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Posted in: Requesting Flyby
REQUESTING FLYBY: The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania (3: Mankind)
By Maverick
Aug 20, 2015 - 1:43:52 PM

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The Undertaker Is For Life, Not Just For Wrestlemania
(3: Mankind)

By early 1996, WWF had finally seen the light as regards how to use Marc Calaway to the best effect; rather than book him in endless beast du jour matches, a methodology which had got frightfully old over the previous few years, the company brass instead integrated him into the main event scene, where he always should have been. The Deadman began the year embroiled with Diesel and Bret Hart, an excellent taste of what was to come for him in the post-Wrestlemania months, when a certain Mick Foley would gatecrash his feud with Goldust and instantly become his definitive opponent. It is impossible to overstate just how important The Undertaker’s 1996 roster of rivals was to the development of his career: by taking on Bret Hart, Diesel, Goldust and Mankind he was finally able to have the consistently excellent matches he had always been capable of but had been denied due to the limited nature of his competition. Moreover, WWF’s product notably improved with The Phenom involved with the other main players of the New Generation.

When you consider the fact that The Undertaker had already been a top WWF star for over five years by Royal Rumble 1996, it seems odd that this was his first title challenge since his losing effort in the first casket match he had with Yokozuna two years before. Examine the rest of the Deadman’s career, and you’ll find a similar story. Very often, there are long periods between his efforts to win himself a piece of gold. This is, of course, due to the fact that he’s so often been used as the special attraction, booked in contests against monsters that ranged from unwatchable (Gonzales) to decent (Yokozuna), as I covered last time around. Most significantly, since Bret became “the guy”, The Undertaker had been kept away from him, other than on the odd house show. Now, finally, they were to have a heavily promoted headlining match at one of the “big four” pay-per-views. As we know, The Hitman had just carried Diesel to one of his best matches and had then put on a clinic with Bulldog, so expectations were high, particularly in the minutes before the bout, when the audience knew that Shawn Michaels had won the Rumble for a second year in succession and would presumably be meeting the winner of this feud at Wrestlemania. The idea of HBK taking on either of these guys spelled “dream match” so the crowd are hot from the moment ‘Taker’s music hits, although the least said about The Deadman’s half face mask a la Phantom of the Opera, the better (mercifully, this somewhat silly addition to his wardrobe would not last much further than this pay-per-view).

However, it soon becomes apparent that this match is essentially a transitional encounter when Diesel appears in the Deadman’s path and starts an impromptu brawl with him. Bret is fiercely critical of this booking in his autobiography, stating that it took the focus off him as champion and that the eventual disqualification finish where Nash saves Hart from the pin after a Tombstone made him look like a lame duck champion. While I certainly subscribe to the view that the Excellence of Execution was almost always booked better when chasing a belt than when holding one, I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say he looks weak in the aftermath of the bout. In some ways, the long term nature of the plotting seems very satisfying when you’re used to present day short termism. Big Daddy Cool is jealous of Undertaker for having a shot at the belt he lost to Bret, so spoils the Demon of Death Valley’s chances, gets himself another crack at the Hitman and sets up his feud with The Deadman for Wrestlemania. Quite neat, really, but Bret, already concerned at Shawn’s arrival on his turf, was downright alarmed by his booking in the run up to Wrestlemania XII, fearing that his credibility would be shot by events between January and March.

The Undertaker wrestles fairly strictly within himself, very much one with his gimmick in the fact that he tends to move methodically but for the occasional flash of outlandish athleticism for a seven footer, moves like the arm ringer top rope forearm that would become known in his later years as “old school” and the odd flying clothesline. Given that this is the case, it feels like a mistake to have these two go at it for almost half an hour. The ring work itself is crisp, well co-ordinated and everything you’d expect in a match that involves Bret Hart and a bigger opponent, but it just feels just that tiny bit too slow. Here, the essential story of the contest is that The Hitman is not afraid of his intimidating opponent and will go about his business more or less as usual, working over the leg throughout the match, and the psychology of that is very sound. It doesn’t quite push the buttons an encounter with this sort of name value should push (although the two would, of course, very much rectify this in their Summerslam ‘97 encounter). Don’t get me wrong though, it’s a very good watch, a million times better than anything ‘Taker did between ‘93 and ‘95, and historically vital in the sense that it initiated something of a purple patch in The Lord of Darkness’ career. Hart works that tweener style he also did with Diesel and this time gets treated to some hefty jeering from the crowd, a testament to The Phenom’s enduring appeal. The Undertaker’s disqualification win due to Diesel’s re-appearance left him fuming in kayfabe, and the consequences for Big Daddy Cool would be dire.

