Looking at that title makes what I’m about to do here feel like a bit of a daunting task, but I’ll do my best to share my favorite memories & thoughts on this historic career…of which I’ve witnessed almost all of and pay tribute to The Big Dog of the Yard in WWE. So here goes nothing…
It’s believed that last Sunday night, at WrestleMania 33, Mark Calloway, the man known to WWE fans worldwide now for almost 27 years as The Undertaker, wrestled his final match in a losing effort against Roman Reigns. Over the course of his WWE tenure, The Undertaker has only lost 2 WrestleMania matches. That’s quite an accomplishment, and I’m sure early on when he was racking up wins over Jimmy Snuka, Jake “The Snake” Roberts & Giant Gonzalez, they weren’t really paying a lot of attention to make sure he goes over each year and by the time he reached 8 or 9 consecutive WrestleMania victories, it became a thing and everyone took notice. I know for me, the first time I realized the streak was when he counted his 10 victories after defeating Ric Flair at WrestleMania 18.
Undertaker debuted at the 1990 Survivor Series as a mystery partner on Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Team, tagging with Ted DiBiase, Honkytonk Man & Greg Valentine against Dusty Rhodes’ Dream Team of Dusty, Koko B. Ware, Bret Hart & Jim Neidhart. At first, he was managed by Bruce Pritchard playing Brother Love, but later was transitioned over to the more fitting manager of Paul Bearer (a real life mortician outside of the wrestling business). As the gimmick was pitched originally, he was to be a zombie-like mortician in the old west style, wearing a black trench coat, grey & black tie and a black hat. His matches were quite simple, he would enter to a funeral march music in the dark only with a spotlight to show him entering. He essentially would feel no pain, rendering his opponent’s offense entirely ineffective. He would take big move after big move, lie there motionless, then sit up and get back up unfazed. It really was quite awesome to watch back in those days, though I’m sure the guys he wrestled probably didn’t appreciate their most devastating looking offense being brushed aside with ease on a nightly basis. But this character was a hit and he was rocketed to the top in fairly short order when he defeated Hulk Hogan for the WWF Title just a year later at the 1991 Survivor Series pay per view with the help of Ric Flair.
That title reign wouldn’t last long as a rematch was ordered just under a week later at the This Tuesday In Texas pay per view event, where Hulk Hogan would reclaim the title. In fact, a lot of Undertaker’s title reigns didn’t last very long. In total, counting all 4 reigns as WWE Champion, Undertaker racked up an astoundingly low 238 days as champion while also totaling 207 days with the World Heavyweight Championship after the purchase of WCW in 2001. For a comparison…CM Punk (another favorite of this writer), who spent 7 and a half years on the main roster of WWE had a single reign with the WWE title that lasted a total of 434 days, and that’s not counting multiple other runs with both the WWE and World Heavyweight Titles. Truth be told though, Undertaker didn’t need a championship for his matches to matter. He was such an attraction for the company that it really didn’t make a bit of difference that he wasn’t champion, it was all the theatrics that made the Undertaker a must-see attraction for 27 years.
As I said in an earlier blog, I can still remember the first time I saw Undertaker’s entrance live at the Brendan Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands…when the arena got chilly after the lights went out and the organ music started playing. The hair on your arms would stand on end as the tall figure would appear, dressed all in black, stoically making his walk towards the ring. And for as cool as that entrance was back in the day, that’s only where it started. As the years went on, purple lighting along with fake lightning, sounds of thunder, fog and flames would be added to the presentation. They also would even hit the thunder sound as he removed his hat for his entrances, which sure made for a very cool, very supernatural presentation. For a few WrestleManias, he was accompanied by druids holding torches, who would line the aisle while he made his way to the ring. And while Paul Bearer was always a great manager for that character, and was a great mouthpiece for him early on when I don’t know that Taker was quite ready to start cutting the excellent promos he would later on in his career. But whether Bearer was with him or not, Undertaker was a star.
Because of the nature of his character, WWE started to introduce various specialty matches built around the character such as: the body bag, casket & buried alive matches while later, he was heavily tied to the creation (and I believe) the popularity of the Hell in a Cell match. Because while WCW and later TNA Wrestling would adopt their own versions of the Hell in a Cell match, neither would gain the appeal or give the viewer the true sense of danger that WWE’s Hell in a Cell would bring to a match.
A lot has been said of how the Undertaker was always able to evolve his character to keep up with the times and be a fresh and interesting character throughout his long run. While the undead zombie character was plenty cool and all, when WWE started getting a bit more “real” in the Attitude era of the mid to late 90s, it was time for a change for the Deadman as well. He went from being the undead zombie to the Lord of Darkness…an almost satanic character who later became a cult leader with his Ministry of Darkness. He had his own henchmen who would do his dirty work for him in the Acolytes (later known as the APA) and for a time there, even the Brood (Gangrel, Edge & Christian) followed Undertaker along with Viscera and Mideon.
