Thank You Taker- The True End Of An Era
There are moments in time, moments in professional wrestling, that stand out above the rest as iconic. Moments like Hogan slamming Andre. Shawn Michaels coming down from the rafters for his Wrestlemania 12 entrance. The formation of the nWo. The "Austin 3:16" speech at King of The Ring. The words, "Sorry, I love you," that brought an end to the wrestling career of Ric Flair.
A couple of weeks ago, I was honoured to be present for one of those iconic moments. At Wrestlemania 33 in Orlando, Florida, The Undertaker had his final match. After passing the torch to the young lion, Roman Reigns, Undertaker stood in the ring, removed his signature hat, coat and gloves, kissed his wife and soaked in the chants of "Thank You Taker" as he descended back into the stage. After a career spanning 33 years- 27 of those as the legendary Undertaker character- it was time for the 52 year old Mark Calaway to retire from the profession he has given so much to. So, what I'd like to do in this blog as my way of saying "Thank You Taker", is to do a full career retrospective, look at the highs and lows, and show appreciation for it all. Hopefully along the way, I can educate some readers on just what this man meant to me, and millions of other wrestling fans as a tremendous athletic performer and world class entertainer.
So, let's start from the beginning. Or, at least, the beginning of the Undertaker. I don't know anything about Mark Calaway's early life or the pre-Taker years of his wrestling career beyond the little snippets on Wikipedia. However, it was safe to say someone in WWE (then WWF) was paying attention to Mean Mark Callous doing his thing in WCW, because he was repackaged and brought into the company in a big way at Survivor Series 1990.
You immediately know that The Undertaker is going to be a big deal. On his debut, he's not treated as some green rookie, but rather an imposing and mysterious force. Introduced as the secret weapon for one of the top heels in WWE at the time, The Million Dollar Man, Ted Dibiase, and accompanied by prolific manager and bombastic personality, Brother Love, Undertaker makes it immediately clear that he is his own man. Roddy Piper with the simple, yet brilliant call on commentary, "Would you look at the size of that ham hock!" in an awestruck voice. He established his finisher, the devastating Tombstone Piledriver by eliminating future Hall of Famer Koko B. Ware, and found himself on the winning team in his WWE debut. Undertaker was off to the races! ...Well, in his own methodical, undead fashion.
Undertaker would pile up victories over the next year, remaining unbeaten, with one of his most notable early wins being at Wrestlemania 7 over another Hall of Famer, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka. Little did we know at the time just how significant that victory in Taker's first Wrestlemania appearance would turn out to be, and indeed, the Snuka victory would pale in comparison to his victory at Survivor Series 1991. Exactly a year after he debuted in WWE, Undertaker defeated Hulk Hogan to win his first WWE Championship. The kind of push Undertaker received in his first 12 months was comparable to the likes of Hogan and Ultimate Warrior. Because of this, Taker essentially never wavered from his main event position- a remarkable feat.
Undertaker was one of the true constants on WWE programming. As we approached the mid 1990s, business wasn't doing so great. However, Taker was the one reliable thing in amongst the steroid trials, and stars leaving for WCW. He always maintained that presence and aura, and helped keep WWE afloat during the rough times, along with other stars comprising the "New Generation" in Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. That's not to say everything Taker touched turned to gold- part of the problem that WWE had around 1993-1995 was some asinine creative ideas, and unfortunately, Undertaker's supernatural persona meant he had to try and take chicken crap and turn it into chicken salad. As impressive as it was when Taker drew powers from his manager Paul Bearer and the urn he carried, he was no miracle worker.
Giant Gonzales and Undertaker vs. Undertaker. Brilliant, Vince, brilliant! Luckily, the strong booking of the Deadman in his first few years in the company meant he was damn near bulletproof as a main event star. Also, he was winning most of these bizarre challengers from these monstrous wrestlers, and continuing to pile up wins at the biggest show of the year, Wrestlemania. It was many years before the concept of The Streak actually came into play, but it served as a show of faith that the powers-that-be had in Taker, that he continued to rack up wins at the big shows. Plus, while the matches that he had with the aforementioned behemoths weren't all that great (putting it mildly), it was evident that he was doing everything he could to drag something watchable out of the big lugs. So, this showed Taker to be adaptable and a great company man, which enabled him to keep getting main event opportunities against higher calibre talent.