During a cage match between The Hitman and Diesel at In Your House: Rage In A Cage (a pay-per-view which took place in what would later become the No Way Out/Elimination Chamber slot) the finish, which Hart has criticised in his book for making him look like he needed saving twice in a row, involved The Undertaker dragging Diesel through the ring, causing a second no finish in a row. Bret also feels that the way both title matches existed to set up his two opponents’ feud with each other took the focus off of him and the belt. While I can see that the second complaint is relevant to an extent, the first one isn’t really something I can get on-board with. However he was booked, Bret Hart was seen by fans and by management as the most legitimate guy in the company, the premier worker and nobody in the audience or at home would see him as being devalued by what happened at IYH 6. Ultimately, the veteran vs. dreamer story that was set for Wrestlemania was going to work just as well no matter how Bret overcame ‘Taker and Diesel. If he’d have beaten both guys clean and they’d had to set up the special attraction match on an episode of Raw instead, the second biggest match on the card of Wrestlemania XII wouldn’t have had as much heat behind it. I mean, examining the fundamentals, Diesel got up in the Phenom’s face, told him he wasn’t afraid of the dark and cost him his title shot against The Hitman at the Rumble. In revenge, Undertaker drags Big Daddy Cool through the ring to cost him that same piece of gold. That’s a brilliant feud set up, and more than worth a little bruising to Hart’s pride, if you ask me. That and the fact that Diesel re-appearing from out of the smoking hole with his leather trousers half burnt off must be one of the most entertaining visuals in the history of February pay-per-views.

At Wrestlemania XII, The Undertaker duly took care of business by defeating Diesel in a very underrated big man encounter, but the feud did not continue afterwards due to Nash signing with WCW; the man from Detroit would put over Shawn Michaels in his final In Your House appearance, whilst The Deadman found two newcomers playing mind games with him. Part of the aura of The Undertaker was the fact that he was so naturally intimidating, both in kayfabe and otherwise, but on April 1st 1996, Mick Foley debuted as Mankind and all of that was turned upside down. Foley had been underappreciated down in Atlanta as Cactus Jack, but had turned heads in Philadelphia, drawing the attention of Vince McMahon. Together, McMahon and Foley designed a psychotic character who would be able to convince as an opponent for The Undertaker. Looking back at the initial sketches for what would become Mankind is a fairly hilarious business, particularly given the “Manson The Mutilator” name that Vince was so keen on before Mick persuaded him to go with “Mankind” instead, but the intent was clear all the same; to portray a deranged individual filled with pain, a maniac whose only outlet was inflicting pain on himself and others. Dressed in brown rags with occult symbols on, his face covered with a leather mask, hair and beard wild, scarred arms plain to see, the visual impact of the character was undeniable. What really shocked though was the “paralysing nerve hold”, the Mandible Claw, which was used by Mankind on his debut to incapacitate The Undertaker as the newcomer squealed like a pig. Instantly, it was easy to discern the difference between this threat to The Undertaker and the previous ones. The presentation was spot on, as was the booking. WWF patiently waited another month to have Mankind assault The Deadman again, which he did during the go home show before In Your House: Beware of Dog, helping Goldust to lock ‘Taker in a casket, before beating on said casket with a metal pole.

Goldust was an interesting opponent for The Undertaker in and of himself; like Mankind, he showed no fear of the dark, due to his own predilection for the strange. The Texan had made a big impact early on in his career with the Fed, winning the Intercontinental Championship from Razor Ramon and engaging in the infamous “Backlot Brawl” with Roddy Piper at Wrestlemania XII. Though it seemed odd for ‘Taker to be on the hunt for midcard gold, the interweaving of the feuds with Mankind and Goldust was genius, as it allowed the slow and steady creation of Mankind as The Undertaker’s nemesis. In a competitive casket match featuring a gold plated casket, appropriately enough, Goldust seems to be heading the way of so many others who had dared to take on The Phenom, as the throat cut gesture and Tombstone follow hard upon each other, but then, in wonderfully dramatic fashion, Mankind appears from casket and applies Mandible Claw, knocking ‘Taker out again, before closing the casket to gift Goldust the title retention and squealing like a pig while sitting atop the casket; talk about character development. Just to emphasise that The Lord of Darkness is far from finished though, smoke pours from the casket, and when the casket opens, he is no longer there.

