I’m late to the funeral, but the 2020 Survivor Series is in the books, and with it, for now, the career of The Undertaker. On one hand, WWE’s ceremony was befitting of the man’s legacy—not only did The Undertaker debut at Survivor Series 1990, but in having a bunch of his lesser rivals and members of his fake wrestling gang come down to the ring to witness a spectacle that included, among other things, a hologram Paul Bearer, they managed to send the man out on a note as corny as the one he was introduced with. On the other hand, given that all of those men are old and maskless, had to part like the Red Sea for the even older. equally maskless Vince McMahon, and couldn’t rise above the din of the fake crowd noise The Undertaker had to keep pausing to pretend to acknowledge and appreciate, they could have saved that spectacle for when it was safe for audiences to be there for the last ride of wrestling’s ultimate “you had to be there to appreciate it” act.
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I’m going to stop short of saying that WWE failed The Undertaker at Survivor Series, because if anybody could have told Vince McMahon that it wasn’t the right time to finally, officially say goodbye, it was him. But since his WrestleMania 36 Boneyard Match against AJ Styles, he and WWE have worked overtime to define what, exactly, the man’s legacy is. We’ve gotten weird merch, like Undertaker x Snoop Dogg shirts and Undertaker wine. They’ve done two separate month long documentary events about him. There’s even been a press tour, featuring appearances on Hot Ones and in People Magazine. All of it has been strange to witness, as I cannot figure out what master it is trying to serve. Making money? Sure, but that’s wrestling. With WWE struggling with ratings and its creative direction, why have they chosen to put so much time and energy into the reinvention of The Undertaker as Mark, a dad who makes pancakes? Is Drew McIntyre incapable of making pancakes?
I don’t hold the answer to this question, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it for a living wrestler. It’s unnecessary and, frankly, it’s pretty annoying. Over the course of his career, The Undertaker has been big on keeping kayfabe—before his episode of The Broken Skull Sessions put me to sleep, I heard him tell Steve Austin that if he had it his way, hard, uncompromising kayfabe would still be the law of the land. But after reportedly signing a 15-year contract with WWE in 2019 (one assumes to keep things like his announced-and-pulled autograph appearance at Starrcast II in 2018 from happening again) and finding himself without the urge to wrestle post-WrestleMania 36, there has to be some return on investment, so we’re stuck with Mark, The Undertaker’s final form, a big charisma void who wears Thin Blue Line hoodies like a burlap sack and is willing to dress in his Halloween costume to congratulate your son on making second chair viola in his middle school’s production of Okalahoma assuming you’ve got $1,000 to blow. Yeah, it’s hilarious. Yeah, it’s kind of sad. But don’t feel too sorry for him, y’all, because here’s the thing:
The Undertaker Sucks
There are a few things that are undeniable about The Undertaker. When the WWE’s business was hurting in the mid-90s, he was a wrestler fans were attached to. Paul Bearer ruled. His music was great, and until they became self-parodic, his entrances legitimately did have a uniquely cool vibe about them. When he was in the ring against the likes of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, he was capable of compelling storytelling. He was good at wearing hats. He never crashed his motorcycle. But his acclaim, his legend, is a mixture of longevity, loyalty, and nostalgia for the most popular period in the history of wrestling. That’s fine. Creating legends out of thin air is the business of professional wrestling, especially the WWE, and when there eventually is a WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, odds are that it’ll be Taker’s turn to get a bronze statue whose immortal youth and vitality the man who portrayed him will have to confront. It will be a big moment for a lot of fans. It will be a big moment for Vince McMahon. It will be a big moment for a lot of The Undertaker’s peers. It will be a big moment for The Undertaker. I don’t mean to disabuse anybody of the notion that The Undertaker wasn’t, isn’t, important to the history of the WWE and wrestling itself. Vince bought the company from his father in 1982. The Undertaker has been involved with it, in some capacity, for all but eight years of that time, and will be involved with it, in some capacity, until the heat death of the universe.
