Genesis Of A Phenom: Rewatching Early Undertaker, Part 2

Not all of us were around to witness The Undertaker’s rookie year – this writer included. So, he’s rewatching 1990-91 in this two-part series.

All photos: WWE

One of the most important things for me when I embarked on this project was watching the source material as it was intended at the time. Pretty much the same way as those who continue to watch the original version of Star Wars, before the tamperings of George Lucas retrospectively changed the meaning of certain moments.

It is certainly easy to fall into the narrative given to you by WWE today, having never experienced it for myself. One such moment occurred in the first part of this column during Paul Bearer’s debut and another one occurred soon after as well.

READ: Genesis Of A Phenom: Rewatching Early Undertaker, Part 1

Bearer would regularly host an interview segment on WWF’s programming called The Funeral Parlour. I’d never heard of this show before but I was in for a treat.

At first glance The Funeral Parlour seemed a comical concept, but the genius of Bearer and The Undertaker would change my initial view. Bearer would introduce the show by saying “come inside my parlour, the doors are always open”.

The set was self-explanatory. Green lamps made Paul’s face look haunting and the dry ice rising up from behind the wooden coffins, candles and flower arrangements gave the set a spooky feeling.

On this particular episode of Superstars on 13th April 1991, Bearer’s guest was The Ultimate Warrior. There was even an extra nifty-looking coffin in the centre with Warrior’s logo plastered upon it. Bearer would explain that this was a “special gift” for Warrior.

Suddenly in the middle of the interview, Undertaker appeared from inside a coffin to the left of the set and clobbered Warrior in the back of the head, thrusting it into the “special gift” before finally slamming him inside the coffin, closing the lid and tightening the crank to seal it shut. The sadistic duo then left the set with Warrior suffocating inside.

Over the next five minutes, members of the crew tried in vain to pry the coffin open. I started feeling a tension within my own body, imagining myself suffocating inside that coffin. It was enthralling television, unlike anything else I’d ever seen on WWE programming.

Crowbar, hammer, pick axe: you name it and it was tried. A tiny bit of comic relief came when one member of the crew went full-on Jeremy Clarkson and just whacked the lid with a sledgehammer.

Commentary also sold this particularly well. Vince McMahon’s tone grew more and more panicked and even Randy Savage, the man who had been forced into retirement by Warrior because of his loss at WrestleMania 7, thought this was a step too far.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, they broke into the coffin and a lifeless Warrior greeted them. Shockingly, Earl Hebner started to perform CPR on live TV, compressing the chest of Warrior and breathing into his mouth.

I absolutely loved this segment. It made Undertaker look as merciless as Freddie Krueger and left people of all ages speechless. This is not something that I imagine would be allowed on WWE programming today – it would be unimaginable seeing a wrestler in storyline have CPR performed on them.

It was darker than anything I thought would be done but what a way to make Undertaker look like the most deranged man in the world. He looked like a legitimate murderer.

The rivalry between Undertaker and Warrior would continue over the next three months. In a match against Sgt. Slaughter at Saturday Night’s Main Event on April 27th, Warrior explained in an interview that while suffocating at the hands of The Deadman, all he could see was vermin such as Slaughter and Undertaker.

During that match, Bearer interrupted by pushing a coffin down to ringside, the first of many times we would see the image of a coffin resting upon the apron of a ring.

Surprise surprise (at least back then), The Undertaker was waiting with bated breath inside the coffin to beat Warrior down. The mind games that would become such a big part of the next 30 years were taking shape in front of my eyes.

Warrior’s reaction was one of pure terror, even more so when his clotheslines and body tackles had no effect on The Deadman. Hulk Hogan would come out and make the save but even the Immortal one’s attack made almost no impact.

Warrior would then gain an unlikely ally, in the form of Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts. Jake would help Warrior overcome his three fears so he could understand The Undertaker’s dark world. The segments that followed were highly entertaining and took place on sets of a crematorium and churchyard.

Firsty, Warrior would overcome his fear of the darkness of caskets by being placed inside one, while Jake held it shut and said “If you want to get to heaven, you’ve got to go through hell”. Once he had risen from the casket Jake explained “That’s the same look, the look of The Undertaker”.

Warrior then overcame his fear of death by being buried alive in melodramatic fashion, Jake shoveling the dirt as Warrior shouted “bury me Snake man”! These segments were hilarious and reminded me of the recent boneyard match.

Finally, he was given the task of finding out the truth about The Undertaker, the truth was said to be hidden inside a box in the middle of what looked like a run down mausoleum. However when Warrior opened the box he was greeted by a Cobra which subsequently bit him, injecting poison into his veins.

“Never trust a snake,” said Roberts as the Ultimate Warrior collapsed in front of him and Jake’s true ally was revealed to be The Undertaker, beginning an unlikely alliance between the two men.

