The Undertaker's WrestleMania career can basically be defined by three eras:
- There was his period as a rising star, brought in as this unstoppable Dead Man, impervious to pain, who had victory numbers 1-3 in butt-ugly fashion.
- After that came the slightly more human (I say that ironically) "Lord of Darkness" (followed by the brief run as BikerTaker) who stayed in and around the lower part of the main event scene, racking up wins number 4-11.
- Following that, the Demon of Death Valley rose again and since WrestleMania 20 has been tomb-stoning his way to victories number 12-20.
While each of his WrestleMania matches were unique (even the rematches), they all share one thing in common --'Taker losing either was out of the question, didn't make sense, or was simply not the right time -- and because of that, he never lost at the big dance; until someone woke up one day and realized how much money could be made keeping it that way.
I've often thought how lucky it must be for Undertaker to have the gimmick that he does. Not the "deadman" character, but the "I never lose at WrestleMania" shtick. I mean, wouldn't it be nice for an actor to be hired every year for a movie for which he was guaranteed an Academy Award for his services?
WrestleMania is, for Pro Wrestlers, the end-all be-all stage on which to display their talents. Men work their entire careers, putting their bodies through torturous matches in half-filled barns just for the chance to even appear at one WrestleMania.
Undertaker meanwhile, has made a career out of being the guy who never loses at the thing! I tried explaining that to someone who wasn't a fan, and he asked "But WHY doesn't he ever lose?" My answer at the time was "That's just what he does. Mark Henry just do what he do, and Undertaker just do what he do." His response: "Well that's a heck of a shtick to have, going to--and never losing--the Super Bowl every year."
And yet, with all due respect to The Phenom and his talents (which are immense), you can make a pretty good case that the entire first half of his winning streak was simply a product of good timing and conventional booking. After that, he could coast (while putting on the match of the night numerous times) on the fact that Vince simply wouldn't let his now-money making streak end.
So let's break down the 20 wins and demystify them a tad...
WRESTLEMANIA 7: SUPERFLY SNUKA
All respect to Superfly, but he was past his prime in his brief appearance at the first WrestleMania. This was the seventh, and it was clear going in that Snuka was there to lay down for the new star. There's this unwritten rule in the business: the legend puts over the next generation. In the booking for this show, there was no doubt in Vince's mind that his old star was going to put over his new star.
WRESTLEMANIA 8: JAKE THE SNAKE
It's a shame this match is nothing special, as Jake, though past his prime, could still work. It was the limitations of Undertaker's early character that really hindered the contest. The story behind this win is simple: Undertaker was coming off a World Title run (brief though it was) and needed to look strong at the upcoming WrestleMania. (It's a theme that will be repeated later in this article.) Still, the idea of Undertaker losing here would have been unheard of in the booking meetings.
Undertaker was the future and Jake was the past.
WRESTLEMANIA 9: GIANT GONZALEZ
This is the one, when they show the montage of Undertaker's WrestleMania victims, they show the opening match posedown. Maybe that's because the posedown was the only real highlight to a match that ended with a DQ as a result of chloroform.
Still, this is the first match you could look at and think "I can see Vince talking about Gonzalez going over." He has certainly made better talent lay down for inferior big men in his long time at the top of Titan. And the fact that it ended in a DQ did preserve some heat on Gonzalez (and protected Undertaker, who simply couldn't have picked him up to tombstone him).
Actually, that probably explains the ending to this match best. When you have a disqualification in these circumstances, it's usually going to come from the heel. The heel plays dirty and gets caught, retaining his heat in not losing, while the champ gets to technically walk away with a W. It's cheap, but it keeps both looking strong. This is probably the closest the streak came to ending (at just 2-0).
WRESTLEMANIA 11: KING KONG BUNDY
Back when Undertaker worked an almost year-long schedule, fans would joke how he was immortal duringWrestleMania but made of glass at Backlash. He could lose 364 times a year, but you knew he would win the big one.
But in the run up to WrestleMania 11, Undertaker had amassed the longest Pro Wrestling winning streak of the 90's.
Let me say that again. Goldberg went undefeated from September 1997-December 1998 (a year and three months). Undertaker went undefeated from December 1991-September 1993 (a year and nine months). Remove the six months he was off with an injury and he still TIES Goldberg's famous winning streak. That's impressive and is often forgotten in view of 20-0.
When a hot wrestler returns from injury one of two things can happen (and history is filled with famous examples of both): either the wrestler will return with stalled momentum, lost crowd support and apathy from writers, or he will get a big welcome back from the fans and bookers and pick up right where he left off.
