Pruett's Blog Flashback: The Undertaker's Streak Series Part Three - The American Bad Ass Years & The Deadman's Return - WrestleMania XVII - WrestleMania XX
By Will Pruett
In anticipation of WrestleMania, we'll be reposting this series with a new section covering Undertaker's 21st WrestleMania win appearing on Saturday.
Evolution has been the name of the game in the career of The Undertaker. Every time he got stale, he has grown and changed. This was quite true during these four years. I remember really enjoying this time. It wasn't "The Deadman" but it did fit in with what WWE was doing at the time. In the second part of the Attitude Era, a biker was far more useful than a Deadman. In the beginning of the post-Attitude Era Undertaker's biker character was an anchor that got the company through the transition.
Many people today look back at this as a dark period of The Undertaker. Some thought it ruined his character or changed him so fundamentally that he could never be repaired. I believe that this period is what actually allowed Undertaker to grow as an in-ring performer and become what we see today. It was a necessary step in his evolution to move beyond the Deadman gimmick. While some may not enjoy these years, without them the revamped Deadman that debuted in 2004 would not have reached the icon status he now enjoys.
WrestleMania XVII - Undertaker vs. "The Game" Triple H:
Before I begin properly writing about this match, I must say that I am not bothered by it not being mentioned in the build to Undertaker vs. Triple H this year or last. This was a different era and it does not need to be brought up to tell the story. Get over it people.
When The Undertaker returned at Judgement Day 2000, it was not the man we all remembered. He didn't wear all black. Instead of smoke, fire, lightening, funeral procession music and darkness, he entered on a motorcycle in full light to Kid Rock screeching "American Bad Ass." This new evolution was so completely different from every version of the character before it that many were puzzled. He was an accepted non-realistic character in an era of realism and he suddenly became a real person.
This returning version of The Undertaker hung around the top of the card. He feuded with The Rock, Kane and, of course, Triple H. In these feuds he cut promos that did not mention resting in peace or dragging souls to hell. His WrestleMania feud with Triple H had a large focus on Stephanie McMahon and came while Triple H was having one of the best heels runs of all time (end of 1999 to May 2001).
This also marked the return of WrestleMania to a stadium environment and the presentation was amazing. Motörhead played Triple H to the ring and Lemmy forgot every word aside from "Game" yet still managed to sound fantastic. The Undertaker had shed his Kid Rock theme and evolved to Limp Bizkit's "Rollin'" much to the chagrin of my ears. Fighting in his hometown and finally able to call Houston his hometown, Undertaker was ready to have a great match.
Stylistically, this is the first appearance of the brawler Undertaker. As opposed to his no selling and hard strikes, he chose to go move for move, sell more than he ever has and truly wrestle the standard Attitude Era style in WWE (this match resembles Undertaker's current matches far more than anything he did before it).
The match began outside the ring, moved into it and bordered on being a No Disqualification match. It then became one when the referee was bumped accidentally and then was attacked by Undertaker. This was an odd move for a babyface, but the Attitude Era was all about hating authority. At this point the match became the prototypical crowd brawl of the era. They went all over the stadium, even into the technical area where Undertaker impressively Chokeslammed Triple H off of a spotlight scaffold and jumped off to drop an elbow on Triple H.
The match made it back to the ring and Mike Chioda somehow was revived (after about ten minutes of death). Triple H is positioned for The Last Ride, but when he is picked up he brings his trusty sledgehammer with him. I believe he did something similar at WrestleMania XXVII (and will confirm in the final part of this series). This caused Undertaker to bleed for the second time in The Streak.
In the end, he finished Triple H with a Last Ride out of the corner for the win. This match showed how much Undertaker had been held back by the style he previously worked. Given the chance to have a match without the Deadman gimmick, he shined. The Streak was mentioned both before and after the match. For the first time the numbers were brought into play with both 8-0 and 9-0 being said. The Streak was officially becoming The Streak.