It was obvious that the WWF were starting to experiment with Undertaker’s character more, allowing the darker themes of mortality and religion to be explored in original ways.

Disappointingly, however, a match to culminate the Warrior-Undertaker feud never took place. At the same time as this was happening, so was the angle between Hogan and Triangle of Terror, in which Warrior would get involved.

I was very much looking forward to what I assumed would be a PPV match between the two men. Instead I could only find two matches recorded for TV between them, one of which was not even on the WWE Network.

Luckily YouTube was my saviour once again and on July 1st 1991 a body bag match would be the closest thing to a resolution between them.

What I noticed is how much WWF had started to push Undertaker as a monster heel. This match in particular highlighted that fact: an abundance of no-selling and kick-outs to signature moves. It took a shot to the back of the head with the urn to take Undertaker out.

Warrior zipped up the bag for the win but it wasn’t long until The Undertaker sat up like Nosferatu whilst still zipped up inside the body bag, an image that made me chuckle.

In my opinion, a rivalry of this caliber deserved more and I hoped that the second match between the two men would do so, if I could figure out what event and when it happened.

Rampage 91, not to be confused with UK Rampage that aired live on Sky TV in the same year, was a VHS series on Coliseum Video. Now streamable on the WWE Network, it is a collection of matches taped throughout the year not previously seen on TV.

It opens in peculiar fashion, Bobby Heenan and Gene Okerlund playing a round of golf whilst being followed around by Sean Mooney, who would introduce each match while the other two would find themselves in hilarious golfing mishaps. It is ultimately quite funny, but how could it be any other way when Mean Gene and The Brain were involved?

The last match on the tape was The Undertaker versus The Ultimate Warrior introduced by a segment called At Home with Paul Bearer. I would wholly recommend watching the five minute skit.

Bearer’s house reminded me of the outside of the haunted mansion in the opening of Scooby Doo. Inside the house, there was a coffin with a dead body inside with Bearer explaining that it gets a little busy at work, so sometimes he has to bring his work home with him.

The less said about the match that followed the better – in fact I would much rather continue talking about Paul Bearer’s house.

A chokehold by The Undertaker to Warrior lasted for around three minutes and the match itself was very uninspiring. To make matters worse, neither Lord Alfred Hayes or Mooney mentioned the feud between the two men on commentary.

Little things I did notice about Undertaker was during his entrance he had started to take his hat off in the same way he does now, little intricate details like these we take for granted today. The match ended when Undertaker tried to put Warrior inside a body bag but the babyface managed to fight his way out of it, leaving the referee with no choice but to disqualify Taker.

Ending aside, I truly enjoyed watching this rivalry play out and no doubt that The Undertaker’s character was overwhelmingly enriched by the feud. The experimental nature of certain skits had added to the mystique of The Deadman.

“Nuptials turn to napalm”! exclaimed McMahon at the beginning of Summerslam 1991. This was in reference to the wedding of Randy Savage and the lovely Miss Elizabeth and the 3-on-2 handicap match pitting the team of Sgt. Slaughter, Colonel Mustafa and General Adnan versus The Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan.

I can remember watching the wedding when I was young and just getting into professional wrestling, as my parents bought me a copy of this show on VHS. During the show, Bobby Heenan – representing the World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair – challenged Hogan to prove that Flair was the true champion.

This rivalry would intertwine with Undertaker’s own grudge with Hogan over the coming months. In the main event, Hogan and Warrior would pick up the victory and Sid Justice as special guest referee would celebrate with Hogan.

Warrior had chased the opposition out of the arena and he was suspended as soon as he got through the curtain. This is probably the real reason the rivalry with Undertaker had no true ending as Warrior would not be seen again until Wrestlemania 8 because of his actions.

The wedding of Elizabeth and Savage went off without a hitch and made me wonder if any other wedding in WWE history ever had a happy ending for the couple? The reception, on the other hand, would be a different story.

Everything seemed to be going perfect for the couple until Elizabeth opened a present and inside was a cobra lying in wait. Undertaker then came into shot, hitting Savage over the head with the urn and Roberts taunting Elizabeth with the cobra.

It is one thing to try and commit homicide by suffocating someone by trapping them inside a coffin, but to ruin the wedding of the first lady of wrestling is a step too far! Undertaker was pure evil.

The Deadman would continue his alliance with Roberts over the next few months and begin a rivalry with Sid. On October 19th, Sid was scheduled to face the masked El Diablo but before the match could get going Undertaker would interrupt.

Bearer, holding a briefcase instead of the urn, bought off Diablo and Undertaker would face Sid instead. Diablo would reappear with the briefcase in hand and rip his mask off to reveal that he was none other than Jake.

