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Posted in: Requesting Flyby
REQUESTING FLYBY: The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (2: The Wrestlecrap Years)
By Maverick
Aug 6, 2015 - 7:16:52 PM

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The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania
(2: The Wrestlecrap Years)


As we saw last time around, The Undertaker had a first year with the company to rival anybody’s, and it seemed as if the excellent booking would continue when he turned face on Jake Roberts for his second Wrestlemania outing, but unfortunately, dispatching the dastardly Snake Man would be the last compelling storyline he would be given for a good while, as Vince McMahon moved his imposing fan favourite into the special attraction role that had been occupied by Andre The Giant for so many years. Very quickly, the Fed hit upon a formula with ‘Taker in his sophomore year that would be mined extensively and aggressively through the next three years. A monster would be uncovered, someone that audiences had not seen before (or in the case of Yokozuna, one who hadn’t previously picked a fight with someone as immense as The Phenom), and whose physical proportions outdid in some way those of the near seven foot tall Undertaker. This monster would pursue The Deadman, fight him to some sort of no finish in the first encounter, before being vanquished in the second encounter. Rinse and repeat. There are many issues with the booking and the wrestling in this period, which I intend to explore in detail below, but for the moment, let it suffice to say that Marc Calaway’s efforts with limited opponents in special attraction matches were nothing short of heroic, but with each passing feud, WWF moved ever further away from a productive use of one of their most popular stars.

First man up was Kamala, The Ugandan Giant, a character that pushed the boundaries of political correctness, even back then. The character had actually had a low key and low profile run in WWF in late 1986 through 1987, when it was perhaps more in keeping with the times, though even that is little excuse really. Allegedly found “in the jungles” by caricatured British colonialist Kimchee and hired by the sleazebag manager Harvey Wippleman, Kamala came to the ring with a shield and spear, wearing a wooden mask, with a moon and star painted on his bulky chest. In the ring, the “savage” would have to be directed by Kimchee and Wippleman, often attempting to pin jobbers the wrong way around. If this politically incorrect, if not to say outwardly racist, piece of character creation were not bad omen enough, it quickly became clear that James Harris, who played the character, was very limited inside the squared circle, although a top rope splash from such a huge man is admittedly nothing to be sniffed at.

Fortunately, the first match between The Ugandan Giant and The Lord of Darkness took place in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, and thus felt like a bigger event than it probably was in reality. The Undertaker’s entrance in a Rolls Royce hearse is worthy of a Wrestlemania, whilst the colonial trappings of Kimchee and Kamala are a colourful spectacle, notwithstanding the concerns I expressed to you earlier. The crowd are very much excited by it all, though as a native Brit I can tell you that we were all so excited to be given a pay-per-view that we would have brought the house down for The Brooklyn Brawler vs Koko B Ware, nevermind seeing the awesome Deadman in the flesh. The match begins with big uppercuts from ‘Taker, and his quickness advantage ensures that he easily handles the threat of Kamala, hitting his trademark rope walk forearm strike (Old School, before it was old school) and going for it a second time, only for Wippleman interference to lead to a fall to the mat. However, The Deadman was very much still no selling at this point in his career in order to promote his “supernatural” nature, and Kamala’s blows have no effect on him. Very swiftly, The Ugandan Giant is hoisted up for the Tombstone, but Kimchee draws the disqualification by using his pith helmet as a foreign object, after which a series of splashes, one from ground level, one from the middle rope, and one from the top, leave The Phenom lying. As Kamala leaves, he looks awfully pleased with himself, only for that look to be replaced by one of abject horror as The Undertaker sits right up in the centre of the ring, a great piece of characterisation that had first surfaced during the Roberts match at ‘Mania VIII.

