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Fight Forever: Mankind vs. The Undertaker

When wrestling fans think about feuds that define the WWF’s Attitude era, they will usually point to Steve Austin and The Rock, or The Rock and Mankind – as we’ve suggested previously.

But one feud that people point to as representative of the Attitude era actually sees its majority fall a year or two before this. Due to the nature of the one big singles encounter these two grapplers had in the Attitude era, and how forward thinking and predictive of the Attitude era their earlier matches were, their feud will forever be associated with Attitude. That feud? Mankind vs. The Undertaker, of course.

When Mrs Foley’s baby boy first joined the WWF under the Mankind gimmick, many fans and commentators predicted the former Cactus Jack would lie neutered at the bottom of the card in the bloodless, cartoon universe of Sports Entertainment.

Meanwhile, The Undertaker had proven during the first few years of his WWF tenure to be a much better gimmick than wrestler. A stalwart of the WWF by 1996, he was also arguably a special attraction, a very popular one, but nothing more; a dead man who fought endless, useless monsters like Yokozuna and Giant Gonzalez in, if we’re being honest, absolute snorefests. By ’95, he was stuck in feuds with dead end guys like IRS, Kama and Mabel, usually over the theft of Paul Bearer’s urn.

Whether Mr Calloway trusted Mick Foley, recognized his talent, or was just given the opportunity for once to be able to show off his skills, the feud with Mankind lit a fire in Taker. His punches became furious, his athleticism more noticeable and his offense more vicious. Mick Foley gave the Taker a perfect foil to play off. When we talk about the Taker as a great wrestler as opposed to gimmick, it really starts in 1996 with those first matches with Mankind.

As for Foley, against all expectations Vince gave him the chance to prove what the fans and what he himself knew all along: that he was capable of being a top flight star. While you can put to other matches and feuds that aided Foley on this quest (his stunning battle with Shawn Michaels at Mind Games; his ’97 feud with Triple H), his feud with The Undertaker, and the star-making opportunities that Taker gave Foley to make Taker look vulnerable and less-than-invincible – something Taker was not known for then. Without the Taker feud, we might not have had Mankind as the world champion. This feud is that important.

But enough chat – let’s take a look back over the furious wars undertaken between Mankind and The Undertaker.

King of the Ring (23rd June 1996)

Mankind dives into a chair shot from The Undertaker

This was the first proper encounter between The Undertaker and Mankind (although I do believe they’d been colliding on the house show circuit before this). Since Mankind’s WWF debut, he’d been terrorizing the Undertaker for no better reason than he could; popping unexpectedly out of coffins and applying the mandible claw out of nowhere.

This was the first time Taker had come across someone like Mankind. Sure, Yoko and Giant Gonzalez were monsters, but their drives were at least rational; they wanted to dominate and be dominant and the Taker was the big, dead stumbling block in the way.

Mankind was a different beast altogether. His only drive, it seemed, was to maim and destroy – and he wasn’t afraid to destroy his own body in the pursuit of destroying others. The Undertaker would have to approach this guy differently if he was to come out on top.

To this end, Paul Bearer made his entrance to the ring in the usual darkness, but alone. Everyone was confused but not when the lights came up – there was Taker, perched on the top turnbuckle, poised to attack!

The flurry of fists that followed, bouncing off of Mankind’s skull, was unlike anything that we were used to seeing from The Undertaker at that point. Usually, dead men move slow. Not this one. The level of aggression from Taker was new and exhilarating.

Mankind matched it by introducing the majority of the WWF audience to the running Cactus elbow off the apron to the floor, then goes for a chair. A Taker boot of the chair into the face, followed by a backdrop onto the concrete and the chair, calmed Mankind’s temper briefly but it exploded again later when Taker was lain against the ring steps and Mankind ran two whole sides of the ring to drive Taker’s head into the steps with a knee in a sickening moment. Taker got his back with two vicious chair shots, although quite quaintly Paul Bearer had to distract the ref to stop a disqualification.

