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The Undertaker is arguably the most iconic figure in WWE history. While Hulk Hogan or Steven Austin were bigger stars at their peak, The Undertaker has been a staple for the company for so long, that he feels synonymous with the company. He is probably the most universally admired figure in company history.
However, how valuable has The Undertaker actually been to WWE? At different stages of his career, The Undertaker has played a different role in the company, and overtime, fans nostalgia and attachment to The Undertaker may have an impact on how people will remember him. Is The Undertaker really one of the best to ever step foot in a WWE ring, or do fans just feel that way because he has been around for so long?
Wrestling fans really like The Undertaker. As one of the most enduring stars in wrestling history, The Undertaker has been a part of most wrestling fans' childhood. If you are a wrestling fan under the age of 40, chances are you remember watching The Undertaker as a child. He might have even been your favorite wrestler. He was certainly mine at one point. The fact that he has been around and a part of fans' lives for generations has made him a staple of wrestling for a huge amount of the wrestling fanbase.
The Undertaker also satisfies a nostalgic itch fans have had for the past. Over time, wrestling has evolved and is less of a cartoon than it was 30 years ago, and for the most part that change is welcome. However, The Undertaker is an appreciated relic from a bygone era. In a time where wrestlers have normal names and often look like normal athletes, having a giant man dressed up as a zombified, old west moritican and going by the name "The Undertaker" stands out even more. I think most wrestling fans appreciate the less cartoonish atmosphere around wrestling today, but they do miss gimmicks and characters, and The Undertaker is the last person from that era still going.
Now in his 30th year working for WWE, The Undertaker has been a part of the company for so long, he feels synonymous with WWE. The Undertaker spans at least six different incarnations of the company (Hogan Era, Next Generation Era, Attitude Era, Ruthless Aggression, Post-Aggression, WWE Network) and remains one of the popular stars to this day. Even now, at age 54, The Undertaker still gets arguably the biggest reaction out of anyone in the company. The kind of longevity and consistency, as well as working an old-school gimmick, have made him an immortal in the eyes of some fans.
The Undertaker's main value comes from his longevity. At no point in time was The Undertaker really ever the top star in the promotion; but he was always among the top five biggest stars, at least while he was a full-time wrestler. In the sports world, I think his legacy would be that of a compiler, someone who was around for so long that they end up with staggering career statistics. An apt comparison may be Karl Malone, who had incredible longevity in the NBA and piled up an insane amount of career statistics, but was almost never considered at any given time to be the best player in the NBA.
That may seem like a knock, but I mean it as a compliment. Malone is an all-time great NBA player who was amazing for almost two decades. The Undertaker has largely been the same way and deserves to be recognized as such. However, when it comes to ranking talent and comparing the all-time greats, the fact that The Undertaker was basically never the top drawing card for WWE during his entire career is something that has to be brought up.
Historically (although not quite anymore) wrestling has been a business where one name is on top and drives business. If that big name is hot, business is great; and if you don't have a big name that is hot, business tanks. Men who were on top and were big draws (Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, etc.) make up the pantheon of wrestling's elite. The Undertaker was in the mix throughout his career and main evented a lot of big shows, but he was never quite at that level as some of the other names.
There has been some revisionist history regarding The Undertaker, particularly during the first half-dozen years of his run in WWE. During that time period The Undertaker only held the world championship once, for less than a week, and only was featured in one other title program (against Yokozuna in early 1994) until 1996. During that same time frame, the company was desperate for talent, losing Hogan, Randy Savage, Ric Flair, The Ultimate Warrior and a boatload of other big names. Yet The Undertaker was rarely given a chance to be the world champion or even contend for the title. Isn't it kind of strange that Yokozuna held the title for almost a year, and The Undertaker couldn't sniff a world title reign during that span?
The revisionist history comes in here, with people saying that The Undertaker didn't need the title. He was a unique character and didn't need the title to be effective, and the title was better served being given to someone else. This makes some sense, but only if you ignore all logic and historical precedent. While big stars don't always have to be the champion, the reality is, especially in an era where the world title was taken much more seriously, the biggest star should be the champion, or at least contending for the title, at almost all times.
Bruno Sammartino held the world title for seven and a half years his first time with the belt. After a few years nobody said "Hey Bruno is a big star, he doesn't need the title anymore!" Hulk Hogan held the title for just over four years his first time with the title. In later generations Steve Austin and John Cena wouldn't have nearly as long title reigns, but were constantly winning the title and swapping it around for the entirety of their primes.
During those time periods, you made money by pushing your biggest star as the world champion, yet The Undertaker was passed over consistently in favor of other names. The post-Hogan lull were times of declining business for the company, Vince McMahon wasn't sitting on a guy who would have been total money as champion, but held off on the decision because the guy didn't need a title or whatever. The answer is that The Undertaker, while respected and capable, was not that big of a draw.
Things would change for The Undertaker in the late 1990s, when Austin and The Rock came into the company and business started to go back up. Similar to Sting in WCW, who wasn't a draw during the early 1990s despite being heavily pushed, only to see himself turn into a major drawing card when some new names came into the company and raised business, The Undertaker would find himself as a credible name to combat the new top stars, since he had been protected to a degree for the years before their arrival.
This would help The Undertaker out a lot in the legacy department; before the Attitude Era he was basically a mid-carder with a strong gimmick who often engaged in goofy matches. After the Attitude Era, he was a multiple-time champion who had gone toe-to-toe with the biggest names of that time, and would look like an even bigger legend throughout the 2000s when most of those big names would go away.
The most valuable part of The Undertaker's career would come later, during the Ruthless Aggression era. As The Rock left the company, Austin and Mick Foley retired and the rosters split, The Undertaker was suddenly the most marketable talent on SmackDown. Particularly during the mid to late 2000s, when Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle left the company and John Cena moved to RAW, The Undertaker was a real anchor for the brand, even if Cena was the biggest star in the company. This was probably when The Undertaker was the most productive drawing card, since he had been pushed to a higher level during the Attitude Era, and he was one of the few stars from that era to still be around and featured weekly.
As he got older, The Undertaker would morph into a special attraction, only wrestling one or two matches a year. At this point in his career, The Undertaker would truly become a man who didn't need the title to draw, since he wasn't working a regular schedule anyway. This becomes the most difficult part of The Undertaker's career to assess, since you could argue he was a major star that drove business during his sporadic appearances. Historically, wrestlers have always been assessed on what they were doing as full-time wrestlers, so it is hard to say the last several years of The Undertaker's career have added a lot to his legacy.
Some fans may argue that since the last few years have been mostly filled with disappointing matches with The Undertaker often looking old and frail, that it has hurt his legacy. While it is common to say that in the present, the reality is that many of the best wrestlers in history have looked old and broken at the end of their careers, and nobody ends up really talking about those periods. Nobody sincerely knocks Ric Flair's career because he worked a few matches for TNA at the end and looked terrible.
Lastly, I think it is worth talking about The Undertaker's in-ring performance. I think most fans consider The Undertaker a great worker who has had a ton of great matches throughout his career. While it is true that The Undertaker has had a ton of amazing matches during his career, I think people forget a lot of the duds.
During the first six years of his WWE tenure, The Undertaker was in mostly bad matches. Some of them were downright horrible. If you go back and watch early Undertaker, the Paul Bearer promos and the way The Undertaker character is presented are awesome, but you probably aren't going to like most of the matches. Part of the reason for this is The Undertaker was often saddled with massive, uncoordinated opponents like Giant Gonzalez, but for a significant portion of The Undertaker's career, his matches were almost unwatchable.
Later he would go on to have much better matches, typically when he would work with smaller, agile wrestlers like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. He also would have good brawls with bigger wrestlers, like Triple H, Brock Lesnar and Mankind. His matches with Kane are memorable, although more for the excellent storylines leading up to the matches, as opposed to the matches themselves.
To me, The Undertaker was a good worker and a really agile big man, but isn't really a great worker. He can have really good matches with the right opponent, but also doesn't really carry or elevate lesser-talented opponents the way that the true greats of wrestling can. Even when he was in his prime, he had a lot of clunkers in big matches, including forgettable matches with Sid, Big Show, Mark Henry, Big Boss Man and others.
The Undertaker has fantastic longevity and his memorable character is something a lot of people gravitate towards, especially if they remember him from their childhood. I just don't see him in that top pantheon of figures in wrestling, which I think a lot of people would have him slotted. He was never really the top guy, never the top drawing card, and a good but not great worker. He had a great gimmick and great presence, but I don't see him on the same level as a Steve Austin or Hulk Hogan. Those guys were massive stars drawing at the top of the card; The Undertaker just was never at that level.