The somewhat one sided feud became ever more one sided as ‘Taker sought to finish the job against the traumatised Kamala. Psychological warfare was waged as vignettes showed the outlaw mortician building a coffin to the exact physical dimensions as The Ugandan Giant, a vessel that Paul Bearer then wheeled down to Kamala’s matches, causing the superstitious “African” to freak out and run like hell. With the psychological war well and truly won, the very first casket match, set for Survivor Series ‘92, was very much a formality. Kamala wants out of there as soon as the bell tolls for ‘Taker’s entrance, and only stays to fight after strong persuasion (read: herding) from his management team. Briefly emboldened, Kamala hammers away at The Phenom, but to no effect, as The Lord of Darkness continually sits up. Even when Wippleman tosses him the urn, the giant drops it, allowing The Undertaker to use it himself. Here we see an interesting moment in the historical development of the character’s associated gimmick matches, as it is necessary to get the pinfall before the placement in the casket begins. Also interesting is that it is a wooden coffin with a detached lid, and silly as the bout type has been from the jump, there’s no denying that watching a young Marc Calaway quite literally hammer nails into Kamala’s coffin is a spine tingling and slightly disturbing experience. Certainly, watching as a young fan who was increasingly aware of kayfabe, that was a moment that drew me head first into the no man’s land between story and reality again; it had been a while since that had happened.

Wippleman, furious that his plot to gain notoriety by toppling The Undertaker had failed, decided to keep at it, going into the wilderness to find an even bigger monster. Jorge Gonzalez was a former basketball player from Argentina who had first been inducted into the world of pro wrestling by Ted Turner, competing in WCW as El Gigante. Although that stint had not been a conspicuous success, Vince McMahon was not well known for resisting the chance to pick up men of freakish size, and he duly signed Gonzalez in early 1993, repackaging him as the wild “Giant Gonzalez”, complete with a body stocking with airbrushed muscles (the actual physique of the former hoops player was not deemed intimidating enough) and fake clumps of hair. The result looked faintly ridiculous rather than frightening, but it must be admitted that the man’s sheer size was impressive, and when he debuted by chokeslamming The Deadman at the tail end of the 1993 Royal Rumble, it was, at the very least, a classic way to set up an angle. Gonzalez would continue to attack The Phenom on the Road to Wrestlemania, and the familiar narrative of a seemingly unstoppable foe finally having the measure of the mighty Undertaker played out in the obvious fashion you might expect. The actual ‘Mania bout was a stinker of mythical proportions, with the only saving grace being the cool entrance with the vulture. The also familiar no finish occurred when the Giant used a rag soaked in chloroform to put ‘Taker out; this is obviously a column about Calaway’s career outside of The Showcase of Immortals, but we should briefly pause to mention that this was the only win of The Undertaker’s Streak to be achieved by disqualification, evidence that WWF stumbled across said winning streak by accident sometime at the beginning of the 2000s.

Not content with having put The Phenom on his back, Gonzalez and Wippleman’s next gambit was to steal the urn that was the kayfabe key to The Undertaker’s power. Around the same time, Paul Bearer disappeared, apparently on some sort of quest to the darkside, leaving at least some doubt over whether ‘Taker would be able to dispatch his enemy in the “Rest In Peace Match” booked for Summerslam ‘93 (this turned out to be a common or garden no holds barred affair). On this occasion, the monster shows no fear of The Undertaker, even when he displays his “powers” by lowering and raising the house lighting at will (this is the first time I remember this particular kayfabe ability being showcased). The evolution of The Undertaker character is evident yet again, as he moves with noticeably more animation and emotion, rushing Gonzalez with furious shots, leaving the Andean reeling and reliant on interference from his manager to survive. Even so, the assault by The Deadman is total and irresistible, with the action spilling outside the ring. Here though, with foreign objects available, the Giant gains a brief advantage, with multiple chair shots and the use of the steel steps. As the massive South American towers over him, the focus of The Lord of Darkness is on recovering his stolen urn, and after each offensive move on Gonzalez’s part, he crawls inexorably towards the source of his storyline strength. Just as it seems he will be a modern day Tantalus, always just that bit too far away from sustenance, the bell tolls and Paul Bearer returns in timely fashion, taking the urn from Wippleman, holding it high, and reinvigorating his client, to the point that a flying clothesline off the top vanquishes Giant Gonzalez once and for all. We might see this as a kind of “dark Hulk Hogan” routine, with the urn replacing the Hulking Up. Many future Undertaker matches would finish this way; and almost two years into his tenure, the tropes were already building.

Interestingly, the next pay-per-view would find The Undertaker playing an unanticipated part in the defence of America angle led by Lex Luger, as he found himself recruited to Lex Luger’s All Americans at Survivor Series ‘93 to face Yokozuna’s Foreign Fanatics (nice alliterative team name Vince). The bout itself is a surprisingly decent little watch. There’s nothing complicated or innovative involved; it’s just a well booked elimination tag match involving some historically underrated grapplers, and certainly the best thing Calaway did during this doldrums period. The main involvement of The Undertaker in the match is in getting a hot tag from Luger and showing off his incredible big man agility in flying halfway across the ring to clothesline Yokozuna right in the kisser. There’s some tremendous psychology at play as the Deadman no-sells the sumo wrestler’s offense, even sitting up after a Banzai Drop, which at the time was being sold as the most devastating finisher in the Fed. The look of fear in Yoko’s eyes is absolutely priceless and reinforced wonderfully by Heenan and McMahon in the booth. The two monsters are counted out after an extended brawl, which ultimately sets them up for a match at the Rumble. Now, as I mentioned briefly earlier, Yokozuna was different from the other beasts that ‘Taker battled during his exile in special attraction land. For one thing, the massive “sumo wrestler” was the reigning WWF Champion who was racking up his fifth consecutive main event. This put him far above the two jabronis The Deadman had faced to that point. For another, Yoko was a seriously good worker for his size, meaning that the match promised far more. As it turned out, the issue with the next match on ‘Taker’s resume was not the quality of opponent, but rather the manner of the booking that the match received.

In the initial entrances, Yokozuna looks terrified, but he soon steels himself and stands face to face with his looming opponent for the staredown. The match begins frenetically, with The Undertaker using his incredible speed, before the WWF Champion’s attempt to use a chair backfires badly, as his shot is reversed and repaid with interest by a vengeful Deadman. It’s only when the classic salt to the eyes occurs in this no disqualification setting that the supposed sumo wrestler is able to successfully employ the chair, but even when ‘Taker’s prone form is rolled into the coffin, the big man cannot close the lid, and The Phenom comes back into it with hammer blows, and his seeming imperviousness to pain unnerves Yoko enough that his challenger is able to get his huge bulk into the coffin. So far, so good, so entertaining. It’s what happens next that struck me as ridiculous at the time (my fourteen year old self was disgusted by such a laughable ending) and still does now. A procession of low level heels, including Crush, Jeff Jarrett, The Great Kabuki, Tenryu, Adam Bomb, and The Headshrinkers, turn up and attempt to get ‘Taker down and into the casket. The arrival of the massive Diesel and Bam Bam is finally enough to force him into the coffin, at which point an urn shot from Yoko ensures that the lid can be closed. Green smoke theatrically pours from said urn, with Vince hammily noting that the power of The Undertaker is leaving him. At this point, The Phenom appears on the ‘tron and says that they cannot kill his spirit, and that he will be back, and with that, his “soul” (actually Marty Jannetty in a harness) ascends to the ceiling waiting to be reborn, or something. It’s supernatural bunkum that feels massively out of place for the time; although we were always happy to suspend disbelief for ‘Taker and the supernatural stuff, to a degree, this felt altogether too pantomime. Still, the man himself was injured and needed time off to rehab, and this was how they wrote him off TV.

When the New Generation comes under attack from wrestling fans, the usual complaint is that hokey, excessively cartoonish gimmicks and storylines adversely affected the product. Mostly, I tend to think that this is unfair, but when you look at the casket match with Yokozuna and then the “Fake Undertaker” angle of the summer of 1994 which followed, you begin to understand why people feel that way. The Deadman’s return was presaged by the usual spooky vignettes where various people claimed to have seen him. Meanwhile, Ted DiBase claimed to have found The Undertaker and brought him back to television. Paul Bearer claimed to have the “real” ‘Taker and so a match was set up to determine who the actual Deadman was. Let’s deal with the positives first, few though they may be. Seeing Paul Bearer and the Druids is immediate mark out moment for any fan (I think this is the first time we saw the druids, now I think about it), and hearing the “ohhhh yesssss!” cements to the audience who ‘Taker’s real mentor is. The shenanigans with the urn are silly, but quite fun for what they are, and I do believe that most people are prepared to allow kayfabe more for The Undertaker than any other performer. There’s an interesting visual at play where Marc Calaway is wearing new purple gloves and boot covers, while Brian Lee is sporting the traditional grey. I suppose this is probably supposed to create some doubt for the audience as to who is who. When I was a child, my favourite cartoon was He Man and the Masters of the Universe. In the He Man mythos, Skeletor attempted to create a clone of He Man, but the experiment was not a complete success and the result was Faker, identical to He Man but for his blue skin and red hair. This is the kind of “bizarro” story that the WWF were going with here, and it works to a degree, even though Brian Lee is an inch or two shorter and considerably less broad shouldered than Callaway. Another interesting little curio is that this is the first time Undertaker appeared with his hair dyed black as opposed to his natural red (as a fellow ginger, this disappoints me.