In the end, Mankind got the better of Taker and went for the mandible claw but Paul Bearer got up on the apron and in the ensuing scuffle Taker got hit with the urn, allowing Mankind to reapply the mandible claw and take the win.

This was a great match. While not hitting the levels of violence future encounters would, it still had some bone-rattling moments and demonstrated that the two men clearly had unbelievable chemistry together. It also was a mark of Taker’s faith in Foley that he allowed Foley to win here, even if that win wasn’t 100% clean. Mankind still got to look dominant in a way Taker’s opponents hadn’t up to this point before.

Boiler Room Match: Summerslam (August 18th 1996)

Mankind tries to throttle The Undertaker on the boiler room floor

The brainchild of Mick Foley, this, the first ever boiler room match, was an innovative attempt to do something different that would suit both men’s characters, and that would also allow for a more intense match than was typified by WWF’s content at the time.

Watching the match in preparation for this article, it struck me that if WWE were to attempt something like this now, they’d most likely present it in the ‘Boneyard’ cinematic style and that actually, that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The opening moments with Undertaker prowling through the dark of the boiler room in search of the bogey man Mankind, who is lying in wait, would suit a horror movie vibe.

I actually enjoyed this match more than I have in the past on this viewing. Some of the bumps are pretty nasty, particularly Mankind’s second fall of a ladder, where he lands on a set of pipes and legitimately hurt himself in the process. Weapons consist of pipes, bits of metal, wooden pallets, metal doors and whatever else came to hand. Credit to Mankind and Undertaker, they both really committed to the match and give it their all here.

So. Why do I still feel down on this match?

Well, first of all, it’s just short of 30 minutes in length. That’s a hell of a long match for what was, essentially, two men smacking the hell out of each other in a dark boiler room. Secondly, there was no big screen in the arena, which meant that instead the audience could only see the action on small TV’s that were laid out around ringside and up the aisle. This obviously reduced visibility and in turn crowd noise. What crowd noise there is appears to be piped in, although I can’t confirm this. This impacts the atmosphere, which is also hampered outside of the lack of real commentary outside of the occasional disturbed ‘oh!’ This dulls the impact and drama of the action in front of us.

The majority of the match was taped the night before the pay-per-view (right up until Mankind comes out into the corridor of wrestlers), meaning that certain ‘technical camera difficulties’ were introduced to poorly cover up the edits. It’s easy to criticize all of this but what I do give the WWF credit for is for trying something bold and new at a time when its main competitors (WCW, ECW) were outstripping them in the innovation stakes.

This match, of course, is famous for Paul Bearer’s heel turn, which is very well done. As soon as Paul turns his back on Taker, the crowd go ape shit. So you can imagine their mood when he cracked Taker in the head with the urn, giving Mankind the urn and the win. It was genuinely shocking because Taker and Bearer worked so well together and just seemed a permanent coupling. I love Bearer’s little line to the camera: “I’m Paul Bearer – and you’re not!” Ooh, you rotten heel!

An experiment, then: not a completely successful one but a match that helped to open the door to a more hardcore element in WWF matches and gave us one of the greatest heel turns that never really seems to get talked about. The heat it gave Mankind off the back of it was incredible. And the audience wanted to see Taker really tear Mankind apart now.

Sounds like a success when you put it like that.

Buried Alive Match: In Your House XI – Buried Alive (October 20th 1996)

The Undertaker's arm bursts out of the ground ala Carrie

When they last met, the Undertaker got screwed royally by Mankind and his long-time manager Paul Bearer. This crossed a line where simple brutality and victory would satisfy the desire for vengeance. With both men having a supernatural/psychological based gimmick, it made sense for The Undertaker to crave satisfaction in a way that was in line with that character: to bury Mankind alive.

It was quite a clever concept: it meant that The Undertaker finally found something that this fearless lunatic was afraid of – being buried alive. By forcing Mankind into a buried alive match, it suddenly meant he was vulnerable. Maybe he wasn’t completely afraid to destroy himself after all.

