This review was commissioned by Lance Garrison over on my Ko-fi account.

It’s great, but I’ve always had a complicated relationship with this match. As a child of the 2000s, mostly digesting historical WWE footage via VCD compilations and pay-per-views reruns of TV, this was never really my favorite match of either man. Even just talking the big hits, this doesn’t have the kind of insanity of a Mankind match vs. The Undertaker in Hell in a Cell or even the more euphoric structure and pay off a WrestleMania XX main event for Hunter.

Any teen discovering message boards and forums though will know that this match is held in high esteem. I sort of just took that acclaim at face value, and accepted that this was the classic it’s been talked up as because it really is great, and it’s easy to think that perhaps I just ignored it’s finer qualities as a younger viewing.

Coming back to it now, all these years later though, with an expanded purview of wrestling and a stronger grasp on my own taste, I find my opinion closer to my original feelings.

There’s some issues here that are just difficult to overcome. For one, the New York City crowd feels oddly muted for a peak Attitude Era audience. Their energy so rarely peaks along with the action, with them only really getting up for the most heinous of Foley’s bumps. To their credit though, I would argue that this match’s construction doesn’t achieve the maximum emotional potential of the story at hand.

Structurally, so much of the match is given to Cactus here. That suits the build up as Cactus Jack is this almost demonic, unkillable force risen from the ashes of Mankind’s humiliation. It would make sense then for Hunter to visibly struggle and constantly eat shit. The match is meant to deliver on the promise of Hunter getting an ass whooping at Jack’s hands, while simultaneously legitimizing the champion via a victory in the end. As is the case with so many of his major matches, the narrative being forced through the perspective of what Triple H gains from this more than anything else is what ends up damaging it.

Take how the first two thirds of the match play out as an extended babyface shine for Cactus Jack. In theory, this should get the crowd roaring, braying for the champion’s blood. While the atmosphere in the Garden itself may have been a little odd, the execution of this babyface shine leaves some question marks in the air. For one, the extended length sort of dictates that Cactus take a much more methodical approach to his punishment here. He’s stalking Hunter through the crowd, confidently laying out the carnage to put Hunter through in a way that slightly dampens his explosive energy. Dedicating so much of the match to Cactus’ shine as well means that he has to space out his vindication. We get some big early punches, and a few great bumps like the palette suplex that slices up Hunter’s leg. But stretching it out for so long makes it feel less like a rush of vindication and more like an almost clinical dissection of Triple H.

Hunter too further muddles these ideas with his early selling. It’s not bad in the strictest sense, especially given how mindful and expressive it is through most of this match. In fact, I’d argue his wobbly legged lack of balance from the blood loss showcases one of his more impressive displays of selling in his career. But there’s a certain distinction here of how he’s deploying the selling, where for so much of it, he feels like he’s selling like a babyface instead of a heel. Even when he’s nominally playing the heel role of a babyface shine, the actual physicality of his selling evokes more of a valiant hero standing and trading rather than a stooge heel bumping and feeding for the challenger.

It’s choices like this that subtly shift the questions the match is asking. Instead of “Will Cactus Jack beat the title out of Triple H,” the match instead now asks, “Can Triple H withstand Cactus Jack?”

My issues aside, there’s some truly great stuff here. All the gimmickry looks pretty awesome. Cactus Jack can always be relied upon to do horrific things to himself to get a big time match like this over. Eating the barbed wire that tangles up in his skin and clothes (unlike Hunter who chooses worked wire instead, the coward), obliterating his knees against the steel steps, and absorbing some truly ill-advised chair shots to the head. All of it too, while still peaking at the exact right moment—eating the Pedigree bump face first into the thumbtacks, such that we can see thumbtacks dangerously close to poking his eyes out. These are the elements of raw violence that Cactus Jack can always bring to elevate a match in spite of its issues.

On the Triple H front as well, the best qualities of his work do have space to come through. The actual heat segment when it gets going is really clever in its construction. First, hurling Jack into the steps to soften up the knees, then working it over with the barbed wire 2×4. The leg work allows Hunter to literally cut Jack off at the knees and handcuff him for the rest of the heat segment. It’s here that Triple H can properly stooge, eating shit after attempting a stairs shot, and getting his balls crushed under Cactus’ weight. Genuine punishment that feels like suitable retribution for how sinister he’s been before that.

I do wish the heat segment had more space given to it though. It never really has enough time to milk how sympathetic Foley can be at his best, and how malicious Hunter can be in control, but what we do get is incredibly strong.

As a legitimizer for Hunter too, it’s hard to say it wasn’t effective. Having such a great match under his belt, clearly put together to give him the best possible chance of success, it’s a strong launchpad for Hunter’s run at the very top of the card for the rest of the year to come. In that way, the match succeeds at what it tries, even if I feel that something even better might be possible.

Just look what Randy Orton did with the same set up four years later.

Rating: ****1/4

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