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undertaker-1The house lights dim, and the bell tolls. The grim countenance of The Undertaker cuts through the darkness; he is a near seven-foot, three hundred-pound menace, engendering a feeling that the end is near.

Completing a neat circle, The Undertaker was brought in by “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase at Survivor Series 1990. Before long, he was paired with a manager by the name of Paul Bearer, who could walk his protégé to the ring with the lure of a golden urn. So began his chillingly dominant tenure, in which Undertaker would reach out with those big gloves and make short work of his opponent, plant them with the ‘Tombstone Piledriver’ finisher and then seal their lifeless carcass in a body bag, not without ample cuts to the crowd showing adults and children looking somewhere between bemused and genuinely horrified. Macabre indeed.

The Undertaker looked genuinely unstoppable. A gifted athlete, he had an incredible command of power and agility, often taking to flight and even walking the top ring rope. It seemed to take a year before anybody could even knock him off his feet – Hulk Hogan would manage it at the 1991 Survivor Series, but still Hulkamania fell to ‘The Deadman’, in the process making ‘Taker the youngest ever WWF Champion. In a WWF career that was almost exclusively main-eventing, he would go on to have a number of runs at the very top and partook in several ‘groundbreaking’ match types which sound as fittingly grim as they truly were; Casket, Buried Alive, and Hell in A Cell matches were broken in with The Undertaker. Likewise, he has fought off some tough new competition – carrying the likes of seven-feet-seven Giant Gonzalez, duelling with his ‘brother’ Kane, and even facing off at SummerSlam 1994 against The Undertaker. Yes, it was Undertaker vs. Undertaker. We can only presume The Undertaker won.

There was a bit of a rough patch in the late nineties, when The Undertaker’s character mutated into that of satanic cult leader, ruling ‘The Ministry of Darkness’ and attempting kidnaps and sacrifices for no obvious reason. After that, he vanished due to injury, returning in 2000 as a revitalised biker dude, which again started without much inspiration. However, when he turned villain in this guise, his work was top-notch – he was just a bad ass. Deadman Taker returned before long, though, and has never looked back, continuing to make appearances today. Apparently it’s still not truly WrestleMania with a marquee Undertaker match – indeed, from 1991 to 2013, The Undertaker was undefeated on every outing at a WrestleMania – and indeed, I was absolutely astonished to hear that they broke ‘The Streak’ by having Brock Lesnar defeat him.

Over more than twenty-five illustrious years, The Undertaker has been a constant – a powerful and sometimes poignant hark back to eras and superstars past, while remaining relevant and sharp. This is a feeling will doubtless heighten until he makes his last trip to the ring. Quite rightly, he is one of the most respected of all time – like many of the best, he took a curious gimmick and spun it into something really special. Furthermore, he’s one of the most approachable workers; I’ve never heard anybody say a bad thing about Mark Callaway’s attitude or ego – a rare thing that is indeed in this crazy setting, and testament to his enduring appearances and universal reverence. Long live The Deadman!

bbrawler-1bIt can’t all be Hogan versus André. Indeed, it most definitely wasn’t. Remember when WWF television was predominantly superstars making short work of ‘enhancement talent’, with maybe one or two marquee matches if lucky? I don’t, as it happens – with competition as it was and had been, things were the epitome of star-studded and balls to the wall when I started watching in 2000 – but I can certainly see why it was done: solidifying characters and storylines while saving the cash cow contests for the Pay-Per-View.

‘The Brooklyn Brawler’ Steve Lombardi is probably the most recognised from this band of performers, not least because he was with the WWF/E for thirty-three years. There were glimmers of a push in 1988, when he was treated to a new look and came under the tutelage of legendary manager Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan, even appearing at WrestleMania V, but soon he seemed to revert to his previous status, with appearances becoming steadily more sporadic into the nineties. He later filled in the role of Doink The Clown when the original jester was fired.

