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When (if) the Undertaker finally retires, he will go down as the greatest character wrestler ever and one of the best - full stop. It's a character that's so out there it's hard to really make a comparison between him and more "mainstream" stars like Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, John Cena and others - it's not a character that's ever going to draw in that way. But the rise of the Wrestlemania brand from the biggest wrestling event of the calendar to the Superbowl of sports entertainment can certainly sit on the back of the teens of the Undertaker's undefeated streak. But hidden in the mid-nineties, in an era that the company does its best to gloss over, is a horrendous mistreatment of the wrestler Mark Calaway that would've put most others in the ground.
When we started this project, Undertaker was already one of the most popular and over wrestlers within the company despite having been there for less than three years. At a time when the company was transitioning away from many of the big (in more ways than one) names of the 1980s like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior - Undertaker was a fresh name and a unique character that the fans could get behind. And when you look at Taker's run between 1993-early 1995, he was in major pay per view matches at every show, barring a run in mid-1994 he missed due to injury.
But then you look at his opponents, and you realise that there may be more to it than meets the eye. Between mid 1993 and mid 1995 Undertaker's PPV opponents were as follows: Giant Gonzalez, Yokozuna (twice), another wrestler called Undertaker, IRS, King Kong Bundy and mercifully Mabel (along with a 4 on 4 Survivor Series main event). It was a problem at the time in the WWF that being big was often a prerequisite of getting a job, being able to work less so. It's not that the Undertaker couldn't work, although given his slow style you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but that because he was so big he was often put in the ring with lumbering giants.
That's not to poo all over his entire run in this period. The match with Yokozuna at Survivor Series was (by the ceiling you'd expect from the pair) very good. The feud with Undertaker and Undertaker, before the match started, was certainly different - but then the bell rang and Calaway and Brian Lee stunk up the joint. “In awe” the crowd were not, despite Vince McMahon's protestations on commentary.
Could it have been different? Well, of course. While Undertaker has certainly improved a lot as a worker in a 20+ year career, he could certainly put on better matches than he was being entrusted with in the mid-90s. But looking at the roster mid-94, the list of very good heel in-ring performers might begin and end with Shawn Michaels. Once that pairing was kept apart your options are a lot more limited.
But despite all of this the Undertaker character remained strong, and fortunately it was also in an era where 1) having great matches was no a prequisit of being popular and 2) the fans were nowhere near as likely to rebel as they would twenty years late if they thought someone that “didn't deserve it” was being put in a major spot. All we can do is thank our lucky stars that in amongst all of that misuse of what would end up being the best gimmick wrestler in history, that he didn't get beaten at Wrestlemania. That might come in handy in 10-15 years.