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    Tuesday, June 23, 2020

    The Word on the Rings: Dead Man Walking



    Whenever wrestling fans like myself say that we “grew up watching The Undertaker,” it implies something that–for more than a few fans–should remain unsaid: that we also watched The Undertaker grow old before our very eyes.

    I’m not sure if it was his WrestleMania match with Roman Reigns, or the debacles of Middle East PPVs, but the mystique of The Undertaker somehow gradually eroded after The Streak ended. In recent memory, we weren’t seeing a sprightly athlete in the ring, much less a supernatural creature of the night: we were seeing this big old man past his prime, wrestling matches that are best left to much younger wrestlers. The vicious Tombstone Piledrivers have become rare: the last one delivered to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 25. Somehow, the MMA-esque maneuvers existed to bring out a more “legitimate” side to the Deadman, as much as it seemed like something done to protect a body worn and beaten from decades of battles in the ring.

    Those of us who were lifelong fans of The Undertaker–people who can’t seem to boo him no matter what–just muttered under our breaths: “Please, retire.”

    And retire, he did.

    ***

    I could probably sit here and tell you what The Undertaker meant for professional wrestling. Maybe rattle off some of his greatest matches, perhaps deconstruct the many characters that we’ve seen in his long and storied career. Or yak about the historical impact of Hell in a Cell matches and Boiler Room Brawls. Maybe I could–on the rare occasions that I write here–find all sorts of praise and superlatives for how great The Undertaker really is. After all, there’s no arguing the greatness of The Undertaker: the only question is how high that pedestal should be, and for every contribution he has made to professional wrestling, that pedestal can’t be high enough.

    And chances are, those things have already been written in better ways.

    But like I said, “growing up watching The Undertaker” also means “watching The Undertaker grow old.” Wrestling has presented itself as a “showcase of the immortals,” but age has always been a really touchy subject in professional wrestling. It’s one thing to see legends like Ric Flair and Terry Funk grow old before our eyes in more ways than one, but somehow that’s always been a strange thing for someone like The Undertaker. I’m sure that by the time he turns 80, he can probably still kick the behinds of middling athletes, but our expectations of The Undertaker have always been different.

    Maybe it’s because of his gimmick. Maybe it’s because of his natural athleticism and in-ring work. Or maybe because we never expected The Undertaker to be anywhere too far from the main event. And to do that for the better part of 33 years is something exceptional, especially with the persona that he wrote and carried with him through those decades.

    Most wrestlers would walk away from long careers in the ring due to injury, or more tragic circumstances leading to tragic consequences. But for The Undertaker, it was different: at the conclusion of his documentary, retirement was a decision made from a sense of accomplishment. Or that thing that can only come from age: losing the desire to step between the ropes to do a physical battle between good and evil. It’s not that the gimmick has run its course–The Deadman can always reinvent himself, as we’ve seen through the years–but it was on his own terms. And so few–and maybe it’s just him, in this long roster of wrestlers throughout history–who can probably say that.

    And in that train of thought, I try to think of every match, title reign, storyline, and Tombstone that I’ve ever seen The Undertaker do. Maybe they all led to this point. The narrative of The Deadman was not an end that culminates in a blaze of glory or a great conquest. Rather, it’s a quiet one: like the death that his fiction represented, the end always draws silently in the night.

    Maybe that’s what it really means to say that we watched The Undertaker grow old before our very eyes. Many of us are still young men, for the most part: carving legacies in our own way, far from that point of deciding when to walk away from whatever it is that is calling us. We may think that we know when “it’s time,” but we never really do: not when we’re yet to be confronted by really mortal questions. Like our families. Or our health. Or the desire that drives us. We may never get to accomplish everything, but when that time comes that we look back at all of it, only then can we tell if the fire of desire still burns. If it does, we forge on; if it doesn't, we walk away.

    And maybe that’s what growing old really means. Walking that long line toward that dignified halt where we look back at everything and ask ourselves if we have done all there is to do. And for The Undertaker, it was a resounding, unequivocal, ovation-worthy “Yes.”

    That’s 33 years in the ring, 2,300+ matches, 17 title reigns, 21 consecutive wins at WrestleMania.

    ***

    And so, The Undertaker has retired. Perhaps there’s a lot to be said about “wrestling retirements,” and that we’ve not seen the last of the Deadman. Maybe there’s one more match down the road: a cinematic match, perhaps a challenge thrown at him by a young hotshot wanting to make a name for himself in the main event of WrestleMania, perhaps an obligatory Chokeslam: one more, for the fans’ sake. But personally, I won’t count on it. I’m not sure I ever want to…

    … knowing that the greatest wrestler of all time bowed out of the ring in the greatest way possible. When the dead man's walking, he walks quietly.

    Header image from WWE
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    Item Reviewed: The Word on the Rings: Dead Man Walking Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Marck Rimorin
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