REQUESTING FLYBY: The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (13: Big Evil)
Dec 5, 2015 - 8:57:09 AM
The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania
(13: Big Evil)
When one looks back upon the storied career of The Undertaker, it quickly becomes clear that he spent far more time as a beloved babyface than he did a dastardly heel. There are really only three major runs as a villain in the twenty five year span: his debut year from late 1990 through to the spring of 1992, the Ministry of Darkness version of the character from late 1998 to summer 1999, and the late 2001 to summer 2002 period we will be discussing today. But in many ways, those three heel runs are, for me, some of his most memorable work, at least from a character point of view, and Big Evil may well be the most interesting character he ever played.
After the dust of the InVasion had settled, Vince McMahon soon returned to his old self, ironically aligning with many of the men who had been looking to put him out of business only a few weeks before, and turning on the likes of The Rock. The iconic Austin/McMahon rivalry was soon as fierce as ever, with Vince looking to reward his “mole” Kurt Angle, but having to deal with the reality of Austin and Rock holding the two major titles. On the 11/26/01 edition of Raw, the boss declared that The Rattlesnake would be joining the “Kiss My Ass Club” he had inaugurated the week before, and of course the tension was built around the extreme unlikelihood of Stone Cold doing anything of the sort. In the event, Austin played along until the critical moment, when he gave Vince a resounding low blow and proceeded to whip his bare buttocks with his belt. It was classic and comforting television, a parody of the very many segments of the sort seen in the Attitude Era’s heyday, and the entire thing was perfectly pitched. This assault on McMahon brought out his army of lackeys- the Dudleys, Christian, Test and Kurt Angle- but The Bionic Redneck was able to escape.
On commentary, JR found this highly amusing and guffawed his head off at the booth. As Angle noticed this, and pointed it out to McMahon, Vince decided to get JR in the ring and force him to join the club, but was interrupted by the sudden sound of Limp Bizkit echoing through the arena sound system. The Undertaker marched to the ring, shaking his head, and all present thought Ross was about to be rescued. In an exceptional piece of promo work, The Phenom summed up his length of service by remarking that he’d seen a lot of people come, and a lot of people go, and all of them had, at some point, kissed Vince’s ass. The saddest thing was, he had kissed that ass more than anybody. Interestingly, this actually recalled a speech from early 1998, when the frustrations of the babyface Undertaker were building towards the slow burning turn that helped create the circumstances surrounding Deadly Game tournament. Deadman Inc. asked JR if he was going to kiss McMahon’s ass, and when the announcer responded with “hell no!” (to a huge pop) The Undertaker savagely responded “is that because you think you’re better than me?” The electricity in the crowd at this sudden swerve was incredible, and moments later, the whole arena was in shock as ‘he decked his supposed friend to the canvas with an enormous right hand. The newly heel ‘Taker proceeded to force Jim Ross to kiss the boss’ behind while Vince was wearing the famous cowboy hat, and a brilliantly constructed heel turn was complete.
The best turns almost always use character motivation which is believable and which one can trace back through previous weeks and months worth of events. As always, during the InVasion, The American Badass had been the loyal soldier, the locker room leader, the long tenured legend who could be counted upon. But who got the glory during that war? The Rock, who came back for Summerslam, well after the battle had begun. Chris Jericho, whose charismatic rise to the main event was completed by the end of the angle. Not him. He was just the old, trusty Undertaker. It was all about respect, you see. A Decade of Destruction. What could that mean without people understanding the achievement and the man behind it? Over the next few weeks, the persona we would come to know as Big Evil emerged, as he went on a tear, brutalising the likes of Tazz and Bradshaw with Last Rides onto trash cans and the like, before deciding that the young, brash, cocky Hardcore Champion Rob Van Dam needed to be taught a lesson. ‘Taker declared that he had a lot to learn, but would graduate with honours at Vengeance. By the time the pay-per-view came around, Big Evil had cemented the change by cutting off the long hair and dying it black.
The Undertaker vs RVD match up for the Hardcore Title was an intriguing one, which I remember being ultra hyped for. It was undoubtedly fun to see The Deadman fight for a midcard title, and also a fantastic feather in the cap for the mega over Van Dam to be having a one on one pay-per-view match with a legend. It’s hard to describe just how over the former ECW man really was in late 2001. It was absolutely wild. Therefore, the innovative RVD and the brutal, ruthless Undertaker made for a compelling clash of offensive styles. Van Dam showed no signs of intimidation in the early going, but his ambitious high risk attack led to problems when ‘Takee crotched him on the top rope and booted him to the outside of the ring. However, even on the outside, the smaller man was able to go toe to toe with his larger opponent. This is something I’ve always loved about The Undertaker; he really has gone out of his way to put others over and make them look good over the years. The flow of battle swung Big Evil’s way as they fought through the crowd, with use of a Mexican flag to choke the Hardcore Champion and a barricade to flatten him being a couple of key highlights, but another awesome fightback saw Van Dam utilise a fire extinguisher, showing his instinctive awareness of his surroundings, and setting up an ascent to the cheap seats to deliver a cross body from an insane height to the groggy Deadman. As they emerged from the back and onto the ramp, ‘Taker once more took advantage, but was unable to get the Last Ride, when, in an awesome spot, RVD grabbed a curtain and climbed out of it. However, after a brief flurry of offense, a missed effort at a Van Daminator led to a chokeslam off the stage onto a stack of tables, and Big Evil rode off into the night with the Hardcore Title.
