If I recall correctly, my morph from skeptic to fan happened just around the time of the 1990 Survivor Series, which happened to be the event that debuted the Undertaker. In a way, Undertaker was the perfect new character to hook a young kid who was really into comic books, as Undertaker was essentially a supervillain come to life. Weirdly, even though Undertaker’s gimmick (a zombie mortician, basically) was about as over-the-top as it came, he also served as a bit of strange realism within the cartoonish wrestling world. He wasn’t a middle-aged guy hamming it up as, say, a wrestling barber or a wrestling cop or a wrestling Elvis impersonator…Undertaker just showed up with no emotion, no B.S. and just beat the hell out of opponents. While he was a heel who went after all our favourites, fans didn’t really hate Undertaker in the traditional wrestling villain sense; he was less a heel than a force of nature. Once he finally turned face, the fans bought it completely since we were just waiting for an excuse to properly cheer such a cool character.
My pro wrestling fandom has certainly waned and waxed over all these years, but the one constant has always been the Undertaker. He’s the connective tissue that has linked three decades of WWF/WWE (and by extension, all of pro wrestling) history. Watching Undertaker in the ring against a new star like Roman Reigns*, in a match that took place last night at Wrestlemania 33, instantly serves to cement Reigns’ place as a notable figure in that history. There’s no way to calculate this, but it’s possible that Undertaker has wrestled more major names in wrestling than anyone else in history. The only contenders for that title are maybe guys with more international experience to go along with North American stints (i.e. Chris Jericho or Rey Mysterio) or maybe just guys like Ric Flair or Terry Funk who had even more longevity.
* = Reigns, by the way, is the guy WWE has been trying to push as its new top star for a few years now, except the fans just hate him. It’s just a really weird decision for WWE to keep going to the well with this guy when there are several more overall talented people in the company. Even if WWE took advantage of Reigns’ unpopularity by making him heel, that makes way more sense than having a top star who’s hated by 90% of the audience. You’d think that “guy who retired the Undertaker” would be the perfect way to turn someone heel, right?
In a way, Undertaker is the perfect person to be the focal point of modern wrestling history since he encapsulates all that is good, bad and ridiculous about pro wrestling. Nobody has been involved in more stupid storylines than the Undertaker, with the possible exception of his long-lost zombie brother Kane BUT, since Kane was himself birthed from a stupid storyline, Undertaker should get bragging rights by extension. At the same time, Undertaker also has dozens of classic matches to his name, some of the single-most memorable bouts in WWE history. His death-related gimmick has been so perfectly broad that it lends itself to both the ridiculous (a Buried Alive match!) and the sublime (who else can use Johnny Cash’s “Ain’t No Grave” as entrance music and live up to its inherent badassery?)
It’s going to be weird doing my usual “move away from wrestling for a few months and then jump back in” routine without the obligatory check-in on what Undertaker is up to, even if his involvement has been basically limited to Wrestlemania-only in the last several years. The guy into his 50’s at this point, and watching last night’s match, it’s verrrrry safe to say he could’ve or should’ve hung it up a few years ago. Still, he certainly earned the right to decide when he was going to officially retire. Maybe he wanted to make it an even 25 matches at Wrestlemania in his career, or maybe he wanted to retire in Orlando a la Ric Flair a few years back. Maybe he respected Roman Reigns just SO MUCH that he wanted to pass the torch to….well, that can’t be it.
Pro tip: if you’re having a basement wrestling match with your brother, be sure to only deliver a tombstone piledriver on a pillow. Trust me. The doctor said I may have brain damage! “Mark, what’s the point of this story?” I like stories.