The Undertaker: A Farewell
By: Daniel R. Browne of Wrestleview.com
Modesty. Depending on one’s predisposition, it can either be the consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden (which is apparently bad), or a mode of behaviour valued throughout society as proper and attentive (which is definitely good). In contemporary times, it has become a more precious commodity. The lavish, grotesque and disingenuous command our eyes and ears with increased frequency, and we have forgotten the pleasures of taste and restraint. That is what made the actions of Mark Calaway – The Undertaker – at the conclusion of the main event of WrestleMania 33 so striking.
It wasn’t the fact that this was only his second loss in twenty-five at ‘Mania. It wasn’t even the simple fact that the curtain had seemingly fallen on as grand a career as could be imagined. No, it was the manner of how it was conveyed. A proud man calmly signaled the end had come and, with dignity and the enduring admiration of his peers and fans alike, took his final bow. There were rumors, naturally, that this was to be a finale, but in keeping with the demeanor of the man the contest wasn’t billed as such. Some cynical sorts have concluded this was done to spare Roman Reigns the opprobrium of the masses, but I prefer to believe this was the mark of a man who knew the climax should be swift and sans fanfare, and ultimately in defeat. No undue hype or gaudy post-match flotsam and jetsam, just a quiet time-tested acknowledgement and then the ride into the sunset. Modesty personified.
Wrestling fans have been aware for some time that the career of The Undertaker was coming to a close. The pressure to produce a classic WrestleMania match – year upon year – as a continuation of his iconic WrestleMania Streak, had long since started to take its toll. The decision to end the Streak was primarily a financial gamble on the viability of Brock Lesnar. However, it was also taken because the ‘Taker was starting to lose his battle with numerous injuries and the inexorable passage of time. There is after all only so long one can wage such a brutal war; especially on two fronts. The use of Hell in a Cell, coupled with the then-novelty of Shane McMahon’s return, successfully masked the flaws in ‘Taker’s performance at last year’s WrestleMania. His repertoire had dwindled and his conditioning was well below his sky-high standards, and he was in obvious pain throughout. It was a simple but wise precaution to indulge the egomaniacal Shane and in the process, safeguard the existing credibility of The Undertaker at WrestleMania.
Sadly, the match with Roman Reigns will not be remembered as a classic, by any standard. Undertaker was clearly impeded by the cumulative injuries that have so bedeviled him, and was unable to contribute to the fullest extent. To a man who has taken such immense pride in his performances, that will have been an enormous source of disappointment. The problems within the match were exacerbated by the inexperience and (understandable) nervousness of Reigns. Despite this being his third WrestleMania main event, he still lacks the presence of mind and on-the-spot savvy of a proper ring general. The man is energetic, willing and doesn’t lack for tenacity, but he is still a creature of hype rather than substance. He was not able to assist his opponent in the manner required of him, and the consequences of this were several blown, clumsy and mistimed exchanges. Doubtless, WWE will ignore the obvious and sacrifice various and sundry of his peers to Reigns, in a futile attempt at audience osmosis: also known as the John Cena technique. Like Cena before him, Reigns would benefit enormously from a heel turn. Roman need only heed the lesson of his “cousin” The Rock for inspiration in this matter.
I have no desire to dwell on Roman Reigns. That is another conversation for another time. I wish instead to give thanks to a man and character who has redefined the business he has graced. When chaos reigned or the heavens threatened to fall, the man Jim Ross dubbed ‘the conscience of the WWF/E’ was always there. The attitude of the man made him revered and respected by all, and the magic of the gimmick forged a connection between audience and wrestler that withstood time, fashion and reinvention. Even the abandonment of the Dead Man persona passed without lasting impact. The character was reborn, and completed the transition from time-honored star to venerable veteran, and finally to bonafide legend. ‘Once in a lifetime’ is a mostly fatuous phrase, as irrelevant as it is invariably misapplied. In the case of Mark Calaway’s alter ego, it is as apt as the sky is blue. No gimmick in the history of the wrestling industry has evolved and endured as successfully as The Undertaker.
In a business as rife with liars and thieves as wrestling, it is always necessary to provide a caveat. The Dead Man may rise again in some capacity, and perhaps even return to the ring. I doubt it though. Mark Calaway is happily married with several children. He is enormously wealthy, owns a substantial property portfolio and is, in relative terms, still young and seemingly healthy. He has given thirty years of his life to professional wrestling, and will go down in history as Vince McMahon’s greatest ever in-ring creation. It was the role he was born to play. He has earned his retirement fully and absolutely, should that be his desire. In many respects, the manner of ‘Taker’s exit is reminiscent of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. It is astonishing to acknowledge that Austin walked away from the ring fourteen years ago. Austin put over The Rock at WrestleMania 19 and without fanfare or hint of intention, soaked up the acclaim that was rightly his and walked away, proud and worthy to the last. It was a classy and understated exit, that nonetheless bore the bitter pill of a premature denouement. Austin still had much to give, but his body had failed him. In contrast, The Undertaker has enjoyed unparalleled longevity, but the signs were undeniable: his body, after years of punishing matches and maintaining the highest standards, had reached the threshold of its limits. It was the right moment to bow out. Alas, all good things must come to a close.
On a personal note, the gifts The Undertaker has given me as a wrestling fan are legion. His was the dark and powerful countenance that so enraptured me as a boy, hurtling towards my teenage years. He was the man who ordered Vince McMahon out of hiding and into the glaring light of his actions, one fateful night in Montreal. He was the black-clad figure, looming large over the broken Mankind as the fans in Pittsburgh chanted his name. He was the master of reinvention, but always captivating and worth waiting for, even in the wee small hours of a (very cold) English morning. He was the man who, in conjunction with Shawn Michaels, delivered the finest example of the professional wrestling match I’ve ever witnessed at WrestleMania 25. It was an epic, gruelling and truly classic contest; as close to the perfect example of the form as I have ever beheld. Michaels was perhaps ‘Taker’s foremost dance partner. The rematch at WrestleMania 26; the original Hell in the Cell and the closing moments of Royal Rumble 2007. All of these are essential viewing.
If I may be permitted a moment’s mawkishness, my only regret is I never had the chance to see and experience the gongs, the darkness and the walk with my own eyes. Living in England, this was a harder ambition to accomplish, but I craved the chance to experience it just the same. I came close once or twice, but somehow I always missed out. It was apparently not meant to be, and such is life. It shall always be a regret. In reporting the events of WrestleMania 33, one or two news outlets have equated the retirement of The Undertaker to a bereavement. It’s not of course, but all the same there is a feeling of absence. It is the end of an era, but it was a magnificent time, that yielded scores of extraordinary moments, matches and memories, and for that all wrestling fans should be enormously grateful. There will never be another Phenom. Hulk Hogan, Rock and Steve Austin will always be on that singular financial plateau, but The Undertaker is with them in a very profound way. He has transcended the form that birthed him and become a part of the fabric of pop culture. As legacies go, that is remarkable. As such, I wish Mark Calaway well, and I must thank him very much for taking a phone call, all those years ago, from Vince McMahon. Together, they made history. Oh yes.