Saturday, October 27, 2012

Dreams in Darkness: Visions of a Phenom

Growing up, my grandmother, my primary childhood caretaker in my formative years, was an odd sort. At a very young age, she had no problem letting me watch such great cartoons as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, or Thundercats, or Silverhawks. Yet she didn't want me watching things like pro wrestling, because she "didn't like fighting", and didn't want me watching it either. So I didn't actually become a wrestling fan until at least into my teens. About 14 years old or so to be more precise. Like various other things that I wasn't allowed to partake in as a kid, I just told myself growing up that "oh well it's probably stupid anyway", and thus didn't care much that I wasn't watching, say, the WWF in the early 90s. A time that, looking back, I probably would have loved it, because unlike some folks, I think that early-to-mid-90s period was actually considerably better, at least for actual quality matches, than the later "Attitude Era". The reason I finally got into wrestling at all, was that I had moved to a new town, closer to some of my friends, and a new friend I had made at the time, Brandon, was a huge WWF nut. His guy was Bret "The Hitman" Hart, which I can't blame him because Mr. Hart was awesome. But while when I initially sat and watched wrestling with Brandon, I still carried that "this is stupid" prejudice with me, the thing that cracked me, and turned me instantly into a fan, was one man: The Undertaker.



The Phenom's original "Old West" Undertaker look.



Now, considering that I didn't finally get into wrestling until at least late 1995, perhaps even early 1996, it's fair to also say that, unfortunately for yours truly, I missed out on the first several years of his career, not to mention almost the entirety of his original look. But even that wasn't the beginning of his story. The Undertaker, known in real life as Mark Calloway, debuted into professional wrestling (after originally looking to get into a pro basketball career straight out of college), in his home state of Texas in 1984. It was for WCCW, World Class Championship Wrestling (a territory most famous for it's native sons, the Von Erich family), under the name "Texas Red". After wrestling for most of the 80s for WCCW and other southern promotions under such names as "The Punisher Dice Morgan" and "The Master of Pain", in 1989, he finally made "the big time", wrestling for one of the (by that time) top two wrestling promotions, in this case being World Championship Wrestling. In WCW, he debuted as "Mean" Mark Callous, and quickly joined the monstrous tag-team known as "The Skyscrapers", teaming with "Dangerous" Dan Spivey as a replacement for the injured "Psycho" Sid Viscous. His time in WCW, however, was relatively uneventful, and his career didn't truly take off until he was hired by the World Wrestling Federation in late 1990, and the character who would shape his career was born.



The Undertaker, and his manager Paul Bearer.



The Undertaker officially debuted at the 1990 Survivor Series PPV event, as the surprise member of "The Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase's Million Dollar Team. His first appearance, as with the rest of his career, was one of theatricality and awe (at least in the wrestling fan's eyes). Before Undertaker, there hadn't really been too many legitimately "dark" wrestling characters, especially coming out of the bright and happy 1980s, and even in 1990, his black trench coat and hat, and eerie fog and "Funeral Dirge" entrance music were singularly unique in a landscape of colorfully neon attired combatants. After his initial debut, where he was managed by the annoying character of "Brother Love", he quickly gained a new manager, someone else that would become synonymous with his iconic image, that of "Paul Bearer", a real-life former funeral director. The "gimmick" between these two became that The Undertaker was, essentially, an "undead" specter, and as such was impervious to most pain, but also that he gained supernatural strength from the golden urn that Paul Bearer carried at ringside. Whenever 'Taker would get beat down by an opponent, Bearer would raise the urn high in the air, and Undertaker would sit bolt upright (a move borrowed from Michael Meyers of Halloween fame), rise up, and typically defeat his opponents with new-found power. As pictured above, The Undertaker would have success early in his WWF career, as just a year in, at Survivor Series '91 (with a little shady help from "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair), he defeated the unbeatable Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship. After losing that illustrious title back to Hogan merely a week later, he would not taste gold again for nearly six years.



The infamous "Undertaker vs. Undertaker" match at Summerslam '94. Real Taker on the left.



