After spending last month talking about the Hart Foundation, we’ve decided to talk about WrestleMania greats for our Wrestlers of the Week. Our criteria is somewhat nebulous — the performers that are most synonymous with the Grandaddy of Them All — and the order of who we pick has less to do with their actual significance and more to do with how important they are to telling the “story” of WrestleMania, but these are definitely the performers who to us most represent “WrestleMania” outside of HBK, who we covered late last year. From 9-time headliners like Hogan to his opponent from the main event of WrestleMania V, Randy Savage, we’ll be looking at the most immortal parts of the showcase.
In addition to looking at their careers in totality, we’ll also be spending some time going over their work at WrestleMania to go along with what will be a month (and a week-)long celebration of professional wrestling’s Super Bowl. This week, it’s Mr. WrestleMania: The Undertaker.
Of all of the performers we’ve ever done for a Wrestler of the Week, the one we’ve “known” the least is The Undertaker. It’s not like we don’t know his name — Mark Callaway — or anything about him — he’s from Houston, he used to be a bounty hunter and he presumably likes America and motorcycles — but outside of a few stories involving “backstage justice”, the story of The Undertaker has largely taken place in front of the camera. There will be no tell-all book about working in the Attitude Era, and it’s entirely possible (though unlikely) that his Hall of Fame speech will be done in character.
All of this is because of the one thing we do know about The Undertaker: he respects the business more than perhaps anyone before or since. Long the arbiter of locker room etiquette, Taker is perhaps the only true veteran performer on the roster of “professional wrestling” as it was once understood. Even HHH, who began his career in earnest in 1994, exists entirely outside of the territorial era that nearly everyone who worked with The Undertaker for the first third (okay, quarter) of his career. When “sports entertainment” became the nom de plume for professional wrestling, it left with its old name — for the most part — the idea that need to be characters in theory and practice.
For years, because of his attachment to the old world of professional wrestling, Taker was hamstrung by his inability to be anything other than “the dead guy” much in the same way that Hogan had become as stagnant as the idea that telling someone else’s kids what to eat or to do in their free time and when to pray. But, with the introduction of his brother Kane, Taker was able to become something more than a mortician with a penchant for getting himself involved in feuds over a gold piece of tchotchke he had from his day job. He no longer had to be anything other than a professional wrestler who also may or may not be magic, not a magic person who may or may not be professional wrestler. The introduction of a family, and real genuine conflict — unlike, say, him and Jake “the Snake” Roberts feuding over the level to which being a dick was okay — didn’t humanize him as properly balance the difference between his character and what he was trying to accomplish as a performer. This allowed him to exist in the modern world of professional wrestling where people are largely playing themselves “with the volume turned up to 11”, while maintain the air of mystery that will remain the largest part of his legacy.
Well, the second largest part of his legacy, behind The Streak, easily the most valuable “title” in wrestling history. It’s intrinsic value to the legacy of professional wrestling and its greatest event have helped define an entire generation of the most important show in the industry. Anyone who would be lucky enough to end The Streak would be set for life from a booking perspective in a way that would make Jericho’s first Undisputed World Title reign seem like, well, Randy Orton’s Undisputed World Title reign. The stakes are impossibly high, something earned after defending it for 21 years, and as such the value of the Streak from a marketing perspective is almost incalculable. It’s also gracefully prolonged the Undertaker’s career for at least another 5 years longer than he would have been reasonable been expected to if the cache of the Streak didn’t allow him to essentially take the rest of the year off after he physically paints his yearly masterpieces. And make no mistake, while some matches are better than others, the simple idea that he’s performed in a Match of the Year candidate against almost everyone he faces almost every year since he was challenged by Randy Orton at WrestleMania 21, and definitely since he and Batista stole the show at Wrestlemania 23, is remarkable any way you look at it.
It may not feel like a momentous athletic achievement, but even in a medium where the athletic achievement is in being the best at faking your athletic achievements, the work that Taker has done over the last few years dwarfs nearly everything that has come before him. Many credit Hulk Hogan as the reason that WrestleMania has made it to 30 shows, a testament to the man around whom the shows was initially built and for whom it was partially named, but Taker is the reason it has reached 30 at the pace it is going and why the company itself is in such good shape as it enters the second half of its sixth decade of existence. It’s hard to imagine what the last five WrestleManias would have looked like without the Streak. Even the one which would have benefited the most from not having a Streak match on the show is almost exclusively a result of how much his work with Shawn Michaels completely overshadowed everything that came before and after it on the card.
And, that’s why we’ll remember the Streak more than any other part of the Undertaker’s remarkable resume. It’s the truest thing that any professional wrestler has ever done, one of the only things that stands on its own as genuinely great without explanation. In the same way that DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak works as shorthand for the no-frills professionalism and consistency that marks his greatness, the ability of the Undertaker to show up the biggest on the grandest stage his industry speaks for itself, and while it’s often used in promotion of the show, it’s never been blown up to be anything more than the biggest and best things in a world of things that are the biggest and best because we’re told they are. The Streak perfectly encapsulates The Undertaker — not Mark Callaway, but The Undertaker — and perhaps the strongest part of the argument for him as the greatest professional wrestler in the history of the industry. Like the Undertaker, it’s mythical proportions in the fit perfectly in the magical world of professional wrestling by making it feel very real.