This Sunday marks the end of an era in professional wrestling. At Survivor Series, WWE pays tribute to The Undertaker. Since his introduction 30 years ago at the very same event, ‘the phenom’ has been a constant in an ever-changing industry. Through Golden, Attitude, Ruthless Aggression and Reality eras, Taker has been ‘taking souls and digging holes’. Of course, three decades nearly covers the entire life of our resident King of the Ring, Andy Spoors, but that hasn’t stopped him compiling an ode to ‘the Deadman’:
April 2 2017. It’s approaching 23:30 and the ruthless Floridian sun has long since set. The WWE Universe can breathe a little easier as a cool breeze just about keeps the 75,000 inside the Camping World Stadium awake. The bright lights of the WrestleMania set look even more vivid when juxtaposed against the night sky.
It’s been a long night of action but as Roman Reigns paces around the ring a ripple of excited chatter swirls around the stadium. And then it happens. Gong. The chatter turns to a roar. Gong. Every single light in the area appears to be extinguished. Gong.
A flash of lightning across the enormous stage and screens sends shivers down the spine. Despite witnessing this entrance on TV countless times, there is nothing quite like experiencing it in the flesh.
As the first notes of The Undertaker’s theme (a remix of Chopin’s Marche Funèbre/Funeral March) boom around the arena, business has well and truly picked up. Despite following and attending WWE events for the best part of 20 years, it marked the first time this humble fan had the opportunity to soak it all in.
That is unless, you count the UK impersonators that made a living wrestling in school gyms, bingo halls and caravan sites as carbon copies of the Deadman back in the 90s. Cane vs The Funeral Taker or Harvey Davidson as The Undertaker, just a couple of examples that adorned posters on local bulletin boards. They do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.
Attending a media junket at WWE’s Performance Center, the rest of the photographers, writers and presenters present scrambled to the nearest Superstar. Curiosity, however, got the better of me. Staring into the gym facilities behind a pane of glass, goosebumps appeared, hairs stood up on end.
The man stood on the other side of the glass, dressed in a canary yellow shirt was none other than The Undertaker. Before a word could even escape my lips to alert others, a makeshift curtain was shot up blocking everyone’s view in an instant.
Growing up in the UK, The Undertaker was one of a handful of Superstars that even if you didn’t follow wrestling you had heard of. The man was terrifying to children during his first run in the then WWF. With that pale complexion, adorned in black funeral garb and darkened rings around his eyes, it was easy to see why.
It’s a look that has only changed for brief periods of time over the years. From a realistic looking funeral undertaker to becoming the ‘Prince Of Darkness’ during the attitude era, a subtle shift towards gothic/cultish attire wasn’t too much of a stretch.
After a stint on the sidelines due to injury, Taker returned in May 2000 after a series of mysterious vignettes as ‘The American Badass’. No longer shackled by a one-dimensional gimmick, instead he made his way to the ring on motorbikes to themes supplied by Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit. The ‘Merica loving bike persona naturally gave way to Big Evil, a no-nonsense heel attitude that looked to win, no matter the cost.
A return to his supernatural roots at WrestleMania XX once again breathed new life into a career that under anyone else might have fallen by the wayside.
WWE has put a lot of effort to show yet another side of The Undertaker since WrestleMania 36 earlier this year. This persona, however, is the real man behind the character. Mark Calaway. The superbly produced Last Ride documentary series gave fans a look behind the curtain at the real Oz.
Until 2020 The Undertaker rarely broke character in public appearances: a consummate professional, revered by his peers and the WWE Universe alike. Speak to any WWE Superstar or watch any interview where his name is mentioned and watch the reaction. Respect. Pure and simple.
Eyes glisten as some of the biggest names in the industry recall advice he has given or the first time they encountered the future hall of famer backstage. One of the most striking moments of the aforementioned documentary series is the image of Vince McMahon breaking down in tears when asked what Mark Calaway means to him.
The usual measuring stick for judging where a Superstar fits into the grand scheme of things wouldn’t do The Undertaker justice. Capturing seven world titles seems low compared to Ric Flair and John Cena’s 16, but most would agree his legacy lies elsewhere in the industry.
Part of one of the best storylines in wrestling history, Undertaker faced and teamed up with his brother Kane on multiple occasions. Synonymous with the Hell In A Cell match. Pioneer of the Buried Alive match. The Casket match. One half of arguably the best wrestling match in history against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 25. But perhaps most famously of all, The Streak.
Winning 21 WrestleMania matches without loss, it was a run of epic proportions that will live longer than 99% of Championship reigns. The shock that reverberated around the Superdome in New Orleans when the streak was eventually broken by Brock Lesnar still sends shivers down your spine. Like someone sucking the very air out of the entire stadium, the noise is eerie when the referee finishes the three count.
This is a man that has beaten them all. Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, HBK, Triple H, The Rock, Stone Cold, John Cena. You name them and if their paths have crossed, he’s probably beaten them.
If Sunday truly marks the end of The Undertaker’s storied career, it feels fitting that his farewell takes place at Survivor Series. Striding in to the same PPV he debuted at, as Rowdy Roddy Piper shouted the immortal line ‘Look at the size of that ham hock!’, who could have known 30 years on, that same man would walk out as the final gunslinger in the wild west landscape of wrestling?
In the spirit of the man himself, let’s finish where we started with that memorable night in Orlando and the WWE Universe being sent into meltdown one more time. In a match that Undertaker has since admitted did not go the way he wanted, Roman Reigns inflicted only the second, and what proved to be final, defeat on Taker’s WrestleMania card.
It was what happened after the match that will go down in infamy. Taking off his fighting gloves, hat and trench coat before ceremonially placing them in the centre of the ring, Undertaker walked the ramp to the adulation of the fans in attendance. No one left. Even after Taker was lowered Terminator 2 style underneath the ramp and out of view. No exaggeration or hyperbole needed, grown men literally stood and wept.
The idea that a Superstar they literally grew up with may finally be finished was enough to elicit emotional responses all over the stadium. Even more poignant was the image of different generations consoling each other. It may have been a few years premature but fathers and sons walked into downtown Orlando awkwardly reminiscing about a career they both have very different recollections of.
And when all is said and done, no amount of championships can mean more than that…