I spent a good part of my childhood knowing without a doubt in my heart that Jeff Hardy was the coolest person on the planet. I know I’m far from alone with this, too. If at any point in the last 20 years you could have walked into a classroom of 10 year olds and popped on a Hardy match, there’s a good chance half of those kids are showing up to school the next day with cut up socks covering their arms and throwing up the famous Hardy Boyz fingers. There’s just SOMETHING about him that leaves his fans, (especially young fans) awestruck and buzzing with anticipation the moment he steps through the curtain.
Hardy’s a comic book character come to life, half ultimate underdog and half fearless, daredevil superhero. I loved him immediately. There was just that special something about the Charismatic Enigma that myself and so many others were drawn to from the start. Even though Hardy was part of a tag team that rarely won when the stakes were highest and seemed completely overmatched against 95% of their opponents due to their size, I knew he was destined to be a champion, and not just as a member of a tag team. He was going to be the star of the whole freaking show.
On July 1st, 2002 my buddy Dylan and I (nine and ten years old) plopped ourselves on his living room floor and spent the entire night wondering if our guy could pull off the impossible. Could Jeff Hardy really beat The Undertaker and become the Undisputed Champion? Over the course of the next two hours, the WWE did everything they could to make you believe that there were whispers in the wind that things may be headed in that direction. The result was one of those nights that I’ll never forget as a wrestling fan; the night my “first” favorite wrestler gave me my “first” favorite match.
Taking on The Undertaker is always a daunting task, but Hardy really made things difficult for himself in the weeks leading into this match. See, this wasn’t just The Undertaker, this was “Biker Taker” and The American Badass was more willing to dish out pain and just flat out whoop someone’s ass than ever before. This wasn’t a man you wanted to piss off. Taker was dominating Monday Night Raw and was simultaneously holding off threats like The Rock, Triple H and Kurt Angle who were coming after his title.
So naturally, in an effort to prove to his brother that they needed to get even more “extreme”, Jeff decided to sprint out to the ring and dropkick Taker into a pile of Tommy Dreamer’s vomit. (Don’t ask. Seriously, just don’t ask). The Hardy Boyz were at an interesting place in their career at that point, having been drafted to Raw – a show without tag team championships – just a few weeks prior. Both men were determined to break out on their own and become singles stars, and evidently Jeff decided the best thing to do was to go after the biggest dog in the yard.
For the next few weeks, The Deadman did everything in his power to make life hell for the youngest Hardy brother, and for the most part he succeeded. He beat Hardy from post to post on multiple occasions, demolished his brother Matt as Jeff was left to helplessly watch while handcuffed to the ropes, and to finish things off, he squashed Hardy in a non-title bout the week before their Undisputed Championship match.
Logically, things could have easily been resolved then and there and you could tell that was Taker’s feeling as he walked up the ramp following the bout. Hardy had pulled a dumb move and had been sufficiently punished for it. It was time to move on to bigger problems. However, the kid from Cameron, North Carolina just couldn’t keep his mouth shut and instead of just accepting defeat, he decided to poke the bear and truly shoot his shot at greatness. Unable to even drag himself to his feet, Hardy got on the microphone and called out his tormentor.
“Hey, Taker! You’ve beaten my ass time and time again. You just beat my ass right now. But we’re not done. We’re not done at all. I want a match next week for the WWE Undisputed Championship. But not just a regular match, Taker. My way to beat you. My match to beat you. A ladder match!”
Taker looked on incredulously for a moment and then shook his head, realizing he was going to have to put the kid down one last time. “So be it, next week.” He mouthed at Hardy before walking to the back and accepting a challenge that in hindsight turned out to be much more difficult than he could have imagined. The Deadman was entering Hardy’s world, and the highflier’s self-confidence would be at an all-time high the following week while Taker seemingly started to deal with a bit of doubt.
Hardy is interviewed backstage before the match, and his confidence could easily be called cockiness as he talks about his chances at winning the gold. “I’ve been in tons of ladder matches, Taker’s been in none. Therefore, I am your new WWE Undisputed Champion.” is his final remark as he runs whooping and hollering away, a kid getting ready to try and accomplish his dream and not realizing exactly what he’s getting himself into.
Meanwhile, Taker’s night is filled by people questioning whether he’ll walk out of the arena with his title in tow. His own backstage interview abruptly ends when Taker storms off after being asked “Aren’t you worried about your match with Jeff Hardy? You’ve never been in a ladder match,” and a pep talk from Vince McMahon ends badly when the Chairman accidentally questions whether or not Taker would be entering the next PPV as champion. An enraged Phenom vows that “When I leave that ring tonight, he won’t be able to stand up!” and picks up his intensity as McMahon looks on with that weird supervillain “YESSSSSSSS” face he gets as he’s successfully motivated his man just moments before the match.
