Rob Van Dam (C) vs. The Undertaker – Hardcore Title Match
Styles make fights. This common slogan has not necessarily rang true in pro wrestling to an extent. Some style clashes have resulted in clunky, sloppy encounters. Undertaker was probably coming off his worst in-ring year to date as 2001 was wrapping up. One could excuse him laying eggs against the likes of Giant Gonzales but in 2001 he under-delivered against some competent competition and even his previously hyped matches (vs. HHH at Mania) left me disappointed. RVD was a phoenix on the rise and one of the bright spots in the company coming off the clumsy-handled Invasion angle. I talked about in the Rhyno vs. Raven pre-viewing how the Hardcore Title was changing hands about as frequently as my wardrobe changes. RVD’s five month title reign was really refreshing and made him look like a main event player within the company. Undertaker could have scoffed at having this title opportunity and had the feeling it was underneath him. A lot of ingredients were in play and my expectations were honestly tempered going in for a maligned spotfest with RVD’s offense looking awkward and Taker not knowing how to bump or react to it.
I was pleasantly surprised by the match that transpired. Now granted this match won’t be developing any new storyline narratives to the literary world but it did try to convey a story which I greatly appreciated. RVD was forced to take it to Taker a mile a minute and try to overwhelm him with an offensive barrage Taker wouldn’t know how to counteract. RVD played this role magnificently in this match. I have had trouble with RVD at times for mugging with the crowd too much and being light on his strikes and accuracy. He is on point with both of these issues here. I don’t know if he has ever hit his kicks so cleanly, which shocked me. Taker also does a great job of dazed selling, really making it seem like he is overwhelmed with the onslaught. In keeping with the narrative of RVD having to take the fight to Taker, he also wasn’t constantly mugging and looking for adulation from the fans. We do get a “R V D” chant right before the dive from the balcony but that was the only egregious example of him seeking approval in this match and it fit the gravity of that specific spot and moment.
In talking to this match with Justin Rozzero, he mentioned how Taker became awesome overnight. I seemingly liked the Unforgiven tag match better than anyone on the planet, but I wouldn’t say Taker was exactly good in that match. Here he certainly was playing up the bully role and being a resourceful prick. Any opening that RVD allotted him, Taker took full advantage by showing some vicious offensive moves with a spiteful nature on top. The action spills into the crowd rapidly but instead of the dragging motif these matches can fall into, punches and kicks are used to accelerate the competitors from point A to point B. I also thought all the plunder and weapons made sense within the context of this match. Logic can go out the door in these hardcore matches with some random crutches under the ring. Every weapon used in this match, including the tables at the finale, were at a logical place.
Crowd reaction has also been a hotly contested topic in recent months. This crowd is completely devoted to both guys and invested in the match. The combination of RVD’s rise and lengthy title reign compared to Undertaker’s legacy and tall stature created legitimate intrigue in this match becoming a pick ’em. RVD chants were throughout the match and the oohing and awwing at each high impact move Taker threw at RVD enhanced my experience watching. The pop for the two big spots in the match (RVD’s dive and the finishing chokeslam) get ecstatic reactions from the San Diego faithful. I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the majestic violence of the finish. I felt unease with them teetering back and forth on the stage. A sense of dread came over me as RVD slipped out of the tombstone on the chair, attached himself to the structure set to escape a ast ride and went for a Van Dominator to send Taker careening to the floor. The ferociousness and violence of the chokeslam sending RVD crashing down through the tables was appropriate and fitting to the teases that have been played up to that point. A beautiful disaster is not often fitting in wrestling but it was what my emotions were saying as I was watching. I was glad that Taker calmly pinned him and then looked triumphant. He had escaped a war but still knew he was a bad ass. The crowd was aware that RVD was a star in the making and courageous even in defeat. 2001 has had some ups and downs with the matches I have reviewed, but we leave the year on a real high note with one of my favorite matches in WWF for the year.
Final Grade: ***3/4