November 22, 1990. I remember it well, it was the rarest of occasions when family friends had ordered WWE Survivor Series and we got to watch it live on Pay Per View, little did we know that we would get to see the televised debut of a legend. Dark and creepy The Undertaker strolled to the ring as ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper proclaimed “Look at the size of that Hamhock!” FIVE of the 8 men in the match now are in the WWE Hall of Fame and 26 years, 4 months, 1 week and 5 days later The Undertaker seems to have laid his career to rest.
Bar none The Undertaker persona is the most successful WWE creation ever. The man himself has reached a level of respect where only Andre The Giant resided before him. A much lauded locker room leader and the de facto enforcer of locker room etiquette. There really is no good reason for such a cartoonish persona to have lasted more than a year or two let alone 26 years, it is the man in the role that made it work. Mark Callaway did such a good job that fans forgot he was a living human being most of the time. That sounds odd doesn’t it, it is the truth though, he always seemed supernatural and the WWE spared no expense in assisting that perception, special effects and slight of hand started to become a staple in the mid 90’s. The company invested in the character as much as the man and by 2004 the entrance of The Undertaker was a show unto itself with many performers going on record as saying watching it from in the ring was legitimately intimidating.
In my opinion The Undertaker is not just a successful character but the greatest WWE performer of all time. Stop scoffing for a second, most of the elite level performers in WWE history excelled in a few areas, many eclipsed Taker in some aspect most notably the mic skills area, but The Undertaker was so well rounded that he made up for it in such a way that whole was more valuable than the sum of his parts. When one looks at the amount of time spent at the top of the card Undertaker was there for 25 years. While the two biggest stars of the 90’s Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock may have sold more merch or drew the eyes of more mainstream viewers they both had relatively short careers. Austin spent 7 active years in WWE (less a year off for neck surgery and another 8 months after a walk out) and The Rock was effectively a part timer after 7 (with several lengthy absences to film movies), essentially the two biggest stars of his time had careers less than a third of Taker. Hogan, you say, well he was out classed in everything except raw charisma and in three wrestling stints with WWE Hogan’s career tallies only 12 years. On the long term time line The Undertaker can not be touched in any facet, Andre himself only had 17 years with WWE.
The first few years was not the non-stop five star match parade some may wish to remember. There was a learning curve for the young Taker and the WWE as they got comfortable in character and learned to showcase things properly. Undertaker never a poor worker but there was always room for improvement and he did improve, no aspect was ever left to linger long and at no point did he stop improving, even when he had reached the top of the industry he kept adding to his performance. The character constantly evolved growing darker and more sinister through the late 90’s, then a complete departure to a biker look for about 3 years until coming full circle to an updated version of his original character but this time the evolution was less sinister and more awe inspiring.
I remember being at a Monday Night Raw in Seattle and after the TV feed was done the superstars gave the crowd a little extra. This particular night Booker T had challenged his partners to try his signature “Spin-a-roonie” break dance move. One by one, Goldust, The Rock and Booker did one. The Undertaker was shaking his head and you could see on the big screen he was unhappy with the shenanigans. The crowd chanted “Do it!” over and over until Vince McMahon strode down the ramp and made a speech before he too tried one, the “Mac-a-roonie” was born. Soon Triple H returned and his opponents from earlier allowed him to try his hand, the entire time Undertaker is vowing his revenge (according to interviews with the other participants) until the other three performers from the match ran down and a brawl ensued as they were once again chased off and everybody returned to the locker room. This was a legendary moment in WWE because the top stars in the company and Vince McMahon could not crack the Undertaker or make him break character. There is the key to it all, every incarnation it remained the same, he never broke character, interviews are few and far between, he never appeared less than cool and collected, he has yet to wrote a book or do a podcast or put a rant on YouTube and his most in depth video release (Undertaker: This Is My Yard, 2001) shed very little light on the man outside the character. The public really doesn’t know Mark Callaway and the few things we’ve learned are a drop in the bucket.
The bottom line here is that an athlete is only going to remain at their peak for so long before they have to call it a career. April 1, 2017 seems to be the day The Undertaker chose to leave the ring once and for all. He had a hell of a match with one of the best full time performers in WWE and closed out one last Wrestlemania in front of 75,000 fans. The second most shocking Wrestlemania moment for Undertaker fans was not his second loss but when he piled his gloves, coat and hat in the ring and broke character on camera when he hugged his wife and kids on his way up the ramp. In all honesty The Undertaker gave us everything he had in his rare ring time over the last five years, but it was becoming clear that he was not the same performer, his last truly great night was Wrestlemania 29 when he faced CM Punk. After that it was like those puzzles for kids where two nearly identical pictures are places together and you must find the differences, subtle or glaring and that is how I see the last few years. I do not mean that disrespectfully in any way but a man in his late forties and early fifties that put his body through the rigors he did can’t maintain peak performance anymore, he can put on the show better than ever but physically things were slipping.
This is a case of a top athlete leaving us and ending an era. That is the echelon The Undertaker sits at as an athlete, the top 1% of the top 1% in his field. I believe we’ve seen the last of the Deadman, I fully expect him to be the marquee induction to the 2018 WWE Hall of Fame. Perhaps it is even possible he isn’t retired and there is one more match, I doubt that though. Sure we fans can say “It would have been better IF…” but this ending is the one to stick with, it is poetic and fitting for an old school man like Taker, the torch is passed and he went out on top, closing the biggest show of the year. I get that there are fans that are still throwing a temper tantrum over Roman Reigns but they all need to recognize one thing, The Undertaker had the stroke and the respect to veto anyone he did not want to be his last opponent, while it is not confirmed I suspect Roman was chosen for the task by Taker himself. I have been a fan since that night in 1990 through all the twists and turns and all I can say as in the end is Thank You Taker.