But he sucks. And by “he,” I mean the character, as a) I don’t want to spend 3,000 words writing about another major wrestling figure’s financial contributions to Republicans and right wing political causes, and b) I have no room to speak about what “good” wrestling looks like, and frankly anybody is capable of it. But here we are, 30-years after debuting as the surprise member of Ted DiBiase’s Survivor Series team, a stretch of time long and public enough to really dig into one of the essential truths of WWE history, which is that their booking of signature talent is often achingly, astonishingly bad. That’s especially true of The Undertaker, whose place in the firmament would suggest that at least half of his major programs were good. But, man, they’re not. 1990 being a strange time, really the cartooniest Hulkamania ever got, Taker made his debut as the charge of Brother Love, perhaps the worst character in the history of professional wrestling. A parody of television evangelists, Brother Love was portrayed by podcast magnate and longtime WWE creative member Bruce Prichard, an interviewer with a red face and a way of elongating words that was supposed to make you want to punch him. So far as managerial pairings go, Brother Love and The Undertaker was a misfire, Prichard’s prissiness and Taker’s quasi-goth vibes a mismatch without considering that the Love character was a total joke, a punching bag babyface wrestlers could make fun of without fear of reprisal.
He was replaced by Paul Bearer, a long time manager in the southern United States under the name Percy Pringle III who had actual experience as a mortician. He didn’t necessarily need the experience—it’s not exactly like his character or The Undertaker’s were anything close to legitimate portrayals of their kayfabe jobs—but it’s a cool story, a perfect meeting of person and circumstance. Playing something of a horror movie show host, he fit The Undertaker perfectly, defined him, and added something legitimately fun to watch to otherwise boring matches that built The Undertaker up during a time when his arsenal was limited to chokes, basic attacks, glove smothering, and the tombstone piledriver. Within a year, he was WWF Champion, beating Hulk Hogan in a complete clusterfuck of a match so that the company could justify experimenting with running pay-per-views on Tuesday. He lost the title back, of course, but it didn’t really matter because the championship was vacated and put up for grabs in the 1992 Royal Rumble, which was won by Ric Flair.
That established two patterns in The Undertaker’s career, the first being how easily the company sacrificed The Undertaker’s mystique in service to feuds he had no place in, the other being the number of hoops he’d be required to jump through to do even the simplest thing, like wrestle Hulk Hogan. Here’s a dude who is 6’10”, 300 pounds, covered in tattoos, given the gimmick that he’s incapable of feeling pain, but his life as a wrestler was so goddamn difficult. It’s not enough that he has a manager and a magical urn that may or may not contain the ashes of his parents who may or may not have died in a fire that he may or may not have started at their family’s funeral home—sometimes he needs the help of Ric Flair or Leslie Nielsen or Chuck Norris to get the job done. Still fairly green in the early 90s, Taker was constantly put in feuds where he was the in-ring lead, most notably his inexorable conquest of Giant González. Until 1996, six years into his WWE tenure, he was largely mired in feuds against big men who weren’t half as mobile as he was—his best rivalry during this time was against Yokozuna, and that’s mostly because the phrase “double wide, double deep casket” is pretty hilarious when Bearer says it. Despite the González feud taking a heavy physical toll on Undertaker in 1993, in 1995 he was put in a feud against Mabel and immediately had his orbital bone shattered. These injuries necessitated frequent breaks, which led to Undertaker losing his fair share of casket matches so that he could recharge his batteries, dying and rising again so that he could die and rise again.
Look—I am not a wrestling genius, but it wouldn’t take me that long to figure out that having Undertaker grind it out in slow, plodding matches where it’s his job to protect his opponent. 1996 was The Undertaker’s first all around good in-ring year, including the first WrestleMania match of his that’s something more than a curiosity. It’s also the year Mick Foley was hired specifically to be The Undertaker’s top rival. The Mankind character and Paul Bearer heel turn that accompanied it weren’t exactly correctives, as their PPV clashes were over-gimmicked brawls that were alright for their time, but they were way better than a lot of what had come before. Still, there was goofy bullshit: Mankind won the first Buried Alive match with the assistance of The Executioner, a washed up Terry Gordy, who shoveled dirt into the grave like a dog. Dressed like a literal medieval executioner, Gordy also stopped Undertaker from gaining a measure of revenge against Bearer when he beat Mankind in a match where the stipulation was that Undertaker would have five minutes with his former manager if he won. Outside of WrestleMania season, which demanded a kind of finality, most Undertaker angles play out this way, long, meandering, and ultimately denying him the reward of victory, if not victory itself.
