|Barnwell and McCullough discuss the Undertaker|
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Run Time: 59:34
Guest: Andy McCullough
If you don't follow the NFL, and especially if you don't read about the sport, you might not know that Bill Barnwell is a super-smart football writer who currently works for ESPN. He used to write at Grantland, where he was able to be a little more free with his writing and work in references to indie rock, Comedy Bang Bang, and most important to this blog, pro wrestling. Barnwell is one of many modern sportswriters who bear no resemblance to the dickish Colin Cowherds of olden times - he is a knowledgeable fan of pro wrestling who respects it as entertainment and as a physical wonder, while also mocking it when it deserves to be mocked.
On this episode of his podcast, Barnwell brings on fellow Wrestling-Woke sportswriter Andy McCullough, Dodgers beatwriter for the L.A. Times. McCullough is perhaps even more wrestling-savvy than Barnwell (or at least he's as savvy as the rest of us nerds who use industry terms like we have any business doing so). Barnwell and McCullough have just spent their last two weeks on an agreed-upon project: watching every one of The Undertaker's WrestleMania matches. This was done to lead up to WrestleMania 33, where, obviously unknown to Barnwell and McCullough at the time, The Undertaker wordlessly announced his retirement. The release of this episode a week before him doing this proved fortuitous at a time when many people are writing their Undertaker thinkpieces and retrospectives.
The episode is not going to provide a whole lot of incredibly new ideas or revelations for longtime wrestling fans who have already seen all of these matches. Since The Bill Barnwell Show is typically sports-only, they have to make some kind of concession to non-wrestling fans by somewhat explaining well-trodden backstories and angles with which folks like us are already familiar. But sometimes it's nice when people go over familiar stories just to hear these things spoken out loud. It's never going to get old hearing the explanation of The Undertaker hanging Big Boss Man from the top of a cell, as if that was a perfectly acceptable pro wrestling thing to do, and not a very real simulation of "capital murder," as Barnwell calls it. McCullough grew up in the Philly area and was a fervent listener of Philly sports talk radio, and he says that the day after WrestleMania 15, listeners were furiously calling in to the morning sports show yelling, "YO, AT THE FIRST UNION CENTER LAST NIGHT, THEY HUNG A DUDE. HAS WRESTLING GONE TOO FAR??" McCullough says this in a Southern accent, as he says the Philly accent is basically Southern (I'm not sure if our fearless editor will confirm or deny this). (Ed. Note: This is a lie, we Philadelphians have a very distinct accent, thank you very much. Now go get me a glass of wooder and one of them jawns you drink it out of. - TH)
By going in chronological order, Barnwell and McCullough come upon the realization which most students of pro wrestling already know: The Undertaker had some godawful opponents early in his career. Giant Gonzalez and King Kong Bundy are the two worst offenders in the early days, but washed up Jimmy Snuka and bored drunk Jake Roberts didn't help either. The one truly new insight I did have about The Undertaker's WrestleMania matches is that he really didn't have an actual good Mania match until Mania 17 with Triple H. Even 12, 13 and 14 against Diesel, Sid and Kane - those were pretty dull. It's Triple H who finally coaxes or inspires the good work out of Taker, and from there it doesn't really dip in quality. Barnwell and McCullough totally skip discussing Mania 22 against Mark Henry, but that match wasn't that bad, was it?
And of course, the big match at WrestleMania 25 against Shawn Michaels gets all the praise, because it's one of the best damn pro wrestling matches that has ever happened, thank you very much. It went for half an hour, much longer than the time it was initially given, and it doomed the show's final two matches, and there is nothing wrong with either of those consequences. The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels created an impeccable work of art that cannot be touched. The only problem: did that match set the bar for future big matches way too high, and did it set too rigid of a template for all big matches to follow? McCullough says many high profile matches today always seem to follow this formula, where they start slow, some wacky stuff happens in the middle, then they kick out of each other's finishers until it ends at some point. I can't argue with this. But maybe that's the best possible version of a pro wrestling match, and it just took until 2009 for WWE to figure it out. And that's thanks in large part to The Undertaker.
Thanks, Big Dead Biker Man.