The Undertaker: A Look at His First Year in WWE
Since showing up at Survivor Series 1990, the Undertaker has been a major player in wrestling. We look back at his first year in the WWE.
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
By that, Charles Dickens was obviously talking about Survivor Series 1990. Airing nearly three decades ago, the PPV was a unique show. We got to see the final WWF appearance of Demolition Ax. Sgt. Slaughter destroyed a team of four men all by himself, setting up his world title run. For the only time in Survivor Series history, the final match featured the winners of all the previous matches going at it. Plus there was the time when Ultimate Warrior cut a promo where he randomly referred to Tito Santana’s fanbase as “Arriba Derci.”
Mostly, people remember the show for two debuts. One was a mystery wrestler who would go on to have one of the greatest first years in wrestling history. The other was turkey.
Going back a little bit, Mark Calaway had been wrestling for six years, starting as a teenager in World Class Championship Wrestling. He had wrestled for several promotions and took on the likes of Bruiser Brody, Jerry Lawler, a very young Steve Austin, and more under an entire rolodex of different personas, but the most notable was his brief stint in World Championship Wrestling, where he wrestled as Mean Mark Callous. After performing there for less than a year, he left and signed with WWF.
Calaway later admitted to be worried. As they built up Survivor Series, they would show a giant egg displayed near the ring. Obviously, something big was supposed to happen with it at the PPV, but what? Calaway didn’t know, but had a strong suspicion that it was going to be him. Afraid that he was going to be wrestling as “The Egg Man” or something equally as stupid, he was relieved when Vince McMahon called him up and asked, “Am I speaking to the Undertaker?”
It was a gimmick Vince McMahon had wanted to use for a while. An old Wild West mortician from Death Valley who would be portrayed as an unstoppable monster. WWF had a bunch of monster wrestlers to feed to Hulk Hogan, and to a lesser extent the Ultimate Warrior, for years, but they usually revolved around the idea of being a big dude. Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, Earthquake, and so on were based on the idea of, “Look how big this guy is!” Hogan and Warrior were cartoony characters – comic book superheroes – and they needed someone just as over-the-top to combat them.
In a way, he was an evolution of Zeus, the nigh-invincible movie character/actor who challenged Hogan about a year earlier. I’ve written before that Zeus’ time in WWF was actually completely awesome, but he wasn’t really a wrestler, so they had to use smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that he was all sorts of terrible. At least now they would be building such a character from someone with actual experience.
While Survivor Series 1990 is well-known as the Undertaker’s debut, he actually appeared a couple times earlier in some WWF Superstars tapings that didn’t air until after the fact. They’re mainly only remembered for including his original name, Kane the Undertaker. Well, at least they got some use out of that idea seven years later.
Anyway, the giant egg wasn’t the only big mystery with Survivor Series. Ted Dibiase was leading the Million Dollar Team against Dusty Rhodes’ Dream Team. Dusty had Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart, and Koko B. Ware at his side while Dibiase had Rhythm ‘n’ Blues (Honky Tonk Man and Greg Valentine) and a mystery partner. Though fun piece of trivia, originally it was going to be Bad News Brown, but then he got let go and they went in a different direction.
When it came time for the match, Dibiase proudly announced his fourth member: the Undertaker. Accompanied by resident non-wrestling heel Brother Love, Undertaker walked out to a wonderful expression of shock from commentators Gorilla Monsoon and Roddy Piper. Much like the crowd, they didn’t know what to make of the guy. Piper also put over his massive frame, memorably yelling, “Look at the size of that ham hock!”
Undertaker started the match against Bret Hart and shrugged off his initial attacks. Bret tagged in Neidhart and he didn’t do much better. With the tag champions having failed to make any progress, they tagged in Koko. Koko became the first victim, getting thrown throat-first into the top rope and then receiving a Tombstone. Bret got some offense in, but all it did was annoy this new guy. Not even needing to, he simply tagged out.
