An occasional feature in which we honor the sport's fallen and examine their legacies. Today we have a special edition of Dead Wrestler of the Week: The Undertaker, who defeated Triple H last night in WrestleMania 27 and who, while still very much alive, has long been a death-obsessed figure in a death-haunted sport.
Somewhere toward the end of Sunday night's grueling 20-minute row that pitted The Undertaker against Triple H, after 'Taker had absorbed a multitude of fearsome shots from a steel chair and three Pedigrees — that's Triple H's usual match-ender, for the uninitiated — and still wouldn't be pinned, commentator Jerry "The King" Lawler uttered, almost bewildered, "He's not human."
I say this with all due respect to The King: Well, yeah. I mean, that's basically the guy's gimmick. Since he debuted in the WWF in 1990, he's been an undead icon, often unfazed by his opponents' offense and susceptible at times only to supernatural intervention. If in recent years he's come across as something less than indestructible — and Sunday night, his human frailty was the match's central premise — perhaps that's for the best. To take nothing away from Undertaker's sui generis legacy, it's probably a net positive that the most popular figure in wrestling — an industry defined as of late by real-life death — isn't so wholly defined by fake-life death.
To some degree it's inescapable — throughout wrestling history, guys as big as The Undertaker are continually positioned as shatterproof heavies. When tall, redheaded Mark Calaway made his earliest appearances in WCCW and CWA in the late 1980s, it was an opportune moment for oversized wannabes. WWF and WCW were expanding and thus plundering the regional promotions of much of their most-promising (read: musclebound) talent. The smaller federations replaced them as best they could, although at times it felt as if they were handing out tights and frightful monikers to any bar bouncer who showed up for the opening bell. Calaway, at a muscular 6-foot-10, fit the bill. He performed as a series of bullying personas, one more monstrous and indestructible than the last — Texas Red, The Master of Pain, The Punisher — in just a few years in the Texas and Tennessee territories.
In 1989 he jumped to WCW, where, as "Mean" Mark Callous, he replaced a lung-punctured Sid Vicious (who had previously feuded with The Master of Pain as, ahem, Lord Humongous) to team with fellow tall person "Dangerous" Dan Spivey as the Skyscrapers. The refurbished duo jumped into a feud with the Road Warriors that fizzled when Spivey went AWOL.
Though Callous was adopted into Paul E. Dangerously's Dangerous Alliance and though he went up against fan favorites like Brian Pillman, Lex Luger, and Sting, WCW didn't re-sign him after his contract ran out in 1990. Calaway spent several months in Japan and back in the minors before he picked up his phone one day to hear the booming voice of Vince McMahon: Calaway was getting the call-up.
He made a fairly dramatic debut at the Survivor Series as The Undertaker, a zombie Old West-style mortician. If that seems like a thick smudge of a gimmick, consider that it was 1990, and consider his partners that night: 'Taker teamed up with a wrestling millionaire and a team of wrestling Elvis impersonators. Calaway sold his new character full on: chalk-white facepaint, purplish bags under his eyes, full black Western dress, and a moveset the Mummy would be proud of. Before long — after a brief, odd pairing with overripe televangelist Brother Love — The Undertaker was matched with a suitably ghoulish manager drolly named Paul Bearer. Bearer was formerly a shrieking blond fancyboy from the indie circuit called Percy Pringle who had briefly managed Calaway when he was Texas Red. (Weirdly, he was a real-life mortician.) It was a beautiful union: 'Taker was the silent, looming colossus, and Bearer was a blubbery, warbling creep, translating 'Taker's steely glares into antagonistic mezzo-soprano incantations. Soon The Undertaker was manhandling all the hapless jobbers he could get his hands on, finishing them off week after week with his tombstone piledriver. It was a then-common tactic to feed a new villain a string of slouches to make him seem unstoppable: squash, rinse, repeat. 'Taker had a novel addition to the routine, though — he zipped his felled opponents into body bags to establish his sadistic bona fides.
At WrestleMania 7 he participated in a slightly more glorified squash match against Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka; the match was nothing special, but the legacy it began is worth noting. Before long, 'Taker was booked to feud with hopped-up sensation the Ultimate Warrior, whereupon he trumped his earlier body-bag ritual by shutting the Warrior inside an air-tight coffin and, in wrestling terms anyway, nearly killing him.
It was one part Abdullah the Butcher-style savagery-over-substance and one part George Romero-esque nihilism. The move introduced the death obsession that has characterized the rest of The Undertaker's career — and the storytelling that would undergird it. And as cartoonish as it may seem in retrospect, it represented a new pinnacle of morbidity in the spectrum of pro wrestling's pseudoviolence. Obviously, inflicting bodily harm, sometimes very serious harm, is part of the pro wrestling routine. And more than a few instances of over-the-top maiming have been woven into heated storylines over the years (Dusty Rhodes's "blinding" at the hands of the Road Warriors springs to mind), but for the WWF — the national promotion — to so embrace even caricatured attempted murder was something else.
Despite — or, more likely, because of — such viciousness, Calaway was now firmly ensconced in the upper tier of the card, battling Randy Savage, Sid Justice (né Vicious), Sgt. Slaughter, and eventually taking the title (for six days anyway) from Hulk Hogan.
He momentarily joined forces with Jake "The Snake" Roberts but mostly as a pretense for 'Taker to turn on his dastardly running buddy and establish himself as a good guy. (Perhaps the most memorable moment of their alliance was when the duo crashed the wedding reception of Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth.
Even as a babyface, 'Taker's ghastly tendencies didn't fully subside. Over the coming years he would come to be known not just for his morbid disposition but also for a grisly catalog of gimmick matches — most notably the Casket Match and the Buried Alive Match — wherein the goal wasn't (usually) a championship but rather the death of one's opponent. In some sense, these gimmick matches were the logical outgrowth of the Loser Leaves Town Match of the old regional regime: a way to give a feud a grand sense of finality beyond the normal interplay of in-ring hostility. A loser could be written off television when such an outcome was desirable. And certainly a loser's fate came with a big wink to the audience: Just as with the Loser Leaves Town Match or the "I Quit" Match, the fans knew as well as the actors that the rules were only as binding as convenience demanded. But these new gimmick matches raised the stakes considerably.
The finale of every Casket Match or Buried Alive Match almost unvaryingly saw the announcers bawling about the well-being of the felled wrestler (be he good guy or bad guy) and about the depravity of the whole affair. Later, The Undertaker would add to his repertoire the Armageddon Match, the Last Ride Match, and, most famously, the Hell in a Cell Match, which, though less straightforwardly lethal in its definition, was usually even more horrific: Blood flowed from foreheads as a matter of course; the Big Bossman was hanged in the center of the caged ring after his Cell loss; and Mankind was almost debilitated several times in one Hellish night (more on that later).
By contrast, those early gimmick matches look almost quaint. A Casket Match with "Ugandan Giant" Kamala was followed in short order by a Casket Match against sumo whale Yokozuna. 'Taker won the former but lost the latter when a band of baddies helped Yokozuna close the coffin on his ghostly foe.
So dispatched, The Undertaker appeared on the big screen above the ring and triumphantly promised his return; in death, it seemed, 'Taker would only grow stronger.
In mid-1994, "Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase — who had first introduced 'Taker as his partner way back at Survivor Series 1990 — reintroduced The Undertaker as his monstrous henchman. Only this wasn't Calaway — it was another big man (and real-life pal of Calaway's) named Brian Lee, who, with the costume and the whiteface, with the hair covering his mug and the tattoos purportedly procured for the act, presented a fairly passable facsimile of the original. Audiences could sense that something was amiss, though, and soon enough this Underfaker (as he came to be known by fans) was accosted by Calaway, now clad in lavender gloves to accentuate the difference between the original and his doppelganger (in case the several-inch height difference didn't make it clear.)
Needless to say, 'Taker dispatched ‘Faker — the story goes that a planned epic series of bouts between the two was discarded after fans guffawed the storyline away — and soon thereafter Calaway broke his orbital bone and introduced another trope of his career: the injury sabbatical.