In the run up to the Royal Rumble, the new attitude of the Badass continued, as he put Matt and Jeff Hardy on the shelf, and butted heads with other big Rumble contenders like the returning Triple H, as well as old foe Stone Cold Steve Austin. The theme of the WWF being Undertaker’s “yard” was prominent, and when he became the first big name to show up during the 2002 over the top rope extravaganza, business, as JR said, was about to pick up. Immediately clearing the ring of midcarders, Big Evil was faced with, in successive numbers, Matt and Jeff, who, along with Lita, teamed up to beat him down and almost eliminate him, but one high risk too many saw Jeff go to the floor, followed by Matt soon afterwards. However, Lita and the Hardy Boyz played a key role in what happened next, as Tough Enough rookie Maven, rather than being the sacrificial lamb everyone thought he’d be, used the distraction of ‘Taker jawing at Team Extreme to dropkick The Phenom right over the top rope! Even today, it’s an awesome piece of Rumble booking, and what happened next very much cemented the way this version of heel Undertaker operated. Immediately, the place went quiet as ‘Taker methodically pursued his prey, pulling him out of the ring to begin a sick beat down. A chair cracked off the young man’s skull, before an innocent Scotty Too Hotty, dancing his way to the ring, was decked with an uppercut. Maven found himself beaten all the way into the foyer, where he ended up thrown through the glass of a popcorn machine and busted open. A smug Undertaker ate a few mouthfuls of popcorn as JR went crazy on commentary. It’s a fantastic Royal Rumble highlight that I always make sure to watch each January as the big day approaches.
This incident with young Maven would parlay into a feud with The Great One, as Rocky objected to Big Evil’s behaviour, finding it to be cowardly and in poor sportsmanship. Of course, this being The Rock, he managed to say so in as offensive a way as possible. The Undertaker’s response was predictably violent, costing The Rock a number one contenders match and proceeding to attack him several times over the next few weeks with a lead pipe. The Brahma Bull responded by interfering in The Deadman’s Hardcore Title match with Maven, gifting the kid the championship, which led in turn to The People’s Champion being Tombstoned on the roof of a car. It was an excellent, heated feud, the kind that the company habitually managed to put together with its top talent at that time. Over the years, there’s been a feeling in the IWC that The Rock and The Undertaker never had particularly good chemistry, but just as with Stone Cold Steve Austin, this is a belief that this writer refutes: they had plenty of good matches together, and the one that took place at No Way Out 2002 was one of them.
At No Way Out, The Rock made a fast start to the match, sprinting to the ring before the introductions were even completed and going right after The Phenom, but the attritional style of ‘Taker eventually wore Rock down. The inevitable outside the ring brawling went hard on The Great One as Big Evil was able to pick his spots and take them with extreme malice. All of this fit well with the context of the feud as the idea was that The Lord of Darkness was after respect, and was going to beat it into Rocky. This slow beat down went on for the majority of the bout until Rock came back into matters with a DDT and low blow, meaning that a desperation chokeslam from ‘Taker was a move that he could not take advantage of in time. Big Evil ended up decking the referee in frustration and pulling the lead pipe from his motorcycle, but the intervention of Ric Flair, who was, at the time, in the storylines, the 50% owner of the company, allowed The People’s Champ to negate the advantage of the foreign object and slap on the Sharpshooter. Vince McMahon then made a run in, but Rock laid the smackdown, just as Flair was cracking Big Evil over the head with the lead pipe right into a Rock Bottom for The Great One to gain a measure of revenge.
If Flair’s explanation for his intervention- that he was “just being a man”- wasn’t as convincing as it might have been, the feud that followed showcased the ruthlessness that made the Big Evil incarnation of The Deadman such a compelling character. When Slick Ric initially refused to face The Undertaker one on one at Wrestlemania XVIII, Big Evil’s response was to systematically bloody Flair’s old friend Arn Anderson and his son David. Faced with such terrorising of his nearest and dearest, an emotional Nature Boy accepted the challenge, which became no disqualification once the WWF “Board of Directors” had decided to award Vince McMahon the power to act alone through Wrestlemania due to Flair being too distracted by his feud with The Phenom.
