Throwback Thursday: Dennis Rodman vs. Karl Malone, Highway to Hell and the Summer of ’98

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Seeing as we basically live in a wrestling angle, it’s only fitting the headliner of a WCW pay-per-view 20 years ago this summer now be prominently featured in the most important international headline of the day.

Before Dennis Rodman was…doing whatever it is he does in North Korea…and amid his successful NBA career, the Basketball Hall of Famer appeared prominently on World Championship Wrestling programming. The Worm’s place in WCW, headlining the Bash at the Beach show, underscores the striking differences between the two leading American wrestling promotions at the time, and why one died and the other flourished.

The summer of ’98 was an awesome time to be a young wrestling fan. A viewer had two major federations, and a third gaining visibility, each with enough differentiating qualities. Meanwhile, thanks to the more realistic and pop culture-inspired tone, the medium gained more mainstream acceptance than at any time in my fandom — which is also more mainstream acceptance than it’s had at any point since.

WCW’s New World Order and the rise of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the World Wrestling Federation fueled this boom period. Both got a considerable boost from legitimate sport, with Austin’s ascent into the WWF main event coming with an angle involving Mike Tyson, and WCW capitalizing on the success of the Chicago Bulls.

Dennis Rodman transformed from defensive specialist and rebounding wizard for the Detroit Pistons, into a Demolition Man-inspired locker-room cancer, then an integral piece of the Bulls’ second dynasty behind Michael Jordan.

His dirty style of play, psychobabble trash talk and constant attention-seeking made him the most despised player in the NBA — and thus a natural fit for wrestling’s leading heel faction.

Rodman’s induction into the NWO — during the 1996-’97 season! — led to a main-event pay-per-view appearance alongside “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan against Lex Luger and The Giant that July. But the more remembered match involving Dennis Rodman came a year later when WCW doled out a truckload of Turner Broadcasting money to recreate the previous month’s NBA Finals with a PPV headliner of pitting The Worm and Hogan against Karl Malone and Diamond Dallas Page.

The match itself isn’t bad. Dennis Rodman’s wrestling ability was shaky, but Malone looked like a natural. The mainstream coverage for the bout effectively elevated the wildly popular DDP into the main event. While the benefit of hindsight has made Starrcade ’97 the de facto beginning of the end often cited for WCW’s demise, the company remained hot throughout 1998.

It was downright scorching that summer, but the flaws were evident.

Crowds’ reactions for Diamond Dallas Page inherently spoke to one of the two most vexing problems. Page resonated so strongly, in part, because he was someone new in the main-event scene.

The Dennis Rodman-Karl Malone Bash at the Beach card marked the two-year anniversary of the NWO. Two years is a veritable lifetime in wrestling, and thus the Hogan bad-guy character that was so desperately needed to rejuvenate his career in 1996 was nearing its expiration date.

Hogan didn’t need to be removed from the main event per se, but his arc of cowardly ducking a good-guy challenger only to nefariously win month-after-month needed some kind of evolution. Even just a minor tweak to the NWO energized Kevin Nash’s character at this time, as the formation of the Wolfpac poised Nash for a World Championship run later that year that the crowd wanted to see (though it was horribly botched to maintain the status quo).

WCW bookers did a lousy job positioning mid-card talent for future main-event spots, and a variety of injuries and uncertainties in 1998 left the company’s brass scrambling to establish fresh main eventers.

Page’s climb up the card was steady and organic; his long-running feud with the NWO made a feud with Hogan natural, coming off an excellent upper-mid-card rivalry the preceding spring against Raven.

Juxtapose DDP’s ascent with that of Goldberg. WCW crowds were just as feverish in their support of the dominant rookie, and the decision to make him World Champion early into his tenure wasn’t an inherently bad one. WWE proved a quick push into the title scene could be performed well that same year.

But Goldberg’s wasn’t done well.

He went from steamrolling low-card acts like Jerry Flynn and Hugh Morrus in literally seconds, to a brief feud with Raven — positioned at this time as WCW’s heel gatekeeper to the main event, which is fitting given his character’s similarities to Jake “The Snake” Roberts.

Then, with no build, Goldberg beat Hogan for the World Championship. On free TV.

While the former Georgia Bulldog and Atlanta Falcon reaching the pinnacle in the Georgia Dome made for a feel-good moment, and the win established him as a top star, WCW opted for short-term gain over a big-picture vision.

Goldberg looked primed to be WCW’s answer to Stone Cold Steve Austin, but Austin’s rise to the championship culminated a story told over a full year. Every week of WWF television was a must-see chapter taking the viewer on Austin’s journey; WCW didn’t seem to have even an outline for Goldberg beyond the summer of ’98.

