Rise of The Undertaker: Terrifying Debut and First Year in WWE

The tale of The Undertaker in WWE kicks off at Survivor Series 1990, a pay-per-view defined by two debuts (but we’re here to talk about the good one, thankfully)! Here’s how at 26, he became the then-youngest WWE Champion a year after his terrifying debut.

The Undertaker during his first televised appearance at WWE Survivor Series on November 22nd, 1990.
The Undertaker during his first televised appearance at WWE Survivor Series on November 22nd, 1990.

The Undertaker: Life Before WWE

The mere mention of The Undertaker 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 to the then "Mean Mark" Callous.

The Undertaker's first year in WWE - 'Mean' Mark Callous doing his trademark rope walk against Road Warrior Animal in WCW prior to his time as Undertaker in the WWE
“Mean” Mark Callous doing his trademark rope walk against Road Warrior Animal in WCW before his time as Undertaker in the WWE [Photo courtesy of wwenetworkplaylists.wordpress.com]
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 want to read about the other one, click here!)

The Undertaker's first year in WWE - The debut of 'Kane the Undertaker' on WWF Superstars, taped November 19, 1990
Despite making his on-camera debut at 1990’s Survivor Series pay-per-view, The Undertaker had actually made an appearance on WWF Superstars three days before this on November 19, 1990. However, this appearance was aired after Survivor Series because it was a taped show.

Interestingly, during this November 19 appearance, he was announced as “Kane the Undertaker.” The name “Kane” was quickly dropped, though it was saved and given to a prominent family member seven years later.

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, "Holy cow! 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 later down the line.

The Undertaker's First Year in WWE - Fans react in fear to Undertaker's debut at Survivor Series 1990 [photos captured from the WWE Network]
Fans react in fear to Undertaker’s debut at Survivor Series 1990 [photos captured from the WWE Network]
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. Each team’s winners would go on to the main event in a super Survivor Series Elimination Match. This undoubtedly created Undertaker problems 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 the “W.”

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The Undertaker’s Memorable First Year in WWE

In the first months of The Undertaker’s first year in WWE, he 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's First Year in WWE - The Undertaker carrying a body bag out of the ring

The Undertaker appeared in the 1991 Royal Rumble, though there isn’t much to note here. Hulk Hogan won the match, though Undertaker had a strong showing.

In February of 1991, 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 a good reason. But Paul also brought ghoulish words to the silent character. The two had natural chemistry together, as evidenced by how well Bearer is integrated with Undertaker’s legacy.

The Undertaker's First Year in WWE - The Undertaker delivers a tombstone piledriver to Jimmy Snuka at WrestleMania 7
The Undertaker delivered a tombstone piledriver to Jimmy Snuka at WrestleMania 7 on March 24th, 1991. This led to the very first win of his remarkable WrestleMania streak.

At WrestleMania 7, the first of his career, The Undertaker would take on "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka. This is where time elevates a match to heights no one could have predicted.

This is due to the streak, as this was the first of a long line of Undertaker victories at WrestleMania. The match is 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 its 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!"

However, Warrior was also occupied with helping Hulk Hogan battle Sargent Slaughter, Colonel Mustafa, and General Adnan. This meant furthering 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 over 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" 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. 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 return to the company later, 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 Sid’s help and later "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan to fight the morbid duo. Though through this feud, it was Sid and Taker who took the forefront.

Undertaker and Sid would meet in the 1991 King of the Ring tournament’s untelevised quarterfinals after Sid advanced against the Warlord and the Undertaker dispatched 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 Golden Age and New Generation tournaments had draws and double disqualifications to keep certain wrestlers strong.

The two would mingle 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 in the 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.

Related: Sid Vicious: The Self-Proclaimed "Hardest Worker Ever" in a Business He Had No Passion For

Undertaker Becomes the Then-Youngest WWE Champion at Survivor Series 1991

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 of Hogan being defeated.

The Undertaker's First Year in WWE - The Undertaker wraps his hand around Hulk Hogan's mouth at Survivor Series 1991
The Undertaker takes control over Hulk Hogan at Survivor Series 1991. With Ric Flair’s help, Undertaker would beat Hulk Hogan, becoming the youngest WWE Champion at the time.

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 seeing the bubble match between the two legends, keeping Undertaker’s mystique alive for decades to come.

Purchase this Wrestlers' Court shirt featuring Undertaker, Yokozuna, and JBL on PWSTees.com today!
Purchase this Wrestlers’ Court shirt featuring Undertaker on PWSTees.com today!

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Cameron Shank is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories.