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Undertaker says today’s wrestlers rely too much on athleticism, and not enough on storytelling

The Undertaker was this week’s guest on Corey Graves’ After the Bell podcast.

Graves seems to have a thing for getting older wrestlers to explain what current wrestlers need to improve, and that theme continued in this interview.

Undertaker said that he is amazed at what today’s wrestlers are physically capable of, but there needs to be much more to pro wrestling than just athleticism:

“It’s like comic book stuff, super hero stuff. I think what happens though is that these guys rely too much on that aspect of their performance, and not enough on their character and their willingness to sell, and to make things mean something.”

“It’s great being as athletic as all these guys are. But really at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean anything because when you rely on all the athleticism, and you rely soley on your athleticism, you continually push the envelope to our audience. Because they’re gonna get desensitized to the double back flip off the top onto somebody onto the floor...what happens is you have to continually push the envelope athletically, which puts you at higher risk for injury.”

“You have to work smart to make this thing last...You can work hard, and you should work hard every night. But you have to work smart. And I think the guys right now are relying too much on athleticism, and not enough on storytelling.”

With all of that in mind, he goes on to explain that The Greatest Wrestling Match Ever, Edge vs. Randy Orton at Backlash 2020, is what pro wrestling is supposed to be:

“It restored so much faith in where I think the business should be and could be. But that tape right there, that needs to be studied by our main roster guys. That is what professional wrestling is supposed to be.”

What’s interesting here is that Undertaker doesn’t specifically criticize NXT wrestlers, like Randy Orton recently did. It sounds like the Undertaker thinks that these issues are present on the main roster as well.

One argument I would counter with is that today’s wrestler face a huge dilemma with overexposure and too much televised WWE content. Three hour Raw episodes have been a thing now for almost eight full years, and it’s been clear from day one that matches need to go longer to fill out that time. That means we see just about everyone on the roster wrestling more on Raw, doing many of the same moves each week, and it often gets to the point where the audience is trained to realize that most of the matches on television really don’t matter, you just need to catch the finish. That’s a huge problem with the way WWE presents its product, and today’s wrestler greatly suffer for it in a way that is largely out of their control.

Undertaker would have had bigger problems with monotony and standing out if he had to wrestle long matches on weekly television back in the early 90’s. He acknowledges that overexposure is a major problem for wrestlers to deal with, even in his early days with WWF:

“We didn’t have as much exposure then. But I had to figure out, week after week after week, they’re seeing the same thing. As cool as it can be, it can become monotonous too. So I had to keep a gauge on where to tweak things and where to make little changes here and there to catch people off guard...I had to keep trying to evolve the character.”

“It’s a flavor of the week business, especially now because there is so much exposure. Even then, I was really cognizant of that. I want to keep this character fresh. If I started feeling stale, then in my head I would start thinking, okay my audience must be feeling this too.”

He mentioned adding bodybags to his post-match routine as one way to keep things fresh, and that makes sense. When a big scary dude is putting his unconscious opponents in bodybags, it’s definitely going to catch your attention.

This leads to another difference between today and his early days that needs to be addressed: by most accounts, wrestlers in WWE today are far more micromanaged than they were in the early 90’s. Today’s atmosphere in WWE doesn’t sound like one that encourages or embraces creativity. With all the content WWE produces today, the priority seems more about churning out a fast food product. That’s a structural problem in WWE that will be difficult for talent to overcome.

Orton and Undertaker have expressed their concerns with today’s more athletic style of wrestling hurting career longevity. I understand their concerns. But I think the biggest problem with WWE today isn’t about injuries. The focus on injuries distracts from the main obstacle today’s wrestlers face in WWE, which is more about overexposure and micromanagement of talent.

My faith in WWE’s pro wrestling product wasn’t restored by watching Edge vs. Randy Orton, because it reminded me that Vince McMahon’s current plan is to just fall back on nostalgia and older wrestlers to main event wrestling cards in 2020. My faith in their product will be restored when I see a genuine effort on WWE’s part to put their younger talent in a strong position to succeed, just like they did with Undertaker back in the early 90’s.

Undertaker was one of the most protected stars in WWE history. One year after his debut in WWF, he defeated Hulk Hogan for the WWF championship. Very few wrestlers today get anywhere close to that kind of protection. Not surprisingly, the ones who do (Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, The Fiend) have done very well for themselves on the main roster. Have you noticed that Bray Wyatt has never wrestled a match on Raw or SmackDown television since he returned with The Fiend persona in summer 2019? He has not been overexposed over the last year, and it’s greatly helped him stand out from the pack and remain fresh and interesting. Most wrestlers in WWE don’t receive this luxury.

Nobody can convince me that Braun Strowman has been an upper card guy in WWE for three years because he has such superior storytelling and character work than the mid and lower card guys, as well as the NXT roster. Braun has achieved his success because he was given some of the strongest booking on the roster right from the start, and was allowed to manhandle Roman Reigns throughout 2017 while destroying large objects at will. Yes he’s had to deal with his fair share of questionable booking decisions as well, but Braun is always presented as a threat to the top guys, at the very least.

What I’m saying is that for most wrestlers in WWE today, their problem isn’t about replacing storytelling with athleticism - it’s that WWE does a poor job at putting them in position to succeed due to overexposure and micromanagement.

Undertaker talked about a wide variety of topics on the podcast with Graves, including his thoughts on how much he enjoyed working with Yokozuna and Eddie Guerrero. I’ll leave you with an eye-opening story that Undertaker told about why he knew he had to leave WCW for WWF back when it was time to renegotiate his contract with WCW:

“I wasn’t looking for a big bump, but I’d been there for a while, my contract was coming due. I figured that I could get off of that minimum deal. So I went in and they offered me the same deal. I was hoping for a little bit of a bump. I only had a few years in the business, but I had a pretty good year there for them.

And they looked me square in the eyes and they said, ‘Mark, you’re a great athlete, but no one’s ever gonna pay money to watch you wrestle’.

That’s a true story. Jim Herd, Ole Anderson, and Jim Barnett, they were all in the room...that’s pretty much the writing on the wall for me. I’m not gonna stay here and turn into fodder for these other guys. That really lit a fire.”

So, WCW management believed that Mark Calaway would never put butts in seats. That’s definitely one of the worst talent evaluations in the history of pro wrestling. Undertaker said that he knew he was sticking with WWF until the end, even if they went under when business was struggling. It’s clear how grateful and appreciative he is of the opportunity that Vince McMahon gave him 30 years ago when he joined the WWF.

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