On Friday Friday, Mark Calaway, otherwise known as the Undertaker, will take his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame. Undertaker headlines the 2022 class featuring Vader, Queen Sharmell, The Steiner Brothers, and Shad Gaspard will receive the Warrior Award posthumously.
Undertaker receives so much love for his WrestleMania matches we sometimes forget about his career-defining moments outside of the grandest stage. Let’s look at the ten best non-WrestleMania matches of the Undertaker’s legendary career.
Editors note: These are not in order.
1.) Undertaker vs. Mankind: King of the Ring 1998: While Mick Foley unquestionably did the bulk of the heavy lifting on that fateful night, Taker’s less is more approach is an equally important role. Taker’s portrayal of a madman looking to end his fierce rival meant the difference between an engaging story and a hollow spectacle. Many forget that in the moment, Undertaker received all of the praise from the audience, “Un-der-taker clap, clap, clap, clap, clap” as Foley was thrown off the top of the cell.
2.) Undertaker vs. Jeff Hardy – Ladder Match: Raw – 7/1/02: Jeff Hardy was made that night, and transitioned from tag team standout to superstar in the making. Everyone who watched it live went into the match thinking Jeff Hardy had no chance of winning the title. As the match progressed, sentiment changed to “Holy s***, Jeff Hardy is going to win the title!” Despite Taker’s outstanding performance, the most impactful moment occurred after the bell when he helped Hardy to his feet and shook his hand in the ultimate sign of respect. One of the best matches in the history of Raw.
3.) Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels – Hell in a Call – Bad Blood 1997: The inaugural Hell in a Cell Match is still considered by many as the best one of them all. Michaels was the ultimate heel, and no one would give him the beating he deserved more than the Undertaker. The action-packed affair peaked as Taker gave Michaels that beating in the final frame. Everyone relished the moment until the shocker of Kane’s debut changed everything.
4.) Undertaker vs. Kurt Angle vs. The Rock: Vengeance 2002: Three of the greatest superstars in arguably the greatest Triple Threat Match in WWE history. The scuttlebutt at the time was that Taker wasn’t in the best shape. Fans online were crapping on him relentlessly, something unheard of today. However, he worked the match like someone who was anything but out of shape and helped put on an all-time classic that kept fans on the edge of their seats.
5.) Undertaker vs. Kurt Angle: No Way Out 2006: This match serves as the blueprint for the style the Undertaker used later in his career as he churned out one WrestleMania classic after another It was a clash of styles as Undertaker’s MMA approach matched Kurt Angle’s gold medal pedigree. Angle revealed on his podcast that Undertaker wanted to work with him at WrestleMania that year, but Vince McMahon turned it down. Undertaker and Angle put on a match of the year candidate that reportedly made Vince regret his decision.
6.) Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar – Hell in a Cell – No Mercy 2002: This is a reversal of the narrative from the inaugural Hell in a Cell. Instead of the arrogant Michaels getting his just deserts, fans wanted the dominant young upstart Lesnar to learn some respect. Undertaker is the guy for the job, but like in 1997, it would not happen on this day. Undertaker’s right hand was in a cast and needed a shot to numb the pain, but in the end, the ferocity of Brock Lesnar was too much to overcome. This. Match. Was. A. War.
7.) Undertaker vs. Bret Hart: One Night Only 1997: Many fans didn’t know this match existed for years since it was edited off of the show’s home video release. Hart and Taker pulled out all the stops in an intensely fast-paced fight. Undertaker wore down Hart with submission moves, which was not the norm in 1997. Undertaker sold much more than he usually did, making an unfamiliar sight a crucial plot point. A standout performance saw Undertaker work a different style in an outing worthy of the two legends.
8.) Undertaker vs. Mankind – Buried Alive 1996: The words “buried alive match” sounded like a must-see attraction that could have gone wrong in so many ways. Undertaker was out for revenge as his longtime manager Paul Bearer turned him at SummerSlam that year and aligned himself with Mankind. The ingenuity of the Undertaker and Mankind made this a standout match that people still talk about today.
The desire they exuded to annihilate each other made the drama palpable. In a setting made for both men, the culminating battle at the gravesite presented a gritty motif that felt like a horror movie. The combatants practically tried to kill each other as they plunged into the dirt. Undertaker choke slammed Mankind into the plot and began covering him with dirt.
9.) Undertaker vs. Bam Bam Bigelow – March to WrestleMania XI – 3/29/93: An odd selection, but roll with me here. Wrestlers who cautiously competed against the Undertaker in the past now did so with more zeal. Undertaker had his aura of invincibility stripped away when the eight-foot-tall Giant Gonzalez beat him from pillar to post at the Royal Rumble.
Instead of hit and run tactics, wrestlers like Bam Bam Bigelow came right at the Undertaker. “The Beast from the East” hit a high belly-to-back suplex and a big power slam. These were moves the Undertaker didn’t take often. Undertaker even had a little difficulty with his zombie sit-up. All signs that perhaps people were no longer afraid of “The Deadman.”
Instead of stalking Bam Bam, Undertaker changed things up and came right at him. He mixed technical wrestling via a drop toe hold and followed up with an illegal rake to the eyes. Once Undertaker found his new rhythm, Bam Bam had enough and got counted out.
It’s a seven-minute that tells a good story while incorporating the overall Giant Gonzales narrative. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the story, it’s a good match that stands on its own where every move is superbly executed.
*Honorable Mention* Undertaker vs. Rey Mysterio – SmackDown 5/28/10: Lesser wrestlers have used their size and strength advantage against Rey Mysterio. Undertaker didn’t. Sure he used some power moves, but that wasn’t the story. Instead of selling Mysterio’s speed advantage as a mere nuisance, Undertaker displayed rare moments of frustration. He changed his approach and worked over Mysterio’s arm to gain the advantage. Undertaker showed tremendous respect for Mysterio here.
10.) Survivor Series 1990 – The Million Dollar Team vs. The Dream Team: Where it all began for Death Valley’s favorite son. No one expected this towering dark-cloaked figure to emerge when Ted DiBiase announced his mystery partner. Undertaker immediately showed his dominance in the opening frame, dispatching the tag team champions Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart before quickly eliminating Koko B. Ware with the first of what would become a staple of pro-wrestling moves, a Tombstone piledriver.
“Awesome is the only word I can use to describe this Undertaker.” Gorilla Monsoon
Awesome and scary as Undertaker’s ominous presence was undeniable. Undertaker pinned Dusty Rhodes clean, after a double ax handle off the top rope, in his debut match. That doesn’t happen, but that is how much faith WWE had in pushing a virtual unknown to superstardom, and it’s safe to say it was a worthwhile investment.