 The Undertaker would go on for several years to become a "dragonslayer" in the WWF, being challenged repeatedly by various manner of fiends, monsters and giants, which he would typically defeat one after the other. He first changed from being a "heel" (bad guy), to being a macabre hero, when turning on his ally Jake "The Snake" Roberts in 1992. He would remain a good guy for much of the 90s. He faced off against many threats, few more fearsome than (at the time) WWF Champion Yokozuna, an enormous man of over 500 pounds, but who still possessed uncanny mobility and wrestling ability for a man his size. He faced Yokozuna in his own trademark "Casket Match", a match in which the first man to put his opponent in an open casket by the ring and slam the lid shut won, in 1994. Yokozuna, unable to defeat the "Phenom" (as he was nicknamed) on his own, enlisted the aid of some 10 or so other shady characters to assist in beating the Undertaker down, and stuffing him in his own casket, presumably ridding the WWF of his presence forever. However, upon losing, what appeared to be the Undertaker's "spirit" spoke in a thunderous voice, warning of his impending return, claiming he would not "Rest In Peace" (a play on his own trademark threat to other wrestlers). This led to him eventually returning to face off against (as pictured above), a "fake" Undertaker that had appeared in the WWF courtesy of Ted Dibiase, in an infamous "Undertaker vs. Undertaker" match.



Undertaker's grand entrance at Wrestlemania 14, where he would face his "brother" Kane.



Now about the time that I started watching with my friend Brandon, and was mesmerized by "The Dead Man's" dark charm, it was probably into 1996. The first match I really remember seeing of his, was against "Diesel" (later wrestling under his real name Kevin Nash in WCW), at Wrestlemania 12. That match, to a 14 year old me, was amazing, because no matter how much Diesel beat 'Taker down, he kept sitting back up, and he finally got the victory. It was just stuff like that that sold me on the character. I was a sucker for the dark, supernatural image of "The Grim Reaper" (another of his many nicknames), and I bought all-in on nature of his "powers", and how hardly anyone could really hurt him, he was supernaturally strong, etc. It was just cool to suspend disbelief and believe that that shit was real. It was certainly much cooler being a wrestling fan as a young teen, just getting caught up in the show, instead of being an older fan who now knows too much about the inner workings of the way the wrestling business actually works. But back then, I was a naive and innocent fan, and when someone would smack Undertaker across the back with a steel chair, and he'd shrug it off and turn right around to attack them, I gladly and willingly bought the "fact" that "Goddamn, nobody can hurt this guy". I'm not sure that I even would have become a wrestling fan at all if I hadn't become smitten with the character of the Undertaker. I certainly have had many other favorites over the years: Bret Hart, Mankind, Edge & Christian, The Legion of Doom, The Hurricane, Ultimo Dragon, even more recently CM Punk. But 'Taker is the one who first drew me into their weird world.



The Lord of Darkness



Now, around mid-to-late 1998, after a long and arduous feud with his "brother" Kane, the Undertaker character gradually became more dark and sinister. He ceased to be the more fan-friendly hero of the past several years, and instead became (in the world of wrestling), more violent and, in a word, "evil". This eventually lead to what you see above, as he would "crucify" Stone Cold Steve Austin on his own "Taker" symbol, in the midst of their own feud over the WWF Championship. And by January 1999, this evolved to a full-blown transformation for the Undertaker, as he started calling himself "The Lord of Darkness", and quickly inducted several other wrestlers into his new "Ministry of Darkness", faction. At this time, he was a full-blown "heel" again, and as such, was trying to get under the skin of fans as much as possible, and his path to doing so was to depict himself and his group as being as "Satanic" as possible, "sacrificing" victims and bringing them back, transformed into his minions in the Ministry. By now 16 years old, I still thought all of this was pretty cool, though admittedly, not as cool as his '96-98 "Phenom" era, which I still to this day feel was the height of his career. Eventually, the whole "Ministry of Darkness" thing got diluted and ridiculous, merging with Vince McMahon's (the TOP "heel" of the era) "Corporation" faction, to become the so-called "Corporate Ministry", at which point Undertaker and his minions essentially all just became minions of Mr. McMahon, which honestly stunk. The only good to come out of that mess, was a rather short-lived third WWF Championship reign (his second was in the summer of '97).