Meanwhile, DDP benefited from the exposure of partnering with Karl Malone to face Dennis Rodman, but the innerworkings that made the match happen were indicative of WCW valuing short-term buzz over long-term strategy.

Booking Rodman cost the company $500,000 in 1998 (and another $1.17 million the next year, after the Bulls dynasty ended and Rodman’s NBA career was effectively over). The recently-released WCW salary numbers don’t disclose Malone’s pay, but one can assume the reigning NBA MVP made at least as much as the third-best Bull.

As WCW invested in quick fixes and immediate buzz, WWF built a roster that had been decimated in the preceding few years into one loaded with box office-drawing talent.

Although personal prefer 1997 to 1998 in terms of both storytelling and in-ring action, and 1999 into early 2001 were bigger financially, WWF events in 1998 emanated with an electricity that just felt magical. Audiences went ballistic for just about everything, perhaps best demonstrated with his Austin entrance to kick off Raw two weeks before Summerslam ’98:

The above clip says it all: The energy reached a fever pitch in the summer of 1998 with the unfolding to two primary story arcs: Austin vs. The Undertaker, and The Rock vs. Triple H.

Austin’s reign as the anti-authority World Champion was in high-gear, preserved early in a 5-star match against Mick Foley alter ego Dude Love at May’s In Your House: Over The Edge. The Undertaker’s intervention in that bout preceded a character-breaking promo in which The Dead Man referenced his loyalty to the WWF at a time when others, like Hogan, Randy Savage, Nash and Hall jumped to WCW.

This peak-behind-the-curtain set the groundwork for the longtime babyface Undertaker to become an evil villain, furthered along with his sadistic (and iconic) thrashing of another Foley character, Mankind, at June’s King of the Ring.

The Undertaker’s demonic turn precipitated the “Highway to Hell” arc with Austin, pitting the two head-to-head in a good match at Summerslam. But the spotlight in Madison Square Garden had been stolen before the two could take center stage.

Summerslam ’98 stands as one of the greatest cards in WWF/WWE history — so much so, that upon the Network’s launch in 2014, it joined Wrestlemania III, Wrestlemania X-Seven, and a certain ECW card as one of the initial Recommended selections.

From the opening bout of D’Lo Brown vs. Val Venis for the European Championship, the match quality throughout the card largely outshines what was typical of a pay-per-view — even one of the big ones — during the Attitude Era. And the best of the bunch was the semi-main event Ladder Match between The Rock and Triple H.

Legitimate backstage animus fueled this rivalry between the two youngsters who went on to shape the company’s future for the foreseeable future. But as a 15-year-old fan, I didn’t know about any of that; I just knew that their hatred felt legitimately. Coupled with great matches, that was good enough for me.

The Ladder Match was the best in their series, and still to this day one of my favorite Ladder Matches ever.

Despite losing a championship, Summerslam ’98 positioned The Rock to ascend into the stratosphere with much more staying power potential than Goldberg winning a championship a month earlier. It’s a seminal match from one of the best cards the WWF ever ran — even if it arguably isn’t the best card of that summer.

Full disclosure, I didn’t have regular access to ECW until the next year, knowing of the company’s exploits mostly through its appearances on Raw in 1997 and in reading wrestling magazines at the supermarket. Thus, I didn’t actually watch Heat Wave ’98, one of the WWE Network’s launch Recommendations, in the summer of ’98. My perspective of it is based less on genuine nostalgia than my memories of WCW and WWF at the time.

Nevertheless, it’s remarkable to me that this product existed in the same time and space as the WWF, and more WCW.

The match quality is superb through almost the entire card, kicking off with a tremendous technical bout between Jerry Lynn and Justin Credible. Watching that match today is jarring, given Joey Styles’ EXTREEEEEEMEly crass commentary during it, but it’s a snapshot of attitudes at the time.

Even more jarring is revisiting the Mike Awesome-Masato Tanaka showdown. The bitter rivals in Japan’s FMW brought their grudge to new mutiny on American soil, and it holds up today as a 5-star slugfest…were it not for the chairshots to the head.

Recklessness aside, my introduction to ECW also marked my first real introduction to Japanese wrestling. Yes, I’d seen TAKA Michinoku in the WWF and Ultimo Dragon in WCW, but ECW’s specific reference to promotions like FMW with Tanaka and the tag team of Gedo/Jado when I started watching in ’99 signaled to me of a world which I knew nothing.

ECW’s influence has been perhaps overstated in more recent years, primarily due to the lack of exposure that prevented me from following in 1998. Still, I suspect it provided others with a similar gateway to Japanese wrestling and Mexican lucha libre.

In their own ways, each of the three primary American wrestling companies profoundly changed the genre’s landscape for years to come in the summer of 1998 — even if only one has a main-eventing grifting for cryptocurrency in appearances with a dictator.