In October 1997, that high calibre talent was a man that crossed paths with the Deadman many times over his storied career- the Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels. But they weren't going to have just any old standard match- it was time to use Taker's powers for good, and introduce a new dark and violent match type that would go on to define his career in a sense- Hell In A Cell! The first iteration of this now classic gimmick match was a classic in of itself, with unadulterated violence and sick stunts- admittedly, the stunts came more from Shawn's end. Undertaker ended up losing this war, due to the debut of another man that would become synonymous with his career, the Big Red Monster, Kane!
One of the reasons Taker and Kane became so intrinsically linked is because this feud and storyline took place as the famed Attitude Era in WWE was really heating up, with Stone Cold, The Rock and DX at the helm. Taker's former manager, Paul Bearer (it took me many years to understand the pun in his name) brought Undertaker's "little brother" Kane into the mix. Apparently, Taker left Kane to burn in a fire as a child, causing Kane to be hideously scarred, hence the mask. So, they had a match at Wrestlemania 14- the same card that Mike Tyson was brought in for. They had- pardon the pun- one hell of a match, at least relative to the previous Taker vs. big men matches. Undertaker was a big man that could work, and in 1998, Kane was perhaps even more agile. They complemented each other excellently in the years ahead, both as rivals and as partners.
The Undertaker was really starting to come into his own as a performer. He had long had the character aspects down- indeed, the Deadman gimmick is considered to be one of the best in pro wrestling history- but his wrestling skill was increasing to a point where his matches could really enhance a card, and by extension, his work could enhance the careers of fellow wrestlers. The aforementioned Kane, Stone Cold, The Rock... and Mick Foley. One of the most famous images in WWE history is Taker throwing Mankind off the Cell, but what is lesser known is that second bump through the cage roof caused Mick to be legitimately concussed, meaning Taker had to lead a barely conscious man through a live PPV match that is considered a classic today. The below image shows a look of concern on the usually stoic Undertaker's face, as he looks down at a prone Foley.
The Attitude Era was seen as very controversial due to some of the more mature content they presented, clashing with the family-friendly values of early 1990s WWF. But, the late 90s was a time when pushing the envelope was huge across society as a whole, and the Undertaker character followed suit, implementing various satanic elements to his presentation. While some of these elements and angles were successful- ultimately a story which saw Taker abduct Stephanie McMahon and tie her to a crucifix was seen as crossing the line. Undertaker required surgery anyway, so in the spring of 1999, he was taken off TV. As a result, Wrestlemania in 2000 was the only one of his entire career that he missed, but when he did return a couple of months after that, he had a much different look and persona.
"The American Badass" Undertaker reverted his hair to its natural colour, dressed like a biker and had the Harley to go with it, and most importantly, he became a normal person- well, as normal as a 7 foot tall, 320 pound man can be. He spoke like a regular guy, and when he wrestled, he actually started selling moves, rather than the prior gimmick of zombie/demon where damage would not affect him a great deal. It's often said that the best characters in wrestling are the wrestlers' real life personalities with the volume turned up, and that's what I feel like The American Badass was- Mark Calaway kicking ass and taking names. He also adjusted his move set a tad- doing the Tombstone Piledriver a little less, and introducing a new finisher, an elevated powerbomb dubbed The Last Ride. I've read online over the years a lot of criticism for this gimmick, and there's a persistent rumour that Vince hated the character, but I don't really understand it. I loved Biker Taker. It humanised him in an era where the supernatural stuff didn't seem to fit. But then again, the reasons I enjoy it may be the reasons others don't. I feel like Taker was able to show range as a performer, but others may see it as undermining the credibility of the Deadman gimmick.
