FEATURE: The Last Ride of The Undertaker
Two weeks have now passed since WrestleMania 33 took place in Orlando, Florida and it has been impossible to shake off the weight of what happened in the main event of that seven-hour marathon of wrestling. That night saw the last match of The Undertaker.
There may be some reading this article with a limited understanding of professional wrestling, particularly the mechanics behind the storytelling and stagecraft, so I will break down those vital components as simply as I can.
In the lexicon of professional wrestling, there is a word, "kayfabe", which represents the illusion of fiction. Picture the inside of a playhouse; the stage is the wrestling, behind it is the curtain, beyond that curtain is the real world. Everything that happens in front of the curtain is kayfabe. That is the illusion of reality the creatives and the performers want to cultivate for the audience.
As a child, kayfabe worked its magic on me. I believed wrestling was real. I bought into the illusion wholesale. I believed that Hulk Hogan was a living superman, I believed Ted DiBiase was a millionaire, I believed that Jacques Rougeaux was actually a Mountie and that Canadians, therefore, must all be psychopaths.
But, above all else, I believed in The Undertaker.
Many of the gimmicks that littered professional wrestling in my youth did not take a great deal of effort to win me over; I could easily rationalise why a police officer would be beating people up in a wrestling ring or why a sporting institution would let one of its athletes carry a giant snake to the ring. To believe in The Undertaker was something else entirely. This was a man raised from the dead and controlled by a magical urn that contained his soul.
And I bought into the illusion. As a kid, The Undertaker was a terrifying presence and it was all down to the astonishing stage presence of Mark Calaway. He held himself like a monster, a thing beyond the realms of human understanding. In the hands of a lesser performer, the zombie gimmick would have seemed hokey and crude, but Calaway committed to the role with the sort of conviction that would make Daniel Day Lewis squint and say "Alright, mate, settle down a little." And he did this for the next twenty-seven years.
Looking back with more objective eyes, the match quality in Undertaker's early years was never the best. He was a little rigid in his movements, but that is because he was so committed to his role that he used his wrestling as an extension of the character, as all great wrestlers do.
As you get older and the curtain separating the two worlds falls down, the perceptions of the business change. You no longer see these men as real people but as characters. From the broad and welcoming imagination of a child to an adult privy to the inner-workings of the industry, the performances remain crucial. I may have stopped believing The Undertaker was a real zombie but I still believed in the character; he remained one of the most dedicated and focused performers in the business.
To remain relevant from generation to generation, The Undertaker reinvented himself numerous times. He turned into a Satanic cult leader with a penchant for kidnapping and crucifixion. He went away for a while and returned as a Texan biker, subtitled the American Badass, complete with Limp Bizkit entrance music because it was the early 2000s and no one knew any better.
In the lexicon of professional wrestling there are "babyfaces" and "heels", the good guys and the bad guys, and no matter what incarnation The Undertaker took or what side of the battle lines he stood, the fans did not want to boo Undertaker. You could have Undertaker try to murder other beloved wrestlers and no one would blame him because he was The Undertaker. You take the good with the human sacrifice.
The industry was changing. The tone of the storytelling were shifting away from the elaborate, the characters were becoming more low-key. One of the biggest stars in the WWE today, Brock Lesnar, has no gimmick beyond being hard-as-nails. Yet, despite the rather profound sea change in the way wrestling was presenting itself, The Undertaker remained a constant and fantastical element, the sole remnant of a bygone era, and the fans accepted it without question.
Eventually, The Undertaker returned to his classic "Deadman" persona, fine-tuned to allow more personality and he was firmly cemented as a babyface. His look was overhauled too. His original Deadman attire was strangely antiquated, more like the local undertaker of a town in the Old West, a figure out of time. His reinvented Deadman persona cut the figure of a very different Old West archetype, that of the old gunslinger. And that's what he was, in essence. The mysterious man in black riding into town to take care of trouble and facing down any man who dared to challenge him. This period marked perhaps the best run of his career and the moment when The Streak entered its mythic status.
For the unfamiliar, "The Streak" represents Undertaker's win record at WrestleMania. It began in 1991, at WrestleMania VII, and spanned a total of twenty-one WrestleManias, earning him the nickname "The Phenom" in the process. The quality of these early victories were mixed at best, his win at the woeful WrestleMania IX was via disqualification after being chloroformed but the winning streak really only came into its own at WrestleMania 21 in 2005. This was the first time Undertaker's unprecedented record was acknowledged and Randy Orton, the young upstart who was going through a "Legend Killer" gimmick at the time, vowed to end The Streak.
Every subsequent WrestleMania match that followed fixated on The Streak. It became so pivotal to WWE's narrative that it earned that capitalisation and the weight of this prize made every match that followed feel bigger by association. The stakes were every bit as high as a championship bout every time someone stepped up to The Undertaker on the grandest stage of them all. We saw all-time great matches in this period, including two against Shawn Michaels, two against Triple H, and one against CM Punk. The latter holds the honour of being the last great WrestleMania match that The Undertaker would ever have as The Streak would come to an end one year later at 2013's WrestleMania XXX (That's 30; I have no idea why WWE chose to brand the event like a porn parody) against Brock Lesnar.
