Come along as we look back on The Undertaker’s first year in WWE and how he became the then youngest WWE champion one year after his debut.
The mere mention of his name is enough for wrestlers, fans, and even non-fans to reminisce on stories of the Phenom. There has never been, nor will there ever be, someone like him in this business. And like every great career, it kicked off with a ghastly bang. The Deadman was unlike anything the WWE Universe had ever seen and in The Undertaker’s first year in WWE, he cut a clear path of destruction through the locker room with his eyes on the ultimate prize, Hulk Hogan’s title.
Before signing with the then World Wrestling Federation, Mark Calaway started his professional wrestling career in 1984. He worked with multiple promotions, including WCCW and USWA where he would begin his impressive championship accomplishment list, though it would be his stint in WCW, however, that brought eyes on the then “Mean Mark” Callous.
The tale of The Undertaker’s first year in WWE really kicks off at 1990’s Survivor Series; a pay-per-view defined by two debuts. But we’re here to talk about only one of them, and thankfully, it’s the good one.
(If curiosity has taken over and you would like to read about the other one, scroll down to the bottom of this piece!)
One of the best elements about The Undertaker’s first year in WWE was seeing the fright on the fan’s faces. And when the man walked out from behind the curtain on that fateful Thanksgiving Day in 1990, there was no shortage of terror-stricken faces and eyes full of awe. An absolute highlight was listening to Roddy Piper on commentary scream, “Look at the size of that ham hock!” The only oddity was seeing Bruce Prichard as Brother Love stroll out in front of the Undertaker. It was a fine pairing, but nothing compared to the manager Big Evil would enlist latter down the line.
With the pleasantries out of the way, it was time for the Undertaker to show the world what he could do. The rules for the original Survivor Series matches made for… an interesting spectacle. The winners of each team would go on to the main event in a super Survivor Series Elimination Match. This no doubt created problems regarding Undertaker, as Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, and Tito Santana happened to be booked to be in the main event. To protect the Undertaker from being pinned by the eventual winners of the night, the Dead Man would be counted out after pummeling Dusty Rhodes down the aisle and into the back after Rhodes took a liking to Brother Love. This took Undertaker out of the equation. In his first showing on television, Taker was able to eliminate Dusty Rhodes and Koko B. Ware, the first televised victim of the Tombstone Piledriver. Ted Dibiase would go on to win the match technically giving Taker a win.
In the first months of The Undertaker’s first year in WWE, he in would meander about the card in squash matches, sometimes placing enhancement talent in body bags and dragging them backstage. It added a macabre touch to his character.
The Undertaker made an appearance in the 1991 Royal Rumble, though there isn’t much to note here. Hulk Hogan won the match, though Undertaker had a strong showing.
It would be in February of 1991 that the Undertaker was finally paired with Paul Bearer, who would be an integral part of the gimmick going forward. Many fans will remember the urn that Bearer carried around that appeared to be the source of the Undertaker’s power. It will forever be regarded as one of the best props in wrestling history and for good reason. But Paul also brought ghoulish words to the silent character. The two had a natural chemistry together as evidenced by how well Bearer is integrated with Undertaker’s legacy.
At WrestleMania 7, the first of his career, The Undertaker would take on “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka. This is a case where time elevates a match to heights no one could have predicted. This is, of course, due to the Streak as this was the first of a long line of Undertaker victories at WrestleMania. The match is really just an Undertaker showcase, but it also doubled as an introduction to his dominance at WrestleMania.
Bearer soon had his own talk show-like segment called the Funeral Parlor. One of it’s more famous editions saw the Ultimate Warrior get blindsided by the seven-footer and placed in a special casket, kicking off a feud between the two in what was Undertaker’s first top storyline in the Undertaker’s first year in WWE.
The Ultimate Warrior later quipped in a 2005 IGN interview, “When I got shut in the coffin, a lot of people were aghast. They’d say, ‘God, you’re gonna get in the coffin…and they’re gonna close it!’ Like it’s almost blasphemous or something. It wasn’t my idea, but I wasn’t against it. Actually, I joked, I said it was the most rest I’d had in a long time!”
Watch the 1991 ‘Body Bag Match’ between Ultimate Warrior and The Undertaker, the very first storyline during The Undertaker’s first year in WWE
However, Warrior was also occupied with helping Hulk Hogan battle Sargent Slaughter, Colonel Mustafa, and General Adnan. This meant to further the rivalry with Taker, the two feuds would sometimes play out in the same segment. Though the two feuds never got too intermingled, Hogan and Undertaker did stand face to face a few times, but neither man gained the upper hand on the other.
With even the Hulkster unable to phase the Undead Mortician, Warrior enlisted the help of Jake “the Snake” Roberts to train him to get inside the Undertaker’s mind. It was a “know your enemy” sort of training where Jake would place Warrior in ghastly scenarios such as locking him in a casket (again) and putting him in a room full of snakes. Ultimately, it led to Roberts turning on him to join Undertaker. The thing was, it was never clear who Warrior’s main target was between the two after that. And we would never get to find out.
Warrior had his hands full with the Hogan/Slaughter feud at SummerSlam, meaning Undertaker had no match on the card. But even then, the feud with Undertaker would be unceremoniously dropped after the event due to a debacle between Warrior and Vince McMahon regarding payment. Warrior would later return to the company but his feud with Undertaker was never re-established.
But Undertaker was on to the next stage in his career, as after the very same SummerSlam, he and Jake Roberts would crash the post-show celebration of the wedding of Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth. The two would be chased away by a chair-wielding Sid Justice. A retired Savage would enlist the help of Sid and later “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan to fight the morbid duo. Though through this feud, it was Sid and Taker who took the forefront.
Both Undertaker and Sid would meet in the untelevised quarterfinals of the 1991 King of the Ring tournament after Sid advanced against the Warlord and the Undertaker dispatched of Animal. The two behemoths were up and coming monsters that couldn’t afford to look weak, so their match ended with a double countout. That fact isn’t odd as many tournaments from the Golden Age and New Generation had draws and double disqualifications to keep certain wrestlers strong. The two would mingle a bit on the house show circuit, but never really faced each other until the Main Event of WrestleMania 13.
Survivor Series 1991 was on the horizon, and Hulk Hogan had gotten tangled up in a short stint with Ric Flair. But instead of them fighting one on one for the WWF Championship on Thanksgiving Day Eve, Flair would be the in corner of The Undertaker. Three of wrestling’s most iconic performers in the same storyline, all culminating at the anniversary of the birth of the Undertaker.
The match between Hulk Hogan and Undertaker at 1991’s Survivor Series pay-per-view would mark the first time a singles match main-evented Survivor Series. But it also gave a rare sighting; Hogan being defeated. Not a bad way to top off The Undertaker’s first year in WWE. While it was not clean by any means, that didn’t matter. The Dead Man had vanquished the conquering hero, if only for a night. Undertaker became the youngest WWE champion (at this point) at age 26. Hogan would cheat to win at Tuesday in Texas to regain the championship six days later, then go on to face Sid at WrestleMania in a spot Taker could have easily filled. Thankfully, years would pass before we would see the bubble match between the two legends, keeping Undertaker’s mystique alive for decades to come.
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