Continuing on the track of things that people might not appreciate as much as I did- Taker going heel and feuding with Ric Flair in 2002. Flair returned to WWE in late 2001 following the close of WCW. In the next year, he appeared to age 10, but here he was looking good and clearly motivated. They had a really fun street fight at Wrestlemania 18 that would have been clear match of the night in my book if not for that damn Hogan vs. Rock! Plus, there was an Arn Anderson run-in where he hit Taker with his famous spinebuster! This was the first time I noticed a reference on screen to Undertaker's Wrestlemania Streak, as post match, he held up 10 fingers while Jerry Lawler said, "He's 10-0, JR! 10-0!"
One more thing, any feud where David Flair gets his ass kicked has to be a good one.
Soon after Wrestlemania 18, Taker turned face again. This is where his real life status as locker room leader started to be referred to on screen a bit, and he was all about earning respect. Around this time was when the original Raw/Smackdown roster split happened, and with the likes of Triple H and Ric Flair over on Raw, Taker became the measuring stick on Smackdown. His approval and endorsement meant a lot, especially during the time when he was Undisputed Champion and appearing on both shows (side note: I really wish they'd go back to that. I'm really trying to embrace the current set-up but I can't- fuck the Universal title). He had a great ladder match on Raw defending the belt against Jeff Hardy, which planted the seeds for Jeff's eventual solo superstar run. He also congratulated this young blue chipper on an impressive debut, and he turned out all right:
Eventually, the call was made to have Undertaker revert back to his Deadman gimmick. In a move which lends credibility to the rumours mentioned earlier, Vince McMahon literally buried Biker Taker in a Buried Alive match (with the assistance of Kane). This set the stage for Wrestlemania XX (or 20 if Roman numerals aren't your thing). Madison Square Garden, New York City, Taker vs. Kane battle at Mania one more time!
The familiar and creepy "Oh yesssss!" blares through MSG, and Paul Bearer is reunited with the Deadman! We have the cloaked druids carrying torches, and as much as I liked Biker Taker, I can't deny this is a way better spectacle than Limp Bizkit blaring over the speakers. This match shows the continuing evolution of Taker too, while he's back as the Deadman, he retained unspoken elements of the American Badass, starting with fast and aggressive strikes, and his attire was a mix between Deadman and Biker. This was a glorified squash of Kane to re-establish OG Undertaker, perhaps in front of a different audience, but it worked.
From here, Undertaker spent the better part of the next decade as a Smackdown exclusive wrestler, lending the blue brand some much needed star power when they often played second fiddle to Raw (and still do today). He was a veteran who could have rested on his laurels, but he continued to re-invent himself, using his real life fandom of UFC to add MMA holds to his arsenal, such as the triangle choke and another new finisher, the Hell's Gate submission- also known as a gogoplata. The implementation of this style allowed Undertaker to have one of the first true classic wrestling matches of his career (and to be fair, 300 pounders were never really expected to have that kind of work rate)- No Way Out 2006, vs. Kurt Angle. Absolutely amazing. But that was only the beginning.
At the beginning of 2007, Undertaker noticeably dropped some weight, looking much more lean and muscular, and would be billed at 299 pounds from that point on. He won the Royal Rumble for the first time in his career that year (having possibly the best finishing sequence in Rumble history with HBK), sending him on a collision course with World Heavyweight Champion, Batista, at Wrestlemania 23.
Heading into Mania, hopes weren't high. Taker had that amazing match with Angle a year prior, but it was seen as an anomaly- that was Kurt Angle opposite him, and he hadn't come close to that level since. But once again, in defense of the Deadman, his main opponents over that year were Mark Henry, Mr Kennedy and MVP- not exactly known for their 5 star match track record. That said, Batista didn't have a giant list of great matches either. But what do you know, both men brought their working boots like never before, and had an amazing match- Taker won, 'cause Mania, but Batista looked great in the process too. Cena vs HBK was my MOTN on that show, but I tell ya, Batista vs. Taker was just a pubic hair behind. They feuded for the rest of 2007, and proved it wasn't a fluuke, creating magic every time they had a match. 2007 was a great year to add to the already legendary legacy of the Undertaker.