I love The Brawler primarily because he was part of the first ever episode of Smackdown! that I watched. He was teaming with cruiserweights TAKA and Funaki, taking on Triple H in a three-on-one elimination match. It was a quick but fun match, characteristic of the time, that sticks in the memory as a contest that piqued my interest. Thanks to interference from Chris Jericho, with whom HHH was feuding at the time, The Brawler beat ‘The Game’! I wonder when The Brawler had last scored a win on television? The moment was sweet indeed, or at least it was until an enraged HHH spoilt the party and beat The Brawler senseless post-match.

It’s quite a list of opponents for The Brooklyn Brawler: Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle, The Rock and The Undertaker, not to mention that victory over Triple H. The often one-sided clashes rather wax nostalgic of the television of old, as indeed does The Brawler himself, making for a heady cocktail, cleverly deployed. It seems adequate repayment from WWE after decades of diligent service that his opponents were of such calibre, as indeed does his long-standing role backstage as road agent. Let’s hope The Brawler keeps on cropping up!

rickrude-1Here’s ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude, giving us sweat-hogs in the audience a glimpse of what a real man looks like. I’m sure he means the tights, too!

Indeed, as he strutted to the ring and seductively found his way out of his big, sparkling robe to woo the women in attendance – ha, yes, the women – Rude never struck as the modest type. He would later go on to brand himself the world’s sexiest man. The whoops and screams from the audience as he did his thing – quite peculiar for very much a ‘bad guy’ – certainly seemed to endorse that proclamation.

Rude’s look and character was played to great advantage; one of the most memorable things about his matches is his tights. Rarely would you see any one pair twice; he had attire for seemingly any confrontation, often informing the storyline he was a part of at the time – they’d be adorned with his face, his adversary’s face, the title belt he was going after, or some other cleverly relevant motif. I can’t recall anybody else doing this as such a key part of their gimmick. As if he weren’t already distinctive enough, this put Rick across as not only a shameless show-off, but a master of the mind game. (If you’re interested in Rude in some tights, there’s even a Pinterest board which documents each unique sighting.)

Such glitziness and grandiosity might belie the fact that Rude was a fantastic wrestler and one of the legit tough guys. He had great chemistry with Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts in their long rivalry, but after that he was mostly lumbered with carrying The Ultimate Warrior, and, to his credit, he made the unskilled rival look pretty darn good. Rude’s only real headline program in the WWF was with Warrior; it was a brief thing, culminating in a Steel Cage Match at SummerSlam 1990 when Rude already had a foot in the door of WCW. He would go onto have several prominent rivalries there with the likes of Sting and Ric Flair, whom he beat for the title in 1993.

Sadly, a back injury the next year would bring Rick Rude’s wrestling career to an abrupt end. He would later resurface in the WWF as a manager and founder member of their influential D-Generation X stable – which included a young Triple H – but the stay was brisk, and he soon went back to WCW, where he stayed until his death in 1999. Rick seemed to have it all – he had the look, he could talk, he could generate heat, and he could wrestle. Underrated is, once again, the word. It’s a real shame his career had to end so soon after a well-deserved big break in WCW, and one wonders what might have been – of course even more sad is his untimely passing. But, be it for his moves before the bout or during it, the show that Rick Rude put on was ever memorable; he was, as he so accurately insisted, simply ravishing.

mankind-1aIf you go down to the boiler room today, you’re sure of a very big surprise. Perhaps even two, for not only will you stumble into the lair of Mankind, but, if particularly unfortunate, you just might get acquainted with one Mr. Socko.

Behind the dishevelled get-up of this deranged derelict is Mick Foley, surely one of the most badass, fearless competitors of all time. In a fifteen-year career characterised by painful plummets, catastrophic chair shots and tumbles onto thumbtacks, Foley always took that extra step – one too far, oftentimes – to enthrall the audience and steal the show with these death-defying stunts. He certainly succeeded.

Taking ‘split personality’ to whole new levels, Foley was also unique in that he wrestled as three overarching characters, each packed with their own distinctive brand of madness, and liable to shift from one to another at any moment. Cactus Jack was the first to appear, bringing the air of hardcore and unpredictability that was to follow. Indeed, notable ordeals Cactus clawed through saw him suffer third-degree burns and tear off two-thirds of an ear. Later on came Dude Love, a bizarre, fun-loving hippie who would dance his way down to the ring and indulge in his own twisted jollifications.

