The other night I was watching WrestleMania 28, in which the Undertaker had a Mania rematch against Triple H. This was a few days before rumors of the Undertaker’s potential retirement started in earnest, but it was after his hobbling performance in this year’s Royal Rumble and a moment on Raw when it appeared that choke-slamming Braun Strowman had, well, sucked the life from the Deadman. The feeling of finality was certainly in the air.
As he squared off against Triple H in what would have been the match of his career if not for the match two years prior against Shawn Michaels, the announcers’ voices were an insistent dirge, of all things, for Undertaker’s mortality. "The question coming into this matchup is the Undertaker’s physical well-being," said Michael Cole. Although he had defeated Triple H the year before at WrestleMania 27, the war left him spent, and he had to be helped to the back by the WWE medical team. At 28, his stated goal was to erase "that scene" from the collective conscious. As Jim Ross put it: "The Undertaker truly believes that figuratively he lost at WrestleMania last year."
It was a moralistic turn for the man often described as a living spirit of vengeance, but moreover the frank admission of his mortality went counter to the entire premise of the Undertaker.
That match against Triple H was billed as being "the end of an era," but the era marched gruelingly onward for five more years. It ended Sunday night after a loss to Roman Reigns. It took an untold number of spears and superman punches, and a car wreck through a ringside table, to get it done. The last several minutes of the match featured Reigns stalking the mostly unmoving shell of the Undertaker and pummeling him until he finally couldn’t get his shoulder up.
But the most poignant moment of the match was when Reigns twice tried and failed to lift Undertaker off the ground. It was a botched move. Normally it would have been seen as a straightforward misstep — Reigns lost his balance, Taker missed his cue to jump. In the moment, it felt more like Reigns was trying to lift the weight of a metaphorical career, of an ending era, and failing.
The rest of the match was Reigns attacking Undertaker and Undertaker merely surviving. But in the end, Reigns didn’t entirely fail. He couldn’t, not with the Undertaker’s imprimatur. When the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak is discussed, the conversation seems to begin roughly with his match against Shawn Michaels in 2009, but the majority of his WrestleMania wins were in service of legitimizing his opponent, or, more vaguely, in service of something greater. Randy Orton, Batista, even his first match against Triple H in 2001 — these were star-making matches for the losers. And that says nothing about opponents like Giant Gonzales and Kane and several others outside of WrestleMania — Mankind most notably — who were, in varying ways, legitimized entirely by their proximity to the Undertaker.
The Undertaker’s gimmick was initially more about nihilism than religion, but that changed when the character started evolving. In the Attitude Era of the ’90s, wrestling personalities adapted to a more reality-show-centric time; wrestlers started going by their real names and their characters began to hew more closely to their real personalities — with the volume turned up, as the saying goes, to 11. It was here that the Undertaker famously transformed from an Old West zombie to a grim biker. But the real transformation happened more subtly: the actualization of his role as the company’s locker room conscience, as evidenced through stories of him presiding over the backstage tradition known as Wrestler’s Court; his declining to even discuss decamping to WCW — when others were chasing the Turner paychecks — out of respect to Vince McMahon and the then-WWF; and more importantly, his onscreen role slowly evolving into the transcendent position of walking legend. It was easy to miss under the pyro and staged blackouts, but this was no accident: when the streak began to gain notoriety, it was less a plot device and more a lifetime achievement award.
He had long escaped easy classification as a performer — was he a feature or a freak show or a workhorse? — but his value to the company was always evident. He could make anybody from Kamala to Shawn Michaels look great. He never needed the title belt to maintain relevance, but sometimes the title belt needed him, and he was there to carry the mantle. Broadly speaking, that is the story of the Undertaker — the good soldier, the traditionalist. And rule no. 1 among traditionalists: Always go out on your back.
Sunday night, Undertaker did just that, losing to Reigns in what will presumably be his last match. It was a good match, and a great farewell to the industry that made him and that he kept afloat. The principle of going out on your back is a way of giving back to the business: By losing, you help the career of someone who will continue wrestling. He didn’t just give the "rub" to Reigns; he was giving it to the industry as a whole.
One of the most derided moments of the Undertaker’s career was the debut of the "Higher Power," a mysterious authority figure whose identity the Undertaker had been teasing for some time. Finally, it was revealed that the Higher Power was none other than Vince McMahon. It was a silly story line, but like many things in wrestling, there was a hint of truth to it. The Undertaker’s religion is pro wrestling.
After his loss Sunday night, he stood to receive the crowd’s adulation, and eventually left his gloves, coat, and hat in the ring. As a symbol it was hardly worth the effort — the Undertaker had already figuratively left everything in the ring that night. It was the most triumphant ending a good soldier could have wanted: He went out on his back, but then he got up and walked away on his feet.
He walked slowly, both to relish in that final adulation of the crowd, and because after all those years, every step hurt.