The arena darkens, the bell tolls and the creepy tones of a song that appears to be based off of Chopin’s “Funeral March” begins to play.
When the tall, black figure with the hat appears, everyone knows something special is about to happen.
This classic version of the Undertaker is completely codified in the minds of viewers. And there’s no reason for it not to be. It’s the gimmick that Mark Calaway has had for the longest period of time. The gimmick debuted in 1990 (and was meant to be a literal “undertaker,” a mortician/funeral director). In the late 1990s, it became more malevolent and satanic for the Ministry of Darkness faction. Since 2004, he has been the Deadman, which is roughly the same gimmick, just with more immortality/zombification.
This is the image everyone likes, but it’s not the whole story.
From May 2000 to November 2003, the Taker (somewhat inexplicably) was recast as a biker. His entrance theme changed to Kid Rock’s “American Bad Ass,” and it later was Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin.” The only sign that remained of his previous gimmick was the gong that played at the beginning of his new theme songs. Later, references to Big Evil and Deadman Inc. brought more classic Taker to the mix.
Some may suggest that this is a strange, three-year footnote. Indeed, the classic Deadman is what everyone will remember about the Undertaker. But, Big Evil deserves a little more attention.
There always is a lot of talk about “The Streak,” but what rarely comes up is how horrible many of those matches at WrestleMania are. There are the classics with Shawn Michaels and Triple H, but then there are the other ones. Undertaker vs. Giant Gonazalez? Pass my VHS post haste. Undertaker vs. Sycho Syd? Most definitely. Undertaker vs. Big Bossman? Actually, best to actually block that one out.
But, as a biker, Taker had a forgotten classic against Triple H at WrestleMania 17 and a very good match with Ric Flair at WrestleMania 18. The tag/handicap match with Taker and Nathan Jones (!) against Big Show and A-Train is best forgotten. For all intents and purposes, he’s batting .667 here.
To further this, when the classic Deadman gimmick re-debuted at WrestleMania 20, the nine-minute match with Kane was mediocre.
This gimmick also gave everyone an opportunity to appreciate the Taker’s natural red hair. He is half Irish, after all. And, man, that is some red hair.
The really fun part about this gimmick is that it is as close to the real Mark Calaway as the general public can get right now. Relative to other wrestlers of his stature, little information is available about him. He is quite private, and protective of his gimmick and the sacred bond of kayfabe. But, we know he is from Texas and he likes motorcycles and hard rock. Other information can be pieced together from shoot interviews with other wrestlers, in which we learn he really likes (or liked) alcohol and strippers, and he was a locker room enforcer. But, that’s about it.
When Paul Bearer was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame earlier this year, Taker appeared at the ceremony. He didn’t say anything. He was in full costume, and he raised the urn that Bearer used to carry. For a guy who worked so closely with Bearer, it would have been nice to see him drop the veil and be himself for one night.
Recent interviews for WWE projects show the Undertaker wearing a hoodie and speaking with his natural Texan voice. So, now that the streak has ended and his wrestling career most likely is over, maybe we will learn more. I hope one day a non-kayfabe DVD documentary is released about the Taker, and that seems more likely now. (If that DVD starts with something to the effect that “The Undertaker was born in Death Valley to Paul Bearer, and he grew up with his brother, Kane,” it’s going out the window.) When Undertaker inevitably is inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame, it is likely that he will speak from the heart as much as possible, and without the gimmick.
Until all of this happens, the closest the audience can get to seeing what Mark Calaway is like is seeing the American Bad Ass tearing it up like it’s 2001.