Classic Undertaker mind games ensued and a coffin was wheeled down to ringside. Inside the briefcase handed to Jake from Bearer was a venomous cobra. Jake had Sid tied up in the ropes but luckily for him ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan would make the save before the Cobra could bite.

I noticed Undertaker rolling his eyes into the back of his head at the end of this match, another little characteristic he still uses today.

Unfortunately for Sid, he would suffer a bicep injury soon after this. In a spot originally intended for Sid, Randy Savage took a bite to the arm by Jake’s cobra the very next week on Superstars. I couldn’t quite believe he actually let a cobra take a chunk from his arm!

I was pleasantly surprised to see the team of Roberts and Undertaker, they fitted together very nicely. The cold, articulate and smart Jake Roberts and the soulless enforcer of his rule, The Undertaker.

Alone, The Deadman would not terrorise a wedding but with Roberts by his side calling the shots it gave Undertaker a platform to cause pain and misfortune in new ways. I was also happy to see that this early on in his career how many top stars he was mixing with.

Something else I noticed was how much influence Roberts had on Undertaker’s promo work. One such occasion was from November 10th on Wrestling Challenge, Taker quietly spoke for his team, making the listener lean in a little closer. It was menacing in the way Roberts promos are.

In the buildup to the one-year anniversary of Undertaker in the WWF, he was put in a program with Hulk Hogan and the WWF champion was to be the latest invitee on The Funeral Parlour.

The set was mostly the same, with a casket much like the one for Warrior earlier in the year but with Hogan’s logo plastered on it. As Hogan was talking, Ric Flair appeared and distracted Hogan.

What I was witnessing here was the famous rivalry between Hogan and Flair, both claiming to be the true champion. While they were both arguing, out of the wooden casket came The Undertaker hitting Hogan over the back of the head with the urn.

Taker proceeded to tear Hogan’s necklace off and flinched when looking down and saw it was a crucifix. It seemed as if WWF were hinting at The Undertaker being possessed, noticing quite often that Bearer would lead Undertaker away with the urn.

Undertaker formed an unlikely allegiance with Flair leading to The Deadman getting his first of many WWF title shots one year after his debut.

I always get excited about world championship matches and this was no different. The buildup was surprisingly short, a few backstage promos by both men and one or two collisions beforehand. In some ways this story with The Undertaker was part of a bigger program between Hogan and Flair.

I was hoping for a classic moment or two between Hogan and Taker, building from the Funeral Parlour. I was left a little disappointed but other rivalries throughout the year made The Deadman look like a legitimate threat to the title.

Survivor Series 91 opened with Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon at the commentary desk, arguing about whether Hulkamaia would be buried here tonight. The main event was billed as ‘the gravest challenge’ for Hogan.

The iconic gong reverberated throughout the arena and The Undertaker menacingly made his way down to the ring. No special lighting, pyro or dry ice, but powerful nonetheless. It certainly was for one poor boy in the audience on the verge of tears.

It amazed me at how scary people found him then. Children were scared of him in the same way I was about Kane growing up. By the time I was watching wrestling Undertaker had lost that original mystique he held in 1991 but the masked Kane haunted my dreams.

Perhaps it was the lifeless, cold stare Taker pulled off so convincingly. Or could it have been the innocence of a world before the internet was in every home, a child’s first confrontation with death.

Real American hit and the crowd went wild. I couldn’t help but be captivated by The Hulkster, he held a magic then that only a select few would ever achieve. A hero facing up to his gravest challenge for his Hulkamaniacs.

Undertaker dominated in this match, latching onto Hogan’s face with his iron grip. Eyes rolling into the back of his head like he was getting some sort of sick pleasure out of another man’s pain.

Hogan would do his vintage comeback only to be distracted by Bearer and while the referee was dealing with that, a meddling Ric Flair slid a chair into the ring for Undertaker to perform a Tombstone piledriver.

One, two, three. The Undertaker was the brand new WWF World champion, at the same event on which he had made his debut one year earlier. It was a momentous occasion but he quickly left the ring with no hint of celebration.

I felt overjoyed for him. I wasn’t able to watch this the first time around but my emotions were not diminished by watching 30 years on. Not everything in his first year was perfect but what is? His in-ring work was probably at its weakest but I didn’t watch it for that, I would have watched Steamboat vs Flair if I wanted a five-star classic from the same era.

No, this was about watching the man who is the greatest WWE Superstar of all time, the most important piece of the puzzle for Vince McMahon and the most respected veteran in wrestling begin his reign of terror.

I felt I had experienced something special. It was mesmerising from the start and I wanted to know what he might do next, just as I did growing up watching him in the early 2000s. I never expected just how ridiculous the introduction of Paul Bearer would be or how special it would feel to watch the beginning of the streak.

To experience this monumental year for myself in the career of The Undertaker had truly been everything I hoped it would be and so much more.

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