Genesis Of A Phenom: Rewatching Early Undertaker, Part 1

The Undertaker's WWE Debut

This piece was originally written during our ‘Undertaker Weekend’ in June 2020. We are republishing this ahead of Undertaker’s ‘Final Farewell’ at Survivor Series.

The 22nd of November, 1990, for Vince McMahon and the WWE, is perhaps one of the single most important dates of all time. I would personally say it is without doubt date of the most important debut of all time.

I am of course referring to the hatching of the Gobbledy Gooker… no, of course this was the night that the legendary Undertaker would make his first televised appearance to millions watching around the world.

I wanted to experience The Undertaker’s first year in the WWF for myself. At the time of his debut, it would still be 3 years before I was born in November 1993. 

The only way I’ve ever watched footage of this time is through little snippets in documentaries. Almost never with original commentary from that period and those commenting always seem to do so with fondness. 

I was intrigued to follow Undertaker’s first full year in WWF from Survivor Series 1990 up until his WWF title shot, facing the immortal Hulk Hogan. Experiencing it for the first time, just like those who are older than me were able to.

I wanted to see if it was really as magical as people always make it out to be. Using only footage from that time I wanted to experience the good, the bad and the ugly of Undertaker’s first year in the WWF.

Opening Survivor Series 1990 was none other than the gruffled voice of Vince McMahon running down the card, cutting live to the Hartford Civic Centre in Hartford, Connecticut with Gorilla Monsoon and Roddy Piper on commentary duty.

Piper opened by calling out Saddam Hussein live on PPV. The First Gulf War had started three months prior and Operation Desert Shield would continue until February the next year.

It was apparent at this moment at how different the wrestling and political climate was in 1990 and how much this fueled top rivalries and characters. The biggest being that between the Iraqi-sympathising Sgt. Slaughter and the all-American Hulk Hogan.

As the show continued, the camera cut backstage to Sean Mooney with the Survivor Series team consisting of ‘The Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase, Greg Valentine and The Honky Tonk Man. The Million Dollar team had a vacant slot to be filled by a mystery team-mate.

DiBiase during this interview would tease the audience by saying “I promise this to be a big, very big surprise”. Perhaps the biggest understatement in wrestling history.

Whilst watching this I felt my heart rate rise, I was excited for what I knew was coming. Dusty Rhodes led his team down to the ring to face DiBiase’s men. For the first time I was going to watch The Undertaker’s debut outside of any clips or documentary, in its original context. 

Through the curtain came Brother Love followed closely by The Undertaker. I had goosebumps watching this, the debut of the man who would dominate professional wrestling for the next 30 years.

The entrance itself was rather understated in comparison to all the pomp and circumstance of what we see today. The lighting stayed the same, no gong to signify his arrival and his entrance music, pretty much the demo version of the same song he uses to this day.

This did not mean, however, that his presence couldn’t be felt. On the contrary, I felt this was more powerful in many respects.

The stripped down nature of this entrance leaves us with one focus and that is the man himself. His eyes hidden in the darkness created by the shadow of his iconic hat, fully dressed in black with a thick striped grey tie and a ginger mullet to finish. 

In many respects, today you are told that this man is great through the epic fire pyro and lighting during his entrance, this all signifies something special. In 1990 Undertaker himself did the talking through his characterisation. Even in his first ever appearance this man oozed a charisma you can’t teach.

Piper exclaimed “Holy Cow” as he made his way down to the ring. When Undertaker revealed his eyes for the first time, Monsoon said that he had a “nasty, nasty look”. 

The camera panned to the audience, people stared in disbelief at what they were seeing. In an era dominated by the multi couloured Ultimate Warrior and the yellow and red of Hogan, Undertaker was horrifyingly different.

Even members of his own team were incredibly different. Joining UT and Dibiase were the goofy duo of Rhythm and Blues, accompanied to the ring by Jimmy Hart. Obviously Undertaker had stumbled onto something wholly original. 

The first man Undertaker ever wrestled on TV was Bret Hart. It didn’t take him long to play with the big boys. He looked dominant in this match, getting a taste of almost everyone on Rhodes’s team.

He hit the first televised tombstone piledriver on Koko B. Ware, somewhat clumsily delivered. Undertaker would do this too close to the ropes and awkwardly do his iconic pin on the side to avoid them. 

