A wrestler goes out on his back.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly most wrestling traditions began, given how secretive companies like WWE had been for the longest time, but even before the public began to see the ins and outs of the industry via forums and social media, the mechanics of the “retirement match” were implicit. While there’s personal glory in a veteran leaving victorious, losing to an up-and-comer does more for the long term story. It builds the new guy’s reputation, either putting him “over” with the crowd (i.e. on their good side), or at the very least it signals the arrival of a new force to be reckoned with. A passing of the torch, so to speak, like from Hulk Hogan to The Rock, from The Rock to John Cena, and so on and so forth.
This past Sunday at WWE’s thirty-third annual Wrestlemania, The Undertaker ended his twenty-seven-year stint with the company, going out on his back as is tradition, but the match was… not great! The fifty-two-year-old “Dead Man,” as he’s now known to fans, is in need of a hip replacement, and his every movement felt weary and on the verge of collapse. Even at nearly seven feet tall, he wasn’t the towering force he used to be, and this would’ve probably been his final match whether he liked or not. The physical strain was just too much, and there were points where the match simply fell apart, where the seams of the illusion began to show and the curtain got pulled back a little too far as Taker struggled to stand, let alone fight. And yet, it was perhaps one of the most powerful moments a wrestling fan could hope for because of its unintentional meta-narrative. This was the only way it could’ve ended for the Dead Man: on his own terms.
Mark Calaway debuted the “Undertaker” character back in 1990, an undead mortician whose very presence felt surreal given his stature. He arrived at the tail-end of a now bygone era, wherein wrestler “gimmicks” (Garbage men, clowns, police officers, what have you) were well on their way out in favour of more ostensibly serious material, but somehow his gimmick remained with a few minor tweaks from time to time. As the mid-late ‘90s saw the rise of grounded trash-talkers like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin, Taker leaned into his gimmick even further, leading a cultish cabal of horror-themed wrestlers, The Ministry of Darkness, wherein his version of more “serious” was kidnapping and human sacrifice. He did certainly spend four years as redneck biker at the turn of the century (“The American Badass,” followed by his more ruthless counterpart, “Big Evil”) before his final transformation in 2004, resurrecting the Dead Man persona after a story in which he was buried alive on screen.
The Dead Man was a cross between the mortician gimmick and a serious fighter, a combination that ought to have seemed ludicrous given its specifics: a hat and a trench coat to obscure his expressions and movements as he entered the ring, but also a pair of TapOut brand MMA gloves. This version of Taker stuck around for thirteen years, during which time Calaway became the de-facto leader of the locker room backstage, and the man whose respect was the most coveted championship of all, culminating in a haunting, final image after his loss on Sunday. Soaked in his signature black light and scored by the overwhelming gongs and Church organs that usually signal his arrival, the fifty thousand or so fans present in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium got to witness Taker slowly shed the persona he was so notorious for upholding (even in the age of social media, where wrestlers breaking character is now part of the allure), as he left his gloves, his hat and coat in the middle of the rings, leaving a piece of himself behind before descending through the entrance stage in a cloud of mist. Sunday’s bout was never billed as his final match, but at this point, everyone knew.
Of course, given that wrestling fans are wrestling fans, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth over how this final match played out. WWE’s biggest show of the year and a program now synonymous with The Undertaker’s presence, the close of any given Wresltemania ought to feel like fireworks in the form of physical competition. It’s not an unfair assessment, and given that Taker’s opponent for the evening was Roman Reigns, a third generation wrestler whom the company hopes will be its next Rock or Cena, i.e its mainstream face (despite the character being mostly boring), an unhappy fandom at the end of the night was always a possibility.
Wrestling fans are as entitled as they come, myself very much included, because it’s a unique form of storytelling wherein trajectories and storylines are influenced by audience feedback loop. Cheer the good guy. Boo the bad guy. It ought to be as simple as that, but whenever the writing isn’t working, the vocal response (or lack thereof) at any given venue lets the creatives know immediately. We want what we want, we know we have a direct say in it, and most of us didn’t want to see The Undertaker’s final Mania wasted on a guy we didn’t like, but what many wrestling fans might’ve missed is the fact that what we wanted wasn’t important here.
The company reportedly wanted Taker to retire three years earlier, after his 20+ year undefeated Wrestlemania streak was finally conquered (even non-wrestling fans might be familiar with the crowd reaction even if they don’t know the specifics), but the leader of the locker room kept going despite being in intense physical pain. Roman Reigns may not have been the fans’ choice for Taker’s retirement match, but he was most certainly Taker’s. While he may not have put Reigns “over” in the traditional sense – the next night on WWE Raw, Reigns was booed for twelve straight minutes without being allowed to speak – Taker may very well have put him “over” with the company and with the locker room, given that he was tasked with carrying the ailing legend through his final match while still trying to make him look good. For that alone, Reigns earns my undying respect.