Undertaker picked up right where he left off. He entered a feud with DiBiase and co. which seemed only to exist as a way to get Undertaker over. He wrestled a very past his prime King Kong Bundy in a match where no one should have questioned the outcome. This is the kind of WrestleMania win you give to a reliable hand to cap off a successful return from injury (missing the Mania prior).
WRESTLEMANIA 12: DIESEL
Undertaker is 4-0 going into WrestleMania 12, which is hardly worth even mentioning in a list of "WrestleMania Did You Knows?" John Cena hit 4-0, Edge hit 5-0. And looking at this matchup on paper, there's no reason for Undertaker to win this. This is the kind of match that Undertaker had already won, only this time he's playing the role of Jake the Snake, and Diesel is playing the role of the former champ needing to look strong at the 'Mania after his title run.
The big difference (and why, in "The Streak" sometimes its better to be lucky than good) is that Diesel was on his way out of the company as soon as his contract was up (just a couple months away). In that case, the law of "job on your way out" takes precedence over the law of "former champ with nothing to do beats the established guy." Had Diesel's contract not been up, and considering Vince's hard-on for the big guy,one can easily see Undertaker being sacrificed to keep Nash looking strong.
As it was, Taker got to be the one to send him out in his last real high profile match before skipping off to TurnerTown.
WRESTLEMANIA 13: SYCHO SID
Also known as, "That time no one alive wanted to be WWF Champion...so they gave it to the dead guy." There's a reason this is the least-bought PPV among the WrestleMania's.
Starting at Survivor Series 1996, we went from HBK as champ, to Sid, to HBK again, to it being vacated, to Bret winning it, to Sid winning it again. In the middle of that, Austin won the Royal Rumble, but it didn't count or something about a "final four" in February... it was a fiasco that ended with HBK doing commentary with a fake knee injury, Bret and Austin making magic in a non-title rematch, and Undertaker winning the gold.
Why? Because everyone else on the roster had held it since Turkey Day, why not him too? I mean, someone has to walk out of 'Mania the champ, and it's not going to be freaking Sid. Once again, Undertaker wins, because Bret was tied up, Austin wasn't ready, and HBK was taking a breather.
Undertaker certainly was a credible champ, even though he was only there to transition it to Bret, and he certainly deserved a five-month run for the near-decade he'd given the company. But it wasn't like it was "his special moment." He was just...available.
WRESTLEMANIA 14: KANE
Here's another year where you can make an argument for a 'Taker loss. Kane was the new character, and had debuted with a lot of momentum. His feud with Undertaker had been brewing for months, but this was their first contest. Typically, in such cases the heel goes over, so why not here?
It could be that Vince felt he needed Undertaker to be strong on the #1 show before he main-evented the #2 show (taking on Austin at SummerSlam). It could also be that Undertaker's now 6-0 record (the best ever to date) atWrestleMania had finally caught his eye, and the insane genius thought "We may have something here", which tipped the scales in favor of Undertaker. I think it's probably a little of the latter, with a little more of the former.
Thus, Kane was made to look strong in defeat (taking multiple piledrivers, in an era before there were multiple kickouts of finishers), but still was defeated.
WRESTLEMANIA 15: BIG BOSSMAN
Well the less said here the better. This was just a simple "good guy gets revenge" story, where the ending should never have been doubted, certainly not when the opponent is Big Bossman.
WRESTLEMANIA 17: TRIPLE H
Here's where it gets interesting. I read an article on Grantland that theorized that there are these unwritten rules that, if you watch long enough, you can pick up on. One of them is the "last years champ with nothing to do at 'Mania goes over the best guy not in the main event" rule. Or for short: the Consolation Rule. It's the rule that likely would have meant a Diesel victory years earlier, were it not for his leaving town.
Against any other opponent, this rule carries Triple H to victory. Considering that Triple H was coming off a great 2000 as one of the best heels in history, the fact that he didn't win tells me that this was the year when "the streak" overrode booking. Because if it's any other person, Triple H is going over. Not because "it's Triple H", but because it's a wrestler who had a year that certainly deserved the main event at 'Mania and missed it only because there was too much money to be made on the 1-on-1 main event (sound familiar?).
Typically, I would even say 99/100 times a wrestler who had Triple H's kind of year wins at 'Mania via the Consolation Rule. The fact that he didn't tells me, looking at Undertaker's matches from a historical perspective: this is when the streak becomes a thing.
So from here till whenever he retires there really is never a question in Vince's mind who would win at 'Mania. As long as 'Taker is wrestling, he will win. Let's call it the Rule of the Streak. From here on out, things get predictable.
WRESTLEMANIA 18: RIC FLAIR
With the streak rule now in effect, Ric Flair doesn't have a chance. Especially not with Undertaker doing good work as a heel, which would carry him to the Undisputed title in a couple months time. Arn's spinebuster made us believers, but looking back it was foregone.
WRESTLEMANIA 19: BIG SHOW & A-TRAIN
lol. The streak isn't even questioned in an opening hour, undercard match at 'Mania.
WRESTLEMANIA 20: KANE
Streak Rule + Return of the Dead Man = Kane gets got.
WRESTLEMANIA 21: RANDY ORTON
Allegedly (from dirt sheet sources, so who knows), Undertaker offered up the streak in order to put Randy Orton over, and indeed he did put Legend Killer over, but not at WrestleMania. The Streak Rule isn't about being loyal to a loyal employee (oh I'm sure somewhere in Vince's brain that's rolling around in there); the Rule is about making money. If there is money to be made booking a streak match, and 'Taker is able to wrestle in it, then there's no reason to end the streak.
WRESTLEMANIA 22: MARK HENRY
See above. But remember: if the general consensus is true, it's not Undertaker's ego or pride keeping the streak going. When you offer it upon the alter of sexual chocolate, it's clear you're old school and see the streak as something--like everything in Pro Wrestling--that has to end sometime.
WRESTLEMANIA 23: BATISTA
Though everything about this match, from production videos, interviews, commentary, and the actual fight, managed to put doubts in many minds, it's clear looking back that there was no chance the streak was ending. This was supposed to be the year of the Dead Man.
He had come back and become a staple of SmackDown; in a lot of ways he was keeping that show afloat. He was to be rewarded with a Royal Rumble win, title win, and a nice long reign. Unfortunately, injury robbed him of his long reign (more on that later), but not his title win. He sold that Batista bomb like a pro. But looking back, there was no reason to hold our breaths.
WRESTLEMANIA 24: EDGE
Remember that title reign that was taken from him? It was taken from him by Edge (with an assist by Mark Henry) who played the part of perpetual thorn in the side of the Deadman throughout 2007 and 2008. Undertaker's win at WrestleMania 24 was two-pronged: it was an old-fashioned "the bad guy gets his comeuppance" and a do-over for Undertaker not having the chance to carry SmackDown as champion the year prior.
Even though Edge made a big deal out of his being 5-0, and being in the main event might have given some pause, it's clear there was no second thought given as to who was walking out of that 'Mania the winner.
WRESTLEMANIA 25: SHAWN MICHAELS
Here's a match that wasn't really a "Streak Match" so much as it was a match about the Streak. The Orton/Henry fights were about ending the Streak. But this fight was about how special the streak had become to WrestleManiaitself.
The storyline was Michaels, fresh off his year-long feud with Jericho over the retirement kick to Nature Boy Ric, feeling like his old Mr. WrestleMania self again. So he challenged Undertaker to a match: WrestleMania Streak vs Mr. WrestleMania.
When I say this wasn't a "streak match" where the streak is the focal point, of course I know it was, but what I mean is this was the match that celebrated the streak itself. This was WrestleMania 25, what better "special attraction match" could there be than the man whose career was littered with special attraction matches, and the man whose winning streak itself became a special attraction.
With that in mind, Michaels never had a prayer. The Streak Rule is still in effect, not to mention this was a matchabout the streak: He had to win. It's so obvious looking back.
WRESTLEMANIA 26: SHAWN MICHAELS
Shawn Michaels was the personification of the most unflinching axiom in Pro Wrestling, which is "you crawl your way to the top, hold down whoever you have to to stay there and refuse to put guys under you over, but when it's time to retire you lay down and job." Michaels is famous in his career for fighting creative for, as he told Rey Mysterio, "hating to the lose." Undertaker can thank him for his WrestleMania 13 title win based solely on that fact.
But Michaels is old school, and he knew when it was time to retire, you go out a loser. Just like Flair, just like Austin, and one day just like Undertaker. Here, the outcome was never in doubt. It was over the second the retirement stipulation was added.
WRESTLEMANIA 27: TRIPLE H
Trollple-H. He did it at 'Mania 22, when he played up his wrestling cred, working the smarks into thinking he would go over that Massachusetts thug with no wrestling pedigree (no pun intended). And that Chicago crowd ate it right out of his hands. His tapping in the middle of the ring was probably the most fun he ever had losing. Here we have the smarks worried that Triple H would use his power to end the streak and take all the glory (cue the picture of him holding all the titles).
Instead, he taps.
Yes, he retained his heat in that he walked out while 'Taker had to be carried, but that basically was there to set up the rematch. As with 22 there was never any doubt Triple H would lose. That's not the story they were telling, or were going to tell with Triple H.
WRESTLEMANIA 28: TRIPLE H
As I said in the earlier discussion, it's impossible to judge the tagline "end of an era" until we see the outcome of the WrestleMania 29 match. If Taker loses, then it will be brilliant foreshadowing, showing that Taker and co. went into this match knowing it would be his last win in the streak (and what a way to go out--Hell in a Cell over DX).
If Taker wins, then it really was just a hollow tagline designed to tease us into believing Taker would fall.
Looking back, I don't see why we questioned it. The odds were almost TOO stacked against him, for him NOT to succeed. Once again, there's no conceivable story to be told with Taker losing to Triple H. I mean, we all know the nearfall in that match:
HBK hits the superkick, Triple H hits the Pedigree (the DX finish): one...two...thr..shoulder up...
In that moment, I was convinced it was over, as I had been many times in matches previous. But just imagine if that had been it. What then?
People can argue about Punk not needing it, etc. But no one needed it less than the basically-retired COO of the company. He can't take the win and do anything with it. The outcome--going in--should never have been in doubt.
WRESTLEMANIA 29: CM PUNK
CM Punk on the other hand CAN do something with it. Now, granted, so could Edge, Batista, Mark Henry, Randy Orton, etc. But all of them had something working against them: the nigh-unbreakable Streak Rule. Isn't that working against Punk as well?
Maybe. But maybe not.
As I said in the earlier discussion, this match is unique in that there's one thing working in Punk's favor, one thing working against him, and one wildcard that makes it impossible to predict the outcome. Whichever way this wildcard falls (in my opinion) will determine the match result.
As unlikely as the streak ending seems to be, it all depends (I think) on this wildcard. And it's a wildcard that has never been present before, and is impossible to know before hand. Therefore, for the first time EVER I think this match should be perceived by fans as a true toss-up.
Working against Punk is simply The Streak. Taker has twenty years of headwind and momentum working in his favor here. If he doesn't want it to end, it's not going to end. If he wants it to end and Vince doesn't, it's not going to end. Everything has to line up.
Working for Punk is the fact that he's playing the Triple H role, circa WrestleMania 17. He's had a tremendous year (not what Triple H had in 2000, but few ever will) and was left out of the main event, despite being more than deserving (three years in a row according to him), because there's simply too much money in a 1-on-1 match.
Undertaker is-like in 2001-the consolation prize. All the factors that SHOULD have added up to a Triple H win in 2001, are present here as well. Punk SHOULD win the big number 2 match, to keep him strong as he heads into another year in the main event. SHOULD is the key word, because he's not just taking on any consolation prize. He's taking on the streak.
Thus the wildcard, which wasn't present in 2001. Undertaker is NEAR retirement. is he ready to retire? We don't know. He does. Vince does. But we don't. He's been banged up for a long time, working only one show a year. He's had hip replacement and shoulder surgery. His mind is willing, but his body is becoming weaker and weaker. In 2001 he wasn't about to retire, so there was no reason to end the streak (Streak Rule > Consolation Rule). That was too bad for Triple H, but the streak is bigger than the top heel staying strong.
Fast forward over a decade later, and Taker might be ready to hang it up. If he is, then the reason to keep the streak going loses a lot of weight. In fact, it opens up booking scenarios for Undertaker that involve his losing. There's scenarios that involve winning of course, but for the first time...ever...they can bat around ideas for him in the event of a loss.
I've said repeatedly that I believe Undertaker will lose at some 'Mania, and that will be his official retirement. He's not going to get an actual retirement match (wouldn't fit his character), but that's when you'll know he's done.
Might he come back and fight again? Sure. But I think he wants to go out handing the streak to someone who can do something with it. He might fight Brock Lesnar next year, and he may do it undefeated. But I can easily imagine a scenario where he loses this year and comes back (surprisingly for a change) in February of next year to challenge Lesnar.
Again, the entire basis for my argument is the fact that Undertaker, being old school, will want to lose the streak before he retires, and--nearing retirement--may not have enough WrestleMania's left to lose before he is forced into retirement.
That's why it's a wildcard. Because, unlike his last two opponents (which also coincided with his ceasing a full time schedule) he hasn't faced anyone working full time who could use beating the Streak. You can argue Punk doesn't need it. You can even argue Punk's not worthy. but you can't argue he couldn't work his magic with that on his resume.
So while I won't actually predict an Undertaker loss, for the first time I can realistically imagine one, and that's exciting, especially on a PPV where the main event outcomes seem so obvious.