This one starts fast and it starts hot, with Hardy playing mind games by messing with Taker’s motorcycle and drawing The Deadman to the floor, only to slide into the ring himself, hitting a massive dive onto Taker and blasting him with a chair to kick things off. However, it doesn’t take long for the champion to gain the upper hand, and once he does the two fell back into a familiar pattern. The Undertaker starts whopping Jeff Hardy’s ass. Using a healthy amount of ladders and chairs to inflict punishment on the young daredevil, Taker does his best to try and make sure Hardy regrets ever stepping to him in the first place.
Time and time again Taker beat Hardy into a lifeless heap on the ground, yet no matter how much punishment The Deadman dished out, the Rainbow Haired Warrior fought back and proved he wouldn’t be going away quietly. Hardy’s offense was equal parts vicious and innovative, switching between using his patented ladders to try and accomplish the impossible and just going for broke, landing flaying haymakers and a brutal kick below the belt to try and even the odds a bit.
Watching it back now, it truly feels like Jeff is fighting for his life when he fires back up and it’s easy to remember how badly I wanted him to pull this off back when I was 10. When Hardy lands two absolutely horrifying chair shots and begins to scamper up the ladder, the crowd collectively starts to lose their minds and Jim Ross makes his now legendary “Climb the ladder kid! Make yourself famous!” call on commentary. I’m instantly transported back into Dylan’s living room and we’re both on our feet and screaming as he inches towards the gold.
Of course, reality hits just as hard as Jeff hits the mat a few seconds later, when Taker leaves him lifeless with a devastating chokeslam from the top of the ladder. The Deadman yanks down his championship and looks absolutely exhausted as be climbs onto his bike and prepares to leave the arena, giving one last look back at the kid who’d pushed him to his limit. And wouldn’t you know it; Hardy was pulling himself back up. So, Taker gets back into the ring and nails him with a Last Ride before climbing back onto his bike and making it to the top of the ramp in a mirror image of the previous week when Hardy’s mouth strikes again.
“You’ve haven’t broke me, Taker! I’m still standing!”
The commentary team is genuinely concerned as The Deadman makes a beeline back towards the ring and pulls Hardy to his feet, just about to land the finishing blow before deciding to do the unthinkable. Taker lifts Hardy’s arm in a rare show of respect, shaking his head in astonishment as Jeff collapses to the mat, telling him “You are one tough son of a bitch” as he leaves the ring.
That moment, with Taker finally giving in to Hardy’s unwavering tenacity, will go down as one of the most memorable in the history of Monday Night Raw. Hardy had reached a new level in the WWE, maybe not quite championship material yet, but firmly entrenched as a future threat to anyone that held WWE. As for Big Evil, that little bit of compassion ended up being a turning point for the character, as he went from despicable villain to being a fan favorite again literally over night.
Even as a kid I think I understood what an important moment that was, and though I was undeniably crushed by the result when I was 10, I was definitely proud of my guy and remember excitedly telling everyone I knew about how my favorite wrestler had almost beaten The Undertaker. Taking it in 20 years later, I can’t act like I wasn’t secretly hoping for a glitch in the matrix so that Jeff would win this time. But following the match I’m sitting here in awe of how damn good The Undertaker was.
In the ring, this match was an absolutely beautiful piece of storytelling. While in many ways it’s your typical David vs Goliath match, the added element of David getting home court advantage due to this being Hardy’s signature bout threw the formula out the window and left you truly wondering if there was some small chance that Hardy could bust out his slingshot and pull off the upset. This only happens for two reasons. One, The Undertaker sells his ass off for Hardy at certain points of this match and takes some of the most gut wrenching chair shots you’ll ever see to make you truly believe you’re about to witness the impossible. Two, because The Undertaker decided he wanted to make Jeff Hardy a star.
Hardy was a young, popular kid brimming with potential, but he was far from one of the top guys on the food chain. For The Deadman to agree to work what basically amounted to a month long program with Hardy and finish things off by entering Jeff’s world showed a tremendous amount of respect on Taker’s part, and showcased the selflessness he’s become known for in the ring. From the backstage segments where he showed rare signs of insecurity and doubt leading up to the match, to the famous show of respect following the bout where he made it clear Hardy wasn’t just another ordinary man on the roster, Taker did everything in his power to make Hardy look like a credible threat that night and for the foreseeable future.
Whether I’m watching it through naive eyes and begging for Hardy to “Make himself famous” or sitting in awe at the nuisances of The Undertaker’s performance, it’s impossible not to find myself completely drawn back in and start to think “Jeff Hardy is the coolest person in the world.” as he climbs for the final time. There are times when I can almost feel stupid or ridiculous for caring as deeply I something like professional wrestling. It’s matches like this that remind me there’s nothing wrong with it, because there’s no better feeling then the one you used to get when you’re 10 years old. If growing up means losing that, then pass me a pair of footie pajamas and dump my beer in a sippy cup, because I want no part of it.