This would lead to their first pay-per-view match together at King of the Ring; having dominated the build up as no Undertaker opponent ever had before, there was a real sense of anticipation of what the two men might come up with, given the way that WWF had finally manufactured a feud for their prime special attraction that mattered. Having suffered from ambushes throughout the build, ‘Taker appears behind Mankind when the lights come up, nailing a huge flying clothesline off the top and thereafter going after the mask as Jim Ross sells Foley’s infamous mangled ear on commentary. However, a deranged assault by Mankind, consisting largely of continuous corner knee charges, turns things around, and the thought of everybody watching as Mankind drapes The Deadman over the apron and leathers him with hard forearm strikes is that nobody has ever dominated the Undertaker like this before. ‘Taker fights back, briefly, but a huge clothesline takes him back down. Tactically, Mankind continuously uses the outside of the ring to his advantage, making use of numerous foreign objects, but this backfires somewhat when he gets a chair booted right back in his face, after which The Lord of Darkness uses the chair himself to gain some small measure of revenge, but the deranged one is able to escape the Tombstone with a neckbreaker counter. The ebb and flow of the match is very well judged, and Mankind is up first and goes for claw only for The Phenom to stop it. After yet more back and forth and a couple of close near falls, Mankind is pulling out his hair in frustration, and steals the urn, but Paul Bearer is able to grab it back. ‘Taker sits up in that inimitable way of his, but turns straight into the Mandible Claw. Bearer tries to use the urn but hits The Undertaker instead, allowing his client’s opponent to get the claw cinched in deeper for the victory. In the aftermath of the match, Paul Bearer is menaced with a chair as a zombie like Deadman crawls after him.

The effectiveness of that first pay-per-view contest was predicated largely on Mankind’s ability to dominate The Undertaker for large portions of the match, and find a way to win to boot, using a sort of animal cunning by forcing Paul Bearer to get involved with the urn in rather uncoordinated fashion. Now that he had a win, Foley was in business as a top heel, and the rest of the feud flowed beautifully from there. WWF played a blinder by not having the follow up immediately; instead, The Deadman was forced to deal with Goldust once again, a match which sees him get a taste of his own medicine as Mankind drags him through the canvas on the stroke of victory and knocks him out with the Mandible Claw. Paul Bearer screams in despair over and over as smoke flows from the hole in the canvas, but finally, The Lord of Darkness re-emerges and the two men brawl all the way to the back and into a boiler room, a somewhat literal set up for their Summerslam blockbuster. Can there be any performer in the history of professional wrestling with as many match types linked to him as The Undertaker? Casket, Boiler Room, Buried Alive, Last Ride…you could even make a case for the Hell in a Cell match being linked to the Deadman more than with any other performer. As we saw with the Ring of Fire match between Kane and Bray Wyatt though, these very specific gimmick bouts are not as easy to work as might be imagined. Part of Mankind’s background was that he had grown up in boiler rooms, so the idea of the two men fighting in one came into being. The stipulation was that the winner would have to fight their way out of the room and all the way to the ring, before taking the urn from Paul Bearer inside the ring. It was certainly a unique idea, and could’ve been absolutely horrible, but such was the ability of Foley to portray the insane antagonist and The Undertaker to portray the resilient protagonist that it turned out to be a triumph.

The sheer low budget horror movie aesthetic is what really makes it stand out, a gritty handicam affair where the feed is strategically cut every now and again in the name of unpredictability. The lack of crowd noise inside the claustrophobic boiler room is eerie, and the level of unhinged violence that proceeds as soon as Foley emerges from behind the pillar with a massive level pipe is really quite startling. In this context, the squealing, screaming and snuffling of the heel is genuinely alarming, a fantastic portrayal of his character’s disturbed psyche. The two men use every weapon imaginable on each other, as well as some legitimate wrestling holds and heavy strikes, and it seems to be that whoever can endure more punishment will ultimately be the victor. One particular high spot sees Mankind scale a ladder to the top of the boiler room before dropping a trademark elbow; another sees him repeat the climb only to be caught by The Undertaker and slammed back down to earth. Eventually, the seemingly aimless brawl becomes a battle to exit the room first, one that Mankind ultimately wins, but panicking about the consequence of this escape, he spends time trying to barricade The Deadman in rather than making his way to the ring. Here we have a classic chase narrative develop, as they fight all the way through the locker room, backstage area and thence into the arena. Only then does the twist develop, when ‘Taker throws Mankind to the concrete floor and moves to take the urn only for Bearer to withdraw it in a sudden and unexpected heel turn that culminates in him cracking his long term associate around the head with it and giving it to Mankind. The villain had not only beaten The Undertaker twice- something unheard of in his career to date- but now also possessed his manager, who quickly became known to the deranged one as his “Uncle Paul”. It was a quite brilliant piece of swerve booking which cemented Mankind as a legitimate threat to anyone on the roster. Again, in a typically brilliant display of New Generation patience and cross pollination of rivalries, Mankind was given a shot at Shawn Michaels’ WWF Championship in a must see match at In Your House: Mind Games. The dusty culmination of that match saw Mankind and Bearer seek to dump Michaels into a casket, only to find a vengeful Phenom inside.

