Mark Callaway’s career as The Undertaker will undeniably be the greatest in living memory for any wrestler, in any division, of sports entertainment.
The legacy he has created both inside and outside of the wrestling illusion will likely be unsurpassed by anyone to follow.
Many column inches and hours of verbal sparring have already been spent on the subject of his gargantuan in-ring status and seismic professional recognition. However it can be argued that one match contains all the elements for a microcosmic view of his eternal status as the quintessential wrestling icon.
In 2001, Triple H was in the midst of the McMahon-Helmsley era; a gimmick that had seen him demolishing opponents in brutal fashion, including Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. This heat was played on expertly by Paul Levesque (Triple H) who demanded a title shot against Stone Cold at WrestleMania X-Seven based on his seeming dominance over every major superstar on the roster.
Kayfabe dictates that this was purely incidental to in-ring grappling talent – the reality was that the admittedly solid performer was running the booking; power inherent in his relationship with the McMahons (particularly Stephanie, now attached in matrimony) behind the curtains. Surely a nailed-on then-WWF Championship bout would ensue at ‘Mania between the Cerebral Assassin and the Texas Rattlesnake?
No doubt it would have been a competent encounter between two of the greatest ring maestros of the last two decades… but for fans digging that little bit deeper, a pretty foregone conclusion even without the consideration that Austin was carrying a spinal injury and heading for imminent retirement.
That is, until the American Badass version of The Undertaker decided to take umbrage. The Undertaker (Callaway) was aggrieved that Triple H had neglected the fact they had never fought on the grandest stage of them all. A perfectly judged cat-and-mouse saga developed on both SmackDown and Raw in which ‘Taker finally received a reluctant signature from Triple H, when his in-ring brother Kane placed The Game’s beloved Stephanie in a physical ultimatum involving what would have been a paralysing fall from an arena balcony.
The stage was set; the prospect of fact and fiction intermingling and informing one another was deliciously mouth-watering. It’s important to remember that at this stage “The Streak” was not yet a part of wrestling’s lexicon, in fact it was still a quaint curiosity that The Deadman had yet to chalk a loss at professional wrestling’s seminal extravaganza.
A sell-out crowd of nearly 68,000 at the Reliant Astrodome, Houston, TX had just witnessed metal stalwarts Motorhead welcome Triple H. Approaching the ring along an impossibly lengthy ramp The Game appears visibly hyped and excited, his trademark water-spray entrance pose given the extra 10 per cent thanks to a combination of the crowd and a favourite band serenading him.
The first 100 per cent of the energy could have arguably been provided by the thought of the man next receiving the curtain call; The Undertaker. A moment of brief subdue descends upon the arena as 68,000 heads turn towards the colossal TitanTron video screen. Electric energy levels, a storm ready to break, are stretched to the absolute maximum as a lone bell tolls and “Dead Man Walking”, voiced personally by Callaway, booms across the PA systems before Limp Bizkit’s Rollin blasts forth, and a custom-built Harley Davidson emerges to guitar and drum crescendo, blurred with the scream of motorised horsepower.
The throng goes ballistic; demented screaming in a heightened emotional state as the veteran lets the bike rip, his 60-or-so mph now explaining that the impossibly long entrance way was created with just this moment in mind.
So much of the quality running through a wrestling match is in the storytelling the action provides. Hall of Famers such as Brett ‘The Hitman’ Hart prove that using those 20 minutes available at the top of the card to their fullest potential is what builds a career-spanning narrative, bump by bump. Without the requisite skill and technical excellence, the illusion that actual combat is occurring – and consequently the all-important storyline – is shattered like a freshly Tombstoned cranium. The ebb and flow of this match is so perfectly pitched that, tellingly, a supposedly big bump (a giblet buster, or choke-slam, from atop the technical area deep in the crowd) falls short in comparison.
This is significant because it’s likely that the bump was included to pander to fans of the infamous Hell in A Cell match at 1998’s King of the Ring pay-per-view (not a great match if a critical eye is passed over, despite the legendary bumps taken by Mick ‘Mankind’ Foley) rather than as an enhancement to the seminal choreography and pacing that was otherwise occurring. It is primarily because of the convincing technical matchmaking, and therefore the immersive match storyline, that this jarring effect occurs. Triple H is here doing a convincing job of being beaten and gassed; impact is sold conservatively at the right times, and slowdown is used not to recoup lost energy from a lack of match fitness (which would creep into his career in following years) but to sell the brutality and relentlessness of the Undertaker’s assault.