That’s Gotta Be Kane
1997 was probably the biggest year in the Undertaker’s career, as his feud with Paul Bearer added the aforementioned family funeral home details to his character, which resulted in the debut of Kane. Bursting through the padlocked doors of a steel cage, The Big Red Machine’s first WWE appearance did nothing to ruin what is, in my opinion, the best match of his career, the first ever Hell in a Cell match against Shawn Michaels. It’s against a guy like Michaels where you can really see the level of respect other wrestlers in WWE had for Undertaker, as Michaels, something of a problem child at that point, kills himself for Taker, something he’d do again in their Royal Rumble 1998 casket match (the only good casket match) and both of their WrestleMania singles matches.
Kane, though. With him, we’re asked to invest ourselves in the life of The Undertaker, and it’s pretty goddamn complicated. The convoluted nature of wrestling characters was a hallmark of the late 1990s, probably one of the reasons fans cottoned to wrestlers like Steve Austin, Goldberg, and The Rock, who you didn’t need a show bible to understand. It’s not that Undertaker wasn’t absurdly popular in 1997 and 1998, it’s just that this is the era of wrestling I’ve watched more than anything else in 2020, and the constant flip flopping back and forth as to whether or not Kane and the Undertaker were getting along or colluding to take the title from Steve Austin or if Vince McMahon was forcing them to do so, combined with the Attitude Era’s unwillingness to let the actual matches stand on their own, completely diminishes The Undertaker. The Austin/Undertaker/Kane triumvirate feuded this way over the back half of 1998, and then, when the Ministry of Darkness formed, Kane dropped out and Undertaker and Austin kept going, lack of quality be damned.
The Ministry of Darkness. In theory, surrounding Undertaker with a bunch of weird goons covered in runes is a good idea, but in practice, you know, Vince McMahon was also a main character of the show, as was Shane, as was Stephanie, so all of these people had to intersect with it, as did Steve Austin, so we got things like the crucifixion of Steve Austin, “where to, Stephanie,” the attempted black wedding of Undertaker and Steph, the Corporate Ministry, and Vince McMahon as the Higher Power. As much as “It’s me, Austin! It was me all along, Austin!” rules as a slice of time presented completely free of context, in much the same way as the finish of Hogan vs. Sting can be pointed to as the beginning of the end of WCW, the reveal of Vince McMahon as the Higher Power was it for the biggest drawing card in WWE history, and really for the Deadman version of The Undertaker. Eight years in the company, and at the height of professional wrestling, he’s just a sideshow to someone else’s drama. The Phenom! But you can turn your head from him if you want, Vince McMahon’s neck veins are popping because Steve Austin called him a son of a bitch again.
Alright Partner, We’re Gonna Keep On Rollin’
An injury put a merciful end to the later permutation of the Ministry of Darkness version of The Undertaker, who returned later in 2000 as the American Badass, a motorcycle riding, chaw spitting guy whose theme songs of choice were Kid Rock’s “American Badass” and Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’ (Air Raid Vehicle).” I was 12 when this happened, and I thought it was extremely cool. Like, y’all—he drove a motorcycle in an arena. Where, outside of half a dozen indoor motorsports where people drive motorcycles in arenas, was I going to see something like that? I don’t know what is or isn’t an unpopular opinion with regard to the early 2000s WWE, so I’ll say this and let it hang: The three year period where The Undertaker was just a mean redneck was the best of his career.
It’s certainly the one people point to when making a case for him as a good wrestler. WWE’s roster at the time was absolutely loaded with the kinds of wrestlers Undertaker worked well with, and without having to incorporate any of the Deadman zombie stuff, he was able to wrestle them. This iteration of The Undertaker was the one that seemed to understand the weight of his tenure, as he became a measuring stick for Jeff Hardy, Brock Lesnar, and John Cena. There’s a lot of good stuff during this period of time, the standouts being his ladder match against Hardy and a Hell in a Cell match against Lesnar, with his big WrestleMania X7 match with Triple H being an enjoyable cartoon walk-and-brawl around a gigantic stadium full of screaming people.
