It’s difficult to properly eulogize the Undertaker’s career because it feels like we’ve been slowly doing that for years, as each Wrestlemania raised new questions about his ability to carry on. Now that the end is finally here, though, something should be said.
I started watching WWE about a year before Taker debuted, and I cannot adequately explain what it like hearing about him right after Survivor Series 1990. No rock music, no neon colors. No weaknesses for the good guys to exploit. No passion for anything that would be his undoing. The only thing that really did make sense was that anybody managed by that jerkface Brother Love had to be seriously bad news. He didn’t fit in with what I understood about pro wrestling. Looking back, that was because he would help change what pro wrestling was.
My brothers and I were fascinated with the Undertaker. How do you beat a guy that’s already dead? People would hit him with foreign objects and he wouldn’t flinch. One time Greg Valentine put him in the figure-four leglock and he just laid there like he didn’t care. I needed to make sense of this guy, figure out how his magic worked. At some point I came to realize that there were no answers, that the enduring mystery was the real source of his psychological advantage.
I’ve seen Undertaker described as the gimmick to end all gimmicks. Not that that stopped promoters from trotting out all manner of wrestling plumbers, wrestling dentists, and wrestling revenuers. But most of them had to square off with the Undertaker, which ensured that all of them looked ridiculous trying to compete with a wrestling angel of death. I think that situation encouraged the trend, beginning in the late ‘90s, of wrestlers being presented as athletes first and “here’s my shtick to psyche-out my opponents” second. By 2000, that trend was starting to make Taker himself look ridiculous.
Undertaker had a sort of second career at that point, where the character was less about being goth Frankenstein than the aura of work ethic and respect that surrounded a legendary company man. The awe of associating him with the spectre of death sort of took a back seat to the awe of knowing that nothing you did would ever overshadow this man’s career. Even if you managed to beat the Undertaker, the odds were pretty good that he’d outlast you.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly where Taker went into decline, but for me the symbolic turning point was Wrestlemania XXVII, where the angle was that he could beat Triple H but couldn’t walk out under his own power. It was kayfabe to set up a rematch the following year, but it injected a new kind of mortality into the character–it became a legitimate question whether Undertaker still had it, whether he’d have to lose soon because he might retire at any time. After a lackluster performance at the 2017 Royal Rumble, I think everyone kinda knew his time was up. Better to go out now than to wait another year, chasing the perfect finale.
This isn’t the first time the Undertaker has left his gloves in the ring, so some part of me believes this may not really be the end. I hope it is, though. I want to know this guy gets to enjoy retirement and undergoes whatever surgeries he’s been putting off. I want to see the day when he can do interviews out of character, and talk about the sacrifices he made for his art. Mark Calaway has been the Undertaker for just over 26 years. It’s high time he gets to be just an ordinary man.