There is almost a pureness about this era in wrestling. An innocence in which you cheer for the good guys and boo the bad, no subversion in the story or by the audience. This also made Undertaker stand out from the crowd.

Perhaps the best example in this match was when DiBiase tagged in Taker only for the crowd to let out a noise of anguish when doing so. 

Undertaker’s style in this match was mostly of a generic big man, lumbering around the ring. He did manage to show off his agility we take for granted now. Ascending the top rope with ease, he came crashing down with a double axe handle to take Dusty Rhodes out of the match, could you imagine an axe handle getting the three count today? 

Monsoon was in disbelief at the agility, the crowd reacted loudly in unison. Laughable now with the current crop of wrestlers but when you are used to Andre the Giant and El Gigante as big men, Undertaker’s agility in comparison must have been off the charts [in fairness, I think some very early Andre matches may now have to be your next assignment – Ed]

At this point, Rhodes attacked Brother Love before Undertaker with frighteningly quick reflexes fought with Rhodes up the entrance ramp, getting himself counted out in the process.

Pleading with The Undertaker to stop was a young Shane McMahon in referee uniform as they disappeared through the curtain. 

Being counted out allowed his mystique to grow and gave the last man standing of Rhodes’s team, Bret Hart, his heroic moment. He almost picked up the victory against the villainous Million Dollar Man, who advanced into the final match of the night.

Although Undertaker would not make another appearance that night, he had left the fans in attendance and the worldwide audience with an impression that would last a lifetime. I was so pleased at how well this footage had aged.

It was strange seeing a stripped-down version of The Undertaker that we know and love today, but there are some interesting character traits that have been lost over time. His style in this match really sold the ‘dead man’ gimmick. 

I found his slow and methodical movements to be reminiscent of horror movie villains such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhee – terrifying characters found only in R-rated movies and the nightmares of children. 

Over the few months that followed, Undertaker would continue to make short appearances in squash matches. One such match I watched was on a good old fashioned VHS series called Supertape. On volume four of this series was a match between Undertaker and Tugboat. 

He looked indestructible, like he would have at least eight sequel movies before those in charge would ever think about killing off his character.

My next stop was 19th January 1991, the fourth annual Royal Rumble event. Throughout the night we see wrestlers backstage discussing their chances and the match itself: Texas Tornado, Greg Valentine among others. 

Undertaker then did the same in front of the Rumble logo. It’s odd to watch. I’m so used to him having the highest production value on the show, to see him with the same lighting state as the aforementioned men. It’s apparent how special Undertaker looks and comes across in comparison to them.

With Brother Love still acting as his mouthpiece, eyes covered by the shadow created by his hat, all Undertaker had to say, in much less melodramatic fashion than I am used to, was “rest in peace”.

The more superstars being interviewed the more I love this version of The Undertaker. A massive contradiction when compared to the lovable cartoon-like characters of the era.

Hearing The Fink again was wonderful as he introduced Bret Hart as the number one entrant into the Rumble. One thing I found strange during this match was the lack of entrance music past those at slots one and two.

Alex Lister, my colleague here at Hooked on Wrestling mentioned this on his recent list of 8 things we don’t want to see WWE bring back from the 90s. I have to agree, especially in the case of The Undertaker.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a strange Undertaker entrance, no music and walking down to the ring at a reasonable pace. It made me think of how different Edge’s return at the Royal Rumble 2020 would have been without music, it adds a whole new dimension. 

The presence of Undertaker in this match was unique. The only other superstar I could compare him to in the match would be Jake Roberts: cold, calculated and ready to do what it took to be victorious. 

This, however, is where the comparison ends. If there was one thing that was lacking in Undertaker’s game early on in his WWF career was his wrestling ability, or the portrayal of this anyway.

It seemed as if he was being booked as a generic big guy, actually showing less of his ability in this match than he did in his debut. Generic and slow, kind of boring quite honestly. Character brilliant, in ring work not so much. Strange to see him so clunky in his actions.

I was surprised by the fact that he only got two eliminations in this match before being double teamed and eliminated by The Legion of Doom. In the modern era you would have to give him at least five eliminations in order to make a good impression and I was left a little underwhelmed by this performance, quite honestly. Perhaps lack of creativity in both entrance and in ring work. 

I suppose I watched this match, hoping for as iconic a moment as the 1997 Royal Rumble when all the lights snapped to black during his entrance, while other men continued to wrestle. It was important for me to remember that he was only three months into a 30-year career.