The next few minutes acted as a reminder of how lame and sad it was seeing Valentine adopt Honky Tonk Man’s gimmick for the sake of being in a themed tag team. Honky Tonk Man and Neidhart each got eliminated and Undertaker returned to the fray. He took on Dusty Rhodes and pinned him after a double axe-handle from the top rope. Not only was it crazy seeing a guy this size pull off a top-rope attack, but Dusty was kind of a big deal. Months earlier, he beat Randy Savage at WrestleMania. Even if he was on his way out of the company, it was shocking to see him taken apart so easily.
Unfortunately, the WWF writers sort of put themselves in a corner. As mentioned earlier, with the way the show was put together, there would be a final match – the Grand Finale Match of Survival – where the surviving face wrestlers would face the surviving heels. Since the show ended with Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior celebrating in the ring, that meant that every single heel had to lose that night.
For their top heels, they had to get around that or risk hurting their credibility. “Macho King” Randy Savage wasn’t in any of the matches. Sgt. Slaughter went too far beating down Tito Santana and was disqualified. As for the Undertaker, he didn’t like that Dusty was going after Brother Love and left the ring to go kick his ass. He got counted out, but ignored it and continued chasing Dusty to the back. Regardless, Dibiase won and went on to lose to the face team in the main event.
That egg, of course, ended up being the Gobbledy Gooker, a guy in a turkey costume who got destroyed by a mix of fan apathy and booing. So that was the end of the road for that idea. The Undertaker? He kept on trucking.
For the next few months, Undertaker simply bided his time. He wrestled on Superstars and Wrestling Challenge every few weeks, taking on random, forgettable jobbers. A lot of the time, he would finish them off, place them in a body bag, and carry them off to the back. That was before they realized that caskets are creepier and have a better aesthetic. When not on TV, Undertaker would do the house show circuit, going through face midcarders who had nothing much going on like Tugboat and Hacksaw Jim Duggan.
Undertaker’s next big appearance came at the 1991 Royal Rumble. This was early in the match’s history where winning it ultimately meant nothing outside of bragging rights. It also lacked star power as only a few wrestlers were big enough to win. Savage was one of them, but he no-showed. What was important was that Undertaker got three eliminations and was thrown out before Hogan could show up because the longer those two were kept apart, the better.
This gave us one of the first real looks at how highly McMahon thought of the character when Undertaker took a Texas Tornado spinning punch – which, while not the most effective, was still qualified as a finisher – and completely no-sold it. When it came time for him to leave, he left in style, as he tried strangling both members of the Legion of Doom at the same time and it took their combined might to fend him off. They clotheslined him over the top, but he landed on his feet and didn’t look worse for wear.
Before leaving the company, Rick Rude talked Vince McMahon into hiring one of his former wrestling managers, Percy Pringle (real name William Moody) as the Undertaker’s manager. Not only was he good at his job, but he even worked in a funeral parlor. It was perfect.
Plus it made better sense. Brother Love was a good heat magnet, but other than a very vague church-based connection if you want to stretch it, Brother Love and Undertaker didn’t really work as a pair. One guy insincerely and mockingly crowed about love while the other was a blank-faced sociopath. On an episode of the Brother Love Show, Brother Love admitted that he didn’t have enough time to work with Undertaker and fulfill his hosting duties, so he handed him off to “Brother Bearer.”
Brother Bearer admitted his first name to be Paul, which got a delightful groan out of McMahon on commentary.
Their chemistry was great. Paul Bearer would constantly overact with his high-pitched voice and cover most of the promos, leaving Undertaker to belt out a chilling exclamation point in the final seconds. Undertaker’s promos rarely overstayed their welcome when he had Paul taking the brunt.
Plus Paul carried the urn, an unexplained prop that acted both as a source for the Undertaker’s powers and a cheap bludgeon for Paul to use as a heel.
