I spent a good hour thinking about this today, was Shawn Michaels the only legend that left professional wrestling on his own terms, without tarnishing his legacy further?
Stone Cold Steve Austin and Edge are outliers, in the sense that they left because of doctor’s orders, not by choice.
Hulk Hogan – Still thinking at his age, that he had “one more run”. In addition, how can we forget him coming back in TNA and that Mr. America run he had in WWE?
Ric Flair – He had that dreadful TNA run. How can we forget that Hulk Hogan tour of Australia? Where Hogan and Flair wrestled around the great land of Australia in 2009
Bret Hart – How can we forget him wrestling in jean shorts, a t shirt, and Jordan 7s at WrestleMania 26?
Mick Foley – Kept on coming back for “one more match”, whether it be in TNA or that abysmal “I Quit” match he had with Ric Flair that somehow involved Melina.
Macho Man Randy Savage – The “Team Madness” run in WCW with Mona and Gorgeous George in 2000 was horrible, arguably aside from making DDP, he did not really have anything memorable in WCW.
The Rock – Possibly the exception, but that WrestleMania 29 run was nothing more than recycled promos. He looked bad against John Cena and CM Punk to get to a WrestleMania 29 main event that was nothing but finishing move after finishing move.
Sting – Came to WWE way too late, and a run in TNA that produced nothing relevant, really never recovered after the Starrcade with Hollywood Hulk Hogan.
Roddy Piper – Let us just forget everything he did in wrestling after his Starrcade match with Hollywood Hulk Hogan.
Now, I am sure there are other legends you can name and you can curse me to the high heavens because I forgot your favorite wrestler, but you get the larger point I am making.
This leads me to one wrestler, who I grew up being a huge fan of, and as I got older and understood more of what I was watching on TV had a tremendous amount of respect for, The Undertaker.
You can read his Wikipedia or one of those lazy “10 things you DID NOT know about the Undertaker” webpages that are flooded with ads, or listen to a 3 hour podcast sponsored by Blue Apron to get a historical rundown of his contribution to professional wrestling in North America, so I will spare you that.
Simple and plain, he is a legend in World Wrestling Entertainment
One of the many things Undertaker is remembered by is his undefeated streak at WrestleMania that lasted 23 years, until Brock Lesnar ended it at WrestleMania 30. That should have been the end of Undertakers career.
It is common in professional wrestling that the wrestler, either retiring or leaving the company, loses their final match in order to make the guy or girl who beats them look like a million bucks. This should have happened at WrestleMania 30. When Brock Lesnar beat The Undertaker in a match that was remembered for the shocking result. The Undertaker even suffered a concussion so serious that he collapsed as he entered the backstage area after the match. This concussion was so severe that rumor is that Vince McMahon, the CEO of WWE, left the venue half way through to go with The Undertaker to the hospital.
From a health standpoint, knowing what we know now about head injuries, WWE should not have hesitated to tell The Undertaker that enough was enough, as far as him continuing to risk his health in the ring.
From an entertainment standpoint, The Undertaker losing his vaunted undefeated streak to Brock Lesnar, which solidified Brock Lesnar (who was floundering as a returning monster before this match) as the top person in the company, should have been enough for WWE to diminish the drawing power in The Undertaker at WrestleMania.
However, it is professional wrestling, and rarely is it that easy. For the next two years Undertaker came in and out of WWE in matches that did very little to sustain the aura of The Undertaker.
There was a match at WrestleMania 31 vs Bray Wyatt. Wyatt had to carry The Undertaker through a match that The Undertaker won in puzzling fashion. The Undertaker left TV shortly after. This damaged Bray Wyatt’s image by making him appear to be the wrestler who taunted The Undertaker for months, but could not beat him, even though he only wrestles once a year.