His execution of offensive manoeuvres is completed with dexterity, power and panache; even with his heavy-set build, sluggishness is absent from the equation. His requisite throughout his career has been to deliver his uttermost in order to bring the best out of his co-performer. This match is no exception, it is the apex.
The onslaught begins without compromise, the opening phases of the match carrying an instantaneously guttural nature. The punches fly rapidly as a nice little spot is delivered within seconds, and the Spanish announce table says “Adios, amigo” when Triple H falls through it after a hefty right hand. The opening phases of the match represent ‘vintage’ Undertaker. For this individual, vintage is much more than a catalogue of set-piece moves, it’s directly related to another defining characteristic; his consistent in-ring excellence. ‘Taker drags his opponent into the squared circle and follows up the opening with some quick Irish whips, leading into a powerful back body drop, smoothly and seamlessly followed up with some slick elbow blows and two corner-to-corner clotheslines. Triple H sells these well, but the execution of the protagonist would have probably had The Game’s dentist worried because of the convincingly heavy-handed nature of the assault.
The ebb and flow is impressive, demonstrating the quick wits, physicality and storytelling ability (more on this later) than makes up the best-of-the-best in this business. Triple H briefly gains the upper hand following a failed elbow drop and Irish whips the larger man against the ropes. The set-up reveals a well-known and rarely repeated trait for such a large athlete, as the American Badass showcases his gymnastic prominence with a flying clothesline which has more ‘hang-time’ than many NBA stars would care to admit to. Yet more evidence of this ability was set for demonstration as the now infamous Old School taunt is touted, only for the Cerebral Assassin to reverse and take control of the match-up. A few flurries and an argument with the referee follow, before an excellently executed face-buster to ‘Taker.
As Triple H’s sledgehammer comes into the equation, the pace of the match begins to slow. It’s deliberate though, leading into an altercation in which the referee is temporarily eliminated when ‘Taker reverses a surprise Pedigree attempt into a springboard to the turnbuckles. In the impending chaos the rare skill of spontaneously creating excitement from an improvised scenario comes to the fore as Triple H is held aloft for a surprise early choke-slam; thousands of camera bulbs flash as Triple H is hoisted, hangs, and is finally planted into the canvas. A narrow two-count leads to the referee being assaulted by The Undertaker in a darkly comic moment involving a nasty elbow drop.
The match offered a thrilling, climactic peak, sadly lacking in many top-billed PPV efforts today.
Both men take advantage of the new ‘street fight’ status within the match and take the fight out into the crowd, ascending a technical area to engage in some particularly brutal chair shots to the back of the Phenom, before Triple H is slammed onto some conveniently placed padded flooring (the aforementioned poorly portrayed bump). What was supposed to be a big spot falls sadly short, and the commentary of Paul Heyman and Jim Ross could not be any more revealing through their expectant and subdued toned analysis; but what happens in the moments proceeding the return of the two combatants to the ring is possibly the most conclusive passage of this match in reflecting a trait so golden among wrestlers it’s a wonder The Undertaker has been able to maintain his consistency for over two decades.
Innovation very quickly becomes stagnant when repeated, especially in wrestling. The match offered a thrilling, climactic peak, sadly lacking in many top-billed PPV efforts today. The blueprint has now shifted to a straightforward, suspect ‘calculation’ that a certain amount of ‘finishing moves’ will dictate the end of a match; that limited to how many times a head hits the canvas, in relation to how vehemently the coming-a-mile-off move is sold by the announcement team, is surely to end the match.
Ironically it was the innovation and spontaneity of ‘Taker during the end-spot of this match, and the clearly genuine surprise of Jim Ross, which point to the man’s other near untouchability. It is the ability to fuse storytelling, with in-ring physicality. As the combatants track back and enter the ring, Triple H is layered with punches, arm locks and shoulder blocks. The continued dominance of the larger man throughout this match has perfectly ousted The Game’s pre-match claims as premature delusion of grandeur. Taker has been educating his opponent in ‘his yard’ for more than 10 minutes and is looking to finish the match off. The commentary team in particular at this stage are viewing things as over, their tones low and calm. The capacity crowd is awaiting the inevitable three-count, presumably from The Last Ride (the most brutal elevated power-bomb seen in the WWF since Diesel and Sycho Sid’s day) which was sure to end the match. Sure enough the battered and groggy Triple H is dragged to knee height from the canvas, Jim Ross full of resignation suggests an end to proceedings as the crowd noise spikes slightly.
