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21-1: How the WWE Mishandled the Undertaker's Wrestlemania Streak

When Mark Calaway started his career in the WWE, a young buck in his mid-20’s fresh from WCW, he was a menacing phenomenon — near 7 feet tall and over 300 pounds with incredible ring presence and charisma. He also had incredible skill and agility, which was rare for somebody of that stature. Usually, when you think of the bigger guys in the business such as Kevin Nash or The Big Show, you think of guys who rely on strength, power and size but are too lanky or heavy to do much else. Generally, you don’t think of a guy who can fly around a ring, walk on a top rope and strike at his opponents quickly.

His gimmick, different from nearly everything before it, just made him all the more mythical. This character was a darker version of the one he had in WCW, just before hitting the WWE, at Survivor Series, in 1990. Back then, he was “Mean Mark Callous”, a thug from the mean streets who just liked to beat people up. He wore black and had a fondness for snakes and Goth Rock. It wasn’t too far removed from the person Calaway was — a former bouncer.

He wanted The Undertaker to be a WCW thing but the company denied him that.

A few years later, after signing with Vince McMahon (somebody known for taking bigger risks than his competition), Calaway got his wish and became what bar patrons saw when they looked at him: large, imposing, dangerous and dark.

At Wrestlemania VII, he was booked to beat a fan favorite (and former “phenom”) “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka. He did so in convincing fashion…and 24 years ago, the Undertaker’s vaunted Wrestlemania Undefeated Streak began.

24 years doesn’t sound like a lot of time. It is…especially when you look back at events of the time:

  • George H.W. Bush was President of United States and we were in the middle of Operation Desert Storm.
  • The Soviet Union was nearing collapse as many states declared independence and joined Europe.
  • “Street Fighter II” was a brand-new arcade game and the Super Nintendo was about to enter the gaming console market.
  • Comedy Central had just started broadcasting and The Simpsons had been on TV for just two years.
  • J.K. Rowling started writing the very first Harry Potter novel.
  • “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” was the highest-grossing film at the Box Office.

24 years. That’s almost quarter century.

In those 24 years, Calaway went to Wrestlemania 22 times. Of those 22 appearances, he had a 21-0 record. Nobody really thought The Streak would end…but, then, don’t most things? Hogan lost the title to the Warrior (clean) at Wrestlemania. Ric Flair, Randy Savage, and Shawn Michaels ended their careers there.

Why, then, did this feel different?

I’ve often joked with my friends that Wrestlemania XXX was reminiscent of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in that it put you through an emotional ringer. My friends would also probably say that I have an unhealthy obsession with hyperbole and that I also owe them money, but stay with me here: it had highs and lows, action and drama, and an ending that saw that possible end of one character and the beginning of the story of another. With all the joy and euphoria that came from the payoff (Daniel Bryan won the World Championship after all the frustration), ending the Undertaker’s speech was like the death of Spock in the radiation chamber.

Full emotional satisfaction.

Though there really was no point in ending The Streak, I don’t really have an issue with it being broken. It’s been debated that The Streak wasn’t really planned out by McMahon or the creative staff and it’s easy to agree with such logic being that a WWE Superstar is much like a regular athlete: some have it and some don’t. They either bow out due to flagging popularity, injury, or personal reasons. Allegedly, it wasn’t until The Streak passed the number 10 that it was finally acknowledged as “a thing”.

But one would also argue (as I have) that The Streak was sacred and made The Undertaker what he was. When the WWE seized on the idea that there a “streak”, The Undertaker stopped being your usual performer. He became a legend. Numerous performers were booked to face him with The Streak on the line, thus making for some intense matches. His fight against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 25 still stands as one of the greatest matches in all of professional wrestling. Even the next three matches after that (facing Michaels again and Triple H twice) were classics.

This was a guy who went out there despite his climbing age and For that very reason, if WWE Creative DID decided to do it, then it would need to be done right. I’m talking the treatment of a soldier being buried. 21 guns and the whole damn thing.

When the Royal Rumble ended in January of 2014, early reports claimed The Undertaker wouldn’t be participating citing that he was too old and beat up to continue . Yet, in seemingly rebellious fashion, he appeared again — this time, to challenge Brock Lesnar who, in storyline, had been promised the world but hadn’t even gotten so much as a title shot. When the contract was signed on RAW, nobody expected Lesnar to beat The Undertaker. In fact, the entire build-up had little velocity save for both of them being tough guys who liked to fight. Yes, Lesnar had that real-life face-off with Calaway at a UFC event but that wasn’t acknowledged by the WWE (probably due to copyright).

