Although WWE sort of stumbled into its good fortune with Undertaker's streak of wins at WrestleMania, now up to 21 in a row without a loss, in recent years it has become the stuff of legend. Simply challenging it is considered an honor as great as -- or perhaps even greater than -- challenging for the WWE world heavyweight championship title.
Considering the fact that the streak is held in such high regard, and Undertaker is set to defend it once again against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 30 on April 6, 2014, in New Orleans, we're going to rank each match from worst to best. Considerations will be made for both the work within the match and the story heading into it, not to mention historical significance.
6. Batista, WrestleMania 23
The best selling WrestleMania event in history saw Undertaker challenge for the world heavyweight title after winning that year's Royal Rumble event from the number 30 spot, the first time in history that had ever happened. His opponent, Batista, was a made man and one of the biggest stars on the roster.
Their feud leading up to the match was somewhat underwhelming -- as was the case with the other title bout on the show, John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels -- and there was a very real fear that the actual match would fail to deliver the goods.
Let's face it: Batista and, to this point, Undertaker weren't exactly known for frequently staging mat classics.
Naturally, they went out and, arguably, had the best match on the card.
Batista was aggressive early but Undertaker quickly turned the tide and controlled the majority of the match. This felt like a showcase for all of "The Deadman's" big spots, like the leg drop on the apron and the suicide dive over the top rope.
"The Animal" only came back after sending Undertaker crashing through the barricade and following it up with a running power slam from one announce desk to the other. No, we aren't talking about a Hardy Boyz spot off the top of a ladder through three tables below but for an Undertaker match, this was a serious high spot.
When Undertaker hit the Last Ride from the corner and Batista kicked out it swelled the crowd. They swelled even more after 'Taker sat up from a Spinebuster and delivered a choke slam for another near fall. Then Batista hit a spear followed by a Batista Bomb and the crowd knew it was watching something special when "The Deadman" kicked out at two-and-a-half.
Not long after, the Tombstone got the pinfall and crowned a new champion. This was everything the Sycho Sid match at WrestleMania 13 was supposed to be but never could.
5. CM Punk, WrestleMania 29
Four four years in a row, Undertaker had arguably the best match on the card at WrestleMania. He tore the house down with Shawn Michaels and Triple H with great matches that featured the streak as the center component to the story.
This was a break away from that, though the streak was obviously still the backbone of it.
WWE had run into a creative brick wall with him and ended up simply having Punk win a Fatal Four-Way match on a Raw show for the right to challenge Undertaker. It was thin and felt especially like a slap in the face after the great stories we were treated to for the past four years.
The very next night, Paul Bearer died.
WWE went to Bearer's family and asked for their blessing to use his death for the storyline feud between Undertaker, who Bearer managed and was (kayfabe, of course) his father on television, and Punk. They agreed and "The Second City Savior" went about finding new and interesting ways to be as offensive as he could be. He stole Undertaker's urn, played with it like a toy, and, later, dumped its contents all over 'Taker's body.
It was bad enough, in fact, that the family second guessed its decision to give their blessing.
The idea in the storyline was that Punk would gain a mental advantage no one else before him ever had. Physically, he couldn't measure up but his wrestling prowess combined with his sociopathic tendencies combined with Undertaker dealing with Bearer's death would make him the favorite.
The match was very good. Punk stayed true to the psychology of his being, well, a psycho, and stole Undertaker's signature spots while drawing power from the urn his manager, Paul Heyman, still had in his possession. His facial expressions throughout the match are legendary.
In typical Punk fashion, it gets a bit sloppy, such as his delivery of the GTS late in the match though, in fairness, he had injured his knee. There was an incredible spot put together where Undertaker had Punk set up for the Last Ride but Heyman handed off the urn and Punk blasted 'Taker with it before crossing his arms and sticking his tongue out for the pinfall attempt.
The crowd responded exactly the way it was supposed to and the moment felt as big as it was meant to.
The finishing sequence was a series of reversals ending in Undertaker screaming with strength to deliver the final Tombstone. When it was over, you knew the match was great but it did not have the epic feel of the four Michaels/Triple H matches that preceeded it.
Undertaker never even took the straps down!
4. Triple H, WrestleMania 27
By the time we got to this match, the streak had become not just the biggest thing but the only thing. Undertaker had suffered some serious injuries in a match with Rey Mysterio and the decision was made to scale his schedule back greatly. He was still a valuable commodity but getting long in the tooth.
Better to maximize that value.
However, considering the back-to-back streak matches he had with Shawn Michaels, following that would seem like an impossible task. They did this by matching 'Taker up with Triple H, Shawn's best friend and former running buddy in D-Generation X.
The story, essentially, was that Triple H had conquered all in WWE except, of course, the streak. So he was coming for it, despite Shawn outright telling him he couldn't do it.
The match was made No Holds Barred, presumably to add a level of intrigue made necessary by what Michaels and Undertaker had done the last two years.
Really, that's what this match really represents. It kicked off a new era in the streak, one that would dictate whomever was working against Undertaker find a way to make fans believe, if only for an instant, that the streak was in jeopardy of being broken. There are few who possess the credibility for this, and, again, Michaels set the bar so incredibly high that everyone after would have one hell of a time trying to stop it.
This match worked in large part because Triple H was always presented as Michaels' equal, even if that's not necessarily accurate. Because WWE sold him as such, that's what he was.
So they went about working a match centered around creating the feeling within the fans that "The Game" would win and the streak would actually be broken. The commentary reflected this with Jim Ross saying things like "the streak will end one day but will it be today?"
First, Triple H survived multiple finishers, showing the resilience normally reserved for Undertaker himself. Then, he threw the kitchen sink at "The Deadman", suplementing an earlier Pedigree with two more, both failing to earn a three count. This was followed by a series of chair shots, all while the "Cerebral Assassin" screamed for Undertaker to "STAY DOWN", no different than Undertaker had done to Michaels the year prior.
To really drive it home, Triple H actually used a chair shot to the head, a legitimately banned move in WWE at the time that later resulted in a fine (though said fine was questionable for a numbber of reasons).
They did manage to pull off what they set out to do in creating the very real doubt that Undertaker would win. After all that offense from Triple H, he attempted a lame comeback via patented dramatic throat grab but "The Game" literally shrugged it off before stealing 'Taker's throat slash and giving him a Tombstone. He capped it off by crossing "The Deadman's" arms and sticking his tongue out while the referee counted.
It didn't matter. In that moment, the match was a success because fans had been given a reason to believe Triple H would win, even though they knew better.
It should be noted that the match is hurt somewhat by how slow it was and the fact that so many fans weren't keen on the manner in which it was carried out -- Triple H walking out under his own power despite tapping to Hell's Gate, a submission, mind you, that wasn't properly applied, while Undertaker did a stretcher job. This match was always going to lead to the rematch a year later, a fact obvious even at that time, and that hurts it as well.
3. Triple H, WrestleMania 28
Despite losing at WrestleMania 27, tapping clean in the center of the ring, Triple H treated it like a victory. He was able to walk out on his own power, after all, while Undertaker had to be carried out. For that reason, it was "The Deadman" challenging "The Game" to a rematch, a challenge that was initially declined until a few well placed verbally jabs found their mark and Triple H became agreeable.
His condition was that the match be contested with one special stipulation: Hell in a Cell. Later, Shawn Michaels was added as special guest referee and the story was centered on whether or not Triple H could finish was he started the year before, possibly with the assistance of his best friend who himself had failed to end the streak after two cracks at it the two years prior with the second loss costing him his career.
Again, they had to create some doubt that Undertaker would win. It was integral to the story, especially considering the match the two had at WrestleMania 27.
That story continued here.
The match, admittedly enough, is slow. That's simply the case with all "epic" Triple H style matches but they were building to the conclusion all throughout with little bits setting up markers in the match, like 'Taker pushing Michaels away early and drawing the special guest referee's ire. It was small but notable because it gave later events that much more meaning.
Later, Triple H would grab a chair and go about systematically destroying Undertaker with it. Michaels, knowing "The Deadman" would never quit, pleaded with Triple H to stop while also pleading with 'Taker to let him call the bout. He was calling it down the middle like he said he would heading in, though no one actually believed he would. This despite both wrestlers getting physical with him (Triple H had pushed him away during the chair destruction).
Michaels actually came close to calling the match; so close, in fact, that Undertaker slapped on Hell's Gate to stop him. He was out long enough to bring out a new referee, who counted a near fall for 'Taker after he had put Triple H out with Hell's Gate. This infuriated Undertaker to such a degree, he choke slammed the referee.
