Friday, June 20, 2008

Tombstone: Best of the Undertaker - Disc #1

1. The Undertaker vs. Hulk Hogan - (Survivor Series '91) - 4
2. The Undertaker vs. Yokozuna - Casket Match - (Royal Rumble '94) - 5
3. The Undertaker vs. Diesel - (WrestleMania XII) - 5
4. The Undertaker vs. Mankind - Buried Alive Match - (IYH: Buried Alive) - 7
5. The Undertaker vs. Mankind - (IYH: Revenge of the Taker) - 6
6. The Undertaker vs. Bret Hart - (SummerSlam '97) - 7
7. The Undertaker vs. Bret Hart - (One Night Only) - 6

I've been borrowing this DVD for a while from a friend and have finally set my sights on analyzing it completely. I didn't want to rush through it, so I implicitly made effort to study its contents, some sections I watched two, even three or more times. I've come upon some revelations after only one disc; the biggest being Undertaker is great in "big match" situations.

I remembered the match against Hogan from my youth, where I was destroyed seeing my hero befallen in combat. Sadly, the match doesn’t hold up well nowadays. This was very early Undertaker, so he was still really playing up the undead zombie aspect of his character, thus limiting him in as far as his performance goes. Hulk didn’t do a lot, either; one of his only offensive weapons was an eye rake, which he utilized over five times. The finish is flawed, too, as Ric Flair slides a steel chair into the ring for Undertaker to hit the “Tombstone” on, but it’s clear from the camera angle used that Hogan’s head doesn’t come nowhere close to hitting the foreign object. It’s important in the context of the emergence of one of the business’ great characters, but in terms of quality, it’s rather heinous.

The match against Yokozuna is a lot better. There’s a bunch of hoopla, interference, and garbage during the second-half of it, though. But, the first section is great, as Taker and Yoko just beat the hell out of each other, action spilling all over the ringside area. It’s especially remarkable watching Yoko work, for such a humongous guy, he feeds himself to Taker’s offense and bounces around bumping like Hennig or Waltman. As I mentioned, the rest of the match is built around at least a dozen guys running down to help beat down Undertaker. This gets really sloppy, out of control, and outrageous. There’s so many people in the ring at once, including some nice surprises like Great Kabuki and Tenyru, but Taker keeps resurging and fighting back and try as you might, it’s awfully hard to dispend belief during all this. Eventually, the heels stuff Taker into the casket, there’s a bunch of special effects and outlandish story development, but I won’t detail that here.

The match with Diesel at WrestleMania has some problems. It’s decent, bordering on good, but ultimately a lost opportunity. It starts with tons of fire, as both big men really bring it. My issue with it is the structuring, as several times Diesel is in control, essentially having Taker beaten, but instead of capitalizing he just lounges around the ring. Granted, the direction of his character had changed from a rugged face to an obnoxious, cocky heel, but all of the pretentious stalling fell fatally flat. Eventually it does cost him as Taker resurrects and hits his finishers to score the victory in underwhelming fashion.

The matches against Mankind are fantastic; I think Foley is arguably Taker’s greatest adversary, as he brought out the best in the “dead man.” I slightly preferred the Buried Alive match, but both bouts are really solid, full of back and forth action, big bumps, story progression, etc. The Buried Alive match feels like it has bigger scope, debuting that particular stipulation match, and the energy is palpable. Taker, as I stated, feels he has to up his game to beat such a deranged, twisted, freak, evidenced by one spot where he does an uncharacteristic plancha from the top turnbuckle ten-foot out onto Foley in the entrance aisleway. They don’t spend an overwhelming amount of time back at the giant dirt hill where the open grave is, they do tease it some, but it’s not the sole focus and I like that. The second match, while less dynamic, is arguably the better overall wrestling match. It’s way more controlled, not sprawling everywhere without restraint, and even more physical than its predecessor. Mankind is built as a legitimate threat which really helps sell the whole thing. There’s a lot of brutal stuff throughout, including Foley being shoved twice backwards, falling headfirst into the steel guardrail, Taker reversing a powerbomb on the floor by hitting a “Doomsday Piledriver” on Foley, sandwiching him against the steel ring steps in the process, and of course, the legendary table bump, where Foley goes headfirst through a table and what’s still to this day one of the most imaginative table spots ever. The ending of the second match is hampered by the aftermath activities, as a fireball spot goes awry, and in improvisational nature Taker literally burns Paul Bearer’s face off.

Both matches against Bret Hart are really topnotch, too. Bret, known as the “Hitman” and “Excellence of Execution” really lives up to his nicknames, as he just goes right after Taker unlike anyone else, picking him apart and getting the job done. Similar to the aforementioned Mankind series, I like the first match more due to its larger overlying scope, although the second is overall arguably superior albeit suffers a maligned ending. Shawn Michaels is the guest ref for the SummerSlam ’97 bout, and of course, gets involved in the ending as Bret spits on Shawn, but when Shawn retaliates with a brutal chair shot Bret ducks and Taker eats the impact and loses the match. The bulk of the match is built upon Bret dissecting his bigger opponent, really working over the lower back and left knee specifically. It’s nice to see the Taker look vulnerable, unlike the first match featured on the set. My favorite spot happens when Bret is about to superplex Taker from the top, Taker slips yet Bret remains standings, and like the consummate professional he is, keeps his composure and gets the spot off in a thrilling visual. The second match, from a UK pay-per-view, is much more back and forth, which I liked, as both guys dish it out and get their share of punishment, too. All things considered, it was shaping up to be a great match… until the ending. Bret’s head gets stuck in-between the top and middle ropes and they’re really locked tightly around his throat. Taker looks confused, comes over and throws some really questionable punches that don’t make contact to Bret’s exposed head, and the bell rings signifying the end of the match but they don’t really announce the specifics as to why or how.

Overall, my final verdict on disc number one is a solid thumbs up. While not necessarily his best matches, even from this particular era, it’s still serves as a decent collection, highlighting the dramatic rise of one of the industry’s best characters and big league workers. I already feel, upon studying this showcased work, I have a better understanding of “Booger Red” and his contributions to the sport I love. I’m eager to tackle the second and third discs and vigilantly analyze them.

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