This is a great example of the wrestler’s characters dictating the gimmick match, rather than just having the gimmick match for the sake of it. This is why, love it or hate it, the Firefly Funhouse Match at WrestleMania was a good idea on paper: the gimmick was dictated by the wrestler’s characters. This allows for ring psychology to really play a part in proceedings.

The concept for the Buried Alive match was simple: there was a ‘grass’ mound near the entrance way with a pre-dug out grave and a tombstone. The object of the match was to get your opponent into the grave and ‘bury’ them alive (in reality, just covering people in a thin layer of dust and dirt).

In practice, this could have been really embarrassing. But with the already-discussed psychology and motivation, plus the chemistry between Taker and Mankind, we actually got an excellent match out of the scenario, one that might be my favorite of their feud (sacrilege, I know, Hell in a Cell fans).

This was all action from the bell. Taker battered Mankind, kicking him from ringside into the barrier with a vicious snap of the head against the metal (it genuinely looked pretty nasty), jumping on Mankind from the top rope into the aisle, and choking him with a camera wire. One cool moment saw Taker, after fighting Mankind in the crowd, throw Mankind violently back over the guard rail, only to follow it up with a beautiful running leap into a clothesline sending Mankind flying. Mankind got revenge by taking to Taker’s skull with a spike but only briefly, as Taker gave Mankind a good spiking of his own (although only a 5 on the Kevin Sullivan spiking grade – no blood).

Taker hit a falling backdrop into the ring steps in another nasty spot, but took a brutal chairshot to the head, denting the chair slightly (which Mankind licked?!?). Inevitably, the dead man sat up after a moment and gave Mankind a chair shot of his own to the back and leg dropped said chair onto Mankind’s face. Ouch.

A tombstone followed, and Taker led Mankind to the grave, only to fall victim to the mandible claw. Mankind failed to capitalize, going for an urn shot, which Taker countered with a choke slam – straight into the grave. A shovelful or three of dirt later and the ref called for the bell. What a brawl! This was everything the boiler room brawl was not – exciting, fast paced and in front of a crowd.

After the bell, Taker refused to stop shoveling dirt on Mankind, so a masked man called The Executioner (the legendary Terry Gordy, fact fans) made the save and, with the aid of such super villains such as Goldust and Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who subsequently proved he knows a lot about burying people, the heels proceeded to bury The Undertaker alive. And I mean bury. They filled the grave to the top. It’s quite funny to see fans throw their drinks cups into the grave – that’s not good for the environment, kids. But just as the heels were backslapping and laughing it up, a rumble of thunder scared all but Mankind, Bearer and The Executioner away. Mankind stuck the shovel in the dirt standing up. The shovel is then struck by a burst of (synthetic) lightening and The Undertaker’s hand burst through the soil – Carrie style – to claw for life in the air.

Your mileage for this kind of thing will vary. It was not the first goofy thing the WWF did with Taker – look at Royal Rumble 94 coffin and spirit rising fiasco, or the Taker vs. Taker main event at Summerslam 94. But I will say compared to those things, this is a little more tasteful (just about) and as nod to a great movie I don’t mind it so much.

But it’s all about the match that proceeded it and what a match it was.

Survivor Series (17th November 1996)

The Undertaker hovers above the crowd like a bat

The story building into this one was that after The Undertaker had buried alive in their last match, The Undertaker was going to come back for this match with a new look, like a demonic butterfly leaving the cocoon for the wrestling ring. According to Scott Keith, this was actually the original plan after the druids took Taker away at the end of Summerslam, but for unknown reasons the WWF decided to delay the change until now.

This played well into the story as it meant it gave Mankind and Paul Bearer a sense of unease as to what the Taker would come back as, feeding into the supernatural gimmick of the dead man. What we got, of course, was the leather vampire look, which was a nice freshening up of the look without majorly deviating from it, like the ‘American Badass’ look would a few years later.

We also had a great introduction to the look here, with Taker being lowered from the rafters with his cape spread out like bat-like wings!