It was all part of the wonderful, unexplained mythos of the character. He was completely mysterious. Bobby Heenan would really make it work on commentary. He was a self-proclaimed broadcast journalist and while he was never brave enough to get answers, he at least brought plenty of questions to the table. What is that urn? WHO is inside it? Where did the Undertaker come from? What the hell is he? His rants were half confusion and half terror.
To this day, we have few answers about what the Undertaker’s really all about in terms of his character. On one hand, it’s to keep him mysterious. On the other hand, it makes it easier to handwave basic storytelling. Like, you know, everything involving the Wyatt Family feud.
But I digress.
WrestleMania VII was on the way and it was an unusual PPV. Three hours of it were meaningful and wonderful for the most part. It’s just that the show was over four hours long and featured many matches that were incredibly short and pointless. They were there for the sake of getting as much of the roster on the air as possible. Stuff like a one-minute Tito Santana vs. Mountie match or Texas Tornado vs. Dino Bravo.
The Undertaker was up against “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka. It felt like one of the more throwaway matches on the card, but time has made it incredibly important in retrospect. Snuka was important years earlier, but here he was just a midcarder, coasting on yesteryear. He did better than anyone else by that point in that he was able to briefly stun the Undertaker for a couple moments, but that was it. He ate a Tombstone and the legendary Streak began without anyone realizing how major it would be for at least another decade.
Regardless, Snuka was a minor victory at the time. Undertaker needed to move on to the big leagues. I remember watching WrestleMania with my friends and talking about how we needed to see Undertaker fight the Ultimate Warrior. It was the ultimate super-power wrestling fight. It had to happen! Luckily, the bookers agreed.
Not only was Brother Love phased out as the Undertaker’s manager, but he was also phased out of the company completely. The Brother Love Show was soon replaced by Paul Bearer’s interview segment, the Funeral Parlor. Usually, it would just be Paul hanging out on the set, but occasionally, you’d get an appearance by the Undertaker.
The most memorable segment was in April, shortly after WrestleMania VII. The Ultimate Warrior was the guest, coming off his major “career-ending” win over Randy Savage, and he was disturbed to see a casket covered in Warrior logos. He and Paul conversed in loud nonsense for several minutes, but then the Undertaker appeared from out of a standing coffin and attacked Warrior from behind. After manhandling Warrior for a minute or so, he and Paul locked Warrior into the custom, air-tight casket.
Warrior was strong and seemingly unbeatable, but even he needed oxygen.
The one guy who really sold this scene was Randy Savage on commentary. Despite having turned face after their match, he still held onto a lot of bad blood and hated Warrior. He loved that Undertaker was kicking this guy’s ass. But over the next few minutes, he went from excited to skeeved out. Locking a guy into a casket with no air was too far out of Savage’s comfort zone and he joined in with fellow commentators Roddy Piper and McMahon as they yelled at the officials to break open the damn thing and save the man’s life.
In a great, relatively subtle follow-up, there was an episode of the Funeral Parlor weeks later with Hogan as the guest, where he was there to talk about his feud with Slaughter. Even though Hogan had no explicit beef with Undertaker at the time, he damn well made sure to check every casket as he walked onto the set.
The next step in the Warrior/Undertaker feud is something that still blows me away to this day. You have to remember that Warrior and Hogan were extremely well-protected. It was rare to come out of a scenario looking more intimidating and tougher than Warrior or Hogan. Now imagine a scenario where one man comes out looking more intimidating and tougher than Warrior and Hogan! That actually happened!
On an episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event, Warrior had a match against Slaughter. During it, the Warrior-themed casket was wheeled to ringside. As Slaughter’s accomplices helped him put the boots to Warrior, garnering a disqualification, the Undertaker arose and joined in the fun. Not that that was in any way impressive on its own.