The ending of The Streak felt inevitable, yet something no fan really wanted to see. Undertaker himself knew The Streak would have to end one day and hand-selected numerous names on the roster to have that honour, including the aforementioned Randy Orton, but they all refused out of respect for the living icon's legacy. Brock Lesnar, on the other hand, gave few damns about wrestling history and took on the job at the behest of WWE President Vince McMahon. This was the start of a massive push for Lesnar that would see him win the WWE World Championship and have a dominant winning streak of his own in the time to follow. The match that saw The Streak die was a letdown, not the epic confrontation that such a moment truly deserved, largely because Undertaker suffered a massive concussion early in the match and forgot all of the big spots. Fans would get a taste of what that match should have looked like during the rematches at SummerSlam 2015 and Hell In A Cell 2015, proving that the Deadman still had some magic left in him, but none of that seemed to manifest at WrestleMania ever again.
His remaining years at WrestleMania saw him engage in a lacklustre battle of spooky horror gimmicks against the deranged backwoods cult leader Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 31 and a painfully slow Hell In A Cell match against Shane McMahon that only managed to generate excitement when that maniac McMahon leapt off the top of the twenty foot cell into an announcer's table.
Every fan was thinking it yet no one wanted to say it; The Undertaker's best years were behind him, did we really want to see him get any worse?
The Last Ride
One of the newer entries in the wrestling lexicon is "smark," a derivation of the term "mark," which describes someone who buys into the product completely. A smark is a smart mark, someone who buys into the product but is privy to the knowledge of everything going on behind the scenes. The internet, in particular, has caused a significant uptick in smarks in the wrestling community. This is important as the ability for fans to plug into the rumour mill profoundly impacted the narrative of Undertaker's final run.
It started on SmackDown Live's 900th episode on November 15th, 2016 when The Undertaker returned for the first time since WrestleMania 32 in April. He simply arrived and issued a warning to the Smackdown men's tag team that they best not disappoint him at their Survivor Series match later that month.
The internet rumour mill was already gearing up for Undertaker's inevitable WrestleMania 33 match, believing this warning could possibly be setting up a match against then World Champion, AJ Styles, at the Royal Rumble in January. The reasoning was that Undertaker could win the belt at the pay-per-view and give WWE's resident superman, John Cena, a chance to win the Royal Rumble to earn a world title match at WrestleMania. John Cena was a single world title win away from tying Ric Flair's legendary sixteen title reign record; it stood to reason that Undertaker could drop the belt to Cena, gift him his record-tying win and also retire in the process. The story was right there, it made sense, it felt sufficiently big enough for a WrestleMania main event and an Undertaker swan song.
It would be some time before fans heard from The Undertaker again, Team Smackdown defeated Team Raw at Survivor Series without incident and thus no retaliation was necessary from the Deadman. He would eventually return on the January 9th episode of Raw where he appeared to announce that he would be entering the Royal Rumble. It started to feel like the plan was changing. John Cena was challenging AJ Styles for the World Championship at Royal Rumble and Undertaker was competing in the Rumble; the dream match could still conceivably happen but the dynamics were all different.
Plans changed somewhat when Undertaker made his return quite drastically to put Roman Reigns in the spotlight. Undertaker's Rumble appearance was brief and brought to an abrupt end when Reigns eliminated him from the match. Roman Reigns being the man that WWE wanted to replace John Cena as the top babyface, despite intense and persistent fan resistance.
In the wrestling lexicon, there is another term, "doing the favours." Putting ego and creative muscle aside to give someone else the win, boosting their momentum and hopefully elevating their status in the company. Many wrestlers, especially the big time talent, knew their value and sometimes that would lead to them refusing to take a loss. The Undertaker, based on reports during the early planning stages of this feud, had specifically chosen Reigns. His old school wrestling code dictated that if he were to ever retire, he would do so putting a younger emerging talent over and he would go out on his back.
There was still a palpable denial among the community that this was going to be his last match, speculation continued to circulate that they were just saving his retirement match for next year and that he would finally face John Cena at WrestleMania 34. No one really wanted to accept the notion of WWE without Undertaker, so we deflected, we delayed, we bargained with ourselves.
As WrestleMania loomed on the horizon, rumours began to surface that Undertaker was in bad shape. The toll of his long, storied career left him in dire need of full hip replacement surgery and simply walking was leaving him in agony. The WWE used every ounce of stagecraft they knew to cover this up, declining to give him his lengthy and iconic entrances. They would hit the first "gong" of his entrance theme before cutting the lights, only to bring them back up to reveal that Taker was suddenly in the ring. The teleportation trick. But all the hocus pocus in the world could not cover up the ravages of time; he was noticeably slower, barely even moving at times, and the choke slams that once looked so effortless and devastating often looked like a struggle to execute. Everyone could see it, no one could accept it. The Undertaker was nearing the end.