Well, onto the match itself. There really isn’t a great deal to it, since it’s essentially a one dimensional story of two men using the same signature moves, one more smoothly than the other. The “real” Undertaker gets the initial face shine, which the crowd pop for in a fairly reasonable way, but the “fake” version uses the ropes to gain the advantage back. It’s a very slow moving contest with a lot of methodical strikes and no real spots of great note other than Callaway blocking Lee’s attempt at old school. The audience lose interest quickly, and McMahon and Lawler have trouble selling it on commentary; “very strange!” Vince intones, to which I want to yell “you booked this crap!” The finish, mercifully, comes relatively swiftly and works well for what it is. The “real” Undertaker is able to use his powers to sit up after a chokeslam and a Tombstone, but the “fake” one is unable to when he takes three consecutive Tombstones. This angle was a dreadful idea in every conceivable way. The Undertaker was more than capable of excelling in the special attraction role- just look at his 2000s Wrestlemania run- but at certain points in his tenure, the WWF mistook “special attraction” for “daft hokey sideshow” and this is probably the prime example. The only thing I can think of that came out of this is perhaps the germ of an idea that grew into Glen Jacobs being given the Kane character, a wrestler as big and as intimidating as The Undertaker, but with a fire and brimstone gimmick rather than an undead one. So we might see poor old Brian Lee as a catalyst for Kane, but nothing more. It’s certainly right up there with the most horrible Summerslam main events and had no business going on after Owen and Bret’s sublime cage match.

Now, following The Demon of Death Valley’s vanquishing of the “fake” Undertaker, a return match with Yoko was set to complete the feud cycle, only this time, Chuck Norris would be at ringside to prevent more shenanigans from the company villains. Yes, you read that right. We all know that Vince enjoys a mainstream celeb, after all. Having come all the way back from being left for dead in a casket, ready to wreak vengeance on the architect of his lay off, the psychology is there for the taking for these two performers, and I particularly like the way Yokozuna’s eyes sell his fear of the Deadman; it’s one of the more theatrical versions of that well-worn trend from ‘Taker’s opponents over the years, with the cut throat gesture inspiring the sumo wrestler to fall to his backside in panic and try to escape the ring, only to be caught with a flurry of vicious uppercuts. Even when Yoko manages to get in a corner charge, the Phenom no-sells it, as of course his character frequently did in this era. This, of course, just increases Yokozuna’s kayfabe fear. It’s a very well worked couple of minutes which whets the audience’s appetite for more. The structure of a casket match, or indeed any gimmick match of its ilk- stretcher, hearse, ambulance- is always going to be based around that prop, and the two wrestlers do a good job of involving it at key points to create drama and interest. Right at the beginning, ‘Taker uppercuts the big man right over the top rope into the open coffin, then later, when Yokozuna has gained the advantage with a Samoan drop and a Rock Bottom (yes, really, go and check the footage!), the Deadman is rolled into the casket but prevents it from closing by grabbing the lid. The ebb and flow of the match is far better paced than the majority of these Undertaker vs. Monster du Jour encounters typically are; in fact, even the interference of various members of the Million Dollar Corporation comes across far less a pantomime than the corresponding segment in their Rumble bout. I’ve always enjoyed IRS, so his sleeper hold on the Phenom while Norris is distracted by Bam Bam and Bundy is something of a mark out moment for yours truly, particularly as it’s sold on commentary as a master plan of Ted DiBiase.