Undertaker continued this run of high quality matches throughout 2008, but the next milestone in his amazing career came in 2009, at Wrestlemania 25. Amazingly, Undertaker had never defeated Shawn Michaels in a singles match in all the times that they had crossed paths. The two Texans battled in front of their home state crowd, and it was what many consider the best match ever, and I'm inclined to agree. Two titans, hitting each other with their best shots again and again. Finally though, Undertaker proved that Wrestlemania was his yard, and was able to put "beat Shawn Michaels" on his résumé.
An obsessed HBK set about getting his rematch at the next year's Wrestlemania, which Taker granted on one condition- Michaels' career was on the line. In a match of almost equal sublime quality to the first- some people even consider it greater- Undertaker ended the career of Shawn Michaels, a man considered the GOAT by fans and peers alike. It astounded me, at that advanced stage of his career, after 20 years in WWE, that the Undertaker was strengthening his own claim to being the GOAT by churning out these all time classic matches. He was not phoning it in by any stretch of the imagination.
With HBK retired, his DX partner, Triple H, set about trying to do what his best friend couldn't. The back-to-back Taker vs. HHH matches at Wrestlemanias 27 and 28 were a different style to the HBK encounters- while Michaels brought a little more flash and fluidity, Triple H was more rugged and smash-mouth. Individually, I feel the HHH matches weren't quite up to the HBK level (which is by no means an insult), but as a multi-year story arc, it told a tremendous story of the warrior, the Undertaker, going to war with two of the best ever and barely surviving, showing more cracks in his armour, gradually displaying human weakness of age of physical deterioration. Mania 27 saw Taker carried out on a stretcher despite winning the match. Mania 28, both Taker's opponent Triple H, and special referee Shawn Michaels, had to help the Deadman to the back after a gruelling Hell in a Cell match in what was billed as "The End of an Era". This lead many to believe that Undertaker was retiring following that match, and the very end before they went backstage certainly felt like a curtain call.
Turned out that "End of an Era" was just a cute marketing slogan, because Undertaker still had a bit more in the tank. While the four year HBK/HHH/Taker Wrestlemania story arc had a basis in respect, Wrestlemania 29 in 2013 saw an opportunistic heel in CM Punk try to take the Streak after losing his record breaking WWE title run. He referred to what he believed to be a weakened Deadman and stole Taker's urn. They also played off the recent real-life death of Paul Bearer, but the less said about that, the better. Punk vs. Taker was actually a really fun match. As Undertaker at this stage in his career was basically a once-a-year performer at Wrestlemania, he actually looked a lot healthier and a lot less vulnerable at Wrestlemania 29. Punk did not get to break the Streak, and Taker felt good enough to stick around for a couple of weeks following Mania and do the UK tour, during which he put over the trio of Reigns, Rollins, Ambrose- known as the Shield- and even had a singles match with Dean Ambrose on Smackdown! Undertaker giving back to the business by putting these young guys over seemed to be a sign he was winding down.
Thanks to a Shield powerbomb through a table, we didn't see Undertaker again until Mania season in 2014, for Wrestlemania 30. A marquee match was signed of Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker. Lesnar worked with Taker in his initial WWE run in 2002/2003, even beating him in a Hell in a Cell match. Apparently there was a bit of real life heat between Lesnar and Taker, stemming from how strong Taker put Brock over, only for him to walk away from WWE a year or so later. They even exchanged words following Brock's loss to Cain Velasquez at UFC 121. I guess WWE thought fans were privy to all that heat in this online age, or else thought the name value itself would sell the match, because they barely tried to build it themselves. Taker chokeslammed Lesnar during the contract signing, and that was about it. The lazy build was weird, but it added to the shock factor of what happened next.