This set up a darker version of the casket match idea, a buried alive match, a first in WWF, whereby an open grave was incorporated into the arena set itself, with the object being to incapacitate one’s opponent to the extent that it became possible to quite literally bury them alive. Straight away, we can detect certain elements which would later be synonymous with the Attitude Era. As the bell rings, we’re straight into a toe to toe brawl of frenetic intensity which takes them all the way to the lip of the open grave. Seeing Callaway climb to the top rope and hit an enormous flying clothesline is a key moment in establishing the way that the character has adapted to this new threat, and further agility is shown by the big man later on when he hits a plancha over the guard rail. Foley, for his part, continues the stellar character work he showed in the Michaels match, using Paul Bearer’s pen as a foreign object, as well as more conventional weapons like chairs and steel steps. It’s an out and out brawl and it never lets up in terms of pace and intensity. Even the finish is well worked, despite the obvious difficulties in making a gimmick like this look convincing. A counter of the Mandible Claw leads to the chokeslam into the pit, allowing ‘Taker to go over despite what’s going to happen. Yes, you’ve guessed it: heel roster run in! Just as with the diabolical casket bout with Yoko back at Royal Rumble ’94, a cornucopia of villains employed by Bearer dig Mankind back up and assault the Phenom, burying him alive. It’s ridiculous, of course, but probably a little less over the top than the same thing from two and a half years before, which I suppose is progress of sorts. I certainly prefer the fact that they chose to wait until the match was over before the goon squad hit the arena this time. I also appreciate the Demon of Death Valley’s gesture of survival being a purple glove bursting through the earth this time, rather than his, ahem, “spirit” ascending to the top of the building. Small steps, people. Small steps. Along with the loss of Paul Bearer humanising him somewhat, cutting back on the supernatural hijinks was also an essential part of making ‘Taker a more modern main eventer.

With two consecutive losses to Mankind followed by a MORAL loss (in the sense that he won the battle at Buried Alive but not the war), all through some kind of Paul Bearer intrigue or other, a final battle was set for Survivor Series ‘96, where the stipulation laid down by WWF President Gorilla Monsoon saw the creepy manager suspended from the ceiling in a cage high above the ring. It’s an absolutely wild visual, especially given how Paul’s portly frame is not exactly well suited to the skies. This is perhaps even outdone though by The Undertaker’s entrance, descending from the ceiling like a giant, vengeful bat, all in leather as opposed to his old Spaghetti Western gear; he instantly looks more contemporary, more intimidating and more volatile, and this is reflected in the way in which he works the match. In a brilliant piece of psychology, The Deadman goes after the hand that Mankind uses for the Mandible Claw with vicious intensity, and then batters his enemy into the crowd, a trope that is becoming increasingly prevalent as we move towards the beginning of the Attitude Era, with Foley putting his body on the line in the manner that would become his trademark. A desperate exchange of counters to each others’ finishers leads Mankind to resort to taking a foreign object from his tights, but to no avail, as The Undertaker finally nails The Tombstone for the redemptive victory. However, he is denied the ultimate prize of getting his hands on Paul Bearer, for although the cage lowers, The Executioner, one of the goons who had assaulted him at the end of the Buried Alive match, arrives and ambushes him again, saving the slimy skin of the manager. Without Foley, it’s fair to say that Mark Callaway might never have developed into such a well-rounded worker. Mick’s chaotic style and ring generalship brought new dynamism and athleticism out of an Undertaker who had gradually altered his gimmick to allow for more freedom in the squared circle. Mankind was the perfect opponent for this transformation to come fully into the open, and it really was a fantastic feud. Everybody remembers King of the Ring 1998, but that match makes little sense unless you watch their battles from ’96.

For his part, The Undertaker was now focused on getting his hands on Paul Bearer, and to do so, he now had to go through The Executioner, played by the legendary 80s wrestler Terry Gordy in a fairly comical medieval executioner get up, and the stipulation they worked at In Your House: It’s Time was an “Armageddon Match”, which was no disqualification, no count out with the first man to be down for a ten count losing the match; it was essentially what we’d come to know as a falls count anywhere. With Bearer running scared and Mankind constantly interfering, the match basically becomes a handicap match until security run in, pepper spray Mankind, and haul him off in a straitjacket. With Mankind out of the way, The Deadman throws The Executioner into the stage set and finally chokeslams him for the victory, after which Paul Bearer receives a well deserved ritual beating.

1996 had been a landmark year for The Undertaker; he had battled the main eventers at the start of the year, before launching into feuds with Goldust, Mankind and The Executioner that allowed him to show exactly what he was capable of after all those years of being mishandled. However, 1997 would be even more eventful, and the first year of Attitude would begin with The Phenom chasing WWF Championship gold once again. Join me next time for more Undertaker memories!