Last night in Orlando, surrounded by the most visually stunning setup imaginable, eventually the lights had to come back on. It was one of those moments where you’re thankful to have seen it, or in my case thankful to have been there to experience it live. You forget about the imperfections of the match that just concluded, or any blemishes in one of the more pristine careers in sports entertainment history, and you inhale, exhale, and think of what this giant, this icon meant to something you love so much.
And then you remember, eventually the lights have to come back on.
After all the pageantry, the highs and lows, life must move on. Whether it’s the girl you were so sure was “the one,” the best vacation of your life, or even the happiest of childhoods, time will only stop for so long, and even then it’s figurative. Watching on as The Undertaker held court one final time, taking off the gloves, the coat, and finally the hat, standing tall in a ring for a company to whom he’s been so loyal for 27 years, was one such millisecond in the eternal clock of the universe.
He’s gone. He’s done. It’s over.
Perhaps not everyone in the building grasped the magnitude of what was in front of them. We’ve heard the retirement talks before, so what makes this one any different? Well, if you’ve paid attention, the answers are clear. He’s given everything he has to give. He isn’t the spry chicken he once was, flying through the air with the greatest of ease, despite his immense frame. His fallibility showed, as did a body that finally deserves care, rather than bumps, bruises, and any further physical exertion.
His career was so enormous, it’s unnecessary to count its highlights. He isn’t merely a Hall of Famer. He should have his own wing, and not just within WWE, but deep in the hearts, minds, and souls of each and every pro wrestling fan in the world. The Undertaker goes down in the history of the business as arguably the single most effective, lucrative, successful character ever to step foot in a ring. Often, the writers would craft subpar horror, bad science fiction, or hokey theatrics, but through it all, this man gave it his best.
He was the example. He didn’t bounce from job to job, boss to boss, company to company, or business to business. When he left Georgia for New York, he never took another trip again. His role for Vince McMahon was of such monumental strength he ended up with an undefeated streak at WrestleMania. The reason the record is important is because it was unplanned for such a great stretch of time. He didn’t lose, long before it became a “thing” for him not to lose. That shows how much he meant to his employer.
He was a locker room leader, a man to be respected, and for the meek, a man to be feared. He was a father to many within the WWE locker room, and the benchmark for everyone who hoped to make an impact up north. The right words from Taker could mean a bump up the card, and the wrong words could mean a bump out of town. While no one was perfect, The Undertaker made few mistakes during his WWE tenure, particularly of a public variety. He wasn’t a perpetual malcontent and didn’t cause trouble externally for the McMahon family, where so many in his position have in the past. No, he simply packed his lunch and came to work, and did so many times hurting.
We know precious little about the man behind the legend. He treated the character that made him famous as if it were his own child. Whether hero or villain, protagonist or antagonist, he was simply The Undertaker. He never disrespected the gimmick, played it with grace and power, and refused to waver on it. As such, it became more important for a performer to work with him at the biggest show of the year than work in a main event championship match. Of all the false retirements littered throughout the annals of sports entertainment, Shawn Michaels never wrestled again after doing the favors for The Phenom at WrestleMania XXVI. He still gets requests to do so today, but refuses each time.
Shawn knew then and knows now what we all know. The Undertaker DESERVED to be the man that retired The Heartbreak Kid. He was the right human being for that job, and it would be disrespectful to him to ever step foot in the ring as an active wrestler again after that final three count. Think about that for just a second. Consider the love you have for Shawn Michaels, and think of how much he loved wrestling, especially after he changed his life and found his soulmate. Can you imagine being offered chance after chance, and turning each one down? Staying retired when you don’t have to and passing on extra paydays seems crazy, especially when it involves doing something you adore.
But, this was The Undertaker, and Michaels wanted to be true to his word.
In Orlando, The Undertaker did right by the business that made him. He did right by that business one final time, because it certainly wasn’t the first. Sure, he could have demanded to have his hand raised after his final match, but that’s just not how it’s done. 27 years inside a WWE ring, but when the clock strikes midnight, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about the future. The only occasion when it’s okay not to look at the lights on the night you depart is when you didn’t know of your own mortality at the time. If you had no idea your last match was your last match, it doesn’t even need to be excused.
The Undertaker was special, but he nurtured professional wrestling like it was his personal responsibility. Whenever he appeared, it was more than an ordinary occasion. Even when he said few words, or stared into the eyes of a colleague in front of millions, it was a happening. WrestleMania became his show, and he superseded the very idea of the event. His matches often became the centerpiece, his aura enveloping everyone in the massive stadiums in which he sparingly applied his craft in later years. While the high point may have ended in New York with CM Punk, he still made magic when he had to. He sold tickets, he moved merchandise, he captivated us all.
Those upset Roman Reigns was the chosen one last night missed the point. That decision was made long ago. The Undertaker did right not just by the business, but by his specific business. He did that job for Vince McMahon, and he did it for the 31-year-old from Pensacola, Florida, who will never be given a greater honor. When Reigns delivers his Hall of Fame speech sometime down the road, he will call April 2, 2017 the highlight of his entire career. Whether he wins 20 WWE Championships, becomes the biggest box office draw in history, struggles, or triumphs, The Undertaker passed the urn to Roman Reigns. There is no grander prize, no bigger award, no more humbling achievement.
Trust me, Roman Reigns knows it.
And, in similar fashion to the night Ric Flair “retired” at WrestleMania in Orlando nine years ago, The Undertaker looked like a man ready for the rest of his life. He couldn’t quite get up on the Tombstone counter late in the bout, was a little sloppy, looked winded at times, and appeared spent on a few occasions. The younger man helped him through it, the future took care of the past, and Reigns did his absolute damnedest to make it the best night he could for his dance partner. Go back and watch the match, and pay attention to the quality and quantity of the bumps Roman took from beginning to end.
Don’t concern yourself with kickouts or who went over, or how the final sequence went down. Look at the work and the attention to detail Reigns paid to everything he did. He used the maximum of his capabilities to ensure Taker left with his head held high. Reigns bumped his ass off in that main event, he did all he could do at this stage in his career. And, as many thanks as I’m certain Roman delivered to The Undertaker before and after the fact, I feel confident in saying the feeling was mutual.
Nothing lasts forever, not even the Deadman. I can barely even remember a time when The Undertaker wasn’t a part of my professional wrestling education. I was 12 when he debuted, and had watched him in WCW prior to Survivor Series 1990. He’s had his share of ups and downs, but has persevered into a regal state few will ever approach in their chosen profession. I choose not to be sad today, but to be grateful for the toll he put himself through. I look back and think of the time he spent away from family, the many miles on the road, the empty hotel rooms, the many thousands of bumps, and the willingness to give me top flight entertainment night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year...
...and amazingly, decade after decade.
The real test for “Hall of Fame” status may be within this question. Would the history of professional wrestling be markedly different, markedly worse without this person’s contributions? For many, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Superstars come and go, and professional wrestling endures, even past its brightest stars.
With that said, WWE without The Undertaker in its history books would be like the world’s greatest jam if both bread and peanut butter never existed. You can’t have one without the other. It’s unthinkable to even imagine a WWE world with no Undertaker. The spot this one man held, the strength of his resolve and willingness to be that 24-7 character mark, and the professionalism with which he often executed his occupation stand nearly unrivaled.
Putting away all the great matches, the fond memories, the iconic scenes, and the mesmerizing entrances, The Undertaker was a man wanting to wrestle. He was a guy with a dream who took advantage of every opportunity he was given, never stopped learning, and became one of the most successful individuals ever to engage in this splendid, insane art form.
To The Undertaker, mere hours after his last ride, I simply say thank you. Whatever he may want to think I’m thanking him for, he’s right. I’ll leave that to him. Words are just words, but this is different. He’s one of the select few in this industry that changed lives, altered careers, and helped build and maintain a global brand. I will never forget what he provided us all for so long, and my wish for him is that as he steps away, life outside the ring pays him back in full.
On behalf of all of us and what he’s given us, he’s earned the right to rest in peace, while still walking the earth.
I wasn’t one of those chanting “Thank You Taker” last night in Orlando. I rose from my seat and simply watched with a closed mouth. I applauded repeatedly, but never spoke. It didn’t seem right. In that moment, I just wanted to observe in silence. One final time. It wasn’t about me. It was about him. I didn’t want to miss a second of it.
It wasn’t marking a death, but celebrating a life, and honoring a career. The lights came back on after he disappeared, just as they will for all of us in many stages of our lives, but there will always be a dark twinkle from here on out. The perspective will never be the same again. The hue, the tint, the color is just a little bit different. It’s beautiful, and it’s serene.
Today, with the volume of the loudest tolling of a bell imaginable, at eardrum shattering levels that could break open the heavens themselves, I speak. Actually I shout.
I scream from the mountaintops overlooking Death Valley, trying to keep my balance as the dirt beneath my feet crumbles and gives way...
Thank you Taker. Thank you so very much.
Your masterful watch has ended.