WrestleMania XVIII - Undertaker vs. "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair:
Holy heel run, Batman! Although he rocked some shades of gray in 1999, this was the first time Undertaker would truly be a diabolical heel since 1991 (in 1999 crucifying someone did not make you diabolical). He was also a diabolical heel without having to worry about being a zombie at the same time (he even rocked short hair). Here, he was known as simply "Big Evil" The Undertaker (The man gets a nickname for his name that is already a nickname).
This was the closest he has ever come to playing a character that could also be named Mean Mark Callous. This turn came when he forced Jim Ross to join a special club involving Vince McMahon that I will never write a blog series about. It continued through feuds with Maven and The Rock until finally landing on Ric Flair.
Ric Flair returned to the WWE in November 2001, as a co-owner of the company after buying Shane and Stephanie McMahon's shares (and we wonder where his money problems started). He began a feud with Vince McMahon as the good and evil owners. McMahon set his hired gun, The Undertaker, on Flair.
The buildup to this match was The Undertaker coercing Flair into accepting his challenge. He attacked Flair and threatened his family, including Ric Flair's son, David (this beating is the only worthwhile thing David Flair ever did in wrestling). Finally, Flair got approval from the Board to take a match against Undertaker, if he forfeits his ownership share until after the match. Flair, being the not-so-great businessman that he is, accepted those conditions.
The match was made a No Disqualification match by Vince McMahon "in the interest of fairness." The Undertaker entered first and was still entering to Fred Durst's anthem of awfulness with his motorcycle (I keep rollin', rollin', rollin'). As successful as the nickname "Big Evil" was, we also had Jim Ross trying to force the "Booger Red" name, which was never going to get over.
"The Nature Boy" entered looking regal, but quickly took off running and began a wild brawl. Ric Flair has said many times that this was a difficult match for him. He was suffering from a crisis of confidence due to the emotional abuse he took in WCW and this was only his second match since returning. This was apparent as he attempted the classic Flair flip over the turnbuckle and fell hard going for it the first time. Flair has said that Undertaker picked him up, asked if he wanted to do the spot and threw him so hard for the second try that there was no way for him not to flip.
This match shows the range that Undertaker has as a performer and how that range rapidly expanded in these years. He sold with screams and actually showed damage to a limb (there's a great Chokeslam spot with him selling the damage of the Figure Four). He was a classic heel without a ton of the Undertaker-ish mannerisms. It was not the original character, but it also could not have existed without the character before it. I would also compare his work then to Bully Ray's work in TNA in 2011 and 2012.
Arn Anderson made a special appearance in this match, by running in and giving one of the best Spinebusters of his career to Undertaker. They are not enough to overcome and Ric Flair fell victim to the Tombstone. The Streak is once again brought to mind as Undertaker counted in the air to signify 10-0.
This match is just one match in a phenomenal year for The Phenom. His matches with Brock Lesnar, Jeff Hardy, Hulk Hogan and one of the best triple-threat matches ever with Kurt Angle and The Rock highlight what may have been the best year for him as a worker. This Flair match is another very fitting part in that story and a definite highlight of The Streak.
WrestleMania XIX - Undertaker vs. Big Show and A-Train:
Well, they can't all be good. That might be too negative. This match was not near as bad as the Big Boss Man match or the first four matches of The Streak. It wasn't really all that enjoyable, but at six minutes it was hardly as torturous as the match with Sid in 1997. No, this match was not the worst or even my least favorite.
The Undertaker was a babyface again. His heel character had a great run, but after putting over many of the main event babyfaces, there was not much rub to give. There was also a need for babyface opponents for Brock Lesnar, so Undertaker was used to put him over. All of this lead Undertaker to drop pretty low on the card.
Big Show and A-Train were a heel tag team having a decent run in 2003. Putting them as challengers to The Streak seemed logical and adding in the challenge of a tag team partner that could potentially cause the end of The Streak was a unique twist. Sadly the planned tag team partner, Nathan Jones, turned out to be a rather awful wrestler and was pulled from the match (this was explained by a backstage attack).
Perhaps the worst part of the match was the pre-match concert. You see, after years of using them as theme music, Limp Bizkit was actually at the show to play Undertaker to the ring. This match saw a transition where instead of being a minor talking point, The Streak became a major story in the build. This would serve as a preview for many matches to come.
From Show and A-Train, this match was all rest holds. They didn't do a ton of work. Show looked to be near his largest and put Undertaker in an abdominal stretch that basically involved standing there as 'Taker contorted his body. Being the only multi-opponent match in The Streak, one would expect the action to be fast and furious. Sadly, Show and A-Train were not capable of putting forth the effort required.
Undertaker got worn down in the ring due to some chicanery and a Chokeslam from Big Show. Nathan Jones then ran down the ramp to save the day. Because he was originally scheduled to be in the match, his interference did not count and he got to spin-kick Big Show on the outside. A-Train was finished off with the Tombstone and Undertaker celebrated in the ring.
There was a definite vibe of patriotism in this match (the Iraq War had just begun). Undertaker had dedicated the match to his nephew fighting in Iraq and he celebrated at the end with flag in hand. Perhaps he was the "All American Bad Ass" in this one. This would be the last WrestleMania appearance for this character. As good as his 2002 was his 2003 was bad. For so many reasons the once contemporary character now seemed slightly dated and as the eras in WWE shifted; a return to a character that once existed was needed.
WrestleMania XX - Undertaker vs. Kane:
This was the return of The Deadman. In a Buried Alive match with Vince McMahon, Kane appeared and buried the Undertaker. This signaled the end of the biker character as Kane attacked Undertaker because he became one of the people. Kane was leaned upon heavily to sell this match on the mic and he delivered.
The return began with a gong in the Royal Rumble match and continued with different signs, omens, and videos. Undertaker never appeared until WrestleMania and a lot of attention was paid to what he would look like. This was a special attraction match on the show; one of the first Raw vs. Smackdown matches and the first repeat match of The Streak.
Kane entered with full pyro and the video wall (which was quite impressive at WrestleMania XX) was a full city of fire. It looked great and is still one of my favorite non-Undertaker entrances of The Streak.
The Undertaker's entrance was equally as impressive. It began as Paul Bearer (returning to Undertaker's side) screeched a classic "Oh yes!" from backstage then Druids with torches lined up on both sides of the ramp. The gong hit, thunder and lightning struck, and The Deadman appeared on the stage.
Well, at least a version of The Deadman did. It was actually a rather odd variation that showed up. I found this to be rather disappointing. He wore a long black coat and a cowboy hat, but aside from that he rocked the loose leather pants and tank top of the American Bad Ass. His hair had not fully grown out and only went to his neck. It was dyed black, but not well. This was the most disappointed I ever was in Undertaker's look. It amazes me that the hat and coat have become as iconic as they are today after such a poor start.
The rest of this match was basically a showcase match for Undertaker. Kane threw in some offense, but not much. He just beat Undertaker enough so that it would be impressive when Undertaker sat up. Undertaker returned to much of The Deadman offense, but he still mixed in his biker style. Many of those mannerisms never left him and his in-ring style is better for it today.
Instead of the three Tombstones and twenty minutes it took to finish Kane in 1998, the year 2004 only required one Tombstone and ten minutes. It was not a great match, but it reintroduced a character that would go on to define an era of WrestleMania.
The Verdict at 12-0:
These were interesting years. The matches from the biker era definitely don't feel like classic Undertaker matches, but they do show signs of what was to come in The Streak. His evolution in this time was stunning. He went from a gimmick wrestler to a fully fleshed-out three dimensional character. These years changed who The Undertaker is for years to come. He may not ride a motorcycle anymore, but his in-ring work still reflects this three year run.
The return to the Deadman gimmick, while the presentation on the night of did not blow me away, it turned out to be a great move. WWE was changing at the time and it was important for Undertaker to re-evolve with it. Realism was no longer as important as character and Undertaker's character change helped boost the company from 2004 and beyond.
Let's do some good old fashioned talking about this blog and Undertaker's Streak! Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or to follow me on twitter at twitter.com/itswilltime.
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