Upon his return, 'Taker put together an impressive series of Casket Matches: against Yokozuna, Kama, King Mabel, and Goldust. There was also a Grudge Match (against Diesel at WrestleMania 12), a Final Curtain Match (against Goldust), an Armageddon Match (against the Executioner, played by notable dead wrestler Terry Gordy), and a Bataan Death March of matches against Mankind — a Boiler Room Brawl, a Casket Match, a Buried Alive Match, and a match at Survivor Series wherein, Paul Bearer, now on The Undertaker's bad side , was suspended above the ring in a cage. All this in a mere two years. Along the way, the writers, via Bearer, parceled out The Undertaker's soap-operatic family history: that 'Taker had killed his own parents in a childhood fire and that he had a psychotic half-brother named Kane who was, coincidentally, also a wrestler.
Over the years, many of The Undertaker's opponents had mostly been of the monstrous variety; like Andre the Giant and so many others before him, 'Taker's value to the company was not so much as a champion (or a competitor for the belt) but rather as a special attraction — partly because he didn't need the title to get a reaction from the crowd, and partly because he was portrayed as such an unstoppable force that he'd be a division killer if set against mere mortals. And so he was paired with various oddballs in what was mostly his own ghastly subdivision: matches less concerned with championships than with survival. (Most of his antagonists were laughably bad in-ring performers, just brought in because they looked like credible threats. Jim Ross once smartly noted that nobody had an opponent list more supremely untalented than The Undertaker.)
But this was a rather fallow time in the WWF, especially in terms of top-tier talent, and so the 'Taker-Kane-Mankind storyline was absorbed into headlining feuds with D-Generation X and Stone Cold Steve Austin. A tango with DX's Shawn Michaels saw the creation of the Hell in a Cell concept; the gimmick was taken to another place entirely in 'Taker's match against Mankind, aka Mick Foley. In the timeless (and fairly horrific) matchup, Foley was (deliberately) thrown from the top of the cage onto the announcer's table, then (accidentally) chokeslammed through the ceiling of the cage and into the ring, landing neck-first. (A folding chair landed on his head for good measure.) Foley ended the match bleeding gruesomely from the mouth; his own tooth was somehow in his nostril. Calaway ended the bout seemingly in a state of shock, perhaps questioning his decision to keep in character when that meant repeatedly brutalizing his opponent.
For a career as death-obsessed as The Undertaker's, this has to be reckoned a pivotal moment. Of course, this wasn't the theatrical carnage of the rest of his career; this was actual, irreconcilable near-manslaughter. The match elevated Foley into the modern pantheon and refashioned The Undertaker from cartoon death-dealer to legit tough guy, or, at a minimum, a man committed enough to his craft to abet the suicidal tendencies of a concussed and broken lunatic — a sort of cage-fighting Jack Kevorkian.
Story-wise, The Undertaker embraced this demonic side of his personality, forming a pseudo-Satanic group called the Ministry of Darkness that he led as its vampire evangelist. The death cult embarked on such questionable enterprises as embalming Steve Austin and later crucifying him on television. (The Ministry would eventually, and utterly unsurprisingly, join forces with Vince McMahon.)
After another injury hiatus, 'Taker returned as a motorcycle enthusiast, his funeral-dirge theme song replaced by Kid Rock's "American Badass." It was a move in the direction of "reality" — many stars were integrating themselves into their characters, and even though the zombie-greasemonkey correlation might have been a tad too tenuous for the average fan, hey, this was the modern era. About which, in general, the less said the better.
But a couple of moments over the ensuing years stick out for their audacity. First is a match against Paul Heyman and his Dudley Boys. The conceit was that, in the event of a 'Taker loss, Paul Bearer (once again his putative friend) would be buried in a tank of cement. 'Taker won, but he buried his pal anyway to prove his heartlessness (and, presumably, to keep this sort of thing from happening again).
Bearer was never a particularly lovable character, and this was the era of hardcore. But even so, this was pretty crazy. The WWE realized it, too: The next week, they downgraded the murder to a "grave injury," though Bearer was written off TV for the next five years.
