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The Old Men and the Ring

The Triple H–and-Undertaker rivalry rises from dead for ‘Super Show-Down,’ but will they have anything left?

WWE/Ringer illustration

Twenty-two years ago, Triple H and the Undertaker had their first-ever singles match in the semifinals of WWE’s inaugural Kuwait Cup, doing battle to determine which of them would go on to face … Ahmed Johnson. (It was Triple H, and he lost to Johnson in the finals.) Suffice it to say, the stakes are a bit higher for this Saturday night, when these two titans will allegedly take the spotlight together one final time to headline Super Show-Down in Melbourne, Australia.

In the interim two-plus decades, the Game and the Dead Man have staged numerous televised clashes (helpfully delineated here on WWE.com), all of them in the continental U.S., and one early bout even occurring in the bowels of Manhattan’s Penn Station. Yet, despite their generation-spanning feud having epically and satisfyingly culminated in WrestleMania XXVIII’s Hell in a Cell crescendo in 2012—refereed by no less than Shawn Michaels—there’s no such thing as closure in pro wrestling—at least not when it comes to big money and bigger opportunities. And thus, six years later, these two eventual first-ballot Hall of Famers (should they ever, you know, actually hang it up) have relit the flame from that Mania send-off’s burning embers to help enable WWE’s push into the globe’s easternmost continents.

While steadying to impress the timelessness of their product upon international fans, vendors, and content partners, WWE has bent over backward these past couple of months to persuade its regular audience that there’s still a relevant animus between Taker and the self-proclaimed Cerebral Assassin after nearly a quarter-century. In recent weeks the two men have traded turns on Raw delivering passionate promos about unsettled differences and insatiable egos. A newly chrome-domed Shawn Michaels—who will be in his BFF Triple H’s corner at Super Show-Down—has made his way to Monday night twice over the past month to rebut Undertaker’s accusations of corporate servitude and self-interest. And lastly, Kane—who will be in the opposite corner Saturday—accompanied his onscreen brother for some serious destruction earlier this week, leaving audiences buzzing over the fact that Michaels, who hasn’t competed since being felled by Taker at WrestleMania XXVI in 2010, took a meaningful bump. Regardless of Michaels’s insistence upon his prolonged second retirement (he first stepped away from in-ring blows due to chronic back issues in 1998, returning to spark a legendary feud with Triple H in 2002) or Kane’s real-life role as mayor of Knox County (which never stops being weird), speculation about Michaels coming back for at least one last match has begun in earnest.

But first things first: This weekend is about the beginning of a new end to an era that initially ended six years ago (16 after it began). Though it has to be acknowledged that Michaels’s involvement is inextricable from Triple H vs. Undertaker, both historically and in this moment. The truth is, Triple H’s legacy has long been HBK-adjacent, underscored by abiding enthusiasm for every D-Generation X reunion, even if the duo’s second sustained go round as a tag team circa the late-2000s was … well, pathetic by comparison.

Undertaker stands on his own, with or without Kane or Paul Bearer (RIP) or obedient druids or the Ministry of Darkness as support. They’ve all been, to varying extents, complementary in his company. Taker has been the towering tide lifting all boats. Triple H, while no slouch, with 20-some-odd WWE title wins and unquestioned commitment to the performative and profit-making sides of sports entertainment, never quite equaled Taker’s singular aura. In fairness, who did? DX, Evolution, even the Authority—in which Triple H played up his backstage executive role for TV heel heat in the vein of his father-in-law, Vince McMahon—were each the sum of their parts. And in DX and Evolution in particular, Triple H wasn’t necessarily the crucial cog.

Fortunately, the only thing WWE excels at more than making history is revising it. There’s nothing monolithic about Taker and Triple H’s shared body of work. But sliced and diced into a sizzle reel, there are dozens of iconic images from confrontations like that aforementioned Hell in a Cell sayonara. (Triple H arguably should have retired the signature DX crotch chop after that match’s bravura iteration.) “Biker Taker” (it’s a whole thing) evoking his unforgettable Hell in a Cell collision with Mankind at 1998’s King of the Ring by choke-slamming Triple H off a production riser at WrestleMania X-Seven comes to mind, as does Triple H turning Taker’s Tombstone finisher around on him at Mania XXVII and scoring a near-victory while aping the Dead Man’s theatrical cross-armed pin (the Game has always had a knack for indelible photo ops).

But the reality is a number of their showdowns, if you will, ended in messy DQs or no contests, and/or helped to shore up other story lines spinning off from their own (e.g. Big Show’s beef with Undertaker in fall ’08). That final, grueling battle inside an enclosed cage at WrestleMania XXVIII was very much—as first billed and eventually signified by Taker and Triple H and Michaels carting each other off arm in arm—the end of an era, far more than it sounded the gong on any one war. The Phenom and the Game are in the exclusive company of only one another, having been constants in WWE predating the Attitude Era, during its late-’90s-early-2000s high-water mark and straight on through to the present day, virtually uninterrupted. The aforementioned April 2012 classic had more to do with passing the promotion’s torch to NXT trainees like the Shield (who debuted riotously that November), endeavoring on a more broadly entertaining PG blitzkrieg behind the scenes, and allowing Triple H and Undertaker to reset their roles—the former as premiere developer of talent and latter as special attraction—than with serving as denouement for one specific rivalry.

Maybe, then, there is an unscripted chapter for Taker and Triple H to write in Melbourne, one that will make the case for their inseparability while closing it, casket-like, for good. Or perhaps it’s a Faustian bargain for global dominance with the potential of Michaels’s in-ring return—or another “final” Taker-HHH match—as collateral to burn. Bottom line is, the bell hasn’t rung, and already there are matters of motive, consequence, and greatness to debate. In that all-important respect, Taker vs. Triple H Part 17 may have already pulled its weight.