Speaking of things less than perfect, WWE Network’s coverage of all its shows in the early 90s. Much of the content is missing and the complicated nature of a pre Raw world for someone younger than Monday Night Raw itself can be confusing at times.

Before embarking on Undertaker’s first year in WWE, I assumed it would be quite easy to follow his development in chronological order, but it’s truly a different ball game. For example, I tried to find footage on the network of Paul Bearers first appearance in WWF when he replaced Brother Love as The Undertaker’s manager. Surprisingly, I could not find it.

My research diverted to YouTube for this historic moment. Pinning down a date for this segment was also quite tough. From what I can gather, the same night Paul Bearer made his debut, The Main Event television show and three episodes of Superstars were taped on the same night. Bearer’s debut came on one of these episodes of Superstars in February 1991.

My first impression was the amazing amount of heat Undertaker and Brother Love received from the crowd. “The man that stands before you now” exclaimed the red faced Love, wagging his finger towards the menacing shape of The Undertaker “is a man who requires love, 24 hours a day”.

I can’t help but laugh at how corny and over the top the Brother Love character was. I have absolutely no problem with the gimmick but it seems an odd pairing. It was somewhat absurd seeing the white suit and melodramatic portrayal of this Brother Love character next to the gothic and mute Undertaker. 

After Bearer had been introduced onto the show, Brother Love said his name in the most hammy fashion I’ve ever heard. Leading to Vince McMahon on commentary to say “oh god” in such a way that it made the segment seem quite ridiculous.

When you strip it back, Bearer’s name is just that. I think most of us wrestling fans today have pretty much forgotten the pun associated but it does make me chuckle every now and again when I think about it.

This is one of those examples of time making things look better, as there’s no doubt that Bearer was a pivotal factor in the early years of Undertaker’s career but to me his introduction didn’t work as well as I thought it might before watching the footage.

It is quite possible that my critical 21st century eyes are to blame but I much preferred some other segments later on in the same year. That aside, seeing Bearer and Undertaker together for the first time, just looked right. A very important piece of the puzzle had just been solved. 

The next big moment for the career of The Undertaker was Wrestlemania 7. The origin of the streak. A streak for those, including me, that signified this man was the most dominant force in wrestling, lasting from 1991 until 2014. 21 souls would be taken, starting with Jimmy Snuka and ending with CM Punk. 

Mania opened in cheesy fashion, reminding me of Rocky 4. The American hero Hulk Hogan versus the traitor Sgt. Slaughter. Super corny but I have a special place in my heart for corny affairs such as this and Rocky 4.

Willie Nelson would open the show by singing the American national anthem and the iconic image of Gorilla Monsoon standing at ringside would follow. 

Snuka would enter first, soon followed by the ghastly figure of The Undertaker and Bearer alongside, holding the iconic golden urn. I noticed immediately how big of a difference the presence of Bearer made to the image of Taker. 

People were truly terrified of them in 91, the poor kids shown in the audience clutching onto their moms and dads. Children waiting to see their hero Hogan but have to go through this to get there. 

Other parts of the crowd stunned into silence, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever watched. Perhaps the closest thing I can think of in recent memory is the debut of The Fiend at SummerSlam 2019.

It is interesting to note how much Undertakers wrestling stance developed over time, the MMA pose of today nowhere to be found. Instead this was like Undertaker’s body had gone through rigor mortis.

This did however stifle the flow of his matches but the development of the character was definitely the priority. In fact, I don’t really remember caring about the quality of Undertaker matches until his classic with Shawn Michaels at Mania 25. I was however, always drawn to the character. 

Although Snuka got in more offence than any other opponent up to that point, Undertaker defeated him in four minutes. Snuka would play an important part in the development of Taker, the man who, in defeat, started the WrestleMania streak. 

Under a trance from the urn, Undertaker stared into the camera with his cold empty eyes and departed from WrestleMania 7. 

How refreshing it was to see how slowly Undertaker’s first four months were being taken by WWF. It’s fascinating to watch certain things fall into place.

I suppose one of the benefits of not having two main weekly shows is that you don’t have the pressure of filling five hours of TV a week and one PPV a month. Only the big four existed at this point.

Soon enough, Undertaker would mark his one year anniversary with the biggest match of his career up to that point, facing Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship. But first, he would engage in an infamous feud with The Ultimate Warrior before that and destroy a wedding with Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts. And all of that goodness is coming up in part two!

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