What the American Badass/Big Evil era of The Undertaker suggest is that WWE didn’t quite know what to do with him on a long-term basis as a spooky undead guy, like his wearing a beanie and a muscle tank sufficiently depowered him to the point that they could just put him in the ring against Kurt Angle without worrying about setting up an angle where Angle would be live embalmed later in the show. It’s such a strange thing, as there was a brief moment in time when they figured out how to make that character work, but I guess once you’re speaking in tongues and crucifying people you’re pretty much at that character’s ceiling. It turns out that straightforward stuff like “I want to win this title” and “I am angry and want to kick this man’s ass” works, even after years of calling down lightning strikes from the ceiling and getting buried under tons of dirt.
In 2004, The Undertaker parked his motorcycle and started putting on eyeliner again. This coincided with WrestleMania XX, its tagline, “Where it all begins … again,” providing an excuse for him to wrestle Kane. After that, for the next six years, he was the anchor of SmackDown, wrestling as a hybrid of his previous Deadman incarnation and the American Badass. Depending on who he wrestled, the in-ring aspect of this reincarnated Undertaker was pretty good. It’s kind of hilarious when Michael Cole calls him the best pure striker in the history of WWE, and his triangle choke is one of wrestling’s least convincing submission finishes, but he tried, and I won’t fault him for his effort. While not quite a zombie, WWE went back to occasionally booking him as ridiculously as they had before the attitude era. The Dudley Boys entombed Paul Bearer in cement. Muhammad Hassan and a gang of terrorists suffocated him. Gimmick matches like the Last Ride match, casket match, and Punjabi Prison match were introduced or reintroduced and became a regular feature of his life, and this was while he could still go.
More important than that was that his WrestleMania streak, thus far a fortunate accident, became The Streak with his win over Randy Orton at WrestleMania 21. It was Orton who vowed to break it, and, in failing to do so, made that achievement a WrestleMania moment on par with a main event championship win. Mark Henry failed in a WrestleMania 22 casket match. Batista failed in a very underrated World Heavyweight Championship match at WrestleMania 23. Edge failed at WrestleMania 24. And then, WrestleMania 25.
Thinking about it, I maybe should have nominated Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25 as one of the most famous matches in WWE history, because it was massive. The booking was crazy simple for a Deadman Undertaker match: Michaels wanted to beat The Streak and had earned the right to do so, Taker had never beaten Michaels one on one and wanted to do so. Personally, I’m not as high on this match as others are. Its 30 minutes are a little too spaced out for my taste, but it’s one of the most highly acclaimed matches in WrestleMania and WWE history, and the spot where Michaels pulls the cameraman in front of a diving Undertaker is instantly recognizable. This match so ridiculously outshines everything on the WrestleMania 25 card that you feel sorry watching the two title matches that follow—nobody’s paying attention, the show’s already over.
The Streak was important before, but Undertaker/Michaels transfigured it into the most important thing of that era of WWE, something men would come just short of die trying to beat, which is what Michaels did when he put his career on the line for a rematch at WrestleMania 26 and lost. If it wasn’t enough that The Undertaker had won three championships while building The Streak, he was responsible for ending the career of Shawn Michaels, one of WWE’s most beloved performers and the subject of a feel-good comeback story. Both matches won the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Pro Wrestling Match of the Year award, joining Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa as the only pair of matches to win in back to back years. Like, legitimately good. How does one follow that up? Two mediocre Triple H matches where the focus is on Triple H’s desire to do what his friend couldn’t? Why not?
A narrative strand that I’ve left out to this point is that as The Streak continued, The Undertaker’s role as an active wrestler diminished further and further. Big guy, lots of time in the ring, plenty of nagging injuries—that kind of thing is inevitable. But when Orton said he was going to break The Streak, what he did, albeit unknowingly, was shift The Undertaker’s role in WWE from that of an active participant, someone with things to do, to a passive goal waiting to be conquered. With Batista and Edge that was fine because there was a championship at stake—Undertaker was chasing something, the booking was good. With Michaels it was fine because Taker had something to do—beat Michaels for the first time—and Michaels was desperate for another chance.