The Corporate Ministry. "Chyna" being a part of it tells you all you need to know.....






Eventually, by late '99, 'Taker had to leave wrestling for several months to nurse various injuries he'd been dealing with over time. When he returned in late spring 2000, at the appropriately named "Judgement Day" PPV, he debuted as an entirely new incarnation of himself, that of a more human biker character, complete with riding down to the ring on one of his own personal collection of motorcycles. Now mind you, I stayed a fan of his no matter what, throughout all the years of him being "The American Bad Ass", as he was now called, though I never liked the biker gimmick as much as I had the "Dead Man". In 2002, he even cut his trademark long red hair, which I liked even less. But in 2004, after months of hinting and mysterious videos, at Wrestlemania 20 in Madison Square Garden, I'm happy to report that even at the ripe age of 22 years old, I "marked out" (wrestling term for being genuinely excited) upon seeing him return to once again face his "brother" Kane, this time as a newer version of his original "Dead Man" persona. He remained in some form of that character for the rest of his wrestling days (which as far as I can tell, lasted up to Wrestlemania 28 of this year).  And about that, I couldn't have been much happier.



The new "Dead Man" look.



 By now, he is an uncanny 20-0, undefeated at the marquee wrestling event, and has been a seven time World Champion, seven time tag-team Champion, a Royal Rumble winner, etc. In short, he's done pretty much all there is to do in wrestling, certainly in the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, as it's now called). I'm not into wrestling as much as I once was, due in large part to the fact that while I still have "my guys" that I like, the product itself (meaning namely WWE), for me at least, has changed too much and really gone downhill in my opinion. But regardless of all that, I'll always be an Undertaker fan, and I'll always have my memories of his brooding, mysterious character that made me a fan to begin with. As of right now, at age 47, Mark Calloway is, I would imagine (and actually hope, considering the wear and tear on his body), effectively retired from wrestling full-time. I imagine he'll likely make an appearance now and then over the next few years, but his career is pretty much done. And considering he's one of the most famous and most successful pro wrestlers of all time, I'd say he should have absolutely no regrets about retiring, because he's literally done it all, including main-eventing three Wrestlemanias (something most wrestlers never get to do even once). I chose to write about him now, because the visage of "The Phenom" certainly fits the mood of the Halloween season. But also, just because, as with monsters, as with classic movies, as with the Nintendo, he was also a big part of my "growing up". An iconic figure indeed, and certainly one that will endure over time. So with that, I'll bid you adieu, till next time, and allow this article to Rest.....In......Peace.














3 comments:

  1. I was really in to wrestling for quite a while, this was back in the 80's though. I actually stopped watching right around the time Undertaker came out, I only remember seeing him once when I was still watching it heavily. I immediately liked him, but around that time many of my favorite wrestlers were going away. Most of what I got of him was from the WWF arcade and Super Nintendo games of the time. My all time favorite is "Macho Man" Randy Savage. I also loved Jessie "The Body" Ventura, George "The Animal" Steele (he was a dead ringer for Tor Johnson BTW), and of course The Ultimate Warrior. If you haven't seen it I would suggest watching (I think it's called The Rise and Fall of The Ultimate Warrior. Looking back I can see what a crazy lunatic he was, but back then he was just pure awesome. I used to hate Hulk Hogan, but I can appreciate him now. I can't get into the new stuff, it's a little too soap opera for me, but I still enjoy watching some of the old stuff every now and then.

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    1. Yeah, I've seen the Ultimate Warrior DVD, I actually own it lol. Funny stuff. I'm the kind of guy that, even if I something was before my time, or I missed out on it, if I get into it later in life, I will research it like a motherfucker. Hence the reason I know so much about classic film, animation, music, comics, wrestling, and other assorted nonsense. ;-)

      I don't really watch WWE anymore for several reasons. I don't care for the direction they've gone, most of their newer stars like John Cena I'm just not into, and as people often find themselves saying, "It's just not the same" as when I was more into it. I still love pro wrestling itself. But I don't watch much of it anymore.

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