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Posted in: Requesting Flyby
REQUESTING FLYBY: The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (1: A Debut Year To Be Reckoned With)
By Maverick
Jul 23, 2015 - 6:28:00 PM

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The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania
(1: A Debut Year To Be Reckoned With)


When Vince McMahon plucked little known Texas grappler Marc Calaway from USWA in October 1990, no-one could have predicted quite what an incredible impact the new man would have on professional wrestling over the next quarter of a century. Calaway had bounced around WCW’s midcard in both the tag ranks and the US Title division, without ever really catching on. So what was it that Vince saw? Undoubtedly, the first thing was the sheer size of the man. WWF in the eighties and early nineties was the land of the giants, and the talent that Vince tended to push, particularly on the heel side of the ledger, tended to be gigantic in frame. A former college basketball player, Calaway stood an impressive 6’10”, and even watching his WCW tape, he was an imposing specimen. As it turned out, McMahon had a character in mind for his unheralded acquisition, “Cain The Undertaker”, taking inspiration both from the first murderer of Biblical lore and from classic spaghetti westerns, where grim faced undertakers in trenchcoats and gloves were de rigeur as stock characters. Although his debut appearance was at a Superstars of Wrestling taping, this didn’t air until December, so his official debut with the company remains that incredibly impactful unveiling at Survivor Series 1990.

For weeks, Ted DiBiase had bragged about the “mystery partner” he had recruited to his Million Dollar Team, laughing maniacally at the humiliation Dusty Rhodes and his Dream Team would endure at the Hartford Civic Center. In kayfabe terms, this kind of braggadocio was typical of DiBiase, meaning that we didn’t entirely take him seriously, but when he finally unveiled The Undertaker, a kind of awed hush fell over the arena. The sheer size is the first thing that hits you; no-one who has seen the footage will ever forget Roddy Piper’s reaction on commentary: “Holy cow! Look at the size of that!” and once you’ve registered the physical proportions of the man, you can turn your attention to the overall presentation, which is absolutely flawless from the very beginning. The costume of a Wild West mortician is rendered with menacing and compelling completeness, from the wide brimmed hat to the forearm length leather gloves, whilst Jim Johnston’s take on a funeral march is legitimately chilling, with the debuting wrestler’s progress to the ring being perfectly in time with the dirge playing over the PA system. And of course, Vince McMahon couldn’t resist the symbolism of, at this stage, billing his supernatural worker from Death Valley. If all of that didn’t scream “event” already, the moment where The Undertaker removes his hat and gazes at his future victims with those make up rimmed eyes sends the whole thing into the stratosphere. The selling of the Dream Team is superb too; they look stunned by the arrival of this behemoth, entirely caught on the hop by The Million Dollar Man’s wild card. In the ring, The Phenom immediately shows what he can do, marrying incredible quickness and agility to freakish size and strength (and that’s not just in kayfabe). Even a powerhouse like The Anvil is outmatched in the strength department, whilst Koko B. Ware finds that the giant can match his speed, negating his one potential advantage. The first Tombstone we see takes The Birdman out, whilst the legendary Dusty Rhodes is dispatched minutes later with a double axehandle off the top rope. Only the new man’s instinct to protect his manager undoes him here, as Dusty’s bodily threats to Brother Love see ‘Taker leave the match to fight the American Dream through the crowd, leading to a count out.

Following this incredibly memorable debut, The Undertaker, whose first name “Cain” was subtly dropped and never mentioned again, destroyed a revolving stream of jobbers on Superstars of Wrestling and other such programming. At this stage, he would pluck a flower from the lapel of Brother Love and drop it on his fallen opponent after the match; this post-match routine would, of course, get considerably more sinister a couple of months later. The Deadman entered his first Royal Rumble on the 19th January 1991, where he entered at number 12 and had another impressive outing; the near no selling of his opponents’ offense is more prominent here as he tangles with the likes of Jimmy Snuka, The Texas Tornado, The British Bulldog, and Tito Santana. After fourteen minutes, he was finally removed by the combined forces of Hawk and Animal of The Legion of Doom, but even that was a mark of how high he was on the totem pole, since the former Road Warriors were one of the most strongly booked acts on the entire roster. After squashing the veteran Superfly at Wrestlemania VII - which I won’t go into overly much, since this is a column series all about the legend’s highlights outside of March and April but again indicated that this was a power on the rise- our black clad titan was thrust into his first proper storyline against The Ultimate Warrior, number two face in the company and former WWF Champion.

By now, William Moody had taken over management duties in his Paul Bearer guise, a creepy funeral home owner who carried a mystical urn that would rally his client in times of peril. It was also around this time that the jobbers The Undertaker scythed through on a weekly basis began to be placed into body bags after defeat, a piece of morbid symbolism I well remember my eleven year old self shuddering at. Bearer was given his very own talk segment on Superstars of Wrestling, “The Funeral Parlor” and it was here that he called out The Ultimate Warrior for fearing death, setting up an appearance by the Warrior a week later, where a casket decorated with his trademark symbols was placed in front of the former champion. An enraged Warrior retorted that he feared nothing, that The Warrior Gods had reminded him of his destiny, but as he said this, The Undertaker himself emerged from a standing coffin that was part of the set and ambushing Paul Bearer’s guest in brutally effective fashion. A struggling Warrior was shut inside the casket, whereupon panicked officials emerged to try and get him out, with Vince McMahon, Roddy Piper and Randy Savage making much of the fact that the casket was “airtight”. Now, on the one hand, all of this might seem a little rum in this day and age. But the thing that made ‘Taker’s initial run so effective was the fact that WWF committed to it so much; the entire thing had an atmosphere of realism about it despite a clearly ludicrous conceit. That’s what all good pro wrestling does; it sucks you in and makes you believe something you shouldn’t. What was particularly shocking, other than the kayfabe of men with chisels trying to get a man out of a coffin before he suffocated, was the fact that The Ultimate Warrior had never, ever been dominated like this before. It was a classic narrative; take the man who fears nothing and make him fear something.

