Undertaker and the End of an Era: The Death of the Gimmick in WWE

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMarch 21, 2013

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 15. The Undertaker enters the arena during WWE Smackdown at Acer Arena on June 15, 2008 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Gaye Gerard/Getty Images)
Gaye Gerard/Getty Images

It says something about the state of professional wrestling in 1990 that Kane the Undertaker's debut on Nov. 19 at the War Memorial in Rochester, N.Y., didn't really stand out.

He pinned Mario Mancini that day in a little over a minute with what would become his iconic move, the Tombstone piledriver, Mancini's second match of an eternally long television taping. Taped for future use on WWF Superstars, his debut played second fiddle on that program to the Mountie's first appearance on WWF television.

"Didn't stand out?"

"Second fiddle to the Mountie?"

"Mario Mancini?"

I can practically hear the incredulity as you ponder these things for a moment. After all, Mark Calaway, the wrestler who plays the Undertaker, stands nearly 7'0". He moved, at the time at least, like a cat, flying around the ring with a speed and grace more common in much smaller men. And he did all this in a grey tie, grey rubber gloves and weird grey boots. And, oh yeah, he appeared to be some kind of zombie.

Didn't stand out?

Of course, he would in time, dropping the Kane from his name almost as fast as he dropped opponents with the tombstone and carried them off in body bags. But in those days "Kane the Undertaker" was just another wacky gimmick in a promotion full of them. Things in 1990 were a bit different than they are now. Larger, as they say, than life.

The aforementioned Mountie? He was a rogue member of the Canadian Mounted Police who brought a cattle prod to the ring and boasted time and again that he "always got his man." And his wasn't even the only goofy law enforcement-related gimmick. Ray Traylor was already on the scene as "The Big Bossman," a, wait for it, corrupt prison guard who would tie his opponent to the ropes with a set of handcuffs and wail away on him with his night stick.

There were also not one, but two African giants, one black and the other white. There were, in fact, ethnic characters of all kinds. There was an Indian warrior. There was an Orient Express featuring a Hawaiian and a Croatian-Canadian soccer player. There were not just two but three tag teams featuring enormous men wearing face paint and making some kind of metallic, spiky fashion statement.

And, yes, there was the Gobbledy Gooker. After months of showcasing an egg on WWF TV, wheeling it out to endless speculation, it finally hatched at Survivor Series that year, releasing a humanoid turkey of sorts who danced around the ring with "Mean" Gene Okerlund. No, I am not making this up.

This was before the Attitude era changed wrestling forever and for the better. Before the common wisdom held that the best wrestlers didn't need gimmicks, just their own personalities turned up to a Spinal Tap 11. The Undertaker didn't stand out with his awful gimmick because everyone, it seemed, had an awful gimmick of one kind or another.

Before you write in singing the Undertaker gimmick's praises, take a moment to think about it. This isn't a gimmick that stood out from the dreck that surrounded it like a bright shining diamond in a pile of manure. He was a giant Undertaker for goodness' sake. A giant dead undertaker with ghastly white skin and no nerve endings. He was a ghastly white, dead, giant undertaker accompanied to the ring by a preening and pompous obese manager carrying an urn that gave him special powers.

I repeat: he was a giant, dead, ghastly white, super powered undertaker with grey rubber gloves and a tie accompanied to the ring by a grotesquely fat, overacting manager, a wrestler who no sold every opponent and squashed half the roster. His act was terrible. There's no other word to describe it.

Yet, despite it all, Calaway did what Hector Guerrero couldn't manage with the Gobbledy Gooker. What Jacques Rougeau couldn't quite pull off with the Mountie. What Tony Atlas tried and failed to do with Saba Simba. He transcended his gimmick. Reinvented it, time and time again, changing not just costumes, but also the entire premise of the idea.

The Undertaker, for all his sustained excellence over the years, would never make it in today's WWE. It's too hokey, too removed from reality. Is John Cena an over-the-top cheeseball? Of course he is. But his character, the obnoxious Bostonian who speaks half in rap cliches and half in the kind of bromides you see on inspirational posters featuring kittens hanging on for dear life, feels real. Dorky but real.

There are no Undertakers in today's WWE. There are no cops, no African warrior kings and no super powers of any kind. Even the most far-reaching characters, your Fandangos say, are not claiming to be something they aren't. Before long, he'll be cutting a shoot promo and transitioning into a new character any way. Once you put the genie in the bottle, contrary to popular wisdom, it's hard to bring him back out.

When Mark Calaway finally walks away from the ring and takes that final bow as his creepy music plays one last time and flames reach into the heavens, the Undertaker won't be the only thing that is dead. The wrestling gimmick will be dead as well.