The Last Ride Into The Darkness

The Deadman. The Grim Reaper. The Lord of Darkness. The American Badass. Big Evil. The Phenom. The Undertaker. Whatever incarnation he was in, this was a character that had graced our TV screens for the majority of 26 and a half years. Think about that for a second. In terms of your own life, what does nearly three decades mean? Is it most of it? Is it all of it? Or is it even longer than you’ve been around? When I watched his debut at Survivor Series in 1990 on PPV, I had no idea I’d be watching his, presumably, final match at WrestleMania in 2017. More than that, as his career unfolded, it wouldn’t be the black magic or dark rituals I would remember the most; nor would it even be the classic Hell in a Cell matches he frequently competed in. No, it would be the waning years in the ring that would ultimately become the most remarkable.

And it all started with the end of The Streak.

One has to wonder what it was like when someone mentioned, “You know, The Undertaker has never lost at WrestleMania, boss…” From that moment of realization on, when WrestleMania came around, one of the largest points of interest would stem from who would be next to try to break The Streak. Many of the best tried: Randy Orton, Edge, Batista, CM Punk; both Shawn Michaels and Triple H tried on multiple occasions. The thing was that this ongoing story was never really about The Undertaker himself, it was always about the opponent: would this be the man who could do the impossible and defeat The Undertaker at WrestleMania? No one succeeded in 21 attempts.

Enter Brock Lesnar.

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The Beast Incarnate did the unthinkable that night in New Orleans. The Deadman’s old foe from years prior was just too big, too fast, and too strong. However, as that chapter closed, the story continued. No longer would The Undertaker be defined by The Streak. He was now vulnerable. Lesnar proved that The Phenom could be defeated at the biggest stage of them all. Lesnar showed the world that there were chinks in the armor. Now it was time to see who could take down Death himself, once and for all. Bray Wyatt tried the following year and came up short, as did Shane McMahon the year after that, though I still don’t fully know what that was all about. The Streak might have fallen, but The Undertaker continued on.

To truly understand the final chapters, one must remember that despite the supernatural overtones, The Undertaker has always been a figure firmly entrenched in the Western genre mythos. He was the sheriff, both heroic and villainous depending on his mood, alternately there to either save the town from whatever monster stood before him or to burn the whole place to the ground. Even when he was in his American Badass days, that didn’t change. He was a modern day cowboy riding a steel horse. The connotation stayed the same. WrestleMania was his O.K. Corral: the place for the defining shootout.

Lesnar changed all of that. For the first time, The Undertaker lost the gunfight. After WrestleMania 30, it was no longer the O.K. Corral, but it was his last stand. It became High Noon. Here we now saw an aging gunslinger being forced to deal with a rival and for the first time there would be doubt. He won so many shootouts before, but now might be the moment where he doesn’t make it back home. He survived the attempts from McMahon and Wyatt, but how much longer could he hold out?

As fate would have it, we found out the answer this past Sunday.

In Roman Reigns, The Undertaker faced a challenge unlike any set before him previously. Reigns wasn’t a monster to be disposed of nor was he a wrestler trying to cement his name in the record books by ending the vaulted Streak. He wasn’t even like Lesnar, a force of nature seemingly destined to defeat The Phenom at WrestleMania. No, Reigns was an hungry, young competitor who likened himself as The Big Dog who was staking his claim at The Deadman’s Yard. This wasn’t something that was entirely new: Wyatt had tried to do the same thing a couple of years prior. The difference was that Wyatt was an impostor; a magician with simple parlor tricks. Reigns was an actual contender, a threat even, to the throne. When Reigns eliminated The Undertaker from the 2017 Royal Rumble, it became about pride. The old veteran would need to put on his boots on one more time to put down yet another defier as he had done year after year.

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Except this time, that’s not how the story unfolded. I didn’t watch any of the RAWs to see this story build. I didn’t need to. I let the two men tell me the story while they were in between the ropes. The Undertaker came out strong, his experience being an early factor. He was letting the overly confident Reigns know that while he may have main evented the two WrestleManias prior to this one, going against The Demon of Death Valley was a different ballgame altogether. Reigns, however, weathered the storm and took over. He was relentless. He battered The Undertaker over and over again. The ending became clear and it was only a matter of time. A friend I was watching the match with commented that the finishing moments seemed near. I responded with, “No, he’s gotta sit up one more time.” And then it happened. The Undertaker began to sit up as he had done thousands of times over the years…only he didn’t make it all the way up. He paused midway and crumpled over to the mat. It was one of the most visceral images I had ever seen while watching a match: I was not just watching the end of a match, I was watching the end of a career and of a character. It was numbing.

Some will talk about the quality of the match. No one will mistake it for any of the classics he had with Shawn Michaels, but that wasn’t the point. This was all about the story, more so than most wrestling matches already are. It was a story that started on November 22, 1990. During this match in particular, the character and performer morphed into one, creating this odd “meta” story (and no one ever did that better than The Phenom). Indeed, the miscues people have been speaking about only added to the narrative: The Undertaker just couldn’t do it anymore. His luck had run out and his time had come. It was his last gunfight and he simply ran out of bullets.

Reigns hit one last Spear and the referee registered the three count. Reigns’ music played, the crowd reacted as one would expect. Fireworks went off. The Undertaker didn’t move an inch. He didn’t move until Reigns was gone. One thing that has been overlooked far too often was The Undertaker’s masterful ability to tell a story without saying a single word. He was always magnetic. You could never take your eyes off of him. He stood, a defeated man, and put his entrance coat and hat back on. Then he began to take off his gloves, followed by his coat, and finally his hat after a deep breath. He left them in a tidy bundle and exited the ring. He kissed his wife who was ringside and slowly walked back up the ramp. He raised his fist in the air and descended into the ramp: one last ride, not into the sunset, but into the darkness from which he emerged some 26 years before.

The Undertaker got to tip his hat and tell us goodbye in the only way he knew how: in complete silence as we sat there, breaths held, captivated by the man before us as we had been so many times before. Except this was no mere man. He was a myth. A legend poised to enter Valhalla. He was the one consistent in the crazy world of professional wrestling. Stars came and went, yet he always remained, patrolling his yard, year in and year out. He gave us everything he had until there was simply nothing left to give and if this was his final dance, it would be one worthy of remembrance.

There wasn’t an happy ending to be found. Nor did he get the bittersweet ending like Gary Cooper in High Noon or John Wayne in The Searchers, sadly victorious. No, The Undertaker fell, gunned down in his own yard. He went out fighting like Wayne in The Shootist or Hugh Jackman in Logan. It was his destiny to do so. There was no other way.

He was the Desperado The Eagles sang about: the hardened old cowboy who needed to give up what he had been doing for so long in order to move on in his life. The very things he had found joy in were hurting him and he had to let it all go.

There was no one like him before and there will never be anyone else like him ever again.

He was The Undertaker.

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Images courtesy of WWE.