Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Undertaker: An Appreciation

What a poignant image from Undertaker's final WrestleMania
Photo Credit: WWE.com
The Undertaker is dead. Long live The Undertaker.

Okay, maybe that intro is a little dramatic. Mark Callaway isn't dying, no matter what kind of vibes he gave off in some of his most recent matches. He's just going to be stepping away from any kind of active WWE competition. My guess is that the next time he appears at a WWE function will be when he's inducted into the Hall of Fame as soon as next year in New Orleans. Everyone will be happy to see him again, whether or not he maintains character. And life will move on.

But even as a wrestler who came up during a time when WWE was in doldrums and always played second fiddle to Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels or Steve Austin or Triple H or John Cena, Undertaker felt indelibly as much a part of the company's pantheon as those whose star shone above his. While the wars over who was better as the WWE's ace raged or about which guy could be the next guy, Taker was in the background most of the time, occupying WWE's giants, getting token runs as a secondary main guy, or acting as an avatar on-screen of his role as the backstage locker room leader. It's entirely possible that I took him granted over his career, and I have to wonder how many people are in my boat.

The insane thing is Taker wasn't the kind of guy who should have been easy to fall into the background. He was the first of WWE's ridiculous sidejob-as-gimmick characters when he debuted in 1990, but he was also clearly the most effective. When your gimmick is that you might be a zombie, people take notice. His early-career resume was as absurd as it was impressive. He beat Hulk Hogan for the WWE Championship at Survivor Series in a result so shocking WWE had to hold ANOTHER event on pay-per-view days later, and he only lost because Hogan emptied the urn that gave him power. He slammed the Ultimate Warrior into a casket, crashed Randy Savage's wedding reception to lay an assault on him and his bride Miss Elizabeth, had his urn repossessed by Ted DiBiase after he himself got slammed in a casket, and then feuded with his doppelganger over who was the real Undertaker. If that sequence of events had happened to anyone else in their first five years in the company, would they have even been in the business for five more?

Yet, Taker lasted for an astounding 27-and-a-half years in the same persona with a few tweaks here and there. Some were more extreme than others (CUE UP LIMP BIZKIT'S "ROLLIN'," Y'ALL), but he kept rolling along. Wrestlers don't get into a position to be taken for granted by being bad at their jobs, and while Taker never really eased into his potential in the ring until around 1996 when he started pummeling Mankind in boiler rooms, he was able to hold a mystical quality with him all the time. While many other wrestlers did the public relations circuit or went to biker bars in Syracuse and got into fights with the locals, Taker never once broke character during his career. Even when his manager Paul Bearer/Percy Pringle died, his tribute was all Taker and no Mark Callaway, even to the point of questionably including it in his WrestleMania feud with CM Punk. One might argue taking selfies with people at marathons or wherever broke character, but just because the man was a character doesn't mean he's made of stone, for fuck's sake.

Even though his runs on top were usually shared or short, he felt like THE guy who could legitimize someone with nothing more than a pose, a nod, or a handshake. Just ask Cena or even Daniel Bryan. Yeah, some of that respect may have felt forced, and a lot of the pomp surrounding him may have worn thin over the years. Nothing stays golden forever, and if you stick around long enough, you too might have to pretend like the boss' son is on your level and can do faux-MMA inside of a giant cage. None of that means what he did in wrestling, what he meant to WWE, or the impact he had on everyone he performed in front of is diminished.

Many people are going to go forward without knowing what it's like to have the Undertaker in their wrestling lives. Fuck, I'm one of them. Taker's first win in his WrestleMania Streak was at the event where I came of age as a wrestling fan. And now, I have the prospect of looking forward to WrestleMania where Taker isn't going to be there. Cynically, I might feel like that's a plus, but honestly, those short-term, ugly, difficult to watch matches are already gone from my memory. The rock of Taker being there, being the measuring stick for whomever he had placed in front of him, is not going to be on the table. A piece of my childhood fades to the past like the color on an old Polaroid left to neglect in an attic.

But what's a childhood except something to be remembered? The Undertaker put in a body of work in his career most wrestlers wouldn't even be as grandiose to aspire to, and it's up to him to end it on his own terms. If that meant going out and fumbling around in service of handing over his yard to Roman Reigns, then so be it. He'd have earned a quiet, rest-of-his-life in comfort even if he never was in the business or no matter what he did, but a dude like him, man, he definitely earned what he's going to do until real life catches up with his gimmick.