The Dead Man says it's over. But is it?
At the 2020 , The Undertaker retired from wrestling. The Dead Man has been a main event attraction for three decades--a crucial component to WWE's ascendance as a global juggernaut. He is an irreplaceable attraction--a performer with a fantastical gimmick, who evolved it numerous times over 30 years to remain relevant.
In the second half of his career, he became much more than his gimmick. His in-ring work evolved into something exceptional--much more than "Undead Western Zombie" would have demanded. No longer simply a "big man," he became an incredibly well-rounded performer and backstage leader. He mentored and guided both contemporaries and younger performers and became a symbol of longevity in a business where careers end quickly and men die young.
Now, we're at the end of the road. And if this is the end--the last time we see The Undertaker in a WWE ring--then it is truly the "End of an Era" that WWE has been promoting for the past eight years.
However, The Undertaker has symbolically "retired" several times in the past decade. There was his Wrestlemania 28 "End of an Era" ramp shot with Shawn Michaels and Triple H. There was the end of the Streak at Wrestlemania 30, which shattered Taker's facade of invulnerability. There was his second Wrestlemania loss at Wrestlemania 33, when he laid his hat, coat, and gloves in the ring. And each of these losses spurred new talk--about whether he should have retired earlier, about whether he was beginning to embarrass himself, about whether he could possibly injure himself or others. I was one of the writers who . His more recent performances in Saudi Arabia have solidified those sentiments. And the Undertaker himself has of overstaying his welcome. It's these concerns that have prompted this final, seemingly more permanent retirement.
"I just don't want to be that guy that goes out there, limps out to the ring, and the young guys are having to work around me only to get chokeslammed, or dropped on their head," said Mark Calaway, the performer behind the character, . "One, it's not fair to them. Two, it's not fair to the fans. I don't want to be the guy that uses the equity I've built up over all those years to go out and make a payday or two. It doesn't feel right to me."
The November 22 retirement ceremony occurred at the very end of the Survivor Series PPV--the sort of placement that accorded it a degree of finality. The guest list also added to this mood. There were, of course, the usual faces: Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Big Show, and Kane, all of whom played key roles in the Dead Man's career. But there were also the lesser-known, more minor players: Savio Vega, Phineas Godwinn aka Mideon, and the Godfather. These were his locker room friends and members of his BSK backstage crew. To a fan, it felt like a genuine gathering of friends and colleagues to wish the man well.
Then Vince McMahon, seldom seen on television, came to the ring. He introduced The Undertaker. The lights went out, the bell tolled, and off we went.
It's cliched to say it at this point, but the Undertaker's entrance never fails to impress. The signature bits--the thunder and lightning, the shooting flames--are constant, but it's the little touches that make each one feel unique. This time around, it was two massive Tesla coils, which shot little lightning currents across the ramp. It was all reminiscent of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein--the undead, reanimating for one final time.
The Undertaker came out on the ramp. All of his buddies were already shuffled off camera. And it became apparent that, despite inviting his real-life friends, he was staying in character for this final appearance. He may be on First We Feast, but there are still kayfabe-breaking lines that the Dead Man will not cross.
The next several minutes felt oddly predictable. The promo he gave was like many other 'retirement' promos that he's given, like the one at the in Manhattan. It was steeped in the character's abstract language, with direct callbacks to resting in peace, and making his opponents rest in peace. We've seen this before. And we've seen him return from far more final-feeling promos than this one.
Something new and heart rending: an emotional tribute to Paul Bearer by way of hologram, along with a 10-bell salute. Afterwards, the Undertaker walked back up the ramp and raised his fist. And then, it was over.
No doubt, the lack of audience meant this retirement lacked the gravitas it deserved. He's essentially playing to a silent house--the cheers and chants we hear are piped in, and those that aren't have been sweetened and loudened significantly. But still, the ceremony as a whole felt strangely impersonal.
Perhaps it's a fool's errand to put a cork in any of this, to continually tell fans that this time, it's the end--this time, for real. The more WWE does it, the less affecting it becomes, and the more they have to "top" their previous attempts. It's become increasingly clear that no one, least of all the Undertaker, seems truly willing to let go.
It will never be done--truly over--unless the man under the hat, Mark Calaway, comes to the ring instead of his character. But that will probably never happen. It's just too good to put to rest--the Undertaker will endure a thousand deaths and many more retirements, but he'll be back again--next year and the year after that, for more farewells. Perhaps like one of Taker's early 90's matches, that endurance--that rising from the grave each and every time--is what we'll have to get accustomed to from now on. Or maybe not. But time will surely tell.