Welcome to Deadspin’s irregular pro wrestling column, in which Tom Breihan and Ernest Wilkins will comb through the past month or so of superkicks, lariats, and 450 splashes in search of the greatest things that this most American of artforms has given us.
Ernest Wilkins: November’s Survivor Series PPV marks the 25th anniversary of the debut of The Undertaker, the longest running character in a modern wrestling promotion and one of the longest-running TV characters, period, in American history. Mark Callaway started his career in the early 80’s in the Von Erich-run WCCW in Dallas, then made a splash in the NWA/WCW as Mean Mark, one half of the underrated Skyscrapers team with Dangerous Dan Spivey, but his 1990 debut at Survivor Series as the surprise member of Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase’s team.
He’s one of the few wrestlers who has had pretty much the same gimmick since his debut, and unquestionably one of the greatest professional wrestlers in the history of the business. He’s got everything you’d look for in a Hall of Fame career: The 21-year winning streak at Wrestlemania (one of the few sports records that will never be broken), great matches with literally every major wrestling star to appear over the last two decades (except Sting and Goldberg), multiple title wins, the creation of the Hell in A Cell match, casket matches, inferno matches, that weird post-9/11 run as a redneck biker, the whole “my character is responsible for Kane existing” thing ... we could be here all day. Tom, I think Taker is in that weird spot where he’s been around so long that he’s taken for granted. Thoughts on his legacy?
Tom Breihan: I feel like you get the most out of the whole Undertaker experience when you watch wrestling with people who don’t regularly watch wrestling, who maybe haven’t seen it since they were kids. Whenever, say, it gets to be time for the Undertaker match at Wrestlemania, you can see the people who don’t normally get excited start to go nuts. This guy was presented as a supernatural character 25 years ago, and he’s still presented as one now. That resonates with people. It makes us feel like kids to see this behemoth still out there, still throwing chokeslams.
But if you look at the whole of Undertaker’s WWE career, it’s fun to think about how this guy started out as a hyped-up monster and became a legend. He didn’t start out as a legend. The whole first decade of Undertaker matches in WWE are, by and large, pretty bad. He was a lumbering giant fighting other lumbering giants, and the best you could hope for was something like that one Wrestlemania match against Diesel, where they both seemed to be feeling pretty spry that night. Over the years, though, the matches got better and better, and he become more likely to, for instance, launch himself over the top rope and to the floor. Even today, when he only comes back for a few matches a year, you can be assured that those matches are going to be pretty fucking great. (And when they’re not great, like the one where he lost to Brock Lesnar at last year’s Wrestlemania, you legitimately worry about his health.)
And as we’ve come to know more about the backstage workings in WWE, that’s bolstered Taker’s legend, too. He’s widely viewed as a backstage leader and inveterate badass, someone who helps keep order in the locker room, partly by keeping everyone else in line through sheer intimidating presence. There’s that famous story—maybe true, maybe not—about the time a reluctant Shawn Michaels was set to lose to Stone Cold Steve Austin at Wrestlemania. Undertaker, the legend goes, approached Michaels as he was getting ready to go through the curtain and told him that he was going to lose cleanly that night and that he would have problems if he didn’t. Honestly, a story like that doesn’t even have to be true. It’s out there, floating in the ether, and it makes you think about a wrestling character in a whole different light.
Ernest, do you have any favorite Undertaker matches? Or Undertaker memories?
Ernest: Hell YES I do, Tom. In the interest of providing a public service (and because I know a lot of you are going to be bored over the holidays) here’s my list of the essential Undertaker matches, all available to be viewed on the WWE Network.
- Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels (In Your House: Badd Blood, 1997)
1st Hell in a Cell, Michaels gets the shit kicked out of him, Kane debuts!
- Undertaker vs. Mankind: (King of the Ring, 1998)
You’ve seen the two huge spots, but they have way more impact in the context of the whole match. This is one of the only matches I’ve ever seen where EVERYBODY—announcers, refs, crowd—were absolutely holding on with baited breath.
- Undertaker vs.Rey Mysterio (Royal Rumble 2010)
A textbook big guy vs. little guy match and a forgotten gem.
- Undertaker vs. Batista (Wrestlemania 23)
The match that made Dave “Look at me out here being a Bond villain!” Batista once and for all.
- Undertaker vs. CM Punk (Wrestlemania 29)
The world knew Undertaker was winning, but man, did they have fun making you think Punk had a chance.
- Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar (Wrestlemania 30)
Notable for the end of the streak, but the match itself sucks.
