By Will Pruett
This is the final chapter of the eight part series on The Undertaker's WrestleMania winning streak. Before reading the latest entry, catch up on the first seven installments.
Click here to read Part One.
Click here to read Part Two.
Click here to read Part Three.
Click here to read Part Four.
Click here to read Part Five.
Click here to read Part Six.
Click here to read Part Seven.
"Feel this moment for the rest of your life." - Paul Heyman
There are some moments as a wrestling fan I will never forget. This series was originally inspired by one of them; the final match in the career of "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels. These are the moments when time stands still, silence consumes us all, and one collective thought permeates everyone. These are moments when wrestling transcends men jumping around in tights and becomes high art. These are the moments I became a wrestling fan for.
On April 6, 2014 The Undertaker's 21 and 0 WrestleMania Streak, created by coincidence and made legendary through great effort, ended. I was speechless. This was, all at once, the best and worst moment of my wrestling fandom.
WrestleMania XXX - The Undertaker vs. "The Beast Incarnate" Brock Lesnar:
The Undertaker looked out of place in 2014. Watching the buildup to this match and the actual match itself, this is the most striking element. He looked out of place. In years past, the character has been the old school warrior coming back for another fight, but he never looked completely out of place. Leading into WrestleMania XXX, he was.
In the beginning, it was an open challenge. Brock Lesnar, known to his friends and commentators as "The Beast Incarnate" was upset. He, through his advocate, Paul Heyman, had declared himself the number one contender to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Brock Lesnar was given a contract for any match he wanted at WrestleMania, aside from a title match. Paul Heyman stood in the ring telling the crowd how Lesnar wouldn't be at WrestleMania XXX because this was not what he wanted.
The bell tolled and Undertaker made his return to WWE. Surrounded by fire, "The Deadman" signaled to the WrestleMania sign and waited for Brock to sign his name to the open contract. Undertaker took the pen, stabbed Lesnar's hand, signed the contract, then Chokeslammed Lesnar through the table. The match was made. Lesnar vs. Undertaker.
This was the first time the two had been face-to-face with each other since October 2010, when there was a short confrontation between them after Lesnar lost the UFC Heavyweight Championship. This confrontation was watched over and over and was rumored to set up a WrestleMania match between them for WrestleMania XXVII. The match never happened and Lesnar couldn't return to WWE for a year and a half after.
As Undertaker and Lesnar prepared for their WrestleMania battle, Undertaker still seemed out of place. He looked noticeably older, even with special lighting and a hood covering his head. He moved much slower than before. Even his slow walk to the ring seemed longer than usual.
Worse than looking old and slowing down, it also became apparent Undertaker was regressing as a character. The man who seemed so human for the last five years was turning back into the monster he was in 1991. He was silent. He was vicious. He was untouchable. Instead of moments where Undertaker seemed vulnerable, we saw moments where Undertaker popped out of a casket. He was back to his old tricks, and they seemed more like tricks than reality. These tricks seemed out of place.
I find it hard to adequately describe just how dissatisfying this build to a match was. Undertaker's efforts in his long feud with Shawn Michaels and Triple H made him seem more man than deadman. They made him seem more determined than immortal. They made Undertaker seem larger than life, but, at the same time, real. Undertaker became a man trying to get one last victory before the end. Each time he stepped into the ring, he was just trying to get one more, either through determination, stupidity, or a mix of both. Undertaker just needed one more moment. Even his feud with C.M. Punk became about getting one more moment to honor his fallen manager.
This match wasn't about one more moment or one more victory. It wasn't personal. It was just there. Undertaker, a legendary figure, was just there. Brock Lesnar, with Heyman by his side, was continuously threatened by Undertaker and was continuously turned away. Lesnar cowered in fear as Undertaker appeared. Lesnar looked unsure of himself. The former WWE and UFC champion didn't have the confidence to challenge The Streak.
Undertaker's age also came into play. Heyman cut together Undertaker's last few WrestleMania wins to show how close each man had come to ending The Streak. He said Undertaker couldn't stand up to the challenge presented by the lethal combination of Father Time and Brock Lesnar. It seemed, at the time, like a last minute ploy to get people into a match they wanted nothing to do with. It felt like a way to put Undertaker in the jeopardy no one thought he was in.
Finally, Lesnar actually got the upper hand on Undertaker on the final Raw before WrestleMania. It seemed like too little too late at the time. No one believed in the threat of Brock Lesnar. The big UFC Champion vs. The Streak dream match from three-and-a-half years before was a sad shadow of what was imagined then. No one quite knew why, but it just wasn't what it needed to be.
WrestleMania was the night the formula failed. Undertaker came to the ring with a long and spectacular entrance. Before he even appeared, the lights dimmed, smoke rolled in, and a casket for each of the 21 wins Undertaker had accumulated at WrestleMania appeared. At the end of the line, there was a 22nd, for Brock Lesnar. The bell tolled and Undertaker began his slow walk to the ring. Past the caskets, he stopped, and the 22nd casket, perhaps in an oddly prophetic moment, was consumed with fire. It sounds standard, but it was long. It took too long. The Undertaker's entrance has always been a balancing act of time and spectacle and, on this night, the amount of time was not balanced out.
The match was supposed to follow Undertaker's formula from the last few years. It was scripted to include a lot of brawling, with some very big exchanges of signature moves. The match was more about reversals and drama than actual moves. The drama of both men on the ground was supposed to mean as much as, if not more than the drama of both men on their feet. The formula had worked for Undertaker with Triple H, Shawn Michaels, and C.M. Punk, but at WrestleMania XXX, it failed him.
