The 35th edition of the Survivor Series takes place Sunday at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, NY. The show will be a mix of champion versus champion matches and traditional 5-on-5 elimination matches.
Universal Champion Roman Reigns will face WWE Champion Big E. SmackDown Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair will battle RAW Women’s champion Becky Lynch. The two tag team championship teams will square off as RAW’s RK-Bro takes on SmackDown’s Usos.
While WWE settled into this format for the show in 2018, it’s only the most recent concept. Survivor Series has taken many different forms over the years. It’s also included some of the more historic moments in company lore.
IT BEGAN AS A WEAPON
In 1987, WWF had a program that meant box office gold every time they could put it in the ring. The only problem was, they couldn’t do it very often.
Andre the Giant had turned heel on Hulk Hogan, creating one of the biggest feuds the company could produce. The issue was Andre’s health. His back was shot. He wrestled Hogan at WrestleMania III in a match that captured fans’ imaginations while wearing a heavy back brace.
A potentially lucrative house show series of matches was off the table, however. Andre simply could not do that many matches.
Vince McMahon wanted a way capitalize on the feud, and another factor was in play. Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) was venturing into the pay-per-view world with its Starrcade show.
Starrcade had been going as a Thanksgiving tradition since 1983. Thanksgiving night had been a “big show” night throughout American pro wrestling going back decades, with major shows going on around the country. JCP had turned Starrcade into a big moneymaker by making it a closed-circuit event. Fans from other markets went to their local arena, bought a ticket and watched the show on a big screen. In 1987, JCP decided it was ready for pay-per-view.
McMahon was not interested in having a second player in the pay-per-view game. The decision was made to try to cut JCP off at the knees. McMahon had Hogan and Andre, but Andre hadn’t worked a match since April. The idea of an elimination match, in which Andre could be part of a team with partners that could work most of the match, made sense. It got multiple stars involved, they could have Hogan work some with Andre but not too much, and tease later encounters.
The concept for Survivor Series was born. Elimination matches had been done in the WWF before, but this time, they made up the entire show. The lineups were announced weeks in advance and plugged heavily on all their TV shows. Segments were filmed with announcers discussing the matches and the rules. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Survivor Series was one of the most anticipated shows of the year.
Starrcade, meanwhile, would be held in Chicago, IL, outside the usual JCP area, and feature a loaded lineup of its own. Ric Flair challenged Ron Garvin for the NWA title in a steel cage as the main event. It also featured a scaffold match with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express and the Midnight Express, plus the Road Warriors (billed as being from Chicago) challenging Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard for the NWA World Tag Team titles.
To counter this, the WWF told the major cable companies if they carried Starrcade, they would not be allowed to carry the next WrestleMania. JCP was a strong presence in its home territory of the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia and Georgia, but WWF was the proven commodity on pay-per-view. The vast majority of companies went with the WWF and shunned Starrcade.
A HOLIDAY TRADITION
Survivor Series was enough of a success it became an annual event on the WWF calendar. The Andre-Hogan clash was a big deal for fans. Andre’s team of One Man Gang, King Kong Bundy, Butch Reed and Rick Rude won the main event. Hogan’s teammate Bam Bam Bigelow had a strong showing, but succumbed to an awful butterfly “suplex” from the wounded Andre for the final elimination. Paul Orndorff, Ken Patera and Don Muraco made up the rest of Hogan’s team. Japanese women’s tag team the Jumping Bomb Angels (Itsuki Yamazaki and Noriyo Tateno) stole the show in the women’s match with innovative moves not seen in American women’s wrestling up to that time.
WWF decided to keep the concept going forward. At first, it stayed on Thanksgiving night, before shifting to Thanksgiving Eve in 1991 and staying there until 1995. After that, it moved to a mid or early November Sunday.
The elimination match itself has been a part of nearly every Survivor Series. They moved away from having the card consist of only elimination matches in 1991, when a Hulk Hogan versus Undertaker title match was put in as a singles main event.
Only two Survivor Series shows have been without elimination matches. There was a tournament for the WWF title in 1998, won by the Rock. In 2002, they had no elimination tag team matches, but debuted the Elimination Chamber concept instead.
Those first few Survivor Series shows were used to begin the build to WrestleMania. This was before the days of the Royal Rumble winner automatically getting the title shot every year. Without monthly pay-per-view shows to sell, the WWF could do slower builds. McMahon was also good with long-term planning at this time, so Survivor Series began as a key chapter on the way to WrestleMania.
The WWF put over people it wanted strong for WrestleMania. Over the years there were also turns and other angles done that would pay off in the spring. The show established itself as one fans shouldn’t miss, as it would give big clues toward what was ahead. New people were pushed with wins, including Rocky Maivia in his first Survivor Series appearance.
While feuds didn’t usually blow off at Survivor Series, plenty were triggered, and directions were set in terms of who survived the matches.
As a major show, there have been some historic moments in the show’s history. The Undertaker made his WWF debut at Survivor Series 1990. He was called Kane the Undertaker then and was managed by Brother Love instead of Paul Bearer. Thankfully, things changed.
That was also the first time they tried having a final match among the survivors of the other matches to crown overall winners. Hogan and Ultimate Warrior were the final survivors. They’d go on to be the babyfaces in the two biggest matches at WrestleMania VII.
Also, the Gobbledy Gooker, poor Hector Guerrero in a cheesy turkey suit hatching from a giant egg, debuted that night. It’s safe to say Mark Callaway’s career got the bigger boost.
Survivor Series was also the site of the legendary Montreal Screwjob, where the title was taken from Bret Hart. There have been volumes written and near-endless debate on what happened and why, but the short version is Hart went to the ring with a different finish than everyone else. It’s become one of the most infamous nights in wrestling history.
We mentioned the first Elimination Chamber match happening at Surivor Series in 2002. That match was spun off into its own pay-per-view.
In 2011, the Rock and John Cena teamed up to defeat The Miz and R-Truth (yes, that was a Survivor Series main event team). The Rock gave Cena a Rock Bottom after the match, thus setting in motion the first Rock versus Cena WrestleMania match. That show would become one of the company’s strongest financial windfalls from that event.
BRAND COMPETITION ERA
In 1999, the elimination match was billed as WWF versus WCW, the first time the teams were based on who was “employing” them in storyline.
The story varied over the years. Sometimes the winning team would exert some kind of authority over one show or the other. Sometimes each brand would have its own match on the show.
In 2016 they took a big step toward its current format by having matches between the RAW and SmackDown brands, which will continue Sunday. They added the champion versus champion aspect in 2018, having the primary singles and tag team titleholders square off.
The lack of true stakes in the brand versus brand matches have made the elimination matches feel less important. It’s never clear why the wrestlers or fans should really care who wins. The champion versus champion matches are often intriguing, and the action is usually good.
This year especially feels more like a placeholder show with bigger matches and feuds on the horizon for later. The participants in the elimination matches were announced on Twitter instead of on the television shows, and WWE has been switching people on and off the teams since.
Despite this, Lynch versus Flair is always interesting. Reigns and Big E are certainly capable of having a great match. Survivor Series may have lost its spot as one of the biggest events of the year, but its unique format makes it an intriguing watch.