Ten years ago, at WrestleMania 24 in Orlando, Ric Flair wrestled what was supposed to be the last match of his career. He took on Shawn Michaels, an opponent Flair chose himself knowing that his next loss would mean his retirement. This was a story line, of course—the edict came down on screen from WWE chairman Vince McMahon, in full heel capacity—but it was also real, and the story line was built around Flair’s actual retirement, at age 59, from active in-ring duty. As was scripted, the match ended with Michaels looking at a weakened Flair, saying “I’m sorry, I love you,” and superkicking him. Flair lost, and Michaels abandoned the spotlight to allow Flair to soak in the adulation of the crowd. Flair broke down, blubbering through his ovation. It was an unnerving level of emotion even in a sport so full of overacting. Watching Flair break down, it was clear he wasn’t sad because he lost or because he was saying goodbye, but rather because in real life he didn’t get to be a wrestler anymore, and he didn’t want to ever retire.
He didn’t, of course. After his WWE contract ran out, he went on an Australian tour wrestling against Hulk Hogan, and then signed on with rival wrestling organization TNA and had a series of unnecessary, uncomfortable, and often gnarly matches against other legends like Hogan, Mick Foley, and Sting on the back nine. He says he finally gave up wrestling after his contemporary Jerry “the King” Lawler almost died after a match on WWE’s Monday Night Raw. (It also coincided with Flair’s return to WWE, where his retirement was still official, and enforced.)
I rewatched that Flair-Michaels match in the run-up to this Sunday’s WrestleMania 34, where retirement isn’t in the script, but it’s certainly in the air. Every year, WrestleMania features the return of legends, whether in official matches or just to stoke the crowd’s frenzy. But unlike that night 10 years ago, careers are only threatened in the subtext.
For the past half decade, the Undertaker has been on retirement watch, and every year the subliminal narrative has been about his impending in-ring finale. When he lost to Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 30, it felt like the perfect bow. Undertaker is widely seen as a wrestling traditionalist and one of the rules of the ring is to “go out on your back”—to lose your last match in order to pay forward your fame to your opponent, who would still be around to benefit after you left. And this was a particularly big loss—the Undertaker’s first WrestleMania loss after a 21-match winning streak. Lesnar didn’t need the rub from Undertaker the way that a younger star might, but it set up Lesnar’s dominating title run that carried WWE through a relatively fallow period.
Even though it was a lovely bookend, and even though Taker went straight from the stadium to the hospital to deal with (real) injuries suffered in the match, he persisted. He returned the next year to face Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 31, renewed his beef with Lesnar later that year, and went on to face Shane McMahon at WrestleMania 32. Last year, at WrestleMania 33, he faced Roman Reigns in a more conventional torch-passing affair. After Reigns beat him, the winner left Undertaker in the ring—like Michaels did to Flair in 2008—to allow him his moment. Taker left his duster, hat, and gloves in a pile in the center of the ring, signaling the end of an era.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that was his last match, because the announcers played it as such. If there was any uncertainty in WWE’s delivery, it was undoubtedly the company hoping against hope that he would find it in himself to return yet again and buoy its next big card.
And, of course, he will. Or we think so, anyway. For the past several weeks, John Cena has been trying to goad the Undertaker into showing up at WrestleMania and facing him. It helps that he hasn’t been on TV at all leading up to the show. He hasn’t even officially been announced for the card—we’re taking it on wrestling fan’s intuition that he’s going to show up to accept Cena’s challenge, because of course he will. Keeping him off-screen is a risky move, especially judged by the norms of the WWE promotional machine, but it’s smart—it allows the company to practically guarantee the match and also maintain the big moment of “surprise” for Sunday night. More importantly, it changed the narrative—instead of being about his “one last match,” it’s about whether he’ll show up at all. It’s a subtle tweak but it represents a pivot from a story about conclusion to one about possibility and hope.
Nobody knows if Sunday will be the Undertaker’s last match, and, unlike last year, nobody really cares. We’re on bonus time with the Deadman, and we’ll take what we can get. But more importantly, this is the WrestleMania of possibility.
Nobody better encapsulates that than Daniel Bryan, the upstart megastar of 2013-15 who recently announced his return from a two-year retirement due to concussions and other issues. In many ways he’s the opposite of the Undertaker—a powerfully human performer with his prime cut short as opposed to a supernatural icon whose career defies conventional endings. But Bryan is more than that. He’s an avatar for the wrestling fan by nature and in story line, and in defying his denouement he became the living embodiment of the wrestling fan’s carnal desire for our favorites to continue into perpetuity, “One More Match” made flesh. On Sunday, Bryan teams up with Shane McMahon to take on the nefarious duo of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. The match is tinged with finality: Owens and Zayn are fighting for their jobs, and they’ve tried to put both of their opponents on the IR. But the return of Bryan is the real story here, and it’s irresistible. Spectacular as it might be, what happens in the ring will be secondary to the imagined possibilities of Bryan’s future in the ring. WrestleMania has had its share of comebacks, but they’re usually momentary. Bryan’s future is yet to be written, but if all goes well there’s half a career out in front of him. WrestleMania 34 is only the beginning.