The match they had at X8 is one I am very fond of, and one that showed how much Flair could still offer in an in ring role, after years of being ground down by WCW politics. A pumped up Flair immediately took the fight to ‘Taker, brawling him right over the announce table and letting out a resounding “woo!” However, a leap off the apron led to him being caught in a bear hug and then rammed back first into the ring post, and from that moment, The Undertaker dominated proceedings, busting Flair open with a merciless assault. The Deadman even refused covers in order to punish his opponent further, pulling The Nature Boy’s shoulders up after an enormou superplex. Interestingly, the structure of the match, with a plucky Flair occasionally having offensive flurries only to be knocked down again, and for the methodical dissection to continue, was actually something of a blueprint for the matches Brock Lesnar has been having since his 2012 return, showing the innovative nature of the Big Evil gimmick. Flair ended up fighting fire with fire by finding the lead pipe on the motorcycle of The Phenom, sending him to the floor with a mighty shot, busting The Deadman wide open to make the match a veritable blood fest. When the lead pipe rolled from his grasp, The Nature Boy would use a metal sign instead, with the crowd loving the comeback. Even when goozled for the chokeslam, Flair lived up to his “dirtiest player in the game” moniker by kicking Booger Red square in the balls and slapping on the figure four, and although The Undertaker escaped, he ran right into a picture perfect Arn Anderson spinebuster, as the Four Horsemen colleague of Flair thrillingly appeared out of nowhere! After viciously beating Anderson in retribution, Big Evil shrugged off a chair assault from The Nature Boy to nail a Tombstone for 10-0 at Wrestlemania. It’s a brilliant midcard ‘Mania match, and one which remains one of my favourite Streak matches.
Following Wrestlemania, Flair was, in the storylines, handed back control of his half of the WWF as the brand extension got underway with Slick Ric in charge of Raw. Ironically, despite the heinous beating he had received at the hands of The Undertaker, The Nature Boy chose Big Evil as his number one draft pick, an interesting state of affairs which saw The Deadman lobby for the number one contendership of the Undisputed Championship by threatening more “Wrestlemania moments”. Flair refused to be bullied and announced a number one contenders tournament of sorts, with ‘Taker defeating RVD and Stone Cold Steve Austin taking out Scott Hall. The two old foes were thus set to clash at Backlash 2002, but their behaviour forced The Nature Boy to name himself guest referee; this was always one of the great things about Backlash as a pay-per-view, the way it wove the ‘Mania storylines into the “new wrestling year” so to speak.
The actual match between Austin and The Undertaker is tricky to evaluate; while I’ve said in the past that I believe the thoughts of the wrestling world about these two greats lacking chemistry to be nonsense, this bout is probably exhibit A in anybody arguing that point; honestly it’s just a very weirdly worked match. After what seemed like ten minutes of shoulder blocks, they suddenly went into some kind of mat wrestling match you might have seen out of Bret Hart in 1993 when the build up simply called for a knock down, drag out brawl. Following that interlude, they suddenly switched into the kind of action you would’ve expected of them in the first place; it’s a schizophrenic first half of the contest that reads as a confused mess. Having said that, the round the arena brawl was as entertaining as ever, and the crowd were certainly into it. The appearance of Scott Hall and Sean Waltman (in Kane’s mask, of all things), however, puts proceedings firmly back in the cluster-you-know-what department. As they watch from ringside, boring rest holds were applied for a good five minutes (watching back, you can even here some “borrrrrrring” chants, which would have been unthinkable only a year before). Austin’s comeback and mudhole stomping woke up the crowd with multiple “what?” chants, but when the Rattlesnake nailed the Stunner, Flair had taken a bump and was unable to count, also meaning that he missed the low blow The Undertaker hit, but the Bionic Redneck was resilient enough to kick out of the resulting chokeslam, and indeed a sickening chair shot. The finish ultimately came when Stone Cold had the same steel chair kicked back into his face by The Undertaker as he sought to use it against The Deadman, and just to add to the sense of melodrama, Flair missed Austin’s foot on the ropes. As usual, Stone Cold got the last word with a post-match Stunner (party like it’s 1998) but Big Evil was number one contender, and he’d soon make his presence felt in that role. At the climax of the Hogan vs Triple H title match, ‘Taker appeared to pull the referee out of his count out after the Pedigree, then proceeded to smash The Game with a chair. Moments later, The Hulkster hit the leg drop and became the champion, nine years after his last reign in Vince Land.
