“Retiring” in wrestling is a fungible concept. None of it’s real, obviously, so the idea that anyone can always come back for one more match is an easily grasped tool. They’re making it all up as they go, so everything is in play. It’s even more nebulous when it comes to The Undertaker, who isn’t really supposed to be human but a spirit that is conjured up. Spirits never go away, so we’re told.
That’s especially apt when it comes to Undertaker, who is now officially Mark Calaway if he is indeed retired, as he certainly looked to be doing last night at Survivor Series. There have been a few times throughout the past few years where it was assumed Undertaker was finished, and he certainly looked it more than enough to sell that story. And then Vince McMahon would panic about a show, or get bored, or just feel the need to spice up another Mania and call his binky in a leather coat, and Undertaker would come running in from Texas.
So we can’t totally assume that this is it, even if it really feels like this is it. McMahon barely holding it together in the ring to announce Undertaker, as McMahon would never get caught crying for real on camera, seems to seal it. But that’s the thing about wrestling. Do you ever know? Was there any fan who wasn’t simply waiting for The Fiend to crash the ceremony?
What is clear is that Undertaker should be done. He should have been done after his Mania match with Roman Reigns, where the footage of him even walking around backstage had you wincing in discomfort. You could hear his hips creaking from your couch. Maybe he should have been done before that.
But his performance was so rigid and bad that Calaway couldn’t live with that being the end, which you could understand. And given his place in the company and industry history, he’s about the only guy who could have said, “I’m not going out like that,” and most everyone is okay with it, even through gritted teeth a bit.
As time moves on and fans look back on Undertaker’s career, these last few years filled with excuses to play the hits for a few minutes or complete disasters that his matches in Saudi Arabia and Australia were will fade pretty quickly. Because he will take the most singular career in the business with him.
To sum up Undertaker in a few paragraphs, or even with hundreds of thousands of words, is beyond me. It’s beyond most. What I do know is how I felt the first time I saw him on TV as a kid. Even at a young age, you may wildly cheer your heroes or hiss at the villains, but you’re kind of playing your role. You don’t feel any of it that deeply, even at an age where you feel everything deeply.
But Undertaker on screen paralyzed me. It was just so different, and so utterly frightening. There’s a lot of things that can frighten kids—monsters, dragons, ghosts, ect.—but death is hard for any child to grasp. You can’t really be scared of it, because you don’t really know what it is.
Well, Undertaker was Death. There it was, that concept I couldn’t define or understand on my screen, providing the bookend to life that I didn’t want any part of. I couldn’t put it into words what the end of life was at age nine or ten, I just knew it was Undertaker waiting when it happened.
Adding to it was the actual wrestler. Undertaker was as big or bigger than the wrestlers we grew up watching. But it wasn’t the first thing you noticed. What you saw first is that he didn’t move like the rest of them. He was that big but he was...an athlete? Hogan always moved like an 8-bit video game. Jake the Snake, Ted Dibiase, Andre, whoever else, they were cardboard cutouts compared to this dude. We thought Ultimate Warrior was a unique specimen in terms of movement and strength. And then Undertaker put him in a coffin. That was easy symbolism to follow. In our minds, there was no beating this guy. He was going to end wrestling and then come for us.
And he was that for 20 or 25 years. Perhaps the best thing you can say about ‘Taker is that his career rose above championships and title matches. Merely having a match with Undertaker was the accomplishment. Those were the stakes. His two matches with Shawn Michaels, considered by some the two best matches WWE has ever produced, weren’t for a title. Neither were his two with Triple H. Or the one that ended “The Streak” at Mania with Brock Lesnar. His last title win was 12 years ago, and it never mattered after that. He’ll end with less title reigns than Edge or Kurt Angle or Brock Lesnar or Randy Orton. And no one’s going to give a fuck, including those people listed above. He’s the only one whose place in the business isn’t measured that way in the slightest.
And it’s not because he became part-time after that last win essentially. WWE has had no problem sticking a part-time, aging wheeze-bag in the title scene. Goldberg has been. Triple H has been well past his sell-by date. You can throw Lesnar into that category too.
But Undertaker didn’t need it. His legend or mystique was more than big enough to have its own setting above the titles. He was a story unto himself.
It sucks in some ways that COVID and crowdless arenas are the last setting for him. But then again it was the draw of that crowd that he could never say no to, or the reaction he would get would tease Vince just enough to get him back on the phone. There’s none of that for a while, and the break has made it clear to Calaway, finally, that he can’t do it anymore. His fans have been asking for a while to just be left with their memories of the true master of the craft that he was. Finally, it seems like both Calaway and McMahon are there too.