Speaking of beginnings, Sunday will also see the in-ring debut of Ronda Rousey, the former UFC champion–turned–WWE superstar. She’ll be in a tag match alongside Kurt Angle, taking on Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, the real-life and on-screen power couple running WWE. In the narrative, they want to use Rousey and hope to tame her in defeat; in reality their presence in the match has more to do with hand-holding. If they can make her look good (and get the crowd to cheer her at their expense), they could build a megastar on the fly. It’s clear that Rousey’s not ready to compete at the top of the women’s division—she’s been training for only a matter of months—but on Sunday she won’t have to be a virtuoso. As long as she hits her marks, she’s already the platonic ideal of the WWE hero: a mainstream crossover star who’s committed to a WWE career. If she can really learn to wrestle and work the mic, that’s a bonus. She’ll have to if she wants to stick around, but the main thing is that she’s sticking around. It’s the future matches that we really care about, and the hope that they present is what we’re cheering for on Sunday.
(Those future matches will be against the likes of established wrestlers like Asuka and Charlotte Flair—who may have the match of the night on Sunday, just to show Rousey what she signed on for—as well as Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax, who will also be going at it, and Sasha Banks and Bayley. The irony of Rousey coming to WWE is that she’s simultaneously validating the ascent of the women’s roster and hamstrung by its expectations—the division is too good for her to compete in it. Yet. There’s that hope again.)
Without Rousey and Bryan and the Undertaker, WrestleMania would have significantly less luster. There’s nobody on the roster with the crossover appeal of Hulk Hogan or the Rock, though Cena, with his Hollywood career exploding, is giving it a go. But there’s possibility up and down the card: Braun Strowman, the bastard child of Hogan and Hillbilly Jim, will be vying for the Raw tag-team titles, and regardless of the outcome there will be plenty of titles (and screwball comedy roles) in his future. The Intercontinental title match between the Miz, Seth Rollins, and Finn Bálor, is a showcase of past and future world champions, all three with the potential to grab the mainstream by the neck if given the opportunity. The Usos and the New Day are five of the most compelling wrestlers of their generation, and they’ll get a chance to show it on Sunday. Rusev is crashing the U.S. title match with the potential to explode gimmick, hierarchy, and career expectations in one fell swoop. Elias, one of the breakout stars of the past several months, will sing a song—you read that right—and even though it’ll sound like a coffee shop open mic night Daughtry cover, it’ll be transcendent, and the inanity of that sentence should tell you exactly how great it’ll be.
The two main title matches—Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns for the Universal Championship and AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the WWE title—are even more compelling, but for opposite reasons. The Universal Championship match has the makings of a compelling clusterfuck. For one thing, the ending is projected: everybody expects Reigns to take the title from Lesnar, from tuned-in diehards (who have read rumors about it online for months) to little kids (who naturally hope for the beaten-down hero to prevail). For another thing, Lesnar is on his way out of WWE, and even though his contract doesn’t end on Sunday, Dana White’s semi-obnoxious spoiler that Lesnar is headed back to UFC will certainly draw the ire of fans—and raise the specter of Lesnar getting tumultuously booed on his way out the door, as he did at WrestleMania 20. And for another thing, fans love to boo Reigns, even when he’s the nominal protagonist. Couple that with Lesnar’s itinerant history, and this match could birth an all-time crowd revolt. But it could be really good, and with Lesnar’s fame and WWE’s deep commitment to the Reigns project, expect it to get placement over the Styles-Nakamura showdown. It may deserve it—it’ll be a match to remember one way or the other.
There’s some promise in this one too, though. When Reigns embraces his inner a-hole, he’s a powerful draw for WWE.
Meanwhile, Styles-Nakamura is destined to be so … good, in both technical and dramatic terms, that the only real fear is that it will underwhelm because of our outsize expectations. It may be too good—or at least too academic in its goodness—to stand out in the pyrotechnic haze of Sunday night. But WWE has been touting it as a dream match—albeit one that already happened in New Japan in 2016.
There’s a lot to dream about here: about the futures of both Styles and Nakamura, sure, but moreover about the match’s very existence. That WWE would put them together at all on such a stage, that WWE would acknowledge it ahead of time as the guaranteed workrate showcase, and that WWE would acknowledge that there’s a world outside WWE that it’s happy to plunder to make its product better. Contra Cena-Undertaker, there’s no mystery here, and there’s certainly no careers on the line—the story line undergirding the match is barely existent. A different crowd chant will be the guiding ethos here, if it lives up to the hype—it’s not “One More Match,” it’s “Fight Forever,” the refrain sung during the last act of an epic brawl.
That’s more than a vote of approval from the fan base, though. It’s the ethos that permeates the entire sport, especially at WrestleMania. We never want our icons to stop, and most of the time they don’t want to, either. Flair didn’t want to. The Undertaker has built the whole last act of his career on that idea. Fight Forever, One More Match—it’s the audience begging for it all to keep going forever. WWE has done a pretty amazing job over the past 34 years of keeping it going. WrestleMania 34’s broadcast is scheduled for five hours, and that’s not counting the NXT show and the Hall of Fame ceremony and all the other weekend events. It’ll be long, and full of fun and violence and exasperation and exaltation. In the moment, it might seem like it’ll last forever. But that doesn’t mean we want it to end. And neither, thankfully, do the men and women who are giving their all out there.