So I had the idea for a new column where I take my usual Spotlight format and look at matches, rivalries or superstars of the past. I put up a post on the blog’s Facebook page asking for suggestions of what to write about, but I thought it might be helpful if the first piece was an example of what can be done. So to kick things off, over this two-part column I’m going to be looking at two matches between two of my all-time favourites: Jeff Hardy and The Undertaker.
The first match I’m looking at takes us back 16 years to 2002. And despite this being the early days of the first brand extension, the landscape of the WWE was unbelievably different. When tensions first appeared between Jeff and Undertaker, Ric Flair still owned 50% of WWE, Stone Cold Steve Austin hadn’t taken his ball and gone home, there was a single Undisputed World Champion who appeared on both Raw and SmackDown and the Deadman, well, wasn’t a dead man.2002 was of course in the midst of The Undertaker’s American Badass biker gimmick, where he would ride his motorcycle down to the ring, making people famous. And in the first half of 2002, Undertaker – already a 12-year veteran in WWE – was having what I believe would turn out to be his final heel run. He was the man who dethroned the resurgent Hulk Hogan as Undisputed Champion, but he felt like he was lacking in one thing: respect.
He had done just about everything in WWE, he had been with the company for a longer stint than anyone else, and he was the reigning, defending world champion. He deserved respect, and if he didn’t think people were giving him enough he would beat it into them.
Jeff Hardy on the other hand was spinning his wheels somewhat. He was still aligned with his brother Matt, but the Tag Team Championships had been drafted to SmackDown earlier in the year, leaving them with nothing to compete for. The duo were still popular, Jeff in particular, but they were doing nothing of note – a far cry from the mantra of “live for the moment” from their Team Extreme days. Indeed, even to call them “extreme” at that point would, as Jeff pointed out, be hypocritical.
So Jeff set out to make a name for himself. And what was the clear and obvious way to do that? Dropkick The Undertaker from behind into some human vomit. What other kind of vomit would it be? I really don’t know, but JR and Jerry “The King” Lawler seemed at pains to point out that it was human vomit.
Thus the mini-rivalry began. I call it a mini-rivalry, because due to the nature of the Undisputed Champion’s schedule at the time, he also had toes dipped into other waters for the extent of their program. First Undertaker was building to a title match against Triple H at King of the Ring, and then he started the build to his triple-threat match against Kurt Angle and The Rock at Vengeance. So his encounters with Jeff Hardy over these four Raws were very much the stuff of a TV feud.
As you might expect, Undertaker didn’t take too kindly to ending up smothered in another man’s vomit, so he went after Jeff backstage. But when he could only find Matt, who informed him Jeff had left the building, Undertaker took his frustrations out on the elder Hardy brother, leaving him laying in the locker room.
The next week, Undertaker would be in the ring cutting a promo, when he was confronted by a ladder-carrying Matt Hardy. Matt would serve to be only the initial distraction though, as Jeff quickly appeared on the top rope having run through the crowd. Undertaker spotted him though and hit a chokeslam on the charismatic enigma, but was soon overcome by the combination of the former tag team champions and their favourite weapon. And it was the brothers who eventually walked away tall, one avalanche leg-drop later. If there was ever a way to make a name for themselves, taking out Big Evil was certainly one way to do it.
But the party wouldn’t last long. The next week, Undertaker would easily defeat Matt Hardy in singles competition, and afterwards Matt was forced to watch a defenceless Jeff being beaten up by Undertaker, after Raven (who had lost to Jeff earlier in the night while Big Evil watched from the ramp) had handcuffed Jeff to the ropes. And then just another 7 days later (the same night Vince McMahon delivered his famous “Ruthless Aggression” speech), Undertaker saw off Jeff in a one-on-one match. But that’s not the match I’m talking about here.
Because afterwards, Jeff, barely able to stand, challenged Undertaker to one more match – a ladder match, with the Undisputed Championship hanging above the ring. Undertaker accepted, and the match was on. It would be, as far as I know, Jeff’s first world title opportunity.
The little storytelling nuances during the show on 1st July were so important to the match. Both men were interviewed during the show, and Jeff pointed out that he didn’t have to pin Undertaker for a 3 count, or make him tap out. He just had to climb the ladder before Undertaker did. And just logically it was a leveler – Jeff had made his name in ladder matches, from the Terri Invitational Tournament to Triangle Ladder matches to the TLC series. All the while, The Undertaker had never once been in a ladder match.
The Undisputed Champion on the other hand, didn’t even mention Jeff Hardy in his pre-match interview. He made it clear his focus was on Kurt Angle three days later, and then The Rock. He never entertained the notion that he would lose the title, even threatening Vince McMahon when the chairman intimated there was even a slight chance that could happen. Undertaker promised that not only would he keep his championship, but when he was done with Jeff Hardy, Jeff wouldn’t even be able to stand.
The story of the match itself was Jeff’s resourcefulness, creativity and inability to quit against The Undertaker’s destructiveness and arrogance. Undertaker clearly had the match won, but walked away from the ladder set up in the middle of the ring to inflict more punishment. And it nearly came back to haunt him, as Jeff was literally fingertips away from becoming the Undisputed Champion, he even touched the belt.
And this really was a masterclass from JR and King. Lawler relentlessly reminding everyone that Jeff asked for this, and anything he got was coming to him as a result. JR countering that he asked for a match, but Undertaker was taking it too far. JR sympathising with the pain and punishment Jeff was having to endure, really seeing him as a kid who was trying to live out his dream of becoming WWE Champion. It positioned Jeff as the ultimate underdog.
Even though The Undertaker walked away victorious, it should have been a star making performance from Jeff Hardy. He showed an incredible amount of heart long before that became the go-to line for Rey Mysterio.
Undertaker may have won the match, but as he went to leave, Jeff Hardy started to get up. That just wouldn’t cut it for Undertaker, who had promised to render Jeff unable to stand. He returned to hit a Last Ride on his vanquished foe, and rode his motorcycle to the top of the ramp, when a voice rang out. “You didn’t break me Undertaker. I’m still standing.”
That may have been something of an exaggeration, as Jeff was trying to stand using the ropes, but he wasn’t quite on his feet. Undertaker looked back with an incredulous expression on his face, left his bike and returned to the ring, throwing a ladder out of his way. But instead of attacking Jeff, Undertaker raised his hand. Jeff Hardy had won Undertaker’s respect. As Undertaker said, Jeff was “one tough son of a bitch”.
That moment of deference to the toughness and never say die attitude of his opponent was enough to turn The Undertaker into a face. It may have been a slow burn, but that was the turning point. Undertaker would go on to lose his title to The Rock at Vengeance, after which he would move to SmackDown and engage in a career-defining feud with the next WWE Champion – Brock Lesnar.
Jeff Hardy on the other hand, should have become a singles star after this. He won the European Championship from William Regal the next week, but he didn’t hit the heights he should have. Reported substance abuse issues, and an opinion that Jeff had lost his focus meant that within 12 months he would be gone from WWE, and TNA-bound. Jeff Hardy would become a star in WWE in time, but that’s a story for part 2. This should have been a launchpad for Jeff, but it wasn’t to be. Not yet.