There is only one phenom. One deadman. One ham hawk from Death Valley known as The Undertaker.
However, before gaining his respect and recognition, there was a ‘feeling out’ process unlike any other. The Undertaker was a STAR from the first time he walked out to the squared circle, all the way to the WWE Championship over Hulk Hogan a year later, being undefeated at WrestleMania for over 20 years and riding off into the sunset just a few short months ago. Yet, through it all, we saw different versions of the man, the myth, the legend…the gimmick.
To keep this simple, I am going to eliminate what we saw during the infamous Boneyard Match. Was that Mark Calaway? Was that the Ministry of Darkness making a cameo? Was that the fun BikerTaker? I honestly have no idea where to rank that version of The Undertaker. He was kind of a mix of everything he has ever done during his career. It was very cool, and I was a fan of the Boneyard Match vs. AJ Styles at April’s WrestleMania 36. For the sake of this column though, we are going to NOT rank any ‘real life’ Deadman. Just his gimmicks in WWE…
4. Mid 90’s to late 90’s – This is often known as the Ministry of Darkness version. However, that came to be a little bit later in the Attitude Era. One of the lesser known anecdotes about Taker is that his actual in-ring career was far from impressive during the first decade or so. We have joked about as wrestling fans, but he didn’t really do a whole heck of a lot between the ropes after the bell rang. He fought lumbering giants, big heavyweights or just was involved in wacky storylines that were a tad bit over the top…even if his gimmick did make it work. Despite winning the WWE Title multiple times and always being at the top of the card, there isn’t a ton to write home about here. The Kane stuff was awesome. The HIAC-Shawn Michaels match is epic. However, there is just as much garbage thrown in between. The “tear” on his face, the Lord of Darkness thing, Corporate Ministry mystery, teaming with Big Show, Bossman at WrestleMania 15, etc. I could go on. The luster and aura around his spooky person was beginning to wear thin. He knew he had to make a change.
3. May 2000 to November 2003 – Ah, yes. This will be a tad bit controversial. I am ranking his motorcycle days ahead of his Attitude Era run. I know, ridiculous, right? Well, hear me out. First off, let’s start with Judgment Day 2000. What a return! During the great IronMan match between The Rock and Triple H, you have Taker riding out as the fans go nuts and Kid Rock blares over the loud speakers. Instant goosebumps. Amazing entrance and great kick off to this new era of The DeadMan. He hovered around the main event scene for the next year or two but didn’t actually get the Undisputed Championship until two years later at Judgment Day 2002 defeating none other than Hulk Hogan. With short hair now! Unreal, right? A complete makeover. While short lived, he had one of the greatest triple threat matches of all time during this title run against Kurt Angle and The Rock at Vengeance 2002. In the middle of this run, he was MUCH healthier than he has ever been and actually began to show off his wrestling chops. The dude could flat out work, and it was about time we saw it. Kurt Angle, Jeff Hardy, Hulk Hogan, Triple H, Brock Lesnar, Booker T, Rob Van Dam, The Rock, John Cena, Big Show, and many other all-time greats stepped up to him during this all, but it came to a head when he was ‘buried alive’ by the one and only Vince McMahon at Survivor Series 2003. Upon his five month hiatus, you could see his hair beginning to grow out again. More on that later though…
2. Debut to mid 90’s – Look, the clip is on Youtube. It takes all of five seconds to type it in the search bar. The debut of The Undertaker is not only iconic but also downright scary. He was a man amongst boys after taking two steps on the stage. Snap your fingers and boom! You knew this guy was legit. In any other era and with any other guy, this may have been mocked or shunned to the side within a few months. Not Mark Calaway. Not with Vince McMahon at the helm. Not here. Planned or not, there was a main event feel to him from day one, and that carried him for the next 12 months. Who the heck defeats The Hulkster for the gold around that time period? Even if it was tainted, he joined an elite class and was a made man going forward. Like the late 1990’s, I don’t think we got to see much of his in-ring ability, but the persona and Paul Bearer factor more than made up for it. Props go to his manager (storyline father) for getting this over big time. They just looked scary. Add in the funeral parlor, caskets, body bags, and the cool eye roll, and that’s all she wrote. The Undertaker was well on his way.
1. March 2004 to present day – I know it is a larger sample size, but The Undertaker has never been better since returning to his original DeadMan gimmick at WrestleMania XX. He beat Kane that night, but it was what followed. Classic matches with Batista, John Cena, Shawn Michaels, The Shield, CM Punk, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, Edge, HHH were aplenty. Finally, the five star machine was able to be turned ON! His amazing WM win-loss record was officially highlighted and became a yearly tradition. His entrance became bigger and better with different special effects. The campy crap was toned down a ton but also cranked up when needed. His random one off returns by the gong hitting always popped the crowd and brought buzz to the product. Working with fellow legends or newcomers, he made the term ‘special attraction’ mean something. We didn’t need to see The Undertaker every single week on Raw or Smackdown…or even ECW! We didn’t need that at all. What we needed was our fix of The Undertaker at just the right time, and WWE knew exactly when to give it to us. Compare his past 15 years to any other timeframe of his; WrestleMania XX and on wins in a landslide.Now retired or not, it doesn’t even matter. He gave us his all for the past 30 years, and his best run was his last. Thank you Taker.
Care to debate? Agree or disagree? Let me know on Twitter at @JustinWatry or email me feedback at [email protected]!