Fifteen days after Michael Jordan’s 17-foot jumper covered cheeks in salt-stained tears and forever pierced the hearts of Utahns, Karl Malone stepped out of an 18-wheeler inside the Ice Palace in Tampa, Fla., and grabbed a black folding chair.
The pace was brisk, because when you’re hauling a folding chair with the intent of slamming it into the back of someone else, you usually have some pep in your step. Malone certainly did. Alongside “Diamond” Dallas Page, the duo — decked out in matching outfits from head-to-toe — was trailed by a cameraman broadcasting the live march to the ring on “WCW Nitro.”
Inside the Ice Palace on June 29, 1998, the cheers turned up higher, reaching ear-piercing levels. Malone and Page jogged down the entryway as fans reached out in futile attempts to touch the Utah Jazz’s NBA MVP and future Hall of Fame power forward.
Already in the ring, wrestling god Hulk Hogan was delivering the sort of familiar, rambling diatribe he always unleashed when building toward something big. Hogan and former wrestling producer and on-screen personality Eric Bischoff were executing the marketed storyline to a T.
Malone and Page eased in under the ropes as the crowd went bonkers. Eventually, the two slapped together their folding chairs, signaling not only the start of Karl Malone’s dream of stepping in the ring, but of one of the most publicized pay-per-view matches in the history of professional wrestling.
There he was, Utah’s 6-foot-9 “Mailman,” dropping Hulk Hogan flat on his back, delivering a clothesline with his massive wingspan while frenzied fans tossed cups of beer into the ring. As Hogan slipped away, staying on his feet to fight another day, Page grabbed the mic: “Hey Hogan, you’ve just been slam-dunked, punk!”
But it was also only a prelude.
Hogan’s tag-team partner wasn’t there that night. Dennis Rodman was elsewhere. “Making a movie,” Bischoff told the crowd, further building the anticipation for July 12, inside Cox Arena in San Diego, Calif., when an NBA on-court rivalry moved from the paint to the mat.
Twenty years later, the event remains a part of Jazz lore. It was the night one of the franchise’s most beloved figures took on an arch-enemy, not under a hoop but in the ring, surrounded by wrestling legends in the “The Bash at the Beach.”
“That,” Page said reminiscing, “was monstrous.”
Diamonds are forever
There would have been no anniversary of the “Bash at the Beach” if not for a random invite and a chance circumstance. Dallas Page was in Houston for an autograph session in January, 1998. The Jazz happened to be facing the Rockets at the Summit, and Page was offered a pair of tickets.
Utah cruised to a comfortable win, and sometime during the fourth quarter, Malone spotted one of his favorite pro wrestlers about 20 rows up. Malone pivoted in the direction of Page, pressed his index fingers and thumbs together, throwing up Page’s “Diamond Cutter” sign.
Page missed it, but the WCW photographer seated with him did not.
“My photographer said, ‘Get him to do it again!’ and I was like, ‘Bro, I don’t know him,’” Page recalled.
During the next timeout, Malone threw up the “Diamond Cutter” sign again. After the game, the two met outside the locker room. Page knew Malone was a wrestling fanatic from the days his mother would take he and his siblings to matches during his childhood days in Louisiana.
Malone and Page exchanged numbers, and a few weeks later, when Malone found out Page was in New York City at the same time as the NBA All-Star Game, the Jazz forward had some tickets to give to his future tag-team partner. Malone was staying at Trump Tower and didn’t want to leave the tickets at Will Call at Madison Square Garden, so Page went to pick them up from the hotel room from Malone’s wife, Kay.
The two stayed in touch over the ensuing months and when Bischoff later informed Page that Rodman, who had previously been involved in WCW pay-per-view matches with Hogan’s “new World Order” (NWO), Page tossed out a not-so-far-fetched idea to Malone. As their friendship blossomed, Malone told Page his dream was never to be a basketball player — he felt the lure of the ring.
Still, Page got only a maybe from Malone.
So the wrestling star went to Bischoff, who at first, didn’t know much about Malone. But when Malone and the Jazz swept Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the 1998 Western Conference Finals, Bischoff was sold. They were suddenly on a private jet to Salt Lake City to work out the details with Malone. The Mailman was now sold on the idea. But it wouldn’t be strictly a sideshow inside of a sideshow. Malone wanted to learn how to wrestle.
“I want to do it all,” he said at time. “I want to have a match.”