Then came WrestleMania 32 vs Shane McMahon. In one of the weirdest and saddest wrestling matches I have watched in quite a long time. This match had every wrestling stipulation that is designed to hide the fact that one or two wrestlers cannot have a logical match. Follow me here; Shane McMahon (Vince McMahon’s son) wanted a part of the” controlling interest” in WWE from his father, that was locked in a lockbox. So Vince McMahon (playing the villain role) decided to bring out his hired gun to make sure Shane did not get it. Now logic will tell you, whoever aligns himself with “evil” Vince McMahon would become evil by association, however the hired gun was a crowd favorite. A wrestler who has not been a “bad guy” in over a decade, The Undertaker.
Confused? I was too.
This match took place in a steel cage, which in the case, was designed to hide that neither wrestler was a full time wrestler, so the idea was hide their flaws inside of a steel cage where high impact blows with a lot of rest time can mask their age. It also had a stipulation attached to it designed to force a storyline in order to hide the fact that the two wrestlers did not really have an “issue”. The match started and the only thing any wrestling fan remembers is Shane McMahon jumping off the top of the cage and landing through the announcers table. This was written in to the match to get you to forget about the poor quality and just remember that one huge moment.
By this time, to me, The Undertaker had reached the highest level of accomplishment as a Professional Wrestler, but tried to reach for just a little bit more. It was like watching Patrick Ewing on the Sonics, Shaquille O Neal on the Cavs, Donovan McNabb on the Vikings, and Mitch Richmond on the Lakers. Athletes I revered as a child, made to look like they were holding on for the dreaded “one more run”.
I grew up a Philadelphia Eagles fan and Donovan McNabb was the person who brought the team to the highest of highs only to lose in the Super Bowl and multiple NFC Championships for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was one of my favorite Philadelphia Eagles ever; he was the franchise for years. Eventually he left and bounced around the league. I mentioned all of this to state that one of the most cringe worthy moments was watching Donovan McNabb throw passes that skipped off the turf for the Minnesota Vikings. This was when I knew that it was over for McNabb.
I did not want to watch this gladiator do more to damage all the good he built up over the years.
That leads me to the hardest Undertaker match I have ever had to watch. Yes, harder to watch than Undertaker vs Heidenreich or Undertaker vs Giant Gonzalez. It was Undertaker vs Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 33.
I grimaced every time The Undertaker hit the canvas because I hoped he got up without any physical pain.
I watched that match and put my head in my hands when he attempted a wrestling spot he had pulled off so effortlessly for years where he reversed a move in to his finishing move, The Tombstone. Finally, after a match that I kept hoping would just end, Roman Reigns hit The Undertaker with a spear to get the pinfall to defeat The Undertaker. My next words were, “thank god that is over, please just get up Undertaker.”
This match, for me, was as sad as watching all of those sports legends try to throw one more pass, make one more basket, hit one last home run. I just wanted it to end.
This brings me to the 25th anniversary of Monday Night RAW, in a show that was largely forgettable after Austin stunned Vince McMahon. As The Undertakers music hit and he walked down to the ring, I kept hoping to myself, “please don’t challenge John Cena to a match.” The Undertaker cut a promo that did not make any sense; was he retiring or was he challenging the rest of the WWE roster? I watched him with that strange, and obviously fake, hair that looked like it was taken off an Undertaker Barbie doll. The wrestler that I loved was gone. The wrestler, who was the most respected of any wrestler, was a shell of himself cutting an incoherent promo. The wrestler, who I never thought would be the wrestler to hang on too long, has turned in to every other wrestling legend who could not walk away until they could not walk without pain.
I have never taken a wrestling bump. I will never know what the roar of the crowd feels like. I have never drawn a single person to watch me do what I love to do for a living, so I do not claim to know why The Undertaker keeps coming back around this time every year.
I hope I never see The Undertaker wrestle again and I do not want him to wrestle John Cena at WrestleMania 34. I hope he does his legendary entrance at WrestleMania 34, soak in the adulation from the fans that he deserves, then exits the ring without taking a single bump.
Sadly, I have been a professional wrestling fan long enough to know that it probably will not go that way for him, it rarely goes that way for any of our professional wrestling heroes.
Either we do not know when to stop watching or they do not know when to stop wrestling.