I'm not sure if Lesnar wasn't capable of executing this type of match, if Undertaker was no longer able to use his keen sense of timing, or if the poor buildup was actually hurting them all the way through, but something just didn't connect. On paper, this looked much like Undertaker vs. Triple H from WrestleMania XXVII, but in execution, the imagination of the crowd was the missing intangible. The formula seemed out of place for the first time.
They moved to the next level. Undertaker and Brock Lesnar began trading finishers. Undertaker threw out a Chokeslam and Hell's Gate, while Lesnar countered with a Kimura and the first of three F-5's. The fans popped slightly for the big recognizable moves, but they didn't suddenly drop into the match the way they had at WrestleMania XXVII when Undertaker was Tombstoned by Triple H. The attempts at bringing the match to the next level didn't work. The formula was working against them. This crowd expected it to take three Tombstones to finish Lesnar and they seemed determined not to buy in until the third one. It took five years, but they were finally telling Undertaker they wouldn't be fooled again.
Undertaker was clearly wobbly on his feet. He suffered a concussion early in the match and it was hindering his performance. He looked like his head wasn't in the match and had trouble getting up multiple times. I'm not sure whether this was him selling, the concussion, or a combination of both. Either way, Undertaker was not mentally or physically where he needed to be.
Undertaker finally delivered a Tombstone Piledriver to Brock Lesnar, placed Lesnar's hands on his chest, and attempted to pin him. Lesnar kicked out at two. It would be the last Tombstone Undertaker would deliver. He hit the Last Ride out of the corner, delivered his signature throat-slash gesture, and picked Lesnar up for another Tombstone. Lesnar reversed this into a third F-5.
The crowd was relatively apathetic. They saw the finisher, but as the referee got down to count, they were muted. The referee counted one. No one yelled. The referee counted two. It seemed like the status quo. The referee counted three. The bell quickly rang. The world stood still.
It had to be a mistake. Lesnar looked surprised. The referee jumped up and seemed shocked. The announcers were silent. No music played. Fans around the arena were suddenly shocked into paying attention. Undertaker had been defeated at WrestleMania. The Streak had ended. It was the most shocking moment in WrestleMania history.
Eventually the "21-1" graphic made its way to the screens around the arena, Lesnar's music played, and Heyman began celebrating with his monster. The crowd was still in shock. Some booed. Some chanted "bullshit." Most were silent. What had they just seen?
The Undertaker laid on the mat staring up at the lights until Lesnar's celebration ended. He sat up, but dropped back down. He couldn't get to his feet. Undertaker had been defeated and he suddenly became mortal. The immortal "Deadman" was human once and for all. It just came too late. The fans suddenly emotionally engaged with Undertaker when he lost because he became human. Sadly, it was a moment too late to save the match.
Undertaker eventually made his way to his feet, with a lot of help from the ropes, and left the ring. He took the long walk up the ramp and the fans still weren't quite sure how to react. There was applause and a "Thank you 'Taker" chant, but it wasn't overwhelming. The people didn't seem ready to let go. While they didn't care for the match as it happened, the end of The Streak was an occasion for mourning, not for cheering. While they clearly wanted to show their appreciation for the legend in front of them, they couldn't. Their hearts weren't into the goodbye. They weren't ready. No one was.
The Verdict at 21-1:
The Undertaker seemed out of place in 2014. From his first appearance on Raw to the moment he walked up the ramp and into the opening on the stage at WrestleMania XXX, Undertaker seemed out of place. He was a relic from a different era, or, more appropriately, a relic from three different eras. For the first time, he wasn't fitting in with his surroundings and it was jarring. Undertaker had evolved for so long, it was hard to see him regress.
As a fan, it was hard to emotionally process this moment. When the referee's hand hit the three count, I sat silently. I couldn't process the moment. I couldn't believe what I had seen. I tried to explain it to myself, but I couldn't. Why was I so emotionally affected by a wrestling result?
It's because this felt like the end. Undertaker was a relic from a time when wins and losses were meaningful, so his still were. His wins meant The Streak continued and we didn't have to say goodbye. Even if the wins were lackluster, they still mattered. It was easier to let things stay the same than to deal with change. When The Undertaker was pinned, it was a definite end. After 21 victories, many of them seeming to continue the career of Undertaker beyond its logical stopping point, the sole loss was a period on the sentence of The Undertaker.
In a wrestling industry full of stars and characters currently too concerned with a place in history, Undertaker gave his up. He was pinned at WrestleMania and he allowed his career's greatest accomplishment to be blemished. This seems out of place in 2014. Undertaker, instead of giving taking one final victory lap, one final celebration, one final moment with a "22-0" sign, pyro, and a one knee pose, gave back. Undertaker gave us all a shocking moment instead of the status quo. He chose a more interesting story instead of his own glory.
The silence as the referee's hand counted to three and the bell rang? It was the greatest moment of The Streak. It was the greatest moment of Undertaker's career. It was the culmination of 23 years of work for Mark Calaway. He did the unbelievable. He did the unthinkable. In losing, Undertaker created a moment that will be immortal.
"Feel this moment for the rest of your life." - Paul Heyman
Thank you so much for reading this blog and this entire series. It has been an amazing opportunity for me as a writer to tell these stories. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or to follow me on twitter @itswilltime.