Hogan ran out to clear the ring of Slaughter and his goons. He saw Undertaker waiting there for him and Hogan decided to clock him right in the face with his title belt. Undertaker completely no-sold it and stared back. Hogan’s response was essentially, “Um…well, shit. Hey, I’m gonna go that way! Later!” And off he went to go chase Slaughter some more.
Warrior got his second wind and kept blasting Undertaker with clotheslines. None of them did anything. His patented shoulder tackle finally knocked Undertaker out of the ring, but he again landed on his feet and showed no damage. The two were separated and we got a stalemate. It was honestly the best Warrior looked during their entire televised feud.
Yet at the same time, it was the 1991 equivalent to getting the steps thrown at you by John Cena, enduring an F5 from Brock Lesnar, and then popping back up. They were really, really behind this rookie.
What you have to remember about the early ’90s is that it wasn’t all about ratings and PPVs. There was no Monday Night Raw and its predecessor Prime Time Wrestling wasn’t touted as a must-watch show. PPVs were only done four times a year and this was going on during the five-month off-season between WrestleMania and SummerSlam. Saturday Night’s Main Event was also a major show, but they stopped doing them as often as years prior and there wouldn’t be another edition for the rest of 1991.
It was all about the house shows. They built up this epic hatred between a neon Viking and a zombie mortician and let it loose on the circuit. You wanted to see these two go at it? Then buy a ticket because they were coming to your town! At first, they would fight it out and Warrior would win by disqualification. Then they would start doing Body Bag Matches where the winner would be the first to zip up the other in a body bag.
I was lucky enough to see that match at Madison Square Garden. Warrior ended up winning when he stole the urn from Paul Bearer, bounced the ropes, leapt into the air, and clobbered Undertaker with it. That knocked him out long enough for him to put him in the body bag. After Warrior left in celebration, Undertaker came to and tore himself out, showing zero emotion. It was badass.
Warrior was notorious for no-showing house shows, so Undertaker occasionally had to face replacements. Maybe you’d get to see him wrestle Roddy Piper or Big Boss Man instead. What blows me away is that there were three instances of Warrior being replaced by Randy Savage (who was supposed to be retired at the time), giving us the only instances of Savage vs. Undertaker EVER. They were never filmed and never advertised, yet they happened in front of a select, fortunate few.
The problem with the house show circuit was that it didn’t translate to TV. As far as the average viewer knew, the two just hated each other and didn’t do anything about it for the longest time. There was no blow-off match for the world to see.
The next chapter of the rivalry had Jake “The Snake” Roberts mentor Warrior in the path of the dark side. Warrior was very much shaken up by that whole casket murder attempt from April and Jake let him know that he wouldn’t be able to hurt Undertaker until he could understand him and his ways. For the next month or so, we got some really goofball segments where Jake locked Warrior back into his casket, buried him alive, and finally, put him in a room full of snakes.
When it looked like Warrior was making some headway, Jake betrayed him and had him bitten by a cobra. Warrior then saw that Jake and Undertaker were in cahoots. It was all setup for a Jake heel turn.
EXCEPT…Warrior was busy with another storyline. He was helping Hogan against Sgt. Slaughter, General Adnan, and Colonel Mustafa. Rather than do anything relating to Undertaker or Jake, Warrior joined Hogan in a handicap match at SummerSlam. Then, due to a money dispute, Warrior was fired by the end of the night.
That meant Undertaker, essentially, won their feud. Last we saw was Undertaker getting one over on him and there was no comeuppance. Hell, there was never any on-air comeuppance during the previous few months outside of that Main Event stalemate. Inadvertently, Undertaker became the first person to ever win a feud with the Ultimate Warrior during his WWF run.
As for SummerSlam, Undertaker and Jake didn’t have any matches. The point of the show was that it was more of an uplifting season finale. Other than one minor instance, it was all feel-good matches where the faces got to stand tall. It ended with Randy Savage marrying Elizabeth. On PPV, it went off without a hitch.