Of course, the kayfabe reason for The Deadman’s intervention in the title match was that he saw Hogan as easier prey than Triple H, and in the television immediately afterwards, he stated that he was the “judge, jury and executioner of Hulkamania”. He left Hulk a bloody mess in the early part of the feud, before the red and yellow would fight back by destroying Big Evil’s beloved Harley, an act which ended up getting him tied to another bike and dragged through the building and into concrete a week later. It was certainly a strange sight to see The Undertaker and Hogan wrestling for the title almost eleven years after their Survivor Series 1991 match ended in controversy, but they took the right approach to it, with a belt fuelled brawl occurring before the bell had even rung. As King said on commentary, the two men had not come to wrestle each other; they had come to fight. A hyped up Hulkster threw The Phenom right into the ring steps and the barrier, and plenty of right hands were exchanged on both sides. Funnily enough, it’s a match that’s aged well, in contrast to ‘Taker and Austin, a slug fest that’s oddly charming. Hogan kicked out of a slightly botched chokeslam and hulked up, but the big boot and leg drop combination did not get the job done on this occasion. Another big boot, this time into a chair, and another leg drop, would’ve led to the retention, but Vince McMahon’s distraction of the referee meant that Hogan turned his back, got nailed with a chair and a chokeslam, and lost his title. A beatdown to “kill Hulkamania” put the exclamation mark on the win and ensured that the Big Evil character continued to emanate heel heat.
It was the fourth time that The Undertaker had won the biggest prize in the game, and although he was destined to be a transitional champion, the reign was significant because of one of the most memorable title matches ever to take place on WWE television. A television feud developed between Big Evil and Jeff Hardy as the younger member of Team Extreme went all out to prove how extreme he really was, attacking The Deadman from behind, kicking him into a puddle of vomit and getting the best of the Undisputed Champion with his brother Matt. After several weeks of these hostilities, Jeff challenged The Undertaker to a ladder match for the WWE Undisputed Title. And what a match it would be. In one of the greatest underdog stories of all time, Hardy made his usual fast and innovative start, before his risk taking went a step too far. Undertaker could’ve won the match early, but chose to climb down from the ladder and dish out a punishment beating to Hardy instead. In taking heinous damage from The Phenom, the crowd gained more and more respect for Jeff, and every plucky comeback elicited a wild reaction. The first time he climbed the ladder, he almost got powerbombed, but turned it into a huracanrana. The second time, he was smacked with a chair. The third time, after seemingly knocking Big Evil senseless with the same chair, Jim Ross came up with one of his most iconic calls: “CLIMB THE LADDER KID, MAKE YOURSELF FAMOUS!” riffing on ‘Taker’s oft repeated line about making his opponents famous. Finally, at the end of it all, The Deadman was able to climb the ladder and chokeslam Jeff off it to retain. Most significantly of all though, was what happened next.
After getting on his bike, Big Evil noticed that Hardy was still on his feet. The heel got back in the ring and hit a massive Last Ride. The Undertaker rode off again, but Jeff got on the mic and told him that he wasn’t broken; he was still standing. Everybody in the arena thought that he was going back to beat Hardy down again, but instead, he raised his hand in respect. This was the beginning of the end for the heel character Callaway had constructed since Survivor Series 2001. After showing respect to Jeff, crowds began to cheer for ‘Taker again, and it would not be long before he was a full blown babyface again. First of all, he was destined to drop his title to The Rock at Vengeance in a triple threat also involving Kurt Angle. In a wild match featuring more finishers and signature submissions than you could shake a stick at, wrestled at an absolutely insane pace, Rocky finally got the better of his two opponents by sticking a decisive Rock Bottom on Angle. It became clear soon afterwards that the short title reign of The Phenom had been to facilitate the blockbuster Rock vs Brock match for Summerslam 2002, but nevertheless, the Vengeance triple threat was a hell of an entertaining way for the Big Evil character to go out.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Big Evil is one of my favourite Undertaker periods. At times, it was a genuinely menacing character, and his never ending quest for respect after eleven years with the company was always an incredibly convincing motivation behind his actions. Inevitably though, it was always hard to keep ‘Taker heel for long, purely because of the love the entire wrestling world felt for him after his consistent presence in our lives for so long. Thus it was that he would find himself playing the babyface foil to the new heel champion of the moment, a certain Mr Next Big Thing, Brock Lesnar, which is something I’m sure you’re all interested to relive next time around.
Follow Maverick on Twitter:
You can hear more from Maverick on The Right Side Of The Pond, the UK LOP writers’ weekly audio show on LOP Radio. New episodes every are out every Friday at 9pm UK time/4pm EST.
Click here >>>HERE<<< to listen or download.
You can also download LOP Radio shows >>>HERE<<< for iTunes
Follow The Right Side of the Pond on Twitter: