N ote: To read the Masked Man’s story on the Ultimate Warrior’s death Tuesday night, click here.
The Undertaker lost to Brock Lesnar in the semi-main event of WrestleMania 30.
I’m just going to leave that there, because a sentence like that deserves to be left alone. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, consider the scene: There were 75,167 people in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, and when they saw Taker lose, their silence was deafening. Mouths hung open in shock, hands were thrown into the air in disbelief, heads swiveled to confirm the truth on other faces. Children cried. Adults cried. I think I saw an usher misting up. It was that kind of moment.
The Undertaker — preternatural pugilist and protector of the old guard of professional wrestling — had come to define WrestleMania over the past two decades. It wasn’t merely his presence at the event, but his wins. The streak, his run of victories on wrestling’s biggest stage, had reached 21. He had never lost at WrestleMania.
The first win came against a declining Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka at WrestleMania 7. At 8, he battled his erstwhile running buddy Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a feud that made Taker a fan favorite (and sent Roberts packing from the WWF for four years). At 9, he was set against Giant Gonzales, the failed basketball center clad in furry, muscle-airbrushed spandex; in this match Taker didn’t win outright, but instead was awarded the victory via disqualification after Gonzales used a chloroform-soaked rag on him. (Taker got his revenge by pinning Gonzales at SummerSlam that year.) He no-showed WrestleMania 10 when he was out with an injury. (Fans will certainly recall this period, when he was “replaced” by an evil replacement Undertaker, known lovingly as “The Underfaker.”) At 11, he felled King Kong Bundy, who was serving under Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Corporation. At 12, he showed the door to Diesel (a.k.a. Kevin Nash), who would soon leave the WWF for WCW; the match was far from a thing of beauty, but it was Taker’s first WrestleMania match of significant length. WrestleMania 13 saw Taker win the world title from Sid; Sid had recently acquired it from Bret Hart. The Undertaker’s half brother Kane debuted thereafter, leading to the two men doing battle at WrestleMania 14, where Taker hit Kane with three Tombstone Piledrivers en route to victory. (Kane also delivered one to Pete Rose that night.)
WrestleMania 15 featured one of the most despised matches in WWF history, the Hell in a Cell match between Undertaker and Big Boss Man; Taker was once again a villain, heading a demonic mafia called the Ministry of Darkness, while Boss Man was a lackey in Vince McMahon’s Corporation faction. Nobody minded seeing Boss Man lose, but the manner in which he was defeated — hung by a noose in the middle of the cage — defied all good taste. The outcome also defied logic; after the match it was revealed that Taker and McMahon had been in cahoots all along. It makes sense why WWE rarely plays historical highlight packages of the streak, considering how inconsequential and/or infamous some of its early matches were.
At the Astrodome for ’Mania 17, Taker — now a motorcycle-riding “American Badass” — felled Triple H. Announcer Jim Ross made note of the streak, which was at eight at the start of the match. At 18 the Undertaker clashed with Ric Flair, who was then the putative co-owner of the company. 19 was a handicap match against the Big Show and A-Train (a.k.a. Prince Albert, a.k.a. Lord Tensai, a.k.a. current WWE commentator Jason Albert); Taker got an assist from Aussie strongman Nathan Jones in the win. WrestleMania 20 saw a return of Taker’s undead persona and his feud with Kane. The result was the same. At 21, Randy Orton tried to end the streak — Taker’s undefeated run was now a story line. But even with the assistance of his dad, “Cowboy” Bob Orton, Randy fell short. 22 was a casket match against Mark Henry; Taker won. At WrestleMania 23, he fought champ Batista; the Undertaker won and claimed the title. 24 again saw him pursuing the championship, this time against Edge; Taker again won the belt. WrestleMania 25 and 26 were the legendary matches between the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels; at this point, the entire story line was Michaels’s desire to prove himself by breaking the streak. (Despite never winning, his epic performances earned Michaels his own streak-like designation — the moniker “Mr. WrestleMania.”) 27 and 28 were against Michaels’s buddy Triple H; Taker won the first, but was unable to leave the ring under his own power, so he demanded the second as a chance for redemption. Michaels refereed the rematch to bring the four-year story line full circle. The opponent in 29 was CM Punk, who tormented Taker by defiling the memory of the recently dead (in real life) Paul Bearer.
Then came WrestleMania 30.
It’s safe to say nobody saw this coming. Despite Lesnar’s physical dominance, the match seemed destined to be another notch on Taker’s belt. The reasons were numerous: Lesnar stood little to gain from the win; Lesnar is also a part-time performer, and the thinking went that if Taker were to lose, it would be to a younger star who could coast on the triumph. And with WrestleMania 32 already announced for the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, many fans were looking two years down the line, when they guessed Taker would retire in his home state and in front of the biggest crowd in wrestling history.
He didn’t make it that far. He hasn’t announced his retirement, but it feels imminent, and regardless, the Undertaker who wrestled Sunday looked old and slightly wobbly for the first time, so it’s hard to imagine him continuing for two more years. Fans everywhere are perplexed as to why Lesnar was gifted with the win when he stood to gain so little. If I had to guess, I’d bet that Taker didn’t decide he was done until his feud with Lesnar had already gotten under way and he realized his body wasn’t responding to training like he wanted it to. If he chooses to retire now, it would be at something approaching the top of his game. He is 49 years old, after all.
Usually, I’d find someplace to mention the Undertaker’s real-life name, Mark Calaway. But in this case, what would be the point? Taker never broke kayfabe, almost never appeared out of character in public, and lived his gimmick to the point that Saturday night, as his old manager Paul Bearer (né William Moody) was being posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, Taker appeared backlit and in full regalia to silently toast his old cohort. Ten feet in front of him was a sea of wrestlers — good guys, bad guys, legends of every stripe — who were attired in their Sunday best, politely clapping even at their former putative rivals. They were all out of character to honor the history of the business. Undertaker wouldn’t even break scene to eulogize a dear friend.
Except for a few interviews during that odd biker spell in the early 2000s, he always kept character, sidestepping the “reality” of the sport and instead always protecting its old-school ethos. And that, in the end, is the most compelling explanation for the Undertaker’s loss on Sunday. Taker has long been considered the most respected voice of tradition and morality in the WWE locker room. Wrestling custom holds that you always “go out on your back” — losing in your last match to give some glory to a guy who’ll use it to build his career going forward. But in the modern era, with WWE functioning as a monopoly (and owners of the video archives of nearly the entire industry), the notion of legacy has become more powerful than ever. WWE will own the Undertaker’s recorded history for years after he’s gone, and preserving his undefeated streak would have had significant marketing value to the company. But wrestling tradition says you lose your last match, and wrestling tradition won out, which is a decision that would have been Taker’s to make.
It probably didn’t hurt that he respects Lesnar and is a big MMA fan. Taker was in the audience at UFC 121 in 2010, when Lesnar lost the UFC heavyweight title to Cain Velasquez. Taker and Lesnar had a run-in that proved to be one of the most hotly debated wrestling topics of the year. Regardless of whether Taker was inviting Brock to a WrestleMania match — the prevailing theory — or whether he was challenging his manhood, the story line was set for the next time the two men would find themselves in the ring together.
Many fans have questioned why the streak should have ended against Brock, because another wrestler could have used the win as a springboard to the fame Lesnar already has. (Some have even wondered why they didn’t just let CM Punk win last year, which is the craziest thing I can imagine. I love Punk, but he’s not even employed by WWE anymore, so it’s hard to argue he would have used the notoriety that came with beating Taker at WrestleMania any better than Lesnar will.) I understand the logic, but it’s self-defeating. If you named the wrestlers who would stand to gain from beating Taker and all those WWE would actually allow to beat Taker, the only person in both categories right now is Daniel Bryan, and he had other obligations Sunday night. Maybe next year Bray Wyatt or Roman Reigns or Cesaro would have been ready, but right now they aren’t. For someone that young, it may be more than they could handle. The streak is no small thing.
In recent years, Taker’s schedule had transitioned to that of once-a-year special attraction, his body too beaten up from years of in-ring abuse to maintain a full-time schedule. He began to resemble WWE’s original legendary behemoth of the WWF — Andre the Giant (who had his own undefeated streak, exaggerated as it may have been), wrestling infrequently and only out of a sense of obligation to the sport and to McMahon. The streak’s significance to fans and its value to McMahon must have felt like a burden to Calaway as he contemplated the end of his career. The undefeated run had become bigger than the man, especially compared with what his aging body was capable of in the ring. But that’s what wrestling is all about: Man creates legend; legend outlives man.
The streak, in the years before it came to be known as such, was basically a matter of functionality in much the same way the Undertaker’s yearlong undefeated record upon his introduction to the WWF was. He was protected by McMahon to build up his mystique. To have the Undertaker seem like a legitimate threat to Hulk Hogan — and to fully sell him as a supernatural force — required the perception of unrelenting dominance. Years later, long after he had been proven vulnerable, the streak became the going concern of his career and of how WWE marketed his ’Mania appearances. For one day a year, fans would suspend disbelief and accept that Taker was unbeatable.
Despite his penchant for supernatural feuds and casket matches, the Undertaker’s streak has been retrofitted into decidedly tangible terms — a real legendary athlete on a marathon campaign. The streak wasn’t a championship belt, but in many ways it was bigger than one. It was the perfect honorary for a guy who, despite his numerous championships, never really needed one, and mostly only held the belt when it needed the eminence his reputation could confer upon it. In that way, the streak was more than a championship; if Daniel Bryan or Randy Orton or John Cena disappeared, the WWE title would still exist. The streak doesn’t exist without the Undertaker.
What mattered most was the emotional continuity, the consistency of the mega-match feel every year (especially to McMahon and the WWE marketing department), and the comfort of a knowable ending. Even though wrestling fans will imagine every possible outcome to every match, often twisting themselves into knots a couple loops too tight, that kind of fantasy booking doesn’t prove that we want to be shocked; it proves the opposite, that we want to figure out the twist ahead of time. Some have even compared the streak’s end to the Montreal Screwjob in terms of shockingness, but that gets it wrong. To fans at the time, Shawn beating Bret was well within the realm of comprehension. It was only after the fact that the craziness of the incident became clear. Lesnar’s win on Sunday had no frame of reference, and those who witnessed it couldn’t believe their eyes.
The match’s end hit so hard not only because we were surprised but also because we were unnerved. The Undertaker was the element of consistency that we were sure we knew. When he lost, our reality had been changed. That’s hyperbole, sure, but try to think of another situation in which every single person in a football stadium would be sitting in stunned silence. There aren’t many. And there likely won’t be one again.
WrestleMania weekend put WWE history front and center, with autograph sessions and one-man shows and the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony. WrestleMania itself opened up with Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and the Rock together in the ring, the crowd cheering loudly as they recited their old catchphrases.
For once, the attention to history felt balanced by the presence of a new generation of wrestlers who could hold a candle to their forebears. When the Shield decimated Kane and the New Age Outlaws on Sunday, it was a metaphor for the changing of the guard. Finally, WWE had a crop of talent promising enough to displace the Attitude Era as the most recent time of pro wrestling greatness. Daniel Bryan at long last reached the mountaintop by defeating Triple H and his cronies, Randy Orton and Batista. Cesaro and Bray Wyatt had moments to shine. They didn’t even trot out any old-timers for the Battle Royal. It almost felt like Lesnar was less a villain than an innocent bystander to this generational shift.
But the past was unavoidable. It was the 30th WrestleMania after all.
Taker’s loss garnered a tidal wave of mainstream coverage, little of which mentioned Daniel Bryan, who won the title in the main event after a months-long ordeal. That’s not a knock on Bryan, it’s just further proof of the power of nostalgia in the wrestling enterprise. Everybody remembers wrestling in their childhood, and the Undertaker was the top-rope-walking embodiment of our youth for so many of us. You can see the same thing in the coverage of the Ultimate Warrior’s death, which has garnered far more press than his Hall of Fame induction. The coverage wasn’t about what happened at the end of the match on Sunday; it was about what Undertaker has given us over the years. But what happened in the ring earned that attention. At one point, Taker climbed to the top rope to perform one of his signature moves (which he borrowed from the Spoiler, Don Jardine): He grabs his opponent’s hand and “walks the top rope like a tightrope,” sliding out to the middle of the ring, and then jumps off, pounding his opponent with a forearm shot. They always refer to this move as “old-school,” a reference to Taker’s longtime use of it. On Sunday, Lesnar snatched him off the top rope and slammed him. So much for tradition.
During the match you could see he was ready to be done. In the end, even the Deadman couldn’t overcome the reality of our impermanence. He never had the debilitating injury history of Steve Austin, or the substance abuse issues of Jake Roberts or Scott Hall, or the crushing paparazzi drama of Hulk Hogan. But even Mark Calaway couldn’t outlast Father Time. “I wouldn’t say time goes marching on,” said Mean Gene Okerlund in his Hall of Fame induction speech for Mr. T, “but I had two guys in the parking lot chasing me with shovels.”
Of course, during a weekend when the age of the industry was on such stark display, the sentiment was probably best summed up by Hulk Hogan, the 60-year-old former face of the WWF and host of WrestleMania 30. On Monday night, when he was recapping the highs of the previous night, he said he just knew that “the big man upstairs was looking down with a smile on his face.” But Hogan wasn’t talking about God. He was talking about Andre the Giant. In WWE, the past is God. The present is just trying to get there.