A 2005 feud with up-and-coming Arab-American baddie Muhammad Hassan was, er, hijacked when Hassan had a troupe of ski-masked associates beat The Undertaker down.
A little light terrorism within the pro wrestling world might not have been such a big deal had the London Bombings not taken place the day before the show aired. Once the mainstream media got hold of the angle, the WWE was set back on its heels. They insisted that the thugs weren't terrorists, that people were missing the point, but it didn't much matter; Hassan was soon fired and the storyline was dropped.
In 2006 The Undertaker was feuding with Randy Orton and his proxy (and father), '80s fixture "Cowboy" Bob Orton. (The Orton-'Taker match at WrestleMania 21, incidentally, was the first to use The Undertaker's undefeated streak as part of the storyline. After last night, his streak now stands at 19 matches.) In one match, an aggrieved 'Taker took it to Orton père, bloodying him badly. Later, off screen, Calaway found out that Bob had once tested positive for hepatitis and that nobody had thought to mention it to him before the two shared a bloodbath. Calaway was justifiably incensed, and the elder Orton was soon sent packing.
In the first two scenes a picture emerges of how death figures in The Undertaker's world — foremost as show and spectacle (the Bearer incident), with anything permitted so long as it doesn't brush up against reality (the Hassan incident). And for anyone paying attention, the Orton incident highlighted the delicate humanity of the people putting on the show. It was a reminder that the real world isn't completely external to wrestling; it's right there in the ring, whether it's acknowledged on camera or not.
And as the years have progressed, The Undertaker's own fragility has become a larger part of his story. When he fought Yokozuna in that Casket Match at the 1994 Royal Rumble, it took an army of scoundrels to shut him inside the coffin, and even so, his immortality was immediately publicized. At WrestleMania Sunday night, however, The Undertaker stalked to the ring to singing a Johnny Cash song, "Ain't No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down)" — a defiant statement, sure, but implicit in the song is a not-so-subtle allegory. It was released after Cash's death, after all. When the match was over, the victorious 'Taker lay powerless — lifeless, almost — in the ring for several minutes until he was finally carted to the locker room by the event's medical staff. Surely part of the goal was to sell the awesomeness of the bout, post facto, by underscoring its toll on its combatants. (Triple H looked like he'd been hit by a car too.) But let's not ignore the fact that there was a time when 'Taker would have done the Michael Myers zombie-sit-up and lumbered back to life.
Mark Calaway is often regarded as a locker room general, a leader among the boys, the last of the old guard: the standard-bearer. He talks in interviews about putting the business above everything else, that it's not about his agenda but about the WWE's. And certainly his goal is worthy — he's been an irreplaceable icon over the years, and his contributions to WWE history really can't be overstated. To this day, viewers — this one included — get slightly jittery when the opening gongs of his theme song are struck.
But it's impossible to consider the culture of death that's emerged in the pro wrestling world — primarily outside the ring — without taking into account its most notorious death-centric personality. The passings of the icons of our youth taught us that death is a reality; Owen Hart, above all, taught us that death can defy wrestling's counterfeit reality. The Undertaker's entire existence moves against that revelation: to induce us, repeatedly, into accepting death as just another way a match could end, a plot point. Whenever an idol dies, we can shrug our shoulders and move on, and 'Taker, while certainly not responsible for the fates of his colleagues, had a lot to do with conditioning our response. He escorted death between the ropes and into the ring and made it another part of the show.
If pro wrestling fandom isn't itself exactly a death cult, it's at least a diversionary approximation of one; it's Fight Club: The Cartoon. Paradoxically, it's the proliferation of wrestling deaths that has inured us to the specific tragedy of each.
The Undertaker isn't a motorcyclist anymore — he's back to his Deadman gimmick, more or less (though he's cut back on the face paint). The irony of his "American Badass" period is that in trying to be more real, he became just another cartoon. And the character he left behind — the undead death dealer — is more a reality in the sad real world of pro wrestling than anything else he could've come up with.