It’s been a great match, the upstart has been educated throughout the story, and the fans are reassured that ‘Takers bite remains as vicious as his bark. Watching the match then, as we do now, it’s a credible glimpse of Triple H’s own not-inconsiderable improvisation that sets butterflies into motion. As he is hoisted aloft he cunningly grasps at the trademark sledgehammer so teasingly unused throughout the encounter. Ross is partly surprised (his notes would likely have dictated sometime sledgehammer use) and as the Phenom collapses like a bag of chewed bones, Triple H atop, the mood suddenly changes. This shift in the story remains seismic; it’s not a momentum shift (physical events such as reversals or counters), it’s a story shift, and potentially kayfabe-fuelled (remembering Levesque’s locker-room status).
The outcome has changed, the final twist in the tale will surely be cruel and Triple H (wrestler, talent, booker, rising icon) has inflicted a wound that has seen countless established talents buckle beneath him. Surely the Undertaker, known to be a consummate respecter of the company angle, will ‘lay down’ for the prodigal son? The commentary team do a brilliant job of recalling such evidence (albeit evidence within wrestling’s illusionary boundaries) as ‘Taker is bullied into the turnbuckle. He’s bleeding and The Game smells the blood, circling, engineering the ‘kill’.
Mounting the turnbuckle Triple H begins hammering the Undertaker with closed punches that bloody his taped fists. Jim Ross is subdued and Paul Heyman seems to agree that the match now will slow down and go Triple H’s way. The Cerebral Assassin has played to that very strength in his character, at the time winning each and every match with this opportunistic lethality; the Undertaker is surely next. Arrogant abuse from the heel is spouted at fans rueing his underhand yet effective methods.
But wait…the Undertaker reaches up around the back of his opponent and hooks the trunks… a moment of confusion… a slight pause akin to delivering a hilarious punch-line… Triple begins shaking his head and mouthing, “No, no, no…”.
Suddenly hoisted 10 or 11 feet into the air and moving backwards, flashbulbs go wild, hairs prickle on the backs of necks and the excitement for fans hits unforeseen levels as a clearly genuinely surprised Jim Ross, voice aloud and crackling, screams, “Oh the Last Ride!!! The Undertaker came out with the Last Ride!!”
The Richter-scale level impact on the canvas and palpable shock from the commentary team is verification of the authentic surprise the spectacular twist has caused for the 68,000 in attendance, and millions more watching worldwide. Tensile relief, storyline re-twist, intensely physical action, and lasting legacy are combined, as Triple H’s body is shattered to smithereens on the canvas. The pay-off of these carefully-created factors delivered purely from the improvised nature of the finishing move.
The arena crowd is in a frenzy… roaring as though they themselves had delivered the move. The three-count is chanted in unison by 68,000… and is inevitable. There is no kick out – as there would likely be now – it was well and truly over at the hands of Big Evil.
Genuine surprise for fans, and utter astonishment for purists all too aware of the politics behind the curtains, is delivered in spades. It is testament to this match, and the spot engineered by The Undertaker, that such beats have been oft repeated (even in some of his own matches) but never surpassed. That is not to say that this is the only example of a brilliant improvised finish, but it’s just one example of a classic skill the man has demonstrated time and time again.
Possibly the most unique skill the man possesses is his constant ability to reinvent both his own approach and the character he inhabits
The Phenom of the WWE is now entering his winter years as an in-ring performer. While this is a saddening proposition, where this professional will take his character post-retirement is tantalising.
Possibly the most unique skill the man possesses is his constant ability to reinvent both his own approach and the character he inhabits; to keep the iconography fresh and inviting. There have been several incarnations of The Undertaker over time, and hanging up the full-time spandex will do nothing except usher in another such phase.
Wherever the next decade of destruction takes this behemoth of the artform, it will surely be as fascinating, entertaining and awe-inspiring as the last two.
Expect plenty more choke slams, Tombstone pile-drivers and jaw-droppingly hyperbolic plotlines before The Undertaker finally succumbs and agrees to rest… in… peace.