Last week I debuted a new column where I look at a match, angle or feud of the past and look at the build, the content and the aftermath. There was only one place I could start, and that was with one of my favourite matches: Jeff Hardy vs The Undertaker in a ladder match for the Undisputed Title from the July 1st, 2002 edition of Raw. That match is rightly still remembered today, but the two superstars would face off again years later, in an encounter I think is often forgotten – but no less important in the Jeff Hardy story.
I find it interesting looking back at both matches, because there are a lot of differences as you might expect, but there are also a lot of similarities despite both men being at different stages of their career, and their environment having changed significantly too.
From 2002, we’re jumping ahead six years to late 2008. As noted last time, Jeff Hardy had left WWE in 2003 to go to TNA, but he returned to Raw in 2006 to a wave of approval from his fans. He returned to confront the then-WWE Champion Edge, in what was a nice nod to Edge’s feud with Jeff’s brother Matt the previous year. But much as Jeff had failed to reach his apparent potential in 2003, he had to prove that he could be a top guy all over again when he came back. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfuktbC5CxQ
Things started well for him. Within six weeks of returning, he had won the Intercontinental Championship. Twice. And a matter of months later, he had also added another Tag Team Championship reign to his resume alongside his brother Matt. Jeff’s feud with Umaga over the Intercontinental Title was full of memorable moments, and a year after he came back to the company, he seemed destined to finally rise to the top.
He was one of two survivors for his team at Survivor Series, alongside Triple H. That led to a match between the two at Armageddon the next month, with a WWE Title shot on the line, which Jeff won. In the lead up to the Royal Rumble, Jeff would create one of the Raw moments by hitting a Swanton Bomb from the top of the Raw set, but when he got his shot Jeff came up short.
He would be the final man eliminated from the Elimination Chamber in February, and after a post-Wrestlemania move to SmackDown he was also eeked out in WWE Championship matches at Unforgiven, No Mercy and Cyber Sunday. It should be noted that at Cyber Sunday, 95% of the votes were for Jeff to be in the WWE Title match, so the crowd’s support and belief in him was never the issue.
Unlike in 2002, where he was lost in the shuffle, he was very much in the ascendancy. But every time Jeff Hardy was approaching the top of the mountain, no matter how much the fans willed him to get there, something was pulling him back down. He was becoming WWE’s perennial nearly-man.
The Undertaker meanwhile had reverted to his Deadman persona at Wrestlemania 2004, and had resumed his role as WWE’s conscience. He was essentially in his last year as a full-timer by the time this match came around, but he won the 2007 Royal Rumble match, and would go on to walk out of the next two Wrestlemania’s with the World Heavyweight Championship, extending his undefeated streak to 16-0.
The latter match was against Edge, which led to The Undertaker feuding with Edge’s storyline wife, and SmackDown General Manager, Vickie Guerrero. This would continue throughout the latter half of 2008, which brings me to the first major similarity between the two Spotlight matches – Undertaker was in another feud at the time.
In the immediate build-up to the 2008 edition of Jeff Hardy vs The Undertaker, The Undertaker’s main focus was on the Big Show, who had taken up the mantle of protecting Guerrero. Big Show defeated Undertaker at No Mercy by knockout, Undertaker won a Last Man Standing match at Cyber Sunday.
Jeff Hardy on the other hand was trying everything he could to convince Vickie Guerrero to give him one more shot at the WWE Championship. She said that after so many attempts to win the big one, she didn’t think Jeff could so it. She also stated that Jeff wasn’t so extreme anymore – the same thing Jeff wondered in 2002 that led to him instigating the issues with Undertaker in the first place.
So of course, Jeff did the obvious thing – he hit everything that moved with a chair. He teamed up with Triple H to face John Morrison & The Miz on the 7th November, which ended in a disqualification victory for the heels when Jeff attacked them both with a steel chair. And later in the same night, he interfered in the main event of Vladimir Kozlov vs The Undertaker, again attacking both men with a chair. In 2002 it was a dropkick into vomit, in 2008 it was a simple chair shot.
So it was set, 14th November in Manchester, England, Jeff Hardy vs The Undertaker in an Extreme Rules match. But both men would have a busy night. The Undertaker opened the show by addressing his Survivor Series opponent, Big Show, when he was interrupted by Jeff – who was sporting full face paint for the first time in his WWE run. The importance of the paint cannot be stressed enough, just ask Finn Balor.
And then came a WWE Championship contract signing for Survivor Series between Triple H and Kozlov – who had earned his shot by way of Jeff’s attack the previous week. Once again, Jeff got involved, putting Kozlov through a table and tearing up the contract and throwing it in the champion’s face. Jeff’s motivations were obvious, all he had to do now was survive the Phenom.
The two men may have been in different spots on the card in 2008 compared to six years earlier, and the match won’t go down in folklore the same way the first bout did, but it bore a striking resemblance. Sure Big Show interfered, but it didn’t have a major bearing on the match. For Jeff, the weapons he was allowed to use were his equalisers against Undertaker’s size, power and striking advantage. He was just as creative as before, more experienced and better prepared.
Yet for every flurry Jeff could muster, it still only took one shot from Undertaker to put Hardy down. But once again, Jeff never gave up. And most importantly for Jeff, this time round, he won.
It was a symbolic victory if absolutely nothing else – in 2002 Jeff Hardy vs The Undertaker was at best a chance for Jeff to show he could be something in the future. In 2008, it was his chance to reach the next level. While not being spelt out to the fans, JR acknowledging the 2002 on commentary was a subtle nod to Jeff’s journey. It unlocked that ruthlessness within him that allowed him to eventually capture the gold he had craved so much.
Because that was his eventuality. The next month, Jeff Hardy won a triple threat match at Armageddon, also featuring Triple H and Edge, to capture his first world championship. And that’s why Jeff Hardy vs The Undertaker in 2008 was so much more important. It was the final step, the last piece of character development, before the fairytale ending. Without this victory, Jeff could (and probably would) still have become WWE Champion. But this brief storyline established him as a threat to anyone in the company, rather than a nearly man who got lucky one night.
I think this match is often forgotten because a few months later, Undertaker put on one of the greatest Wrestlemania matches of all time against Shawn Michaels, while Jeff Hardy would go on to have better bouts with Edge and CM Punk over the World Heavyweight Championship. But without this essentially two-week storyline, I’m not sure Jeff would have been the most popular superstar on the roster in 2009.
In 2002, Jeff Hardy vs The Undertaker was all about potential. In 2008, Jeff Hardy vs The Undertaker was all about fulfillment and accomplishment. It meant that through all the risks taken, suspensions received and potential wasted ability, the story of Jeff Hardy in WWE was able to have a crowning moment. This really was the final piece of the puzzle.