It was the post-show where things got interesting. Savage opened up some wedding gifts and there was a snake in there. Jake Roberts and Undertaker attacked Savage out of nowhere until new roster member Sid Justice stepped in to ward them off with a chair. We got a couple new feuds to look forward to, which would distract us viewers from the fact that everybody had strangely stopped mentioning Ultimate Warrior completely.
It took a long time to realize someone was gone from the company back then.
Then again, Savage was still “retired” and couldn’t wrestle. Not until the plot allowed it several months later. For the time, Jake and Undertaker feuded with Sid as Savage’s proxy with the brief inclusion of Hacksaw Jim Duggan to even things up. The most we got out of Undertaker/Sid, not counting the house shows of course, was a confrontation where Sid showed himself to be on equal grounds with the Dead Man. Then Jake had to go interrupt the sweet confrontation.
Coincidentally, Undertaker and Sid would face off at a house show that did a one-night King of the Ring tournament. Their match ended in a double disqualification, which gave Bret Hart a bye and allowed him to beat IRS in the finals.
Undertaker then stepped away from his partnership with Jake for a bit and forged an alliance with Ric Flair. Flair was new to the company and was constantly targeting Hogan, based on who was the TRUE champion in wrestling (more on what that means here). Undertaker was again going to be somebody’s henchman, but this time the stakes were more fitting: Undertaker had been granted a title match against Hogan at Survivor Series.
In a scene reminiscent of Undertaker’s attack on the Warrior months earlier, Paul Bearer had Hogan as a guest on the Funeral Parlor. Again, there was a casket designed specifically for Hogan. As Ric Flair appeared to get in an argument with the Hulkster, Undertaker once again appeared and ambushed Hogan. Unlike last time, Savage and Piper removed their headsets and made a run for the set with chairs in hand. Piper smashed Flair with a chair and made him tumble. Savage smashed Undertaker with a chair and it did nothing.
What did cause Undertaker to back off? He removed Hogan’s crucifix necklace, looked at it for a second, discarded it back onto Hogan’s chest, and stepped back in disgust. It was the coolest shit.
The whole scene also created some wonderful foreshadowing for the next few months of main event storytelling while coming off as completely organic.
Hulk Hogan vs. Undertaker for the title was a big deal. As the fifth Survivor Series, this was the first time that there had been a non-elimination-tag match on the card. Back then, those tag matches meant something, unlike how thrown together they are now. Also notable was that Undertaker’s response was a bit warmer than one would expect. A good chunk of the audience wanted to see him go over the company’s #1 hero.
If it were done a year or so earlier, this would have been the end of the Undertaker’s credibility. He would have been like King Kong Bundy; destroyed by Hogan and then reduced to wrestling little people a year later before falling off the roster. Instead, they decided to build instead of destroy. The two were portrayed as equal forces, but Flair interfered and helped Undertaker Tombstone Hogan onto a chair. After a three-count, we had a new champion and fans…cheered for the villain? How strange.
It’s almost like they took a shining to the guy.
Granted, Undertaker would go on to lose the belt a few days later, but it was done in a way that made him look otherwise unbeatable with the amount of cheating Hogan needed. The two never did have a proper blow-off and Undertaker never lost his much-needed mystique. It was for the best. Soon he would turn on Jake Roberts and rise up as one of the top faces of the company. He’d have multiple title runs, wrestle countless main events, become the icon of WrestleMania, and solidify himself as a true legend.
But it wouldn’t be possible without that amazing first year.
From one Survivor Series to another, Undertaker spent the year as a patient wrecking ball, stomping through the ranks and ruling over nearly everyone who got in his way. On the night he debuted, the final image was Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior celebrating as they defeated the entire roster. As twelve months had passed, the Undertaker silenced one and stole the world title from the other.
Few could ask for a better rookie year in the big time.
Gavin Jasper did notice that Undertaker got pinned in a match televised in Spain by one Tito Santana. It was a good day for Arriba Derci. Follow Gavin on Twitter!