Once that version of the character ran its course, Undertaker would disappear for awhile to nurse some injuries. When he returned though, he debuted yet another version of the character. For me, this was one of my favorite versions of the character, it’s the one we fondly refer to as the BikerTaker. He came back as what I believed to be much more true to the man behind the character. During the Attitude era, you had guys more or less ditching a lot of the over the top gimmicky characters in favor of playing more of a version of themselves “with the volume turned up” as they always liked to say. And while Steve Austin went from “The Ringmaster” to the Texas redneck who cussed and beat up his boss and Hunter Hearst Helmsley went from being a rich snob to being the ass kicker who wielded a sledge hammer now known as Triple H, the Undertaker went from being the undead zombie to a much darker, Lord of Darkness who sacrificed people and tried to have a dark wedding with the boss’s daughter. But finally now, after that character had run its course, it was finally time to get a look at the man behind the character and get a feeling for who he really was in real life. It’s during this time that he started calling the ring his yard, that he was the Big Dog of that yard and boasting about how if you cross him, he’ll “make you famous” just as he did Mick Foley after their infamous Hell in a Cell match. As I stated earlier, I loved this incarnation of the character. He was cool, he walked with a swagger and backed up his words by handing out some serious beatings. He also ditched the funeral dirge music in favor of Kid Rock’s “American Badass” and later, Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin'”. Eventually, I suppose WWE didn’t want to have to continue to pay for the rights to use these songs and they drafted up their own in-house created music for the character. It also probably saved them money in post-production where they would have to dub over said Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit songs on VHS, DVD & eventually Bluray releases that included his matches.
The next evolution of his character took him a bit more back to his roots, he started to don the black trench coat and hat, however he continued to wear the leather pants and tank top and started to grow his hair back in from the short spike he had been sporting as the biker. As my friends and I joked the first time we saw this incarnation at WrestleMania XX, we called him Taker, Texas Ranger. This version also continued to morph as his fighting style in the ring took on a bit of an MMA style as he incorporated new moves into his repertoire like the triangle choke which he called the “Hell’s Gate” along with wearing MMA-style gloves. In all reality…by this time, he really didn’t need to continue expanding on the character and really could have just come to work, done all the classic Undertaker stuff with the fancy lights, given us a paint by numbers match on a weekly basis and just done the whole nostalgia act, but this guy continued to evolve his game and for a lot of WrestleManias when he could have phoned it in, he was constantly putting on one of the best matches of the night.
The WrestleMania streak of 21 matches without a loss is quite a feat in & of itself especially considering that I’m sure that early on, they weren’t really keeping track of any of it and he just ended up going over each year just by virtue of the fact that this is where the story was going and it was time for Undertaker to finally get the upper hand in whatever feud he was in at the time. Once we got to his 10th victory at WrestleMania, that’s when it became a thing every year when Undertaker’s WrestleMania match was someone stepping in to try to end the streak. During that streak, while it started out with guys like Jimmy Snuka, Jake Roberts, Giant Gonzalez and King Kong Bundy, it would eventually lead to some truly memorable matches against Ric Flair, Randy Orton, Batista, Edge, Shawn Michaels, Triple H & CM Punk. For awhile there, it was really starting to become a question as to how he would top the year prior’s match, and while he may not have always topped the previous match, he never lost a step and always brought his best performance of the year to the yearly wrestling extravaganza.
To say that Undertaker has been a part of some truly memorable segments on WWE tv over the years would be an understatement. I’ll always remember him turning heel on Jim Ross when Ross was set to join Vince McMahon’s “Kiss My Ass Club”. Just as Ross was refusing to join the “club”, out comes Undertaker (now as the biker) to seemingly save the day, and asks how Jim Ross believes himself to be better than the Undertaker since he had been there, kissing Vince’s ass for well over a decade already, then forces Ross to complete his initiation to the Vince McMahon “Kiss My Ass Club”. And while he may have thrown his weight around in segments like that, he was certainly not above helping to get younger talent over with the crowd by lending his credibility to said talents. From tapping out to Kurt Angle to shaking Cena’s hand backstage and showing his respect to his final act of unselfishness of putting over Roman Reigns clean in the middle of the ring at WrestleMania 33. Hell, if it wasn’t for the longevity of the Undertaker character and the levity that it carried in the wrestling business and with wrestling fans, I’m sure that Glenn Jacobs wouldn’t be able to look back on his own 20 year career in WWE built off of his character, Kane’s family history with Undertaker and their constantly interwoven storylines and the crazy matches and feuds that the “Brothers of Destruction” had for so long. In fact, when looking back over the career of the Undertaker, it’s really no surprise that he would want to go out in the traditional old school way of laying down for a young up & coming superstar like Roman Reigns. From all accounts I’ve ever read, he always made himself available backstage for the younger guys to come talk to him, ask questions and share his knowledge of the business, being that veteran voice who when he spoke, everyone listened because he’s done it all and seen it all in this business.
While WWE has had a number of big-name superstars come and go throughout the years from Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Ultimate Warrior, Yokozuna, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, Kurt Angle, John Cena, Batista, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar…the one constant through all these years has been the man in the black hat and trench coat, the Big Dog of the Yard, The Undertaker. And he’s beaten them all! Though it probably hasn’t really sunk in much backstage since he largely had taken himself out of the day to day goings on in WWE, his absence will definitely be felt next year by people both in the company and the fans when there isn’t an Undertaker match at WrestleMania 24 since those have become such a yearly attraction towards the end of his career.
WWE has lost superstars due to various exits for a plethora of reasons, but I really doubt any of those exits will carry the emptiness that will be left now that Undertaker has seemingly called it a career. Not that I really expect him or anyone close to him to read this, I will say this: Thank you for all your tireless work through all the years and being WWE’s Cal Ripkin who always just went to work. You’ve left a lasting void that will never be filled in a company that I so love to watch on a weekly basis. I’ll deeply miss the yearly over-the-top entrances at WrestleMania, on the one night a year where we were virtually guaranteed an Undertaker victory. I used to proudly wear my “Big Evil” shirt each WrestleMania Sunday knowing it was gonna be a good night for us “creatures”.