By Jerry Chandler
WrestleMania was this last weekend. We’d all heard the rumors year after year during the buildup to Mania over most of the last few years. We heard the rumors this year as well. This was to be his last WrestleMania. The rumors even circulated once again that this was his final ever match. Retirement was near.
The rumor may have become more believable with each passing year for various reasons, but there was still a part of our fan minds that didn’t think it was going to happen. There was a lot of talk about Taker being in pain getting ready for this year’s Mania. We’ve heard that before as well. It may well all have been true, but it didn’t necessarily mean something.
I think everyone expected his final go to be a bit like it was with Ric Flair. There’d be more noise about the final match coming. There’d be something from the WWE telling everyone that this was going to be the final event. They wouldn’t simply let it happen without making a big deal out of it. Then last Sunday happened.
I think it finally hit me when Jim Ross came out. They had announced that JR was going to be there to announce at Mania a little while back. I didn’t put the two things together then. A part of me had assumed that the offer to Ross to come in and do commentary at Mania was the WWE doing their bit to take care of family in the wake of Jim’s loss.
But then I more or less forgot about it as WrestleMania actually got going Sunday night. Then Jim Ross was brought out and I realized that there was only one match left on the card. My brain suddenly kicked into gear and I could totally see Taker telling the powers that be that one of his requests for his final match would be Jim Ross calling the action. At that point- more than with any other year’s match –I believed the rumors were right this time.
Then we had the match. Then the match was over. Then Taker did the once unthinkable by ending his career in the center of a WWE ring.
It’s amazing when you look back at the career of the Undertaker and realize how insanely improbable that career should have been. Look at the gimmick on paper. It should never have worked, or at the very least should never have worked for very long.
The character was conceived as an unfeeling dead man. He was basically a zombie. As such, most of the things that wrestlers depend on to get over with the audience were taken away from him. He didn’t really sell, he didn’t have crowd rallying comebacks, he almost never spoke and even then only spoke a few words, and he barely even acknowledged the audience in the arena. He was given an outfit that in color scheme and design- especially where the oversized accessories were concerned –looked like a cross between something out of The Addams Family and The Flintstones. Topping it off, he was slaved to a mystic urn that allowed the owner control of him and his supernatural powers.
This was late in 1990. This was the beginning of the era where fans were getting fed up with “cartoony gimmicks” in wrestling. The life expectancy of such gimmicks at this time was becoming a handful of years at best. But there was something different about this one. It was one of those amazingly rare marriages of the right gimmick with the right wrestler leading to something that likely no one could have truly foreseen.
Give the gimmick to anyone else and it probably dies in a few years. Give Mark Calaway any other gimmick and you have a successful wrestler who goes through a few other gimmicks over the years; maybe even in multiple wrestling organizations. But that gimmick given to that man gave us a character and a wrestler who did something no one else in recent wrestling history has done. At the time of his retirement, he had spent almost 27 full years in one company, the WWF/WWE, as essentially one character. You can’t point to another wrestler in the modern era of wrestling that you can say that about.
But while both things were needed for the success we saw, the man was more important than the gimmick he was given. It was Mark Calaway who knew how to take the cartoonish silliness he was given and embody and present it in such a way as to make it something incredible over time. It was Mark Calaway who figured out how to incorporate bits of himself into the character to make it feel real when it shouldn’t have. It was Mark Calaway who figured out how to evolve the character day by day, week by week, and year by year to keep it alive in ways that others who had been given gimmick personas were never able to do. It was Mark Calaway who took it and made it something more than a gimmick.
It was also Mark Calaway who made the character amazing to watch in the ring. This was a man who was only a few inches shy of being 7 feet and who weighed in somewhere around 300 lbs. throughout his career. With the character he was given, he could have easily played it as the stereotypical big man. He could have been the slower, grounded, power moves type of guy and all would have been seen as well by many a fan. But that wasn’t who he was.
Mean Mark Callous had been a guy in WCW who could walk the ropes, fly over or through the ropes, and do other moves that you would normally associate with much smaller guys. He could do power moves, but he could do so much more just as easily. When Mark Calaway left that character behind and became the Undertaker in the WWF, he brought that athleticism with him to the new character. He created with that athleticism moments in almost every match he was in that will forever be seared into the memories of those who watched them.
But he wasn’t a “spot monkey” by any means. He knew how to tell a story in the ring. He knew how to control an audience. He knew the value of less is more. Everything he did in a ring had a reason behind it designed to further the story he was telling in the match. He didn’t waste moves just to get a pop or just to throw something out there for effect. It always had to mean something to the story he was telling in the match.
It was also the man that Mark Calaway was that made Taker the locker room leader that he was. It didn’t seem to matter who it was, but almost every wrestler who has walked through his locker room has spoken about the level of respect he deserved and was given. He kept some in line when it was needed, he offered advice when it was necessary, and he rallied the troops more than once when it was required of him.
That word, respect, is a word that you always heard in discussions about Taker. He was respected by his peers and his employers. He was the guy that everyone else looked to at one point or another for guidance in the business or advice on how to handle things. He was also the guy who respected the business and its traditions.
And that brings us to Sunday night.
The Undertaker spent almost 27 full years as a WWF/WWE mainstay. During that time he was a part of some of the biggest PPVs, the wildest angles, and the craziest matches. He gave us countless memories and he sacrificed his body to do it. At this point, he’s earned whatever he wants.
No matter how much we might have wanted to see Taker go out on top with a win; that was never happening. Taker was never ending his career any other way than on his back putting over someone who was staying on with the company. Moreover, his respect for the traditions of the business and for the company he worked for meant that he was putting over whoever the company wanted to be the next big face in their business.
No matter what anyone else thinks he should have done or who he should or should not have done it for, it’s not our call. Unless and until he ever comes out and says otherwise- Taker did what he wanted to do with his final match. Then, after that match, the stage was his and he gave us all one hell of a WrestleMania moment that will outlive the match that some people are complaining about and that will live on for so long as there is a WWE and people to remember it. That is all that should matter at this point.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.