Some of my earliest childhood memories are of watching wrestling with my Dad. We haven’t ever had a lot in common, I was always the artsiest member of my family on both sides and while the folks were supportive, it didn’t mean they shared my interests. But wrestling was an exception. We watched it during the Ultimate Warrior days, caught the tail end of Hulkamania, and saw the donning of a new WWF superstar in Stone Cold Steve Austin. But through the years, as the faces changed due to injury or WCW recruitment, there was always one constant, and he was my favorite for a long time. That constant was The Undertaker.
Before I understood the industry, and kayfabe, and really anything beyond the spectacle of wrestling, I just knew he was awesome. He had a badass gimmick (at one point the word was literally in his name), put on crazy good matches, and never broke character. Fans never got to see Mark Calaway, the man beneath the wide-brimmed hat, there was only ever The Undertaker. Well, except when he was the American Badass, but even then the commitment never waned. Commitment is a good word to toss about when you’re discussing The Undertaker. He’s a man whose life seemed to be built on a bedrock of commitment. He was committed to the WWE, never straying during the Monday night wars. He was committed to his character, not even inducting long-time friend Paul Bearer into the Hall of Fame because it would break kayfabe. He was committed to the industry and the fans, giving everything he had to wrestling until he was just too worn to keep putting on matches.
For those of you who don’t know, The Undertaker officially retired last Sunday at Wrestlemania 33. That’s why I’m talking about him in the past tense. Because while Mark Calaway is still very much alive, and I hope he stays that way for many more years, the time of The Undertaker is past. And that’s not just another retirement. That’s the end of an era. A generation of fans grew up with The Undertaker as a constant, and to see him go signals the loss of something special. Something from our childhoods, and adolescence, and even parts of who we are today. Even if many of us fell away from wrestling as we got older, I don’t know any former fans who don’t still look back on The Undertaker fondly. It was cool, knowing he was still out there, squashing jobbers and building amazing feuds. But as of Sunday, that is no more. The Undertaker is gone, and like a true pro he went out on his back.
That’s something that I don’t think gets enough credit about wrestling culture. When a wrestler finishes their career, the farewell is not getting handed a big spectacle match where they defeat some new rising start to leave on a win. That’s how most of us would write it, because we see victory and accomplishment as inherently tied together, so of course we’d want to see them leave with a win. But that’s not the way it works in wrestling. To that world, no matter how big you are, the best way to say goodbye is to lay down for someone younger, newer, someone with more matches ahead of them. You take all of the momentum and crowd-love you’ve earned and pass it on by making the new guy seem like he’s so good not even a legend could beat him. You put him over, make him look great, and pass some of that momentum on rather than taking it with you when you leave. They even call it “doing right” to leave on your back, because that’s the right way to go out.
And the fact that The Undertaker left that way is not something to skim over. I mentioned commitment above for a reason. Vince McMahon (the man, not the character) might be made of muscles and crazy, but it’s no secret that he prizes loyalty above all else. That matters, especially since no one was more loyal to the company during the most hectic years than The Undertaker. By all accounts the two men are very close and The Undertaker has a lot of creative control over his character. If he’d asked to go out on a win, I don’t doubt they would have done it that way. Probably not to Roman Reigns, but they’d have let him leave as a victor. He didn’t ask for it to go that way though. The Undertaker stayed committed to the industry he loved up to the very end, and when he went out on his back he did more than just add to the push WWE insists on giving Reigns. He reminded the entire locker room that this was how a true wrestling legend left. If he’d won, it would have made some of the younger talent think that if they got big enough, they could leave on a victory. He would have made the new goal to be so popular that you could exit on top, instead of reinforcing the idea that everyone, even legends, do right by the new stars.
I don’t have a plan to tie this all into some writing-themed conclusion. There’s a lesson in there about the importance of losing, but I already covered it in the first writing/wrestling article. And I could try to tie it up with a point about how the world would be better if we were all more willing to help the next generation rather than shoving them down for fear of losing our place. But the truth is there was no plan for this blog. I just couldn’t sleep and found myself writing, because it didn’t feel right to let this event pass without saying something. Without acknowledging how big of an event had just occurred. Not for some of you, heck probably not even for most of you. Still, for a lot of people out there this was a big moment. It only felt right to say one last farewell to the Phenom, the Dead Man, the American Badass.
Farewell Undertaker. And long live Mark Calaway. After everything the man has given us, he’s more than earned this walk off into the sunset.