- Undertaker vs. Jeff Hardy (RAW episode #475, 2002)
This ladder match serves as proof of Taker’s versatility, on top of two world-class performances from announcer Jim Ross, who calls a world-class match (“MAKE YOURSELF FAMOUS, KID!”) and Hardy, who takes a Grade A ass-kicking.
- Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar (No Mercy 2002)
13 years before their recent Hell In A Cell bout, Brock and Taker engage in an intense war in the cell. There’s blood, too!
What about you, Tom?
Tom: The obvious answer here is Taker’s two back-to-back matches against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania, especially the first one. You could make an argument that that first Mania match is the best WWE match of all time. (In fact, WWE itself did just that.) It’s just a masterpiece—two crafty veterans pulling out every trick they had available, telling a huge and dramatic story with serious stakes.
But as for my total-subjective favorite Undertaker matches, you already named both of them. I wrote a bit last month about that Undertaker/Brock Lesnar Hell in a Cell match from 2002, and I love the shit out of that one. To me, that’s peak WWE, a brutal reminder of how gory and fearless the company’s main-event scene was for a few years there. And I also really love that Jeff Hardy ladder match. The very idea of Undertaker in a ladder match seems weird and ridiculous, but it absolutely worked. Historically, WWE has used Undertaker best when he’s been this elemental force. He can’t be hurt, and he can barely be beaten, but WWE’s bravest young guys will kill themselves trying to dent him. That was the Hardy match. Hardy pretty much just bounced off Taker for all of it, giving it everything he had and still losing. And I am a total sucker for those “Well, kid, you got my respect” moments like the one that ended that match.
Maybe coincidentally and maybe not, both of those matches are from Undertaker’s much-maligned Biker Era, when he stopped being this lightning-shooting force of zombie doom and started riding a hog to the ring. It was goofy, and WWE seems hellbent on forgetting it ever happened these days. God knows the Limp Bizkit theme music hasn’t aged well. (I still like Kid Rock’s “American Badass,” which he also used for a while, but I am literally the only person alive who feels this way.)
For me, though, that Biker Era was the time when Undertaker cared the most about wrestling matches, about telling his stories in the ring rather than resorting to druids and silly special effects. People forget that Undertaker was basically a big stiff for about the first decade of his career. And maybe that’s what’s so remarkable about his run: He didn’t have to become an all-time great wrestler; he was already right there in the main-event scene. He did it because he cared.
This weekend’s Survivor Series almost certainly won’t be the end for Undertaker, but WWE seems to be using it as an opportunity to reflect on the things he’s done. Are you looking forward to seeing him step back out there again, Ernest?
Ernest: Honestly? No. If this whole “old supernatural guys take on the new supernatural guys” was a part of a build to making Bray Wyatt the man forever and ever by defeating the Undertaker at Wrestlemania 32, ending his streak in his final match ? I’d be all in. Instead, we’re getting Kane and Undertaker vs. two Wyatt Family members (we couldn’t drum up two other guys for a Survivor Series-style match?) and ... well, that’s it? I mean, what’s next?
The build to Mania isn’t as exciting to me because losing the streak eliminates any stakes that could have been paid off or any big rub given to a new guy, so the biggest possible opportunities are either another match with Brock (won’t happen), a match with a “new face” like Reigns (not a bad idea, but who’s rising enough that a win over Taker at Mania would boost them to main event level? Cesaro? an NXT wrestler? all three members of The New Day?), or what’s likely going to be the actual match: John Cena. Eye-roll over putting the two together for no real reason aside, what happens here? Taker wins and Cena is still Cena or Cena beats Taker and is the SECOND guy to beat Taker at Mania? Ugh, I’m already confused.
Tom, If Wrestlemania 32 turns out to be Undertaker’s last match, who does he face? Does he win?
Tom: I think he fights Cena, and I think he wins. It’s a feel-good story for these old gunslingers, and it’s the only thing that really makes sense. Wrestlemania will be in Dallas, in Undertaker’s home state, and I don’t see any value in bumming out this stadium full of people by having Undertaker job to, like, Braun Strowman or Finn Balor. But who knows? Undertaker is barely even a part of the show anymore, but I’m still going to miss him when he’s gone.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum. He’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical, and he writes the Netflix Action Movie Canon column for Deadspin’s Concourse. He lives in Charlottesville, VA. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Ernest Wilkins is a writer living in Chicago. He’s written for Gawker, Complex, Pitchfork, Noisey, GQ, Rolling Stone and the Chicago Tribune. He’s 5’11” on a good day, and is also on Twitter.
Top photo via AP