Lesnar was also aging, injured, on his second tour through the WWE and, like Calaway, he was part-time.

The pre-match theatrics even hinted that Lesnar was about to be victim #22 with a coffin sitting there, open, with Brock Lesnar’s name painted on it.

Then the match started…and it became clear that the critics and bloggers were right: The Undertaker was terribly out of shape and tired. He was thrown around like a rag doll and dominated by Lesnar. At times, Lesnar looked like he didn’t want to do what he was doing. The Undertaker, in response, moved too slow and spent most of the match either holding himself up by the ropes or just laying flat on his back. When he did hit his spots, they had almost no power or strength. I cringed when The Undertaker couldn’t even muster up the upper body strength to lift Lesnar up all the way for The Last Ride. Then, shockingly, nearly 20 minutes into the match, a third F5 by Lesnar. Three seconds later, it was all over.

Lesnar had beaten The Streak and stopped The Undertaker in his tracks, 23 years after it all started.

The sell-out crowd was audibly and visibly shocked. Some were speechless, some looked disgusted. Bloggers on the scene, reported that the video boards initially read, “22-0″, then were cleared and quickly changed to “21-1″, fueling the notion that (if I can borrow from Jim Ross), “something was rotten in Denmark”. Lesnar’s music didn’t play for almost a minute. It was one of the most surreal moments in WWE history.

After Lesnar was played out of the ring, up the ramp and back to the dressing room, The Undertaker sat up and looked around. He didn’t say anything at all. He just walked out of the Superdome to most of the crowd cheering him on…

…and that was it.

The Internet was full of rumors, speculation, and reports that really couldn’t be confirmed, considering the business. This was the WWE, an organization where theatricality was key. One couldn’t help but be reminded of the Andy Kaufman-Jerry Lawler feud where the performance bled from the ring into real life with an appearance on David Letterman or subsequent “works” after that. In the absence of facts, several blogs tried to fill in the blanks. Some claimed that the ending was changed at the last second, that it was Vince who made the call and Calaway didn’t approve. Some speculated that Calaway DID make the call and told Lesnar to cover him for three due to the aforementioned injury. Reports that the Undertaker was taken to a nearby hospital to treat a concussion were met with some skepticism.

And despite it all, nearly everyone predicted a farewell from The Undertaker the next night on RAW.

But he never showed. Not that night or on any of the shows following that.

After that, the whole ordeal just faded away, the WWE more concerned with the future of Daniel Bryan and, really, who could blame them? The Undertaker was on his way out. There was a sense that the WWE was, in essence saying,  “It’s over. Deal with it and go home. The only evidence that it happened in the first place: Paul Heyman, reminding us, every single time he appeared on WWE television, that Lesnar beat The Streak.

The entire incident is an open wound.

The Undertaker, as a character, is caught in an absolute limbo:

He’s not officially “retired” because the WWE didn’t bother closing the door after the match. Just like the last three Wrestlemania events, the Undertaker made small appearances and then vanished. Calaway has been seen doing work out in Texas, attending events such as a recent concert.

Unless he’s a glutton for punishment, what’s the point of keeping him around? The Streak has been broken. There’s no velocity for another match unless the WWE pulls a gigantic rabbit out of their hat (there’s been loose talk of Sting making his first appearance against him come WM31) or Calaway feels the need to get beat up.

There’s only two ways to fix this:

  1. Send him out there for a segment a’la Ric Flair and have the WWE come out to congratulate him on his career.
  2. Have him wrestle at Wrestlemania 31 in a “Career-Ending Match” against somebody who SHOULD put him down for good.

I’m not even sold on #2 mainly because his swan song, for all intents and purposes, SHOULD have been the last match against Lesnar. Besides, if the concussion stories are to be believed, the WWE would be ill-advised to book it. Not with the history of Chris Benoit or the recent fate of Daniel Bryan.

In any case, the WWE needs to give the fans closure. To ignore this would be spitting on one of their most famous characters ever.

It’s just too bad they don’t show any intention of doing so.

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Tags: Streak The Undertaker Undertaker Wrestlemania

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