Another pair of popular terms from the wrestling lexicon would be "work" and "shoot." A work is the scripted action, things going as they are supposed to, while a shoot is someone going off-book and injecting reality into the action. The "shoot interview" is a popular trend in wrestling, with old or retired wrestlers airing their dirty laundry, but it also translates into action. "Shooting" can be when a wrestler makes a match real, either using stiff punches and kicks or exposing a real injury that is not part of the scripted storyline.
All these reports of Undertaker being hurt, needing surgery etc., it altered how fans responded to him and the trajectory of this feud. During their segment on the final episode of Raw before WrestleMania, Undertaker invaded the ring to interrupt a match between Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman. His job was simply to chokeslam Braun (who does an exceptional job of selling that slam, it must be said) and turn around to get hit by Roman's finisher, the Spear. It plays out, beat for beat, exactly as it should: Gong. Lights out. Lights up. Taker. Chokeslam. Turn. Spear. Undertaker lays out flat while Reigns exits the arena. As Reigns leaves, Taker sits up and stares down Reigns again. The stage is now set for WrestleMania. But it is in the details that the perception of this sequence changed. Between the chokeslam and turning into the Spear from Reigns, there is a look on Undertaker's face that got the entire community talking. Some saw pain; that he had hurt himself slamming Braun. Some saw a character beat; that he now realised he had turned his back on Reigns long enough for him to power up a Spear. Some saw it as a combination of the two; he was wincing because he knew he had to take a potentially painful bump any second. The truth is that these readings are almost interchangeable. Was he hurt? Was he afraid of getting hurt? Was he feeling foolish? The Undertaker rarely made mistakes like this. If he was feeling regret then this was a new side of Undertaker, one that is getting slow and sloppy.
The line between a work and a shoot were beginning to blur, real life was infecting kayfabe, and the narrative of the feud was becoming less about who would win but rather The Undertaker's health.
The omens were everywhere, the reports of his declining health, the fact that his match was now elevated above two world title matches to be the main event. Why would this be, if it were not his retirement?
As the match progressed, it was clear that Undertaker was not winning. It was apparent that he was doing the favours, putting the young guy over, and going out on his back. As a work or a shoot, Reigns was simply faster, stronger, and more resilient. The tension of the match was no longer about who would win but how much punishment would be needed for Undertaker to stay down. Reigns played up his role in this dynamic; he had the confidence of a man who knew he was going to win but grew increasingly frustrated with every kick-out from his opponent. He wanted it to be over, he did not take any joy from the resounding beating that he was doling out on this legend.
But The Undertaker refused to give up, no matter how hard he got hit. This was not the unstoppable force, the Phenom of WrestleMania's past. This was the old gunslinger in his final showdown. His reflexes slowed, his joints busted and worn, his eyesight dulled. He stood no chance of winning this quickdraw but he knew no other way. A gunslinger cannot ride into the sunset and retreat to a quiet life, the gunslinger has to go out with that six-shooter in their hand. Watching The Undertaker crash through announcer's tables with great force or struggling to lift himself off the mat, we saw that old desperado taking hit after hit, bullet after bullet, still trying to raise his sidearm one last time. We knew he wouldn't, we knew he couldn't, we knew he was going to lose.
One last Spear and it was over. Roman Reigns was victorious, greeted to the deafening chorus of boos from the crowd, he left the ring without a trace of joy or pride. He reluctantly raises his arms to trigger the lavish firework display that greets every main event winner. Before long, Reigns is gone and only The Undertaker remained in the ring. He was back on his feet and back in his entrance gear, the long coat and wide-brimmed hat, and he makes his way to leave but something gave him pause. He turned and walked back to the centre of the ring and began to shed his gear. His gloves, his coat, his hat. He placed them neatly in a pile, left the ring and did something we had never seen him do before. He approached the crowd, leant in, and kissed a woman. His wife, Michelle. The Undertaker never broke character when he was in the ring, he was The Undertaker through and through. This was no longer The Undertaker, we were finally seeing Mark Calaway. In an event often referred to as "The Showcase of the Immortals", it seemed oddly fitting that this was the moment we saw someone shed their mythic stature and re-join the mortals.
It was hard to accept. Fans rejected the very notion that The Undertaker could lose again at WrestleMania, that he could give up and leave. There was reverence, of course. The Undertaker received the type of ovation that he always deserved but there was still disbelief; how could this be the end? How could The Undertaker be just a regular man?
For all our knowing, all the insider knowledge we had access to, and all the modern cynicism that comes with it, we still believed in The Undertaker. He gave the wrestling world twenty-seven years of entertainment, of terror and joy and excitement, of staggering physical sacrifice, and we gave him our adoration. He has given us enough and we have taken all we could ever need from him and in these final moments, as he made his final walk up the WrestleMania ramp, the wrestling world finally gave something back. One chant. Bellowed loud enough to be heard even in the afterlife, loud enough to ensure The Deadman could hear every note.
"Thank you, Taker."