Then, the moment we were sure the streak was over.
Triple H stood up and Undertaker looked to deliver a Tombstone. "The Game" slid down his back, however, and a revived Michaels hit Sweet Chin Music. Immediately after, Triple H hit the Pedigree and Michaels began his count.
Not only was there doubt Undertaker would win, in that moment, brief as it may have been, it seemed like a near certainty he would lose.
Instead, the story reached its natural conclusion. Triple H had given it his all and despite stacking the odds in his favor every which way he could, despite the extended beating he had delivered spanning two different matches, he was finally made to realize that he could not win, no matter what he did.
But he just wouldn't stop trying. He couldn't, because it's just not who he is or would ever be. Though he knew he was beaten, he was still reaching for his trusty sledgehammer, weakly lunging at Undertaker with it before having it taken away. Finally, like his best friend before him, he accepted the end. Perched in the corner, the turnbuckles the only thing left holding him up, he looked to his friend, found no reprieve, shook his head, and delivered one final crotch chop, defiant until the end.
Undertaker used the sledgehammer to put him down, Michaels turning his back so he didn't have to witness the end he knew was near. "The Deadman" then picked his victim back up, slashed his throat to signal the end, and delivered the final Tombstone.
Michaels counted and that was that.
This is not the best match these two had at WrestleMania. In fact, if we were only considering the bell-to-bell action this would be the worst of the three. It's the story and everything that went into it that elevates it to this level. Because, devoid of story, a wrestling match is really just two guys pretending to hurt each other. They put purpose behind everything they did for two years running.
2. Shawn Michaels, WrestleMania 26
These two had done something so special the year before that there was simply no way to top it from a technical perspective. The match was nearly perfect, and the story was great.
This time, the story was nearly perfect and the match was great.
Michaels had come so close to ending the streak at WrestleMania 25 that it tore him to shreds to think that his defeat came due to one simple mistake. He wanted another chance but "The Deadman" initially refused. So he went about doing everything he could for months to get the match, including trying to win the Royal Rumble to costing Undertaker the world heavyweight title at Elimination Chamber.
Finally, 'Taker accepted but under one condition: Michaels put his career on the line. Shawn, realizing there was nothing left but to beat the unbeatable at WrestleMania, agreed and the match was on.
No, they couldn't recreate the magic of the year prior, but they certainly tried their best.
Undertaker opened with his signature offense, including Old School, but on the landing he sold like he injured his leg. Michaels, naturally, targeted it and that would become a focal point of "HBK's" attack. Not only that, it served to make Undertaker vulnerable.
They also played the match the only way they could, as two wily veterans who knew each other almost as well as they knew themselves.
Really, though, the stakes were so high -- streak vs. career -- that the drama was heightened for every successfully delivered finisher. Every near fall was that much more explosive because, well, this wasn't your typical match. The end didn't signify a simple match coming to a close, it meant Michaels' career would be over or Undertaker's streak gone for good. Even if you were a smart fan, you knew this was special because it was likely the last time you would ever watch arguably the greatest wrestler of all time ply his craft.
Michaels would later say that, looking back, he probably should have gone out after what they managed to pull off at WrestleMania 25. I'm glad he didn't because he deserved to go out the way he did, with everyone aware that this would be it and able to shower him with the appropriate praise after he did one final job.
The way they got there was special.
Despite kicking out of a Tombstone, Michaels was down. He was all but out. Undertaker knew it would require just one more to fully finish the job, so he took the straps down, and went to signal for it with his signature throat slash. Then, suddenly, he stopped.
He didn't want to do it.
He pleaded with Michaels to stay down. He nearly begged for "HBK" not to get back up. He knew what he would have to do if Shawn did and he was actually feeling compassion for a man who, though his rival, he deeply respected.
Michaels, himself realizing that the one mistake that cost him at WrestleMania 25 wasn't so much a mistake but destiny taking shape, slowly got to his feet and, knowing what he had to do, slapped his greatest enemy hard across the face.
Undertaker's resolve returned in an instant, and, with one final thunderous Tombstone, laid Michaels to rest.
Tomorrow we'll finish the countdown with Undertaker's greatest WrestleMania match.