That’s the kind of passing of the torch where the crowd is secondary, but even fans attuned to the situation and those willing to let their lust for a five-star classic slide were treated to some truly powerful television. Reigns had been playing sort of a bad guy these last few months, constantly threatening to bury The Undertaker and end his career, and Taker is the ultimate good guy despite his zombie/lord of the underworld persona. Everybody loves him, and there was no way this match was going to play out as anything but Reigns playing the role of the ruthless bastard, going as far as he could with steel chairs to put the beat down on The Dead Man. However, what we didn’t really count on was seeing Joe Anoa’i, the performer who plays the Roman Reigns character, peeking out from behind the character with looks of concern.
Breaking character is never ideal, but when it heightens the drama of the situation at hand, there’s really nothing better. Imagine tasking an actor to play a villain so ruthless that he’d gleefully put down a dog. Now imagine asking that actor to play out the scene by putting a real dog down, and you have an idea of how Taker vs Reigns played out. For every hit or slam the Dead Man received, he took twice as long as usual to get up, as the villainous Reigns bided his time by circling like a shark while the actor playing him walked a conflicted tightrope. How do you go through the motions of scripted fiction on a live stage when the very real pain of your co-performer is something your character is meant to exploit?
Seven years earlier, The Undertaker “retired” the highflyer Shawn Michaels in his final match at Wrestlemania 26. A defiant Michaels refused to go down without a grueling fight, but this was when both performers could still hit the necessary highs for a fantastic show. Two years prior at Wrestlemania 24, Michaels himself retired aging veteran Ric Flair, wherein the story was about how Flair, the character, wanted Michaels to be the one to finish him off despite his reluctance. It resulted in one of the more emotional Wrestlemania moments, wherein the lines between fiction and reality blurred and Michaels, the character as well as the performer, mouthed the words “I’m sorry, I love you.” to his real life friend before finishing the match with a painful kick, ending his career in the process.
Creating a moment like Michaels/Flair at ’Mania 24 is far from easy, but it’s comparatively easier to get a wrestling crowd on board with it since it’s the exact alignment of reality and fiction. Where many great visual stories are about subverting expectations, wrestling is about fulfilling them exactly. A wrestler’s job isn’t to win, but rather to do exactly what you would expect their character to do - the good thing, the bad thing, or 180’ing and swapping out one for the other at the opportune moment, which is why a similar situation in this past Sunday’s match might’ve been harder to swallow. Where Michaels letting his guard down and putting his emotions on display was what the story implicitly demanded, Reigns’ apparent concern for the legend in the ring with him was the exact opposite, like an internal wrestling match between fiction and reality.
This would hardly be the first time a collision between drama and external forces played out in WWE. This past November, former MMA Champion Brock Lesnar (the man who ended Taker’s 21-win Wrestlemania streak, as it happens) challenged older veteran Bill Goldberg to come out of retirement after their distinctly Rocky Balboa-esque fued over who would win in a video game. I know, right? In any case, Lesnar is a real-life fighter, and it’s often hard to suspend one’s disbelief when it comes to him losing, let alone having a fair fight, because the reality of any situation he’s in rips the seams of the fiction apart. In contrast, Goldberg was never the most skilled or proficient wrestler, but throughout the ‘90s his character was an unstoppable force (everything Lesnar actually was in real life), squashing opponents within mere seconds. When the two finally met, their first confrontation in nearly thirteen years, fiction trumped reality sevenfold, wherein Goldberg, and by proxy Goldberg nostalgia, steamrolled the real-life brawler in about a minute, sending shockwaves throughout wrestling fandom.
You can write something like that, if the fiction is under your control and the reality element is under contract, i.e. which matches someone loses and how, but there’s nothing you can do when reality fights back and when nostalgia necessitates a legend re-affirming his status. No matter what you write, the physical limitations of any competition are going to determine what’s possible. Wrestling is scripted, but there’s little accounting for when it goes off-book, and seeing The Undertaker (or rather, Mark Calaway) struggle to not only lift Roman Reigns, but be lifted by him safely, is as sad a sight as any.
It’s also tremendous television regardless, which is what Taker’s career was always about: larger than life moments of entertainment and emotion. In this case, moments of conflict for his opponent whether or not it was intended – no matter what your script says about kicking his ass, you’re still performing alongside the most respected man in the business – and moments where the utter and complete failure to perform up to standard ends up becoming part of the text. There will never be another Undertaker match after this one, but the story became less about him trying to win the fight (a foregone conclusion; no one expected him to) and more about him going down swinging, trying his best to fight at all, making tangible all the blood, sweat and tears he had given the industry over the decades.
Rather than seeing someone act heroic by conquering his opponents, it was akin to seeing the reasons he was considered a hero in the first place, writ large on wrestling’s grandest stage. He was a man who had given every last drop to this bizarre form of entertainment, to the point that he could barely move without getting winded and protecting his bad leg, but he went through those final motions regardless. It was like seeing a perfomer deconstructed, the façade of the Taker gimmick staying firmly intact even as Mark Calaway’s body gave out from under it.
Above all it was one of those truly real moments within a paradigm so dependant on the illusion of reality. Rather than the small man behind the Wizard of Oz, pulling back this curtain and seeing weakness laid bare only made the illusion stronger. It was always performance, but never pretense. It was commitment to the point of painful self-destruction, and a retirement truly earned. Messy and undignified, and yet, completely sound for someone who was able to breathe so much life into a Dead Man.