At stake here was the opportunity as well for Taker to get his hands in Paul Bearer, which he would do if he won. Bearer was to be suspended above the ring in a cage to stop any interference on his part. Bearer squealing like a frightened pig before Taker backed him into the cage was hilarious, he really was an underrated part of this feud. He added so much to it, all the way from heat to humor.

The match itself was similar to their King of the Ring battle, but better, utilizing great psychology that played on facets of their previous matches to tell a great story that finally saw Taker emerge properly victorious.

Starting at full throttle, Taker pounded on Mankind and focused directly on Mankind’s right hand, knowing that the mandible claw has been his downfall in previous encounters. To this end, we see Taker lock on a fujiwara armbar with finger snapping (prefiguring his later ‘hell’s gate’), smashing Mankind’s hand against the guard rail and stamping the hand against the ring steps.

This works to Taker’s advantage, as a mandible claw attempt is weakened by the wear to the hand, allowing Taker to throw Mankind off through the ropes for a nasty bump on the floor. Foley’s willingness to take a bump to put his opponent over has always been a characteristic of his career, but he took some hellacious bumps for Taker. Check out some of the cracks to the head he takes in this match against the guard rail. Welcome to concussion central!

In a neat little ending, Mankind counters a chokeslam attempt with a mandible claw, only for Taker to power himself up from the mat, spin Mankind into the Tombstone position and drive Mankind’s head into the mat for the 1-2-3. Vengeance was Taker’s at last with a convincing win, but the fact Mankind had won the first two matches and buried Taker alive at the end of their last match, making Mankind look strong. This means that when Taker finally emerged victorious, it made Taker look like a beast in return. Simple booking but supremely effective.

Although Paul Bearer still managed to escape a pounding, with help from The Executioner. The swine.

In Your House XIV – Revenge of the Taker (20th April 1997)

Undertaker grabs Mankind by the hair at ringside with vicious intent

Five months after the Survivor Series of the previous year, the landscape of the WWF had changed. Shawn Michaels had dropped out with an injury, vacating the world title, which was then won by everybody’s favorite gormless psycho, Sid. At WrestleMania 13, The Undertaker claimed his second world heavyweight title, something which you could argue he had deserved for a long time beforehand.

But who to pair Taker with for his first feud as champ? The Sid match hadn’t exactly set the world alight, meaning a continuation of that feud was less than desirable. Stone Cold was engaged with Bret. Vader might have been a good shout, and indeed the feud did wrestle at Canadian Stampede.

Ultimately, they picked the right man for the job in Mankind. After all, he had proven chemistry with Taker and had made the Dead Man look like an absolute beast in their previous encounters. Plus, he wouldn’t mind returning the favor for his wins over Taker the previous summer. Mankind was undoubtedly the best choice, although it says a lot about the WWF’s confidence in Taker to lead the company that this match was put in the semi-final position, with the Austin-Bret rematch in the main event (to be fair, it was a shrewd move based on Austin’s ever-increasing popularity).

This was a good, heated match but it didn’t quite hit the heights of some of their best matches, in that those matches often had a story to tell or made good use of psychology. This match missed a trick or two in that department.

For instance, this match was set up by Mankind setting a fireball off in Taker’s face, ‘severely burning’ his face. So, you’d think it would make sense for Mankind to focus on the burn, which just happened to be above the eye. But no, Mankind hardly focuses on it all. When he goes for the mandible claw after the ref bump, a second ref arrives, only to find himself trapped in a mandible claw too! I get that Mankind might care more about hurting Taker more than the title, but it was sold to us that Mankind did care about the title, so it doesn’t sit quite right that Mankind would drop the ref when he had the title in his grasp.

Where the match succeeds is in the brutality of the combat. Taker throws Mankind into the guard rail, his head snapping sickeningly, and throws Mankind over the rail on the other side, reaching over to slam Mankind’s head back against the rail.