Ballet meets street fight meets gladiators
The Jazz steamrolled their way through the Western Conference bracket again, but for the second time in as many years fell to Jordan, Rodman and the Bulls in the Finals. Afterward, Malone found time to fly to Atlanta, to learn how to tumble to the mat correctly. Page said Malone wound up making four trips to “The Power Plant” in Atlanta, which was the training facility for all WCW wrestlers.
The first time Malone hit the mat, he knocked the wind out of himself.
“Next time,” Page told him, “duck your chin a little bit.”
For about a month on and off, Malone had a slew of different wrestlers to grapple with and learn from. Page wanted him to get used to going up against athletes of different sizes in order to prep for Hogan and Rodman. Malone was a natural, someone who “watches what we did and loved it,” Page said.
“It’s not easy to get in the ring and do it,” Page continued. “It’s kind of like ballet meets a street fight meets gladiators. Sometimes s*** gets real, real fast in there.”
“The timing was perfect, and the guys were perfect,” said Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer, who has covered pro wrestling for 47 years. “Rodman was a character and Malone looked the part.”
The angle, the hook every wrestling story needs, was shot on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” in the weeks leading to the “Bash at the Beach” in San Diego. Leno later stood between Malone, Page, Rodman and Hogan as the tag-teams exchanged in banter. Hogan, according to The Associated Press, called Malone “a yellow-bellied coward.”
Rodman added: “I called Karl a lot more than a wimp on the court. I don’t know how he’s going to beat me in the ring when he can’t beat me on the court.”
Before the appearance on “The Tonight Show,” Rodman was seen on WCW Nitro during an event in Auburn Hills, Mich., the day after the Bulls pummeled the Jazz 96-54 in Game 3 of the 1998 Finals. Rodman was smoking a cigar, adding fuel to the show that would soon transcend NBA and pro wrestling circles.
A night to remember
They wore flashy purple leather pants, because ... of course they did.
Malone and Page had the Jazz look down pat when the match inside Cox Arena began. First, Malone and Hogan locked up, and even Meltzer remembers how much effort Malone went through to try and perfect the look in such a minimal amount of time.
“You could tell [other] athletes were doing it half-heartedly for the money,” Meltzer said, “and Karl was not that. He was doing it because he really liked it. If he wanted to be a pro wrestler, he could’ve been.”
It’s hard to make pro wrestlers look small in the ring, but Malone’s stature and his 4.8 percent body fat dwarfed everyone else on the main event’s stage. He was oiled up, his elbows and wrists padded carefully, and when he laid down a clothesline to Rodman or Hogan, it looked like it caused some hurt.
In all, the match ran an absurdly-long 23 minutes. The YouTube version condensed online by the WWE sits at four minutes and 43 seconds, in which Malone clotheslines, body slams, boots Hogan in the face, and delivers three versions of Page’s famed “Diamond Cutter” moves in the ring. Once Page dropped Hogan with the signature move, Malone followed in doing the same to Rodman as the Bulls star tried to intervene.
That’s where the match went, according to the sort of script that only pay-per-view wrestling can administer.
A discussion between Malone and the ref turned into Hogan’s bodyguard, “The Disciple,” sneaking into the ring, taking down Page and moving Hogan onto Page for the 1-2-3 count. Malone took down “The Disciple” himself and after throwing a right fist into the air to salute the adoring fans, put referee Charles Robinson on the mat with one last “Diamond Cutter.”
“The guys delivered,” Page said. “For two guys to walk out there who really were not wrestlers at all, I thought me and Hulk walked them through a pretty fun match. If we’d been in either hometown, it would’ve been insane. We were in a satellite town in San Diego, so people still came in from all over, but the crowd was hot.”
According to a story from Bleacher Report, Rodman made $1.5 million off the match, while Malone made $900,000 for the main event. Meltzer said it had 600,000 pay-per-view buyers.
“Sometimes you don’t know how well things were going to do,” he said, “but this one didn’t fall into that category. People knew it was going to do well as it did.”
Twenty years later, Page, now 62, said it remains a top-three career moment for him. Plenty of fans still bring up the match, too, telling Page the’ll always remember the tag-team spectacle of the fight because of the names attached to the event.
This past January, Malone was back in Florida, back in an arena hosting a professional wrestling night. In the stands instead of the ring, Malone was shown on the WWE SmackDown broadcast as he was introduced to the Orlando, Fla., crowd. His beard’s nearly all grey now, but still every bit of his imposing self.
The fans saluted Malone, who as he did 20 years ago during that timeout in Houston, again raised his hands together to salute the man who got him into the ring, through the ropes, onto the mat to squabble with his nemesis.