Of course, this is the WWF in 1994 that we’re talking about and thus the narrative demands that the heel faction is ultimately foiled, so after Shyster’s departure, Yoko is prevented from closing the lid of the casket by a massive hand closing around his throat, just as Chuck Norris is superkicking Double J into next week at ringside. Undertaker’s comeback from this point is positively Cena-esque: a few uppercuts, a flying clothesline and a big boot and the Deadman’s arch rival is in the casket with the broken Japanese flag following him soon after. The revenge arc is complete in a blink of an eye, which is a shame, as I could actually have watched this one develop a little more, but we all know how often WWF/E book unrealistically heroic endings to main event matches, so it’s almost pointless to gripe about that. What I’d like you all to take away more than anything else is that this casket match is far better than their first and well worth your time. In Yoko, The Phenom had found an opponent who combined the virtues of monster size and the ability to work, a combination that he would find again with Kane a few years later. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Following IRS’s interference in the Survivor Series match, much of The Deadman’s 1995 was spent feuding with various members of Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Corporation, starting with Irwin himself. This was a refreshing break from the monsters, since Papa Wyatt was in fact a very accomplished worker. The two had an endearing but inconsequential little match on the undercard of Royal Rumble 1995. Shyster delays his entry into the ring, playing mind games with an opponent immune to them, but when The Undertaker does turn his back, the accountant goes for a Pearl Harbor job, only for The Phenom to no sell and cause IRS to go on the defensive, deciding against going toe to toe with ‘Taker, until eventually he runs out of space and eats a big boot. This forces Ted and Irwin to strategise further, bringing out more of the Corporation in druid outfits, surrounding the ring with them, and of course, the henchmen interfere constantly, allowing IRS to pound on the supernaturally strong Undertaker. The story of the match becomes one of whether The Lord of Darkness can overcome the goons on the outside and put Shyster away, which he duly does with a chokeslam, the first time, from memory, that he used it as a finish instead of the Tombstone. When the druids fail to beat ‘Taker down after the match, King Kong Bundy arrives, allowing Irwin to steal the urn, and the over the hill Bundy to flatten The Deadman with a series of splashes. This led to a second lame Streak match in a row at Wrestlemania XI, but even Bundy’s failure to get the job done did not deter Ted from throwing yet more wrestlers at The Phenom, with Kama (Charles Wright, who had, until recently, played Papa Shango, voodoo master, but now portrayed a “Supreme Fighting Machine”, riffing off the growing awareness of the embryonic UFC amongst the fanbase) taking up the baton for the summer.

The feud descended somewhat into ridiculousness when Kama stole the urn- as DiBiase’s wrestlers always seemed to be trying to do- and then supposedly melted it down into a gold necklace (classic wrestlecrap right there). He also cost ‘Taker a quarter final King of the Ring match against Mabel, causing The Deadman to leave black funeral wreaths around the place for the Ultimate Fighting Machine to find. After all this, WWF President Gorilla Monsoon declared that there would be yet another casket match- The Undertaker’s fifth in the space of eighteen months- at Summerslam. In a bout that played out much the same as any of the others he’d had under that particular gimmick, but at the double the run time, Wright was duly dealt with and the attempts of the Million Dollar Corporation to take down The Phenom would finally come to an end, mercifully, since none of the matches were anything to write home about, and the cycle that The Undertaker had been stuck in for the last two and a half years- new threat, inconclusive finish, ultimate victory- was becoming very stale indeed.

Thinking about late 1995, it was very clear that something needed to be done with the character and how it was used. One last heinous feud with the appalling King Mabel, which thankfully took place mostly in dark matches on In Your House cards, was finished off at Survivor Series, and it was then that WWF finally decided to book one of their most popular performers in something meaningful again. The thing we need to remember is that throughout this fallow period of special attractions against limited monsters and midcard stables, ‘Taker had remained incredibly over with crowds, and his own performance, both in terms of his character acting and in terms of his ring work, was still very strong. Therefore, with the likes of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Davey Boy Smith and Diesel tearing it up in more meaningful encounters in headlining and upper midcard roles, it made a great deal of sense to throw The Deadman into that mix, and the results were immediately apparent. 1996 would be a watershed year for The Undertaker, as we shall see next time, and the results of giving him something far better to sink his teeth into would be compelling.



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