The boiler room-dwelling Mankind surfaced in the WWF in 1996, where his shocking performances were to become emblematic of the promotion’s change to more extreme, hard-hitting action. He looked slightly different to begin with; this was his attempt to nail the ‘corporate’ look after siding with boss, Vince McMahon. Mankind seemed to enjoy pain, always getting up for more. Mankind was instantly embroiled in a war with The Undertaker and over the next couple of years the two would have some devastating and downright scary fights. It’s a wonder Mick survived their hideous Hell in a Cell Match.

Following this, and noting the growing respect for Foley’s performances, Mankind became a fan favourite and played to this by adopting a goofier, sweeter personality. Mr. Socko – which incidentally he would jam down the opponent’s throat in his ‘Manidble Claw’ finishing manoeuvre – soon followed, and the two were certainly a unique combination. The fun Mankind is certainly the persona I find preferable. Despite the lighter edge, he was still not one to be underestimated; continuing to partake in matches of similar bent, he went on to be WWF Champion three times before his retirement in 2000, going out with another uneasy Hell in a Cell against Triple H. He would continue to appear as ‘commissioner’ for the rest of the year, after that reducing his workload to special guest appearances.

This man is insane! There’s nothing more to be said when looking back at all he put himself through. That said, for providing so many terrifying and later hilarious moments, he is today one of the most respected and well-liked personalities in the industry. If you don’t like Mick, well, have a nice day!

tripleh-1It’s time to play The Game – here comes Triple H. I don’t think any of those aitches on his trunks stand for ‘happy’, do you?

No, it never would. Hunter Hearst Helmsley is one hard-nosed son of a gun and one of the most prolific and dedicated performers of his generation. Entering the WWF in 1995 as a snobby blue-blood, his character would evolve into mischievous degenerate – as part and later leader of the legendarily entertaining stable, D-Generation X – through to ruthless cerebral assassin champion you see here, heading to the ring in fearsome chain mail, which was not in the reference but I decided to add for the nostalgia. I genuinely can’t work out whether I think the garb suits him or looks rather silly; I only ever saw him wear it once, so I guess that’s his own view on it made quite clear.

As the blue-blood he boasted many valets, with a new one for seemingly each show, but it was his long-standing partnership with ‘bodyguard’ Chyna that really helped elevate Helmsley to greater prominence while also allowing an evolution to ‘degenerate’ Hunter to really pick up speed. He owes a lot to her. Flanked by the ‘Ninth Wonder of the World’, it was impossible for either to go unnoticed.

But, as monikers such as ‘The Game’ and ‘The Cerebral Assassin’ would wish to affirm, Helmsley’s technical smarts and ring psychology were never in question, and once his push to the top began in 1999, he never looked back. Winning his first in the summer of that year, Trips would have fourteen runs at the top, never mind a glut with other straps in single and tag team competition.

When I started watching WWF shows as an eight year old, Triple H was at his peak and one of my favourites, just because he plays the villain beautifully. His rivalries with The Rock and later Stone Cold I very much enjoyed, even when I had little idea of the context. The audience would revel in voicing their disapproval each and every time he posted an appearance, or weaseled his way to a key win, in turn making it all the sweeter when he finally got his mouth shut in the ring. This said, moments were equally plentiful when ‘The Game’ prevailed by his own hand, the character therefore commanding a reluctant respect and even cheers. The complexities made for a great mix.

Though now semi-retired as far as in-ring performances go, Triple H’s marriage to the daughter of the boss has rendered any distancing between the promotion and he impossible, not that he would want it any other way. On being hired twenty-one years ago, HHH reputedly visited WWF headquarters and proclaimed, “one day I’ll own all of this”. Prothetic indeed, as it appears now he basically does, getting fully into backstage roles co-ordinating younger talent while also appearing on TV as dastardly authority figure.

