Who was your first Undertaker? It’s an odd question to ask a random person on the street. To a wrestling fan, though, it makes perfect sense because last Sunday at WWE Survivor Series 2015, the wrestling world was not only celebrating The Undertaker’s 25-year career in WWE; it was also celebrating a changeling, a constantly-evolving figure in both appearance and demeanor.
As such, there are many different variations of The Undertaker. There’s OG indestructible funeral parlor Undertaker in grey, mid-90s purple glove Undertaker with optional face mask, late 90s Ministry of Darkness Undertaker, American Badass Undertaker (Bikertaker, to many), and the resurrected Deadman Phenom persona that has been around for the past decade. So who was your first Undertaker?
I first became a wrestling fan in the summer of 2003. By this point, Undertaker had been a babyface staple on SmackDown for quite some time. Gone were the days of Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit. Gone were the days of the ponytail and the awful Survivor Series 2000 pants. Gone were the days of Big Evil, the massive dickhead bully who demolished his way through the roster. What remained was a guy who rode to the ring on a Harley, who took the fight to all the big heels on the SmackDown roster, and whose entrance music boasted that badasses are “always kicking assholes’ ass.” Not the most sophisticated lyrics in the world, I’ll grant you that, but to a ten-year-old that didn’t matter. He was absolutely my favorite wrestler.
Twelve years later and I can honestly say that The Undertaker is still my favorite wrestler of all time. A couple of others have come very close—Eddie Guerrero and Shawn Michaels—but the Deadman remains at my number one spot. I’ve spent over a decade as a massive fan of his, which means I’ve spent over a decade doing a lot of things:
I’ve spent over a decade watching him wrestle against guys like Edge, Batista, CM Punk, Triple H, and Randy Orton, along with two of the best matches I’ve ever seen against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 25 and 26.
I’ve spent over a decade going back in time and watching Undertaker throw Mick Foley off of the Hell in a Cell, chokeslam Shane McMahon off the top rope and through the announce table, and get eliminated by freaking Maven of all people in the 2002 Royal Rumble.
I’ve spent over a decade watching him destroy opponents with the Tombstone Piledriver, the Last Ride, the Chokeslam, and the Hell’s Gate, all moves that I would do to a life-size stuffed Mickey Mouse in my childhood bedroom.
I’ve spent over a decade in awe that a 300-pound man can plancha over the top rope like he was a cruiserweight. Not once does that not impress me.
If you asked me why The Undertaker, the simple answer would be “Duh, it’s The Undertaker.” But there’s more to it than those four words. Taker has this presence, this aura, that accompanies him wherever he goes; it’s something that has stuck with me throughout my years as a wresting fan.
His presence is known through his look: the black hat, the duster, the leather pants and the boots, all on his massive 6’10” frame. He’s an embodied sense of the outlaw spirit, straight out of the old west. He is old school justice incarnate, even if that justice isn’t within the confines of the law.
You can feel that presence with Taker’s entrance. The gong hits, the lights go out, and the funeral dirge plays. Out he comes, slowly marching towards his opponent in the ring just as Death slowly marches towards us all. The ultimate power. Even when he was the American Badass, Taker’s entrance was a symbol of fear. Here’s this pissed off biker with an affinity for Jack Daniels that is twice your size riding down the ramp, circling around the ring like a hungry shark, and waiting for the bell to sound so he can kick your ass.
Maybe what I love the most about The Undertaker’s presence—and this is a bit more abstract—is that he inhabits this interesting dichotomy. For most of his career, The Undertaker has been a force for good, going up against WWE’s heels. Still, Taker wears the black hat. He wields the dark arts. He silently, slowly makes his way to the ring, with nary a wave or smile to the audience. I love that. I love the idea that this guy is a dark character, yet he uses that darkness to fight on the side of good. It reminds me of Crow Sting in WCW, or Hellboy. Or, for my fellow heavy metal fans, Judas Priest album covers. The covers of Painkiller, Screaming for Vengeance, Angel of Retribution, and Defenders of the Faith all feature these scary-looking figures that use their heavy metal powers to save mankind.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have had my fair share of groans when it came to The Undertaker over the years. I’ve shaken my head at some of the storylines he’s been involved in (the Muhammad Hassan masked terrorists angle on SmackDown is a noted highlight) or some of the wrestlers he’s feuded with (Heidenreich, The Great Khali). That said, I’ve never been turned off by Taker himself. I may like some of his iterations more than others, but I’ve never gotten sick of him. “Go away” is not something I’ve thought in regards to The Undertaker and I don’t think I ever will.
Of course, the time will soon come for The Undertaker to go away. Take away the look, the entrance, and everything else, and what are you left with? Mark Calaway, a 50-year-old man from Austin, Texas with a wife and kids.
Eventually he will decide to call it a career and make that slow walk back up the entranceway, ready to raise his fist in the air one final time. No one can do this forever; there’s always a faster gun.
The Undertaker has been around for 25 years. During that time he’s been an undead monster impervious to pain, a Lord of Darkness, a brainwashing cult leader, a tobacco-chewing biker, and a Phenom. He’s also been a locker room leader and a highly-respected wrestling veteran. And since the summer of 2003, when a ten-year-old kid in Framingham, Massachusetts turned on UPN on a Thursday night and watched SmackDown for the very first time, he’s been my favorite wrestler.
Thank you, Undertaker.