|"Cos it's a deadly game! Deadly game! Deadly game!"|
The one time Russo managed to perfectly apply his approach to a pay-per-view was at the 1998 Survivor Series. That's the one, in case your wrestling lore is rusty, that featured a one night tournament (dubbed the Deadly Game tournament) to crown a new WWF champion. It allowed Russo to cram in everything he was good at and enjoyed, namely pushing the mid-card, constructing satisfying arcs for main event talents, and swerve developments, into one show, perfectly built to over the preceding months.
Part of the reason the show worked as well as it did (and holds up better than practically anything else Russo booked) was the build it had. After SummerSlam in August he and his writing partner Ed Ferrara set about repositioning key players in preparation for the story they knew they'd be telling at Survivors. Mankind became a sympathetic, comedic good guy. The Rock dropped the Nation of Domination (an albatross around his neck by SummerSlam anyway) and officially went face, dubbing himself 'The People's Champion'. Undertaker and Kane, who had been at loggerheads since Kane's debut the previous October, formed the first of many alliances and began pursuing WWF champion Steve Austin. Really, Austin was the only man not recast after SummerSlam. He remained the top babyface with the same agenda he'd always had: having the title and being a thorn in the side of Vince McMahon.
Vince was central to all of this. He butted heads with The Rock, based on his own hatred of "the people". He began manipulating Mankind, promising to make him his new "corporate" champion but clearly having little but disdain for him and using him simply as a tool in his wider plans. Which he did with Undertaker and Kane, of course, only they were presented as being intelligent enough to understand his schemes, playing along because it tied into their desire to be the champion. And, of course, his hatred of Austin was undiminished.
Through a typically Russo-esque convoluted sequence best summed up here as a double pin from the Brothers of Destruction, Austin was stripped of the WWF championship. An attempt to crown a new champion in a 'Taker v Kane match didn't work out because Vince (stupidly) made Austin the guest referee, leading the match to end with Austin attacking both competitors and declaring himself the winner. Vince's next plan to crown a champion was the Deadly Game tournament, bringing us back around to Vinnie Ru's greatest triumph.
The show featured a ludicrous fourteen matches (plus another four before the broadcast began) but was paced and structured so well that it avoided feeling bloated. Practically every match contributed something to the larger story of the show and the handful that didn't were either enjoyable enough to be overlooked (Shamrock v Goldust) or were short enough for it not to be an issue (Snow v Jarrett). The main characters were all placed in matches that advanced their own plots. Mankind found himself pitted against blatant ringer Duane Gill in the opening match (amusingly hyped up so much by Vince so as to deliberately mislead people into believing they' be seeing the injured Shawn Michaels), setting him and the audience up to believe that he truly was Vince's chosen one. Rock found himself pitted against Team Corporate henchmen in his first two matches and against Undertaker in his third, making it clear McMahon was doing everything in his power to keep him away from the final, and that the audience were right to believe in him because he overcame Vince's stacked odds.
Austin was ever so slightly an afterthought, odd considering he was the clear cut top star. He trounced Big Boss Man in his opening round match, received a bye in the second when nobody advanced to face him, and was double crossed in his semi-final match against Mankind. But this was all done for a reason. It allowed Rock and Mankind to close the show, helping to raise their status in the process. The double cross aspect of his semi-final loss was done to reunite Vince and Shane McMahon after Shane had been demoted to, in Vince's words, a lowly referee. It created a reason to further protract the McMahon-Austin rivalry to and neatly took 'Stone Cold' out of the title picture until WrestleMania.
Of course it's the main event that this show is, rightly, most remembered for. Mankind versus The Rock was a competitive match (although not as good as the work they'd do together over the months that followed) that played out with McMahon and his entourage at ringside. It was set up to make viewers believe that Mankind was Vince's choice for champion and Rock was the underdog fighting against all the odds. Not only did it make sense in its own right but it was a framing device designed to call back to the main event of the previous year's show. For anyone unfamiliar with that (not that I'd expect many bothering to read this far to be unfamiliar) the '97 Survivor Series had seen WWF champion Bret Hart defending against on-screen and real life arch rival Shawn Michaels, with it being (fairly) common knowledge that Hart was on his way out of the company and refusing to lose the belt to Michaels. The match ended with Michaels applying the Sharpshooter, Hart's own finishing hold, to Hart and Vince, who was uncharacteristically at ringside for the match, demanding the bell be rung and Michaels announced as the new champion.
That sequence, by November 1998, had become known as the Montreal Screwjob (because it was a screw job that took place in Montreal, obvs). It's something that's been played on a lot since, both by the WWF and others, but in late '98 it wasn't something that the WWF seemed reluctant to acknowledge or dwell it. That changed when Rock placed Mankind in the Sharpshooter and McMahon had the bell rung.
|A successful swerve.|
Russo and the rest of the WWF's creative types had had the genius idea of ending the show with a swerve turn, a reveal that The Rock and Vince had been in cahoots all along, Mankind a mere patsy in the chairman's villainous machinations. Russo has rightly been accused of booking too many swerve turns in his career but this one made complete sense and provided a neat payoff. Of course it was The Rock, with his movie star good looks and third generation status, that was Vince's chosen one, not the affable, slightly out of shape Mankind. Rock's victories over Corporate henchmen in the earlier rounds immediately made sense. His only real challenge all night had been his match against 'The Dead Man', and he'd won that after interference from Kane.
The show provided a great climax to story threads that had been present since SummerSlam and set up fresh ones that ran the company through to WrestleMania XV the following March. It was a pivotal show for the promotion creatively and showed just how good the Russo approach could be with the right conditions. He would never again produce anything this good. Certainly not enough to concoct a top five list.