Top-Down Smackdown: Real-Life Wrestling Undertaker Heads to TV


Even people who aren’t wrestling fans, who only have the vaguest knowledge of the business, are probably aware that one of the most famous wrestlers today is called the Undertaker, and that he’s a tall, tattooed Texan who dresses in black and is depicted as having supernatural powers.

I suspect the new reality show Wrestling With Death, executive produced by former WCW head honcho Eric Bischoff, is playing off that knowledge a bit as it takes us inside an actual funeral home, run by a family who also put on local wrestling shows.

When I watched the first episode recently – it debuts tomorrow on WGN America, but you can watch it legally online right now – I thought about everything Vince McMahon had done throughout his career to rebrand pro-wrestling as “sports entertainment,” make it a mainstream brand, and generally erase the stigma of it being something fake watched by dumb rednecks.

Wrestling With Death undoes all of that in about five minutes. Family patriarch and mortician LaFonce Latham, who vaguely resembles the ’80s star Tony “T.L. Hopper” Anthony, is most definitely in the “rasslin'” business, and most of the fans resemble what the Duck Dynasty guys have to work hard to portray. Almost all the stereotypes appear to be true, save perhaps one – Memphis wrestler Derrick King, a black man, has married into this quintessentially white-trash family, and there’s no hint of racial animosity whatsoever. Although LaFonce does delight in hazing his new son-in-law as he initiates him into the family funeral business (entering the family means preparing corpses and digging graves, whether anyone likes it or not).

While the wrestling on display here is more old-fashioned, it is also more like community theater than you might expect – the “still real to me, dammit” crowd might have a hard time reconciling the beer-bellied, gray-haired Latham as their main hero if they didn’t suspend a healthy dollop of disbelief. Similarly, when his wife Sandra returns to the ring after a bout with breast cancer, it’s more a case of people wanting to cheer her on than actually believing she is dominating her opponent, a man in drag.

The funeral home stuff is a little queasier, and not because of any squeamishness on my part about corpses (though if you have some, maybe stay away). Rather, it’s a troubling notion that these dead people most likely didn’t consent to have their naked, yellowing corpses shown on national TV. The loved one on the debut episode is a superfan who had a long, slow death from cancer, so it’s possible she did consent as she saw the end coming – but it’s not clear that will always be the case, and I’d suggest from here on out that everyone making a will include some kind of TV clause just to be safe.

Perhaps unfortunately, nobody here is as awesomely creepy as Paul Bearer, who was also a real-life funeral home director – a show featuring him when he was alive would have been a far bigger ratings-grabber. LaFonce seems like a garden variety genial huckster, and I’m not sure yet if that will sustain a series.


And while I’m happy to talk non-WWE wrestling this week, I feel I should give a big ol’ OOOOHHHHHH YEEEEEEAHHHH to the news that Randy Savage is going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Yes, the Hall of Fame is more of a PR stunt than actual recognition of merit, but even as PR it needs the Macho Man, one of the most recognizable stars of all time. I’d love to see his brother Lanny induct him in character and in rhyme as The Genius, but Lanny’s always said he’d be reluctant to do it, so who knows.

Here’s one of my favorite great moments with Randy.

Talk back about Raw below as you wish.