Though some may point to stretches of ubiquity and backstage relations as a means of negating a career of generous highs, Hunter’s talent and passion for the business truly can never be argued. Triple H is going nowhere – it remains all about The Game.

hurricane-1Stand back! There’s a Hurricane comin’ through!

Dominated by massive, unruly brutes, what could the WWF have needed more than its own superhero to restore order? The Hurricane was first spotted in 2001 and, despite being a heel and the character’s infancy having all the hallmarks of a throwaway comedy gimmick, the audience warmed to him. This was thanks in no small part to his zany tales of heroism and endearing fearlessness in confronting far larger opposition, who would often pay a hefty price for their cocky underestimations… I mean, it is a superhero we’re dealing with here! The Hurricane became supremely popular –  at one point even acquiring a legendary sidekick in ‘Mighty Molly’ Holly – and would wrestle for a half-decade under the mask, notching up several high-profile title runs. He even beat The Rock.

Some note similarities to ‘Sugar’ Shane Helms, a grappler from the age of sixteen who wrestled in WCW in the years prior, indeed making a couple of appearances in the WWF immediately before The Hurricane showed up. Who could possibly know…?

It was coming toward the tail-end of my time following the show when Hurricane was rising fast; when interest was flagging, he was a guaranteed draw, even down to the luscious lime green attire. Of course I also have great admiration for The Hurricane’s natural ring skills, and the enduring value and humour he brought to his role. He didn’t need a cape to fly high! Apparently he returned in 2009 – might we see The Hurricane whirl once more? Keep those eyes peeled!

bambam-1aBlazing into the ring for our next collision is Bam Bam Bigelow. By all accounts a nice, fun guy, but at six-feet-five and almost four hundred pounds, he isn’t one you’d wish to test.

The Bam Bam experience was one quite different to that of any other big man. Many wrestlers of his build are in fact little more than lumbering giants, wading around the ring choking and slamming and really being dependent on the opposition to carry the big moments. Bigelow, however, was extremely impressive in that he had that familiar ample frame but possessed the talent and agility to keep up with the quickest of his colleagues. He would roll and cartwheel around the ring just to rub it in to the slowpokes. It was something to see, adding a great deal of unpredictability to his matches, and really sold him as a major player. Indeed when he arrived in the WWF in 1987, he was propelled to the heights of Hulk Hogan, the very epitome of ‘major player’, teaming with him against André and various others.

Then, of course, there’s that whole look – moreover, those fascinating tattoos on his arms, and, yes, covering most of his head. Hmm! Well, it worked for him; certainly it made Bam Bam instantly recognisable, and if the funky attire weren’t flamey enough, well, now you’ve got some extra. It was curious how it really worked to sell him as fun-crazy when he was a good guy, and terrifying-crazy as a bad guy, really feeding into his natural presence and charisma.

He is probably better remembered as terrifying-crazy in terms of his WWF tenure; a return in 1992 as a villain saw him put on some great matches with the likes of Bret Hart, further testament to his versatility, and engaging in a highly-entertaining ‘relationship’ with the equally crazy Luna Vachon. However, it’s perhaps telling of his sore luck that his most famous turn is his WrestleMania XI headline bout against Lawrence Taylor. A footballer. A footballer who beat Bigelow. Hard though it must have been, Bam Bam put on a great show and seemed at home at the top of the bill. He would leave the WWF soon after, feeling that he wasn’t being used effectively and issues with troublesome cliques backstage were hindering his career.

His diverse skills meant that he was able to adapt to the rapidly changing face of wrestling as the nineties rolled on; a move to ECW saw Bam Bam bring out his rougher side, engaging in the most hardcore competition – the ‘in’ thing at the time – and going on to be Heavyweight Champion. He would later have a run in WCW and was still under contract when WWF bought the company out, though he didn’t return.

Bam Bam was still making sporadic appearances in independent promotions when died in 2007, aged only forty-five. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a ‘big man’ as entertaining as he. He took that concept and spun it on his head. A performer so wholly distinctive, juggling grace and grit with such brilliance, shouldn’t be easily forgotten!