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Word On The Rings (11/19/15): When Dead Men Tell The Tale

To celebrate 25 years of The Undertaker: how storytelling and narrative defines the greatness of one of the most iconic performers in the history of professional wrestling. 



The WWF roster in 1990 was stacked with personalities, gimmicks, and characters that would probably rile up today’s wrestling fan. Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior reigned supreme on the top of the card, and tag team specialists like the Hart Foundation, Demolition, and The Legion of Doom had a great part in defining that time. But this was also a time for giant sailors, savages, and stereotypical portrayals of Asians and Russians. Wrapping up their stints in the company were Terry Taylor (whose gimmick revolved around the mannerisms of a rooster) and Akeem the African Dream (once known as the fearsome One Man Gang).

This was 1990: 6’10", 300+ pound men were rare, but par for the course in pro wrestling. Huge, intimidating forces are always part and parcel of wrestling lore: be it Happy Humphrey, André the Giant, Big John Studd, Big Show, and so on. Few, though, ever reach legendary status; even fewer transcend the trope of the hulking behemoth who commands the ring with sheer, raw power.



At Survivor Series 1990, though, everything changed when a dead man started to tell a tale.

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Superlatives are not in short supply in wrestling, whether in storyline or not. The idea of “greatness” itself is subject to so many variables, that anyone on his best day can be considered “the greatest.” To some, greatness is measured in terms of title reigns. To others, greatness is one pegged against in-ring skill. Still to others, greatness should be evaluated on a performer’s crossover success (thus making pro wrestling more “legitimate”).

If we’re going to be objective about it, those criteria work against Undertaker. For one, Undertaker is a seven-time world champion, and all those title reigns add up to just 445 days at the top of the company—hardly the “franchise player” record that some of us look for when defining greatness along the lines of championships. Despite the MMA moves and his surprising agility in the ring, Undertaker is not the best ring general who has graced a WWE ring. And save for one movie role (where he played a token bad guy in 1991’s Suburban Commando), Undertaker is not a huge crossover success.



Still, there’s the struggle with superlatives for Undertaker: one that shouldn’t be argued on the basis of a 21-win streak in WrestleMania, or dramatic entrances. It should be founded on something more fundamental to wrestling: storytelling.

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For what it’s worth, Undertaker’s gimmick is kind of one-dimensional: he is the personification of Death in professional wrestling. What started out as a mortician gimmick from the days of the spaghetti Western has, over 25 years, metamorphosed to include supernatural powers, Paul Bearer, the Lord of Darkness, the American Badass, Big Evil, the Reaper, and everything else in between. Despite all those changes and reinventions, Undertaker always stood for the end of the line. Undertaker was, for all intents and purposes, as constant as Death itself. But that Undertaker ran away with it—and constantly reinvented our fascination with it for 25 years—stands out more than streaks and titles and entrances.



We talk about “narrative” a lot here, and that is somewhat of a given for Undertaker’s gimmick. Narrative is what what makes it so successful, 25 years on. When you play the role of Death personified in pro wrestling, you have to have a story. Whether it’s a fear of caskets or the horrifying thought of being buried alive, or if you’re forced to weigh between championship success or the value of your own life. The death narrative provides Undertaker and his opponent—whether it’s a jobber or a multi-time champion—with a motivation that creates the story of the match or the feud. Undertaker has to deliver on the promise of death, and his opponent has to escape it.

Narrative has always been at the core of the ring legacy of Undertaker. It’s like grade school English class: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. The long entrance itself is an introduction to death: that he is 6’11, 300+ pounds, walks through the darkness to the tune of a somber funeral dirge. The back-and-forth in the ring—one punctuated by things like Old School, or Undertaker sitting up in the ring just when you thought he’s out of it—are those consistent rising and falling actions and climaxes that make up a pro wrestling story. Anyone who hits the finisher defines how that story ends: if Undertaker wins, death triumphs. If Undertaker loses, it’s more than just another line in the victory column: it means that this champion conquered much more than Undertaker, but he also conquered death itself.


That dead simplicity of the narrative allows for so much nuance when it comes to telling the tale in the ring. A mediocre wrestler has no choice but to face the onslaught of death from the Deadman, while someone put in a program with him would pull out all the stops. “All the stops” in an Undertaker narrative can mean things that define that transition between “sports” and “entertainment” and puts the match strictly in the province of “sports entertainment,” be it an Inferno Match, a Casket Match, a Buried Alive match, or The Streak.

That’s what makes Undertaker’s career so great, and that probably explains why it lasted so long. Almost every match and feud that he has had since 1990 is inextricably woven with the narrative of death. Even the slightest suspension of disbelief allows the viewer to understand that Undertaker is not just there to win a match, but to claim souls. Undertaker isn’t in a quest to prove himself to be the best wrestler on the planet, but to bring death on the doorstep. The consistency of that narrative hasn’t changed in 25 years: whether it’s the first RAW main event against Damien Demento, or this Sunday with the Brothers of Destruction against The Wyatt Family.

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When you look at every professional wrestling gimmick from 1990 onward, it’s hard to find a characterization as constant as that of Undertaker. In many ways, careers are founded on constancy and consistency: a sort of “calling card” in the big thick novel that is the lore of pro wrestling. There have been many claims to many different characterizations—beasts, dragons, “greatest technical wrestler,” animals, manliness, sexiness, perfection—but few (probably none) have ever laid claim to the ultimate struggle of humanity. Undertaker personifies the anxieties, fears, and perhaps even our fascination with death and decay. When the death knell rings, you know what’s coming; and when Undertaker hits the Tombstone, there’s really no other choice but to rest in peace.


Wrestling today has lost a lot of that mystique and storytelling power: what with creative directions and news sites and insider rumors, and probably from people like us who talk about wrestling this way. Perhaps Undertaker’s gimmick came at the right place at the right time, perhaps his loyalty was rewarded with success. And perhaps in a pro wrestling landscape of so many different characters that don’t lend as well to narratives, this is the last time we’ll ever see someone like Undertaker define wrestling for us in bigger terms than titles or innovative wrestling moves or box office hits.

Everything changed when a Deadman told a tale. Perhaps that is the greatest legacy that Undertaker left over the past 25 years. And when it comes to a claim of greatness, that’s something you can never take away from the Deadman.

There will be new consciences that will emerge from the locker room, and there will be careers that will last longer than 25 years. But when it comes to being the greatest storyteller in the WWE, it’s kind of hard to argue against Undertaker.

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Marck Rimorin (@marocharim) is an advertising professional, writer, bookworm, and overthinker. While a lifelong WWE fan, he also watches puroresu, lucha libre, and old clips of European wrestling. When not caught up in reading, making brand communications, or eating waybread under the shade of mallorn trees, Marck writes the overthink piece for Smark Henry: The Word on the Rings.

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