You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a powerful piece of fiction moves you intensely? Where you sit and reflect on what you’ve just experienced while simultaneously longing for more while also realizing what just ended doesn’t need anything more? Few works have had this effect on me with Se7en, Bioshock: Infinite, and The Last of Us being the first examples which come to mind and now the Undertaker’s retirement has joined this mystifying group.
I realize that of all the weeks to write a reflection post on a blog focused on comparing Raw and Smackdown, the week after Mania is probably a strange one, but I really need to get some things off my chest regarding Sunday’s main event and I hope you will indulge me. I’ll probably get to Raw and Smackdown later this week, but for now let’s talk about the end of the career of a man who will never be replicated.
The Case for Reigns
Like everyone else, I was hesitant when it became clear that Reigns was going to be the opponent for Taker at this year’s Mania. At a time when it was unclear if Taker would have any matches after this Mania, Reigns seemed like a choice to satiate Vince McMahon and nothing more when arguably better choices existed in Cena, Balor, etc. Despite this, the build for Taker/Reigns was far more interesting than I think anyone anticipated as Reigns showed arrogance and a lack of reverence for the Deadman’s epic career as no one before him has. These heelish tendencies added some depth to Reigns character and created an interesting dynamic between the two performers where a legend wasn’t receiving the respect he deserved and a brash superman believed he needed to prove something to the WWE Universe. While I may be reading too much into the buildup, I don’t really think this is the case when this story played out in the match itself.
Reigns frequently looked absolutely stunned at the beginning of the match when Undertaker got the upper hand as though he was finally realizing the scope of the Undertaker’s (kayfabe) strength which men like Shawn Michaels warned him about. As Reigns gained the upper hand and Undertaker began to look broken and weak (reflecting his real status as a performer), Reigns realized that he must be the one to end Taker’s career and had a face of regret and sadness before doing the deed. Even after he won, The Big Dog’s reaction didn’t reflect his arrogance or even an ounce of happiness, and instead only reflected a somber sense of regret but knowledge that he had done what he needed to in order to establish himself further.
The now almost infamous Tombstone piledriver botch arguably worked for the match as it served as the point which bridged together these two emotional halves and illustrated Undertaker’s fall from grace.
This story was an amazing combination of kayfabe and real life circumstances coming together (much like Roman Reigns’ own complex relationship with the fans) and characterized Reigns as a man who will stop at nothing to reach the top, but isn’t emotionless.
If anyone was going to retire Taker and have it enrich his career, it needed to be Reigns. No one else could have told this story and had it make sense for his character and no one else could retire Taker and not be harmed by it in the opinion of the smark fans (because honestly this opinion couldn’t get much worse).
Looking forward, a match between the two men who beat Taker at WrestleMania is the logical next step and finally makes Lesnar beating Taker seem like a smart decision now that another man has joined this elite, two person class to create a story which can exist without Undertaker but relies heavily on his legacy.
Finally Laid to Rest
The retirement ceremony for Taker is just as important as the match itself and just as deserving of discussion. Simply put, it was beautiful and subtle like few things in WWE are. As Undertaker removed each of his iconic articles of clothing and placed them in the center of the ring, Taker seem to be stripping away a layer of kayfabe and returning to a life where he is only Mark Calaway. The lighting here was dark enough to make his expressions unclear, but defined enough to show the emotion he was expressing in his face. As he left the ring and kissed his wife (breaking kayfabe in a rare moment for such an old school performer), everyone knew what was happening and wanted the moment to both last forever and end to stop the emotional torture.
The bare Undertaker went up the ramp only to descend into a pit which brought to mind both being laid to rest and being sent to hell. This image will genuinely last in my mind forever and will surely be remembered by anyone else who witnessed it and recognizes Undertaker’s legacy.