The supernatural element of the rivalry continued in a classic series of segments where Jake Roberts volunteered to be The Ultimate Warrior’s guide to the darkness (the amount of time my friends and I spent at school saying “trust me Ultimate Warrior...trust me” in Jake’s signature drawl is crazy to think about). Now, at this time, my parents did not have Sky TV, so I was reliant on borrowing tapes of weekly TVs from friends, and never was there more torture than when I was waiting for the latest Roberts/Warrior skit. Again, it was classic television, because Jake was so good that you never questioned why Warrior might allow himself to be buried alive or why Roberts might be leading Warrior into a room filled with snakes. The intense heel turn (“never trust a snake”) where Jake was revealed as working in concert with Bearer and The Phenom was a fantastic pay off, and one that kept my fevered eleven-year-old imagination burning for weeks on end. Roberts was my favourite singles wrestler at the time, and I suppose that the fact I kept marking for him after his despicable turn on Warrior might be a funny little indication of impending smarkdom. The point of all this though really, is to say that professional wrestling was in a transitional place in 1991; in some ways, The Undertaker character might have easily gone the way of other early nineties “occupation” gimmicks, but it didn’t because WWF never wavered from their commitment to the character, playing it absolutely straight every time, insisting on the kayfabe in such a way as to sweep everyone along with it, even though the curtain was increasingly rising on the fact that wrestling was a work. The involvement of a genius like Jake Roberts only served to make the process easier for Vince and co, as his experience and savvy was vital to the selling of the storyline and the man at its centre, The Undertaker.

Unfortunately, the feud between Warrior and the team of Roberts and ‘Taker never got the pay-per-view blow off it merited; after an infamous incident where Jim Hellwig held Vince McMahon up for money before Summerslam ‘91, he was fired, leading to the conception of the incendiary Jake The Snake/Macho Man feud, which The Undertaker had a supporting role in, helping Jake to crash the “wedding reception” held after the “Marriage Made In Heaven” half of the double main event. On the one hand, the exit of The Ultimate Warrior meant that the first major feud of The Deadman’s WWF career was left hanging, but on the other, the way that he had caught the popular imagination led to Vince McMahon deciding to push him up against Hulk Hogan, the WWF Champion, at Survivor Series. The feud was fairly basic compared to the one he had just come out of, with ‘Taker ripping off Hogan’s crucifix, about as near to the Satanism thing as they could feasibly go, with Ric Flair, who had recently arrived from WCW and had his own kayfabe agenda, aided The Phenom in his quest to bring the gold to the dark side, with a steel chair armed Savage and Piper having to save The Hulkster from a beat down on Superstars of Wrestling. Funnily enough, when I think of The Undertaker, I almost always think of the Survivor Series ‘91 match. Walking to school during the week before, my friends and I debated endlessly what might happen to Hogan in the match; ‘Taker seemed impossible to stop, inhuman even, but Hogan always came out on top in the end, no matter how dire the odds. For two days after the show I stayed spoiler free until I had that taped VCR copy of the pay-per-view in my hands, and boy oh boy was I anxious to know what happened in their match.

The casket with Hulkamania logos emblazoned on it is a great piece of symbolism, with the idea being that Undertaker would “bury” Hulkamania for good; the fact that Hogan destroys it on his way to the ring can be considered the champ’s psychological counterstrike, as the anticipation builds for when the two will go toe to toe. The opening stanza of the match will be familiar to anyone who had watched any of The Hulkster’s title defences against monsters in the past; Hogan is taken aback by his challenger’s size, strength and aura, and is methodically beaten down. Even when the champ fights back, The Phenom seems impervious to his offense. In yet more classic Golden Era storytelling, Paul Bearer’s distraction allows his client to choke Hulk with a camera cable; the difference is that ‘Taker is so menacing that it’s very easy to believe that he has evil intentions. The suddenness and striking agility of the relative newcomer is again on display with a perfectly timed flying clothesline downs Hogan and sets up the Tombstone...but this is still The Hulkster’s promotion, so of course, he leaps straight up from the finishing move and proceeds to Hulk Up. Watching today, it’s clear how out of place such antics were already becoming, even then, since the whole dangerous aura of The Deadman depended on convincing selling by his opponents. However, WWF did show how much their product had progressed in the end, as the usual moves of doom from Hogan were interrupted by the twin distractions of Flair and Paul Bearer, with the pairing ultimately managing to engineer an unseen Tombstone on a chair, which resulted in The Undertaker winning his first WWF Championship within a year of his arrival on the scene. After losing to Hogan in an equally controversial rematch at This Tuesday In Texas, the title would be declared vacant by President Jack Tunney, leading to the Royal Rumble that many consider the greatest of all time, with the gold on the line. It was fantastic booking, with The Undertaker at its heart.

Not only was Marc Calaway’s first year in the WWF one of the most impactful in company history, he was also an integral part of two major storylines; the heel turn of Jake Roberts and the WWF Title being placed in abeyance. He had established himself forever in the hearts and minds of fans as one of the most intimidating wrestlers in the business, but the quality of work meant that it was only a matter of time before Vince tried him as a babyface. With Hogan’s runaway popularity starting to wane, McMahon would throw ‘Taker into battle against a variety of grotesques in special attractions that would come to define him through the next couple of years, along with storylines that became increasingly hokey as time went on and the company’s deft touch began to desert it somewhat. But what positives can we take from The Deadman’s 1992 to 1995 run? Join me next time and find out.



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