The time is coming. It’s unavoidable at this point. We knew the day would come, and now it is fast-approaching. The Undertaker does not have much time left as an active wrestler. He is known as the Dead Man, the Phenom, but the simple fact is that Undertaker can be called one thing: a legend. After reports that he underwent shoulder and hip surgeries over the past year, it now feels more real than ever that Undertaker’s career is drawing to a close. It will be a sad day for wrestling fans when that happens, especially considering how important he is and what he has done in the past twenty plus years.
When he first showed up in the World Wrestling Federation, Undertaker was a pale redhead who stuffed people in body bags. He was dark, spooky, and a bit over the top. It was hard to know what to make of the guy his first year. Now, about twenty years later, Undertaker is the last of his kind. He came in during the Hogan years. Hulk Hogan had the company built around him for years, and was approaching the end of his run. During his fourth title reign, Hogan was set to face Undertaker at the 1991 Survivor Series. At that time, Undertaker was unbeatable, and Hogan looked to be facing impossible odds in a new breed of monster he had never faced before. Undertaker walked out that night with the WWF Championship.
After quickly losing the title, Undertaker’s character shifted to a baby face. No longer was he a terrifying villain, but a comforting hero. To the kids at home, it was certainly nice to have the guy on their side. While it would be a while before Undertaker held the title again, he remained near the top of the card, fighting the monsters of wrestling. There was Kamala, Giant Gonzalez, a spectacular series with Yokozuna, followed by Undertaker going through Ted DiBiase’s stable. After spending years going up against monsters of imagination, Undertaker’s character began to change. He entered into a very complex feud with Diesel. It started out as a minor grudge, but escalated into an intense rivalry that fueled Diesel’s last heel run before he left for WCW. The program was refreshing and intense, but it was only the beginning of a character transition.
When Mick Foley debuted as Mankind in 1996, he immediately targeted Undertaker. The two had their first one-on-one at the King of the Ring pay per view that saw Foley triumph. Undertaker didn’t lose too many matches during that time, so a win for Foley, and one that wasn’t tainted by outside interference, was very significant. Foley picked up an even bigger win over Undertaker at SummerSlam when Paul Bearer betrayed the Dead Man. Undertaker and Foley had several pay per view matches during this time. The most of famous of which was their Hell in a Cell encounter in 1998. This is often confused for a great match. In hindsight, it wasn’t at all. It was actually a mess when you see Undertaker hobbling on an injured ankle, and Foley in immense pain. However, what they pulled off was incredible. Mick Foley explains in Have a Nice Day that the he wanted to throw himself off the top of the cage because he thought they could make the fans believe they were seeing a good match, even if they weren’t. That is what happened. The match is one of the most famous of the Attitude Era, and it built Undertaker strongly going into SummerSlam that year against Steve Austin.
During an extended absence from the company, Undertaker’s character changed significantly. He had started to evolve into a more tangible character before he left but when he came back, the Dead Man was gone. In its place was the American Badass, a reflection of the man many people pictured Undertaker to be outside the ring. It was around this time that many first started to speculate about his retirement. For those who thought he was getting to the end, they were mistaken. Undertaker’s American Badass character really hit its stride in 2002. When WWE initiated the brand extension, Undertaker was selected as the number one pick for Raw. There was his classic brawl with Ric Flair at Wrestlemania XVIII was followed up by another title reign, where he again unseated Hulk Hogan as champion. This title reign was very different. Even though he lost the title to The Rock in fantastic triple threat match that involved Kurt Angle, Undertaker also spent some time in a feud with Jeff Hardy. This feud, just their ladder match alone, was just one example of how important Undertaker is to wrestling. He is a leader, yet a piece of the puzzle. He is a character, but also a good wrestler. He has enhanced the product, but also helped build to its future.
The American Badass died in 2003, and in his place, was the returning Dead Man. After JBL won the WWE title in 2004, Undertaker’s series of challenges legitimized him as a strong champion. He continued this trend in a feud with Randy Orton in 2005. He returned to the title picture in 2007 by becoming the first person the win the Royal Rumble as the thirtieth entrant, then going on to win the title from Batista at WrestleMania. Undertaker has had some incredible years, but 2007 and 2008 may have been two of the most successful when it came to big match wins.
Over the past few years, Undertaker’s appearances have been more sporadic. The main emphasis for Undertaker has been his WrestleMania appearances. It was in 2001 in his first Mania match with Triple H that the streak was first acknowledged. He was just 9-0 at that point. Here he is eleven years later with another ten victories under his belt. It started in 1991 with Jimmy Snuka and has included Jake Roberts, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels and Triple H. Of all the wrestlers whose exits seem fit for WrestleMania, Undertaker stands above them all.
As important as the streak is to both WrestleMania and Undertaker, it does not define him. He is not like other superstars defined by one match, one era, or feud. No one match, interview, DVD set or column can say it all. It may not be this year, but they day is coming when Undertaker will ride off into the sunset. If anyone deserves to walk out happy and healthy, it’s him.