"The Streak... is over." The disbelief in Michael Cole's voice leads me to believe he wasn't told the result ahead of time, because he's not that good an actor/commentator. I thought the Streak would only end when Taker retired, and I thought it would end intact. There's still a lot of debate as to whether this was a good decision, and I'm still not sure. In a sense, it does play into the gradual weakening of Taker we saw in the HHH/HBK saga- he could only battle these younger, stronger beasts for so long until it finally caught up with him. The actual match quality wasn't up to his most recent performances up to that point, but that was due to a bad concussion suffered early in the match. Undertaker was immediately rushed to hospital following the match, and, to show how important Undertaker is to WWE, Vince left Wrestlemania for the first time in history to be by his side. But no matter how you dissect and analyse it, it was one of the most shocking moments in wrestling history, one that most fans thought we would never see, and that's a testament to the impact Undertaker has had on the business.
Many also thought that if the Streak was going to end, that would be the end of Taker's career. Perhaps it may have been. Perhaps Taker didn't want to go out on a sub-standard performance. We may never know how Undertaker saw his career winding down, he's one of the only wrestlers able to maintain privacy and kayfabe in this modern world. Anyway, he came back at Wrestlemania 31 and faced Bray Wyatt, who has been viewed as Taker's successor in some circles due to the supernatural elements of both characters. Wyatt didn't get much offense in, however. Taker was looking good, with short jet black hair and slimmed down- looked very similar to how he did in 2002. This was just a showcase for Taker, and it feels like he was used to add more name value to Wrestlemania, rather than having a real story to be involved in.
He managed to tie up some loose ends and finish off the feud with Brock, redeeming the WM30 performance with two very good matches at Summerslam and HIAC. Taker then faced Shane at WM32 in one of the most stupid pieces of matchmaking I've ever seen. Which brings us to recent months, and the final run of the Deadman.
Around Survivor Series time, Undertaker appeared on Smackdown. He cut a promo that made little sense in the weeks following, and makes even less sense now. He called Smackdown his home and said "Wrestlemania will no longer define me." His next appearance was on Raw a couple of months later, where he announced his entry in the 2017 Royal Rumble- y'know, the beginning of the Road to Wrestlemania. Guessing plans changed, perhaps the surgery he had on his hip accelerated his retirement. He met Goldberg in the ring for the first and only time, eliminating him before getting eliminated by his Wrestlemania opponent Roman Reigns, who uttered the now famous words, "It's my yard now". I was concerned with Taker's appearance and performance in the 2017 Rumble. He looked out of shape and performed like it too, struggling to deliver chokeslams.
Fast forward to Wrestlemania 33. Taker vs. Reigns. It's my belief that Roman Reigns is the reason the Streak ended. The idea seemed to be for Brock to look super strong for a year heading into his Wrestlemania 31 showdown with Reigns. End the Streak, throw Cena around like a rag doll and take his title, then Reigns slays the beast. Unfortunately, the crowd rejected Reigns as a top face, so they went to Plan B- Rollins cashing in MITB. Now, two years later, they cast Reigns as a quasi-heel and have him try to get over by retiring the Undertaker. It could work.
As for the match- Taker looked to still have a bit of a belly, but worked really hard with Reigns to have a compelling Wrestlemania main event. They blew the Tombstone reversal spot, but otherwise, it was a hard hitting match that continued the narrative that started back at Wrestlemania 25- even Undertaker can't fight Father Time. He got older and the wars got harder and the opponents got younger. Undertaker was defiant until the very end, talking trash, fighting back, tried to do his trademark sit-up- but while his mind and heart was willing, his body gave out. It took 4 Spears- the strongest, most protected finisher move in WWE of the past 3 years has been Roman's Spear. It ended up being a good match to send Taker off with- he acquitted himself well, but you got the sense it took every last ounce of his being to give us one last match worthy of the legendary Undertaker.
Thank you, Taker. In a time where "everyone's playing a character", and "wins and losses don't matter", you committed yourself 100% to your performance, and made even the most jaded fans get swept up in what makes wrestling so great. Like any great form of entertainment, we want to get so immersed in it that we feel like we live in that world. I'm so grateful I was able to see you live one time. For the first, and last time, I felt the goosebumps as the stadium darkened and that gong hit. I saw 75,000 people, some crying, raising their fists in solidarity as you left the stage for the final time. Thank you, Deadman. Thank you, American Badass. Thank you, Mark Calaway. Thank you, Undertaker.
Until next time, take care,