With Triple H, you had an aged Undertaker returning from rotator cuff surgery, an aged Triple H returning from injury, and a stipulation meant to obfuscate the fact that the two hadn’t wrestled in awhile. The match didn’t work, and neither did the ruse: The Undertaker was taken away from the ring on a stretcher after winning, which pretty much killed the mystique of his gimmick. Their rematch, where Undertaker was the one who wanted the match due to his inability to leave the prior one on his own power, was a Hell In A Cell Match with Shawn Michaels as the referee. Dubbed “The End of an Era,” I’ve always found its nostalgia treacly, my patience for D-Generation X long since worn out, the ask of four straight Intentional Epics too big for me to handle. Taker’s last Streak defense, against CM Punk WrestleMania 29, was great, really the last time he didn’t look tired or out of his depth in the ring.
WrestleMania XXX, though. I was there for it, and while I didn’t know that Undertaker got a concussion within the opening minutes of the match, nothing about that confrontation with Brock Lesnar felt right. Ultimately, it’s fine that The Undertaker lost. You establish something like The Streak so that someone can break it, and while Lesnar, who’d already crushed John Cena and Triple H, to say nothing of his accomplishments in the UFC, didn’t need it, looking out on the horizon really the only wrestler who arguably could have broken The Streak as convincingly as Lesnar was Roman Reigns, and that match didn’t go well. It was an audacious choice, ending The Streak at 21-1—the silence that followed the bell is something that will stay with me forever—but breaking The Streak broke The Undertaker, and all for the sake of setting up someone else’s moment a year later, the same as his winning and losing the WWF Championship from and to Hulk Hogan in December 1991 to set up Ric Flair’s title win in January 1992.
That’s what sucks about The Undertaker. You can cast out all of the convoluted character stuff, the years of bad matches and weird angles and tenuous plays at making him a rah rah American patriot from beyond the grave—he’s just never been booked with the gravitas that I’ve been told I should treat him with. If you want, you can say that that’s part of what makes The Undertaker good, that he’s willing to do whatever harebrained thing creative has for him, to win and lose titles and mystique in a way that does him no favors, and yeah, that might make him a good employee, but we’re talking 30 years of breaking a character so badly that he needs to be literally set on fire or have his spirit exit his body and leave through the ceiling of the arena so he can be reset like a Zelda save that’s too fucked up to redeem.
Once you make a wrestler who needs those rules to work a once a year character, you’re setting him up to fail forever, which is what that loss to Brock Lesnar did. Without The Streak proping up his failing body, and with WrestleMania XXX shaking his confidence, The Undertaker became hard to watch. He beat Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 31 and teamed with Kane to beat Wyatt and Luke Harper in his 25th Anniversary match at Survivor Series, coupled with two more bad matches against Lesnar, all of these booked to hide how washed he was, it becoming clearer that what he was after was a positive note to go out on. That wasn’t his WrestleMania 32 Hell In A Cell match against Shane McMahon, which saw him sucking wind while McMahon reminded the WWE crowd of his penchant for taking big bumps. It also wasn’t his frankly bad WrestleMania 33 main event against Reigns, which was his second and final WrestleMania loss, after which he left his hat and coat in the ring.
That kind of thing is a symbol that one is finished as a wrestler, but nah. John Cena lost to Undertaker in three minutes at WrestleMania 34, a move meant to make Undertaker look strong again after four years of tarnish. After that, we enter the current era of World Wrestling Entertainment (or the era that’s on pause), in which they and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have a 10-year agreement to produce events on par with WrestleMania as part of the country’s Saudi Vision 2030 initiative. With the exception of Crown Jewel 2019, Undertaker has wrestled on every card held in Saudi Arabia, and he also main evented the 2018 version of Super Showdown that broadcast from Australia. These matches have ranged from bad to embarrassing, with nobody caring enough to stop each successive match from happening.
Without his aura, without The Streak, and unable to keep going, why did they continue to press The Undertaker into service until figuring out that camera angles and editing could make him look somewhat like the threat he was in his prime? Because here at the end of the line, The Undertaker’s final iteration is an ATM. As long as they can keep figuring out how to make him spit out money, he’ll be around. And while Mark Calaway says that he doesn’t feel the desire to wrestle again, when the money’s right, The Undertaker will. The lightning will streak across the TitanTron, the gong will sound, the funeral processional will play, and there the Phenom will be, ready to make that nice, even 30 a nasty, odd 31. And then, just like now, it’ll suck.