act was humorous, yes, but it was earnest. The crowd saw this and were incensed. It’s easy to look back now and say, “Of course they hated that gimmick,” but that just wasn’t the way things went back then. For years, we had booed when the WWF wanted us to boo and cheered when they wanted us to cheer. Survivor Series 1990 may have been the first full-scale crowd revolt in WWF history, and as such, it was the Federation’s welcome to modernity.

That same night, in his match against Dusty Rhodes’ “Dream Team,” “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase unveiled a new wrestler whom he had “purchased” for his side: The Undertaker. It’s easy to cut and paste The Undertaker we know today into the memory of that night, because they’re very similar. It’s also important to consider what McMahon & Co. were pawning off on us: Mark Calaway — previously a midcard attraction in the NWA (and fairly recognizable as such) — portraying an undead old-West mortician. (Incongruously, he was led to the ring by Brother Love, a red-faced televangelist character, before Love was replaced by the more suitable Paul Bearer.) The Undertaker was every bit the harebrained, ’80s-era wrestling cartoon that the Gooker was; he just wasn’t played for a laugh.11 To call it ironic that those two characters debuted on the same night gets it exactly backwards. The Gobbledy Gooker and The Undertaker are the same: two characters cut from the same cloth, two ideas hatched from the same egg — er, mind. I’m sure McMahon thought both of them would succeed to some degree; that the audience came down so decisively signaled the beginning of a new day in WWF history. It was the moment we chose tragedy over comedy.

The following year was the first time that Survivor Series featured a one-on-one match, when The Undertaker beat Hulk Hogan for the World Heavyweight Championship. The year after that saw just one team-elimination-style match, and also featured The Undertaker’s first Casket Match. Survivor Series would soldier on, but the innocent, cartoonish world that birthed it was already on life support. The product was still based on spectacle — but now it was the spectacle of The Undertaker exacting a ritual death rite on his opponent.

In 2010, after several years in which Survivor Series cast minimal spotlight on the team-elimination matches, McMahon — widely known to be stubborn, especially when it comes to ideas that have made him money in the past — announced that the Survivor Series concept had reached its end and that it would be rechristened. Presumably, there was some public outcry at this, because Survivor Series was added back to the schedule four months later.

That didn’t do anything, though, for the old Series concept — the team matches are still around, but they’re largely afterthoughts. This year, the lone team match pits Wade Barrett, Cody Rhodes, Jack Swagger, Hunico, and Dolph Ziggler against Randy Orton, Sheamus, Mason Ryan, Sin Cara, and Kofi Kingston. It’s possible that this match has more accumulated in-ring ability than did any of the matches in those early years,12 but suffice it to say that the luster is gone. We’ve seen just about every iteration of matchups between the performers in this one — not just over the years, but also in the past three weeks, as WWE scheduled several one-on-one and tag-team matches between the principals to advertise Sunday’s Survivor Series.

WWE doesn’t deserve all the blame, however. The humdrum PPV lineup is the result of changes in the wrestling industry that grew from Monday Night Wars. The ratings battle between WWE and WCW raised fans’ expectations of the quality of matches they could see on free television. It’s a change for the better, overall, but it often leaves fans disappoined at the end of PPVs.

If this year’s Survivor Series is to buck that trend, it’ll be because of some moves out of the old-school Survivor Series playbook. John Cena is teaming up with The Rock — who hasn’t wrestled in seven years, and who has already been announced as Cena’s opponent at next year’s WrestleMania — to take on The Miz and R-Truth. Their opponents are secondary attractions,13 but WWE is banking on the intrigue of coupling these two megastars in the ring. Older, seen-it-all wrestling fans are already rolling their eyes over this ploy, but their groans may be a little premature. The crowd Monday night on Raw was responsive, and the anticipation of how Cena and The Rock will coexist trumps the lack of anticipation over who might win the match.

I mean, just look at the kids in the crowd. They’re going nuts about this. It’s almost … pristine. There’s something sort of great about that, right?

The Masked Man is David Shoemaker, author of the “Dead Wrestler of the Week” column. You can follow him on Twitter at @AKATheMaskedMan.

Previously from The Masked Man:
Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels: Behind One of WWE’s Greatest Rivalries
The Worked Tweet Era
WWE and Organized Labor
A Brief History of Hell (In a Cell)
WWE Conspiracy Theories
Night of Champions Preview

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Filed Under: College Sports, Series, Sports, Survivor, The U, TV, WWE

David Shoemaker , also known as “The Masked Man,” is the author of the The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan