Greetings. With the 25th annual Wrestlemania (and all related festivities) poised to commence in earnest and the respective feuds and talent in place, now is the time to consider the details amidst the grandeur. It should come as no surprise that an emotional and philosophical convergence occurs amongst wrestling fans around the time of Wrestlemania. All thoughts of so-called brand preference and Mark-like behaviour fall by the wayside as the wrestling public indulges their collective curiosity (and almost transcendental desire) for the splendour of Vince McMahon’s grandest spectacle.
Now, even though the marquee value of Wrestlemania surpasses any such equivalent found in the business, history indicates that this is not always sufficient for the mega buy-rates. Wrestlemania 13 and 19 rank as compelling examples of the power of Wrestlemania negated by the (usually economic) circumstances of the time, and/or the sensation of a star not shining brightly enough. Put simply, it helps to furnish the card with not just your biggest and best, but also revelations, surprises and the knowledge that events beyond the norm are likely to occur.
This year’s event is, for me anyway, questionable in that regard. There’s no disputing the athletic credibility of the assembled card; adversely it’s hard to argue with the wisdom that we?ve seen it all before. Even the ‘special occasions only? encounters are losing their over-exposed lustre. It is a personal irony then, that the match-up that has most piqued my interest is a retread of battles long since committed to history: ?Mr. Wrestlemania? Shawn Michaels vs. ?Mr. Winning Streak? The Undertaker.
In terms of long term association, few performers are as inextricably representative of the WWE identity as Mark ?Undertaker? Calaway; rapidly approaching his twentieth anniversary as an uninterrupted employee of WWE. His once in a lifetime persona has, like some (even more) twisted pro-wrestling incarnation of Madonna, regularly and perceptively evolved to suit the ever changing palette of the wrestling public. His supernatural introduction and subsequent association with William ?Paul Bearer? Moody very much represented the time of his arrival i.e. The Cartoon Era. Ditching some of the more overtly silly aspects of the Dark Side circa 1996, Taker became one of most reliable and trusted main event performers in company history. His artistic legacy encompasses the Kane and Abel fable, comical Satanism (cheers Russo) and badass biking, before it ?all began again? in 2004. Since retuning to the darkness, The Undertaker has completed the transition f rom veteran to passionately venerated legend.
All the while, the man behind the rolling eyes steadily built (and maintains to this day) a reputation both for legitimate toughness and personal integrity. It was the Undertaker who marched up to the barricaded office door of Vince McMahon who, in the wake of the Montr?al screw-job, was hiding f rom an irate Bret Hart, and demanded he explain himself (and apologise) to the boys. This incident inspired Jim Ross’s short-lived moniker for The Undertaker: The Conscience of the WWF. However, the owner of the company was not the only person to feel the presence of ?The Phenom? at a designated point in company history?
Shawn Michaels. Two words, the name of a man with a polarising effect on wrestling fans the likes of which only John Cena might have dispensation to comment on. Loved by many for his looks and his unbelievable performance ethic; utterly despised by others for his petulance, arrogance, aversion to jobbing and huge penis (really). Very few wrestlers have ever matched his phenomenal record of stellar performances in major show settings, and his absolute reliability in the ring. Few ever will. Just as few men will ever equal his propensity for extracurricular behaviour and downright disrespect for the sanctity of the business.
As a founding member of ?The Kliq?, a rouge element within the then WWF comprised of Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Sean ?Multiple personae? Waltman and Paul ?Head baggage handler? Levesque, old HBK wielded incredible power f rom 1994 onwards. The likes of Shane Douglas and the late Bam Bam Bigelow contended the group acted within its own personal best interests in order to sabotage their respective tenures within the WWF. Indeed, Vince McMahon once travelled round in a van for several days negotiating with the group when they threatened an en masse exodus during a pay dispute. By the time Nash, Hall and Waltman decamped for WCW, Shawn had used his ability (and his mouth) to bag the WWF title, in the process making himself all but untouchable. Upon reflection, the saddest thing of all about the Kliq is the concept actually worked. Makes you wonder what might happen if a larger group of people (with nobler ideas) suddenly developed a similar idea?
With his trusty padawan in tow (you know who) HBK made everyone’s life hellish f rom 1997 onwards. f rom arbitrarily cancelling house shows, grabbing his dong on camera and goading his many enemies (?Unless it’s for one hot mama, HBK lays down for absolutely nobody!?) Right through to taking perverse and occasionally masochistic pleasure in provoking Bret Hart (Bret famously beat the absolute tar out of Shawn in July ?97 for the ?Sunny Days? crack) Shawn ran riot. Power crazed and bull-headed in the extreme, Shawn sidestepped losses like playground hop-scotch (Once again bedevilling Bret Hart in the process) and, undoubtedly feeling threatened by the emerging sensation of ?Stone Cold? Steve Austin, began implying that, as reigning WWF Champion, he might not be ?in appropriate physical? condition to d rop the title at Wrestlemania XIV. Enter The Undertaker?
In October 1997, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker contested the original and arguably greatest Hell in a Cell match at the Bad(d) Blood pay-per-view. A bloody, stunt-laden, hard-hitting spectacle (carried by an incredible performance by Michaels) the match served as backd rop for the introduction of the Kane character, and propelled the WWF further into the full-blown ?Attitude era?. The two would clash again at Royal Rumble 1998 in a casket match (built again around Kane), during which Shawn suffered a back injury ultimately destined to sideline him for over four years. Karma, perhaps. Injured and increasingly paranoid, HBK began squirming about elevating Austin at ?Mania and loudly predicting his possible absence. The Undertaker, one of the few men neither intimidated nor affected by Shawn’s juvenile power trips, calmly approached Shawn in the back during the lead up to Wrestlemania and told him if he didn?t show up and lose as scheduled, he would be buried alive. Literally. By The Undertaker. Faced with the earnest likelihood of a genuine thrashing f rom the Taker, Shawn (to his immense, pain-etched credit) d ropped the belt to Austin. Just to punctuate his threat, Taker allegedly stood off-camera as Shawn headed out to the ring for the match, slowly taping his fists. Death valley, indeed?
The era of excess known as ?Attitude? is now history, and the two men have moved on, personally and philosophically; in the process cementing their undeniably legendary statuses. Shawn returned, reborn in every respect, in 2002 and showed the world how much we?d missed him between those ropes. The Undertaker became a human being, only to hear the call of the creatures of the night and once again don the colours of the darkness. Both men have contested countless major, money making feuds and wrestled outstanding matches too numerous to mention (including the greatest Royal Rumble finale of all time, against each other, in 2007.) Both can legitimately lay claim to stardom far beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. At Wrestlemania XXV, I anticipate a masterpiece between two men who have been there and done it all. The Undertaker will triumph in the end (and a sterling job has been accomplished by WWE in making Shawn look an even more credible threat than his already lofty standing would otherwise indicate) It is, after all, Wrestlemania. For this match most of all, I sit in anticipation. I, and everyone else. Enjoy the show.
Daniel R. Browne.