Mankind retaliated by cracking Taker in the head with the urn, broke a glass water pitcher over Taker’s head and later brought out the spike. But for once the Taker managed to be more violent than Foley, cracking him with an unnerving chair shot to the head and then slamming him with the ring steps, sending Foley flying from the ring apron head first into a table in a famous spot, Mankind’s limp body dangling out of and draping over the ruined remains of the table being one of wrestling’s indelible images.

In the end, Taker hit a choke slam and a tombstone for the pin. But the post-match incident put that in the shade. Mankind tried to light another fireball but Taker managed to wrestle the touchpaper off him and lit up Paul Bearer’s face like a candle! This was important for two reasons: Taker got a measure of revenge against Paul Bearer, and in consequence this would set off a chain of events that would see the debut of Kane.

A good match, an important match, but not the best match of the series.

King of the Ring (June 28th 1998)

The Undertaker pins Mankind in the debris in the hell in a cell

And so, we come to perhaps the most famous match the Undertaker and Mankind ever had together. But is it the best? As a wrestling match, or even a brawl, no. I’d give the honors there to either their Buried Alive or Survivor Series matches. But as an example of wrestling spectacle, it possibly remains unsurpassed.

It’s all Terry Funk’s fault; he suggested to Foley that the match should start on top of the cell. He even jokingly suggested that Taker should throw Foley off the roof to the floor. Which goes to show that maybe you shouldn’t joke around with Mick Foley – he might just take it to heart!

What makes the match is not only the heart-stopping spots – the 16 foot fall off the roof, later coming through the roof to the ring, only to be hit in the face with a falling chair. The fact that the match appears to be structured, however unintentionally, in three parts, like a mini-play, each section punctuated by the big spots they feature: the first section ends with Foley flying like a wingless bird from the roof, the second ends with Foley going through the roof, and the final section is a trip to thumb tack city! This structure gives the match a feeling of being like a story, with appropriate peaks and troughs of action and an exciting finale. When Taker finally gets that 1-2-3 after a choke slam on the tacks and a tombstone, you feel like you’ve been on a real emotional journey. It’s draining, but it’s exhilarating too.

If Mick Foley was a star before, this match solidified that. Knowing the amount of injuries he sustained in that match, I’m amazed he was even able to stand, never mind run-in and interfere in the main event.

As for Undertaker he took the final, conclusive win over Mankind. He did what he always threatened he would: he near-killed his most dangerous nemesis to prove his dominance over his deranged counterpart.

Ultimately, though, both men came out winners. It’s just a tad unnerving that one of them had to put himself at such substantial risk to do so.

Final Thoughts

Mankind and Undertaker salute with a couple of cold ones

If Steve Austin and The Rock’s feud was the epitome of the Attitude era, then Mankind and The Undertaker helped to usher the Attitude era in, feuding at a transitional time for wrestling where the WWF had to adapt or risk extinction.

That Undertaker and Mankind happened to have unbelievable chemistry together was a gift for wrestling fans. Between them they innovated (Boiler Room match, the Buried Alive match), brutalized and gave us one of the scariest and most exciting wrestling spectacles of all.

Not only that, but this was the launching of both men as legitimate main event stars and cemented their legends. The Undertaker had been a great character before this, but had not been able to show he was a great wrestler. His feud with Mankind allowed him to show us he really could go in the ring.

As for Mick Foley, he was finally given a proper chance with a legitimate main eventer to prove he could hang with the big names (a chance WCW screwed him out of with Vader). Not only did Foley prove he belonged at the top, he displayed extreme selflessness in how he helped to make The Undertaker look like the beast we all wanted him to be.

A feud that most certainly benefited both men, they had some of the all-time great, brutal brawls and they etched their legends together into wrestling history. Hell in a Cell? Yes, but excellence in the ring.

Have a Nice Day!

Written by Chris Flackett

Wrestling obsessed since '91. Lived through the Monday Night Wars and is still here to tell the tale. Major fan of Strong Style, technical and Super Jr. Wrestling, as well as big versatile hosses smacking the hell out of each other. Lives in Manchester, England.

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