Twenty-five years ago today, WWE staged one of the most controversial TV segments in league history around The Undertaker – and got itself in trouble with Christian organizations.
He was one of the most popular and respected stars ever in wrestling – but on this night, The Undertaker upset his fans. And not just them.
One of the most controversial moments in WWE history took place 25 years ago today: in a segment deliberately designed for shock value, the showdown empire staged a crucifixion of sorts, which the legendary “Dead Man” performed on his rival Stone Cold Steve Austin.
The controversial ending to the TV show Monday Night RAW caused a stir – and also called Christian organizations into action.
Undertaker at WWE 1998 as a sinister villain
Background of the action: WWE had reinvented the popular Taker as a villain during the Attitude Era in 1998.
After six years as an acclaimed “babyface”, the then WWF surprised everyone in the fall with a “heel turn” for Taker – in which, according to the script, he was even revealed as a murderer. He turned on his storyline brother Kane at the time, revealing that he was the one who set fire to the funeral home as a child, causing the death of his parents and the alleged burn scars on the masked Kane’s face.
In the course of his transformation into the sinister “Lord of Darkness”, the Taker donned a sinister new outfit, celebrated a reunion with his longtime manager and companion Paul Bearer, who died in 2013, and became the leader of a group called Ministry of Darkness.
Austin, then the big crowd favorite of the league, became the main target of Taker.
Steve Austin was “crucified “
On December 13, 1998, the feud provisionally culminated in a “Buried Alive Match” in which the two wrestled each other in a replica cemetery. As the final hype for the pay-per-view duel, the shock segment was taped for RAW’s “Go Home Show”.
After the show’s main event – Austin and “Mankind” Mick Foley faced off against Taker and the young, newly crowned champion Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – Austin was knocked out by Taker and a group of masked assistants. The cloaked “druids” then tied Austin to a large, mystical object and raised it upright while Taker laughed diabolically.
The staging was obviously intended to evoke associations with the crucifixion of Jesus – even though WWE had repeatedly denied the obvious.
What do you think would be the wildest wrestling twitter moments before twitter was a thing? For me it’d probably be Austin, Undertaker and “the symbol” pic.twitter.com/RfFg37PEYc
– Rasslin Uploader~! (Armstrong Alley on YouTube) (@KrisPLettuce) March 10, 2019
Catholic Association: “Outrageous “
The segment did not fail to attract attention beyond WWE fan circles. Headlines included a public skirmish with the Catholic League, a Catholic advocacy group.
“Mocking Christ is crossing the acceptable boundaries of entertainment, even in wrestling. Especially at this time of year, it’s outrageous,” association representative William Donohue scolded TV Guide, referring to the scene’s airing in the run-up to Christmas.
Donohue reported that he had been assured by WWE that the move was not meant to be a “crucifixion” and that the league had instead had “some sort of Egyptian symbol” in mind for the high priest-like Taker.
Ultimately, the official stated that he had a productive conversation with WWE. Result: He would have advised that the Taker’s potential next victim should just put his hands up instead of at his side like Jesus to hurt Christian sensibilities less.
Next reinvention as a biker
WWE didn’t let that stop them from staging more shock segments centered around the evil Taker, though: Among other things, there was still an implied “black wedding” with Stephanie McMahon, daughter of WWE boss Vince McMahon, who was kidnapped and also tied to the symbol.
The dramatic climax of the Ministry storyline was the revelation of a mysterious “higher power” that the Taker would have served. The “higher power” turned out to be Vince McMahon himself – which was rather meaningless in the context of the previous events.
Ultimately, it turned out that Taker’s transformation into a supervillain could not be taken any further, and after an injury break in late 1999 / early 2000, he returned in a new guise, no longer a supernatural biker with a motorcycle.
This was followed in 2004 by his transformation back into the old “Deadman